This camp near Wilmslow, Cheshire was converted from a disused print works built in 1910. The site was requisitioned by the War Office in 1914 and designed to hold no more than 3,000 men. At one point there was plans to turn the site into barracks and training area for battalions of the Manchester Regiment. Handforth camp was opened on 6th November 1914 with the arrival of 500 prisoners.
Initially German civilians from around the country were interred at Handforth, as the war progressed an increasing number of military and naval prisoners as well as a contingent of Germans from a colony in the Cameroons, East Africa arrived at Handforth.
From May 1915 following the aftermath of the Anti-German riots which swept a number of cities, and the decision to inter ‘enemy aliens’ the civilian population in the camp increased. A number of men were sent to Handforth from Liverpool.
Handforth was inspected by an attaché to the American Embassy in London on 1st April 1916. At this time there were 2,713 prisoners at the camp, which was managed by a German Feldwebel Lieutenant and a number of committees covering entertainment, sport, work and the canteen. Additionally, the camp had a fairly large library and ran a number of educational courses. There was a hospital on the site staffed by two doctors and a number of British and German attendants. Few complaints were made about the conditions at the camp, this may possibly have been due to the range of facilities on offer to the men, designed to keep them occupied. The prisoners were also taken to work on local farms due to a shortage of local labour.
Men could be transferred to other camps around Great Britain, they did not always stay in the same camp for the duration of the war. From Handforth all the civilians were eventually transferred to camps on the Isle of Man.
At the height of operations the internee population was greater than that of the village of Handforth itself. Later on when German soldiers captured from the front line started to arrive, the local population started to take a greater interest and watched the new arrivals, with crowds gathering at nearby railway station. The Manchester Evening News reported on Wednesday 17th March 1915: “Great excitement prevailed at Handforth and Wilmslow today when it became generally known that about 600 German prisoners taken during heavy fighting in the North of France were expected to arrive for internment at the concentration camp.”
The YMCA presented the guards of the camp with a hut for their own use in June 1915.
Like many camps, escape attempts were a frequent occurrence, yet with detailed descriptions published in local newspapers escapees were soon recaptured.
In total it has been estimated that nearly 20,000 passed through the camp during its wartime operation.
More than 20 men died in the camp, the majority from a Spanish Flu epidemic. They were buried in Wilmslow Cemetery and later reburied in the German Cemetery at Cannock Chase, Staffordshire.
The site is now a housing estate.
‘Handforth, Cheshire East: German Takeover of a Sleepy Village’, BBC World War One at Home http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p023084q [accessed 20/05/2015]
‘Handforth Concentration Prison’, Diverse Narratives of WWI, http://diversenarratives.com/2015/02/05/handforth-concentration-prison/ [accessed 20/05/2015]
Imperial War Museum
Manchester Evening News
‘Prisoners of War and Internees (Great Britain)’, International Encyclopaedia of the First World War, http://encyclopedia.1914-1918-online.net/article/prisoners_of_war_and_internees_great_britain [accessed 20/05/2015]