The Handforth camp is most often seen as a place of interment for Germans. However, this is to ignore the hundreds of internees who came from all corners of the globe. During the first year of the camp’s existence, German prisoners lived alongside Turks, Austrians and Hungarians, as well as those from South America, Africa and neutral Europe. There can be no denying that in this early phase, Handforth came to house one of the most diverse populations in the North West of England.
After the Germans, the second largest group of internees came from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. This should probably come as no surprise. After all, Austrians and Hungarians had long settled in Britain, working in industry, agriculture and hotels. With the outbreak of war, they too were gradually rounded up and then interned.
Max Weber, a middle-aged Hungarian citizen, ended up in Handforth in the final months of 1914. Before interment, he had worked as a professional musician in London, where he had played the flute. Sadly, Weber’s time in Handforth was extremely brief. On 1 December, he “suddenly” passed away. No cause of death was identified and Weber was buried – a long way from Hungarian soil – in an unmarked plot in Wilmslow Cemetery.
Although hard to guess from his Anglicised name, John Davies was also interned in Handforth on account of his Austrian citizenship. Davies had actually been born into a Jewish family in the town of Tarnów, which today lies in southern Poland. He had moved to Britain at the turn of the century, it seems, before eventually settling in the Welsh coalmining town of Bargoed. At the outbreak of the war, Davies worked as an upholsterer and lived in the town with his Russian-born wife, Miriam, and their four young children. Unsurprisingly, his interment in Handforth hit the family hard. The anguish comes through in Miriam’s letters to John in which she sent him “love & kisses” from both her and the children.
Once the Ottoman Empire entered the conflict in late October 1914, Turkish citizens living in Britain joined the Germans, Austrians and Hungarians in facing internment. Although the Turkish population in Britain was far smaller, some civilians from the Ottoman Empire did end up in Handforth. By early 1915, at least 20 Turkish internees were reported to be living in the camp. In still smaller numbers, there were Czechs, who attempted to distance themselves from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and seamen from various nations. One of these was a Croatian sailor called Zvonimir Stipanović, whose ship, the Karpat, had been seized in Newcastle at the start of hostilities. Stipanović was transferred to the Knockaloe Camp in 1915 before being released the following year.
Perhaps the most unusual group of “world” prisoners, however, consisted of men who purported to come from South American countries. Two men – Francisco Mercedes and Guillermo Rocha – had links to Uruguay; Martin Herrera and Kurt Steinmeyer claimed Chilean citizenship, while Alesandro Cruz and Alberto Vasquez declared themselves to be Colombian and Peruvian respectively. The six men had been arrested separately from foreign-registered ships and interned in Gibraltar before being brought to Handforth.
The British removed Mercedes from the Italian ship, Duca di Genova, in April 1915, allegedly “on grounds of German appearance”. Mercedes spent the next few months protesting his innocence, claiming that he had been born in Montevideo to a Dutch mother and Uruguayan father. Herrera’s case was very similar. He was removed the same month from another Italian liner, the Tomaso di Savoia. Like Mercedes, Herrera claimed mistaken identity, insisting that he was not German, but entirely Chilean.
To test the authenticity of Mercedes and Herrera’s claims, the Chilean and Uruguayan consuls sent representatives to Handforth. In both cases, they left having decided that “the individual in question is an impostor”. Despite their Spanish names, the same fate befell Rocha, Cruz and Vasquez. Ironically, the only prisoner to be declared genuine and thus eligible for release was the one with the most German sounding name: Kurt Steinmeyer. According to the Chilean consul, Steinmeyer had managed to establish his “Chilean citizenship to my government’s full satisfaction”.