When the conflict first started in August 1914, the people of Handforth could never have imagined that their village would take on a central role in Britain’s war effort. Handforth, though, had one prized asset: The Bradford Dyers print works. This massive factory, which stretched for over a quarter of a mile, lay on the southerly edge of the village. It was in a very secluded spot, apparently the only noise came from “the rooks […] bedding their autumnal conferences in the trees”. What also made the Dyers’ plant so important was the fact that it stood empty. The buildings had been erected in 1910 but never brought into use and were thus ripe for an alternative function.
The British army was the first to recognise the potential of Handforth. In September 1914, plans were afoot to send two battalions of the Manchester Regiment to the Dyers’ plant. The local Alderley and Wilmslow Advertisercommented proudly that the men will have plenty of space “to drill, either inside or outside” and that the surrounding roads “are excellent for route marching”. However, the soldiers had not even set foot in the village, when a new, far more pressing issue, arose. The War Office realised it needed to find accommodation for a large number of enemy aliens who had been arrested under military restriction orders. It investigated each parish in Cheshire in the hunt for a suitable building outside of “a populous locality” and with “sufficient vacant ground around it for exercise”. Buildings in Middlewich, Hale and Bredbury were all considered, but in the end the decision fell on Handforth.
After the Royal Engineers had quickly converted the Dyers’ buildings into makeshift accommodation, the internment camp was all set to welcome its first prisoners. An initial batch of 500 men – mainly from Shrewsbury and other regional centres – were marched from the station, down the hill to the camp on 6 November. Many of the men carried the few possessions they had been able to bring with them either under their arms or on their backs.
Further trainloads of civilian prisoners arrived throughout November. By the end of the month, the camp population was already over 1,000, with a further 600 men on their way. Despite this, a correspondent for The Liverpool Daily Postreported that Handforth could take “many hundreds more […] without a suggestion of overcrowding”. Some of this second wave of internees had come from fairly wealthy backgrounds. Factory owners, dentists and academics now found themselves mingling with interned workers and labourers – the only thing they had in common was that the War Office had labelled them as enemy aliens.
Among this early group of wealthy internees was Franz Loewenthal, a 56 year-old German merchant and cotton trader. Loewenthal had spent almost 40 years of his life in Britain, latterly sharing a large residence in Hale with his brother. Having lived in Britain for so long, Loewenthal was firmly part of the local community. He even played chess for Manchester in the local Lancashire league. Perhaps for this reason, there was a well-supported campaign to get Loewenthal – “a man of much learning’ released” – released. However, this outcome was not to be and Loewenthal remained in internment.