‘The Civilian and Military Prisoners of Lofthouse Park Camp, near Wakefield, 1914-1919’, by Dr Claudia Sternberg. 13 November 2019
In our November talk well attended enough to run out of seats, the society was addressed by Dr Claudia Sternberg of Leeds University. A cultural historian, she co-runs the project, ‘Wrong Place at the Wrong Time’ researching and raising awareness of civilian internees at Lofthouse Park Camp. Society members were involved in the research and many will remember the exhibition and related talks at Wakefield Museum and Library last year.
Lofthouse Park was originally designed as an amusement park by the main tram line between Leeds and Wakefield and built by the tram company in 1908. At the beginning of WWI its communal buildings, holiday chalets and open spaces were converted into an internment camp for people living in Britain but from German descent. A plan superimposed over a current map gave a rough outline of the site and an idea of how little evidence remains of its existence.
In 1914, German mobilisation began. An appeal was made outside of the country for its citizens and their relatives to sign up to the army. This led to suspicion of anyone in Britain with a connection to Germany who might be seen to have the potential to be an enemy combatant; those who were in the Wrong Place at the Wrong Time. Action was taken gradually. Those born in or with connections to Germany, Austria, Hungary, the Ottoman empire or Bulgaria were ‘asked’ to register. At this time women took on the nationality of their husbands on marriage so many British women were classed as German making their status more difficult. Registration coincided with general anti-German sentiment and propaganda, with occasional outbreaks of violence, such as rioting in Keighley and targeting of businesses. Some naturalised Germans in the public eye, shopkeepers, language teachers and tradesmen, were moved to take out ‘loyalty advertisements’ in local papers, proclaiming their British patriotism.
The government decided registration was inadequate and moved to a policy of internment of healthy men of fighting age. The largest such camp, Knockaloe, was situated on the Isle of Man, but others were built forming a network around the country.
Lofthouse was a ‘gentlemen’s camp’ holding around 1500 men. Mostly middle-class internees paid for their upkeep and were able to buy goods and services from the surrounding area. Those without money were employed by fellow internees for services as barbers, tailors etc. using their fees to pay for their board. Civilians could not be put to work, but found occupation in writing, putting on plays, creating a camp university and studying. Our knowledge of the camp comes from many sources: official documents, photos of people and buildings, various ephemera such as theatre posters or invoices for goods. Correspondence from and to internees give us more personal stories, as do accounts from those present passed down to family members still in the area or written down at a later date.
By October 1918, civilian internees were moved out of Lofthouse to Knockaloe, to make way for military PoWs. A small number to begin with, increasing to 800 officers and 200 orderlies by the next year. Officers were held there due to its relative comfort, but on arriving much of the furniture had been removed or destroyed and the camp was initially in poor repair. Inmates came from different areas. The last to arrive in June 2019 were naval officers from Scapa Flow where the German fleet had been scuttled. Having been imprisoned on their ship and then experiencing aggression on reaching Lofthouse by rail, they were relieved to reach the camp.
Armistice had been and gone, but the PoWs were still being held. The uncertainty affected their morale. Prior to joining the army, the men had held various roles as pastors, lawyers, teachers, clerks etc. and they used their previous experience to pass the time in the camp. Writing, reading, theatre, music and studying occupied them and as previously they were able pay for goods and services from outside the camp. Musical instruments and theatrical costumes were bought and playbills printed.
International treaties gave officers the privilege of not working, unlike rank-and-file soldiers. They received an allowance and could pay the orderlies. Unsurprisingly the camp was more structured than previously, along military lines. Not all the arrangements were popular and conditions became stricter as time went on. Letters were censored, incoming goods were opened, canteen prices were felt to be inflated. Movement was restricted and roll calls increased. The military experiences and attitudes were different from that of the civilians, bringing a feeling of humiliation and a need to resist, although conditions were considerably better than similar camps in other parts of the world, especially on the eastern front. Acts of resistance were carried out such as hacking the electricity supply and even a couple of escape attempts, with 2 men getting as far as London, though none were successful.
Christmas 2019 brought little relief but by the end of December repatriation was taking place and the camp was shut. PoWs returned to a very different Germany with no monarchy and a messy democracy. Some turned to Nazism and returned to the military in the next war. Civilian internees were also ‘repatriated’, effectively expelled from Britain. Some were able to return at a later date having families and businesses in this country or moved elsewhere.
Claudia was able to answer many audience questions, including the possibility of a reciprocal agreement for exchanging PoWs (not practical due to the disparity in numbers of Britons and Germans) and about camp conditions. Attitudes of local people were discussed. Newspaper articles portray Lofthouse as full of ‘pampered huns’ with the Wakefield population fighting abroad, but this is likely to be mostly propaganda. There was certainly some hostility, especially to the PoWs, but there are also stories of civilian internees, sometimes free to exercise outside the camp being friendly with local children. Certainly the people of Wakefield and Leeds seemed happy to trade with the men. The final fate of the camp was discussed. By 1920 the camp was shut and it’s furniture up for sale. In 1922 most of the site burnt down, leaving little trace and is now mostly fields and housing. As part of the project, Claudia is hoping to erect an information panel near the site to which the Society have donated some money.