Civilian Internment on the Isle of Man

The Isle of Man played a key role in not only supplying men for the forces but also in hosting the large numbers of civilian internees who were sent to the island to be held in two camps – Douglas and Knockaloe. Current research led by Professor Harold Mytum (University of Liverpool) is examining the camps using historical and archaeological evidence to investigate Manx internment from two contrasting perspectives.

‘Top-down’ reaction to the internee problem

The first perspective considers the attitudes, actions and effects of the administration to the sudden requirement to find and provide internee accommodation and security. The authorities had to deal with sudden changes in demand for internee places, and then control, house, feed, guard and keep sane large numbers of increasingly alienated people (mainly Germans but also Austro-Hungarians, Turks and others) who had not taken up arms against the British Empire but had merely been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The first camp opened was in Douglas in September 1914, achieved by converting Cunningham’s Camp, a holiday camp for young men from the Lancashire mill towns, into a prisoner of war camp. Using the existing chalets and tents for accommodation, it was expanded with an additional area with wooden barrack blocks on the other side of the road, all enclosed by barbed wire fences and patrolled by guards. However, the communal buildings of dining hall and kitchens, ablutions blocks, and sporting facilities (including tennis courts, bowling alley and snooker room) provided a substantial existing infrastructure. The camp was divided into three sections: the Privilege Camp (where internees paid for better quality accommodation and facilities), the Jewish Camp, and the Ordinary Camp.

Douglas Camp medal web
Douglas camp medal showing tents, chalet, guard’s hut. Local Douglas landmarks and the three legs of Man, all surrounded by a ring of barbed wire. Image courtesy of the Leece Museum, Peel

The camp was designed to hold 2,400 internees but by November held over 3,000 in what was now increasingly difficult conditions for an infrastructure designed initially only for short summer breaks. A riot took place during which five internees were killed, and so the clear need for a new camp was emphasised.

Knockaloe was a farm near Peel that had already been used for temporary camps for Territiorial and Volunteer Battalion training, but it was to house a camp for 5,000 internees. Before the end of the year there were over 2,000 at Knockaloe, engaged in the camp’s construction and expansion. Following the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 increased anti-German feeling in Britain and large numbers of additional internees were sent to the Island. The authorities had to create a settlement with all its infrastructure and supply routes for a total of upwards of 23,000 internees, with around 3,000 guards, making it a temporary town that was only dismantled in 1919.

Knockaloe view web
Print of Knockaoe produced by the internees showing the extent of the camp. Image courtesy of the Leece Museum, Peel

How, in practice, was all this managed? What was the quality of the infrastructure, the nature of the supply networks, security arrangements, and how were these changed over the course of five years? How, after the war, were the camps systematically dismantled and returned, in one case back to a holiday camp, the other to apparently pristine agricultural land?

‘Bottom-up’ reaction to the internee problem

Internees were swept away from jobs as varied as merchant mariner, waiter, or factory owner to be interned far away from their families on the Isle of Man. How did internees cope, in the short and long term? How did they manage themselves within the camps – without an existing structure of officers and men, as was the case for military prisoners?

Bone flower vase carved at Knockaloe Image courtesy of the Leece Museum, Peel
Bone flower vase carved at Knockaloe Image courtesy of the Leece Museum, Peel

The project is exploring the material world of the internees, their experiences in the two camps, and the ways in which they coped with internment. The threat of ‘barbed wire disease’ – depression – was well recognised at the time, and many activities – including theatre, music, sports, gardening and crafts – were all undertaken. There is a large amount of material evidence from both camps, including newspapers, calendars, postcards, carved bone and wood, and metalwork surviving in public collections and private hands. These diverse sources – combined with the evidence being recovered from the Knockaloe site itself – will reveal many aspects of the actions, reactions and feelings of the internees.

Thus far efforts have concentrated on researching aspects of the photographic evidence from Douglas Camp, and we have just begun an evaluation excavation at Knockaloe Camp to assess the quality of the surviving below-ground remains – which will be reported in later blogs. The intention is then to propose a major multidisciplinary investigation of the Manx internment experience, informed by the extent and quality of the different categories of evidence. We would be delighted to hear from anyone who has items from the camps in their possession – contact Harold Mytum on

Click here to find out more about World War One and its impact on the Isle of Man

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