Stop 6. Internment of POWs and ‘Enemy Aliens’.

After walking past Clifford’s Tower towards the Castle Museum, stand by the tree in the centre of the grass.                                                           

 By September 1914, where you are standing now was the site of a tented encampment holding the overflow of so-called 'enemy aliens' who were held at the Castle Prison during the first year of the war. York became famous as a detention centre for German-born civilian prisoners at this time, and they were brought here from all over the county. Amongst them was long-term York resident Edward Schumacher, a 62 year-old experimental engineer with a workshop in Coffee Yard (close to Barley Hall) who had been arrested whilst boarding a tram to Acomb. He was detained at the prison as a potential security threat, despite having an English wife and a son, George, serving in the Royal Field Artillery. Julius Koch, the manager of the Olympia Oil Mills in Selby, was also arrested along with several of his employees.

Such arrests were mirrored nationwide as a wave of paranoid 'spy fever' swept the country and a conspiracy theory grew that Germans controlled all sections of the British establishment. Public figures with German connections were vilified, German employees lost their jobs and German-owned shops were attacked. On 5th August 1914 the Aliens Restriction Act was passed, shutting down their social institutions and forbidding 'aliens' from travelling more than five miles from their homes or living in 'prohibited areas'. Karl Lorentz, a 25 year-old chef who had been resident in York for nine years, fell foul of this law when he was prosecuted for taking a trip to Harrogate, unaware that he needed a permit to do so.

The intensity of the witch-hunt was such that in September of that year, a W. Kitching of Holgate Road felt it necessary to write to the city papers to insist that he owned no airship or aeroplane with which to assist the enemy. The next month, Joseph Foster Mandefield, a hosier of 12a Monkgate, similarly wrote to the papers to protest unfounded rumours that he had been arrested for attempting to poison the city's reservoir. Mr. Mandefield was British-born but of French extraction. At around this time Guy Bedan Alexander, a retired Royal Navy lieutenant, even wrote to the Lord Mayor suggesting the establishment of a civil Secret Service Corps for York, with “no other duties than to obtain and follow up evidence against anyone of German nationality, and to supply the police with such information as they obtain”, a suggestion thankfully not carried out.

The national government pursued an increasingly strict policy of interning those perceived as a potential threat in any way. By the summer of 1915, over 32,000 German civilians had been imprisoned nationwide. In York, a concentration camp was built on the site of the old North-Eastern Engineering Works on Leeman Road to cope with the ever-increasing numbers. The camp had a capacity of 1700 and was surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards, but was provided with amenities such as a hospital, shop and hairdressers. It became something of a local spectacle, with crowds of thousands gathering on Sundays to stare at the prisoners, even throwing food and gifts over the fence. The prisoners reportedly entertained the spectators by playing children's 'ring' games. Local authorities responded by boarding off the site.

Military prisoners of war were held at the camp as well as civilians. On 26th September 1914, the York Gazette reported on the arrival of 300 German soldiers who had previously been held in Scotland. A crowd of thousands assembled to watch them. Reportedly in high spirits and good health, the Germans sang national airs, to the accompaniment of accordions played by civilian prisoners. A sailor from the cruiser Mainz also reported being held in York, complaining that the rain came into their accommodation, sending one of his shipmates down with influenza. And in October 1914, August Beckert, an engineer from Selby, died in the Leeman Road camp. The cause was unreported, but the Yorkshire Herald stated that he was “a registered alien...detained because he was likely to become dangerous”. He was buried in York, and a photograph of his funeral procession, which several fellow internees were permitted to attend, appeared in the same newspaper. Reports of such deaths sparked retaliatory internments of British civilians in Germany, where they had previously been left largely at liberty. Both Leeman Road and the Castle Prison fell out of use once permanent internment camps were established on the Isle of Man, but the internments remained a bone of contention between the warring nations and were symptomatic of the rise of intolerance which grew out of the war. The fact that the German community in Britain which before the war was some 60,000 was reduced to approximately 22,000 by 1919, is a stark illustration of how unwelcome Germans felt in Briatain.

Stop 6. Internment of POWs and ‘Enemy Aliens’.


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