Handforth Concentration Prison

By Ian H. Clark, Friends of Handforth Railway Station

In 1910, calico printers Symonds, Cunliffe and Co. added four very large sheds to their Handforth operations with the aim of expanding output of the Print Works, originally built in 1861. These still lay empty in 1914 and at the outbreak of war the local Army Command planned to turn them into barracks for the two thousand men of the Third and Fourth Battalions of the Manchester Regiment. However, the War Office intervened and decided they should be used as a “Concentration Prison.”

There were many German men living and working in England at this time, who had English wives and families, so had decided not to return home after the outbreak of the war. Before the camp, they were normally left to their own devices, usually having to report to police once a week. This all changed on 7th May 1915 at 2:10pm when Lieutenant Schwieger, captain of the German submarines U20, torpedoed and sank the RMS Lusitania beneath the Irish Sea. As a result, many Germans in Britain were arrested and sent to camps such as Handforth. The camp was very busy on 8th May with the main contingent of internees coming from Liverpool–the home port of the Lusitania–where angry mobs were smashing the windows of German-run shops and private houses.

The first 500 German prisoners arrived in Handforth early in November 1914, and by the end of the month the number rose to over 1,500, including 573 Germans from the German colony in East Africa. By April 1915, there were over 2,000 prisoners including the crew of the battleship SMS Blücher, which meant that Handforth now had more German than British inhabitants. Prisoners were taken under guard to help on local farms and even to the post office to collect mail.

For the purposes of a mass prison camp, the interior was divided by installing wooden walls in more than 45 rooms. The area of the living room and dormitories amounted to a size of about 450-2,300 square metres each. The largest room was located at the entrance of the factory building with over 3,300 square metres. The camp was lit by electricity, with about 560 lamps evenly distributed throughout. The teams and NCOs were given spacious dining rooms, and the personal care needs of the prisoners were addressed via five washhouses and four bathhouses. Two baths were also installed in the hospital. The average water consumption for the camp reached about 90,000 hectolitres per month.

In the auditorium, gymnastics lessons and festivities with music were held, as well as worship services and general gatherings. These included patriotic celebrations–Kaiser, Bavaria, and Saxony days–as well as Christmas, New Year, and anniversaries. Sunday was different from the other days not only in the closure of workplaces in Handforth, but also because prisoners wore their best clothing and the kitchens recycled the savings of the week for a large meal.

Prisoners worked on local farms, which were suffering from a severe labour shortage after many Cheshire men enlisted, and guards would drop them off in the morning and pick them up in the evening after they day was done. There are reports of escapees, and in August 1916 three prisoners escaped. Soldiers and local volunteers banded together to track them down, and all three were initially found: two in Bingly, Yorkshire, and one in Otley, Yorkshire.

Despite the large number of prisoners, it is believed that only two Germans died in the camp. They were thought to have died of tuberculosis, and were buried in St. Chad’s Churchyard, Handforth for more than 50 years before being disinterred and sent back to native soil.