Isle of Man is a self-governing British Crown dependency, with its own currency, own law system and government. Even before the First World War, the island, located in the Irish Sea was a popular tourist destination. In 1913 663.000 visitors were registered on the island.
However, in 1914 the season got cut short: in September thousands of internees were shipped in and since the war did not finish by the end of the fall, they were facing years of „vacation”.
Great Britain’s situation wasn’t unique though. When the war started ten thousands of people lived abroad in countries that became their enemy. Diplomats had an opportunity to leave the country, even tourists and travellers as well, but people who had settled before had little chance to leave. If they haven’t got citizenship (very few did as moving in between countries was much freer those days and citizenship meant very little) they had to face retortion as enemy aliens. Despite the time they’ve spent in the country. Max Nordeu a Jewish born in Pest, Zionist and in most of his adult life he reported from Paris for the Neue Freie Press (he even changed his name from Sudfeld (South Land) to Nordau (North Medow) showing his appreciation to the West) yet he was deported, like Mihály Károlyi who had just returned from his North-American trip. The two of them had the chance to meet in the French internment camp.
Most of the Austro-Hungarian interns in France returned home through Switzerland in 1914, but the British authorities decided on the internment of thousands of people. The internment did not happen in their home, it was nearly impossible – as it needed surveillance, house arrest and food supply. Instead they established internee places, where they sent the internees. The Isle of Man in the middle of the Irish Sea seemed to be the ideal place. Its population was small, it was hard to access and there were no strategically important factories and military bases.
In the Capital, Douglas, there was already a Holiday camp. This was requisitioned as an internment camp for the first wave of about 3000 interns. Although the conditions weren’t good while the authorities kept sending more and more internees to the island. The Pesti Napló mentioned about a riot that lead to building a new camp, the Knockaloe at the North shore of the Island. Both camps accepted only man women were not interned.
People in the camps had to face different challenges. They lost their jobs so they had to live on the supplies they got in the camps. They didn’t have to work in the camps so most days were boring and uneventful, they even lacked of cultural events. These camps were simple, many basic needs were not provided for a long time. But the biggest challenge, especially at the beginning, was the collapse of the class system.
In these internment camps people came from different classes and the authorities did not care about the fact that an usher would never spend time together with a posh hotel manager. While here they lived in the same barracks, in the same huts, they ate at the same table and they should have spent their time together although their habits, attitude, style, living patterns were substantially different. An article in the Pesti Napló wrote about this problem. The huge number of internees (at its peak 30000 people) made it impossible to separate classes properly, but over the years of practice, the camp in Douglas was divided into three sections. One section was the Jewish camp, with kosher catering, the second section was an ordinary camp and the third was the privilege camp, where wooden barrack blocks and cooking facilities ensure the better conditions for wealthy internees. If one had money and opportunity they could transfer themselves from Knockaloe to here. They got better boarding and for money they could even get beer and wine, and dinner was served by waiters.
Apart from the privileged camp the problem with catering and food supplies was never resolved and this was the main reason for the November riot.
They slowly came up with activities for internees with a simple method. With the help of humanitarian organisations, the internees created workshops and started to furnish the camp and organize their daily lives. This made the stay more pleasant, more comfortable and helped to restructure the camp’s society as well. On the Isle of Man the Friends Emergency Committee established by the Quakers was the most active. They got hold of materials, superintended the work and organized the life of the internees by giving them ideas and help. As many captive were excellent professionals, soon they could take orders from the outside world as well. The most exciting order came from Charles Rennie Mackintosh. W. J. Bassett-Lowke tycoon, the Scottish lead of The Arts and Crafts (part of Art Nouveau) movement got an assignment for a house reconstruction at 78 Derngate, Northampton. He found the perfect furniture maker team at Konckaloe who made the house furniture seen even today.
Yvonne Cresswell: Behind the wire: the material culture of civilian internment on the Isle of Man in the First World War. = Richard Dove (editor): ’Totally un-English’? Britain’s internment of ’enemy aliens’ in two world wars. The Yearbook of the Research Center for German and Austrian Exile Studies. Vol. 7. (2005). 45–62.
Kate Youde: Wartime internment and ’Manx madness’. = The Times, 2014. február 1.
Internment during World Wars 1 & 2. The Isle of Man’s role
Civilian internment on the Isle of Man
Created by: Gábor Egry