Friday 19 January 2024

Ally Pally Prison Camp by Maggie Brookes

Growing up in North London, Alexandra Palace has always been on my skyline. The first palace opened on Queen Victoria's 54th birthday, burning down 16 days later, but being immediately rebuilt.

When I was young, I would confuse the radio mast on top of one of its towers with the Eiffel tower. In my teens it was the place we went roller skating, fulfilling its original purpose as the 'People's Pleasure Palace'. As I grew up and went to work for the BBC, I equated it with the birthplace of television and a major TV production centre. It wasn't till much later that I read a paragraph in a local history book which told me it had been a civilian internment camp during the first world war. I immediately became interested, and my research was eventually published in a book which combined extracts of memoirs and letters with photographs, paintings and my own poems.

I discovered that at the beginning of the war it had been kitted out as a temporary home for the thousands of Belgian refugees who were flooding into Britain as the Germans over-ran their homeland. Then in 1915, after the sinking of the Lusitania, when anti-German riots broke out, about 42,000 German, Austrian and Hungarian men between the ages of 17 and 55 were rounded up and taken to internment camps, also known as concentration camps. 3,000 civilian men were imprisoned at Alexandra Palace in North London. The artist George Kenner was one of them, and this blog features his wonderful paintings.

Many of the men who were taken to Ally Pally in 1915 had left Germany as children, many owned business in England. Most lived in London and had English wives and children. They were the lucky ones. The unlucky ones were taken to a camp at Stratford, run by a sadistic commandant.

They were marched up the hill where they were registered, queuing in the rain and having all their belongings examined. They were rich and poor, bankers and barbers, waiters and stockbrokers. The prisoners were divided up into three battalions, and because this was England, the divisions were based on their social class.

The skating rink was for Battalion C, the business and professional men like George Kenner. The Great Hall (now used as a vast exhibition space) was the sleeping quarters for Battalion B, the working class, and a thousand men slept there. Their beds were within an arms length of each other and there was no privacy. They kept their few belongings under their beds.

One of the men who slept in the Great Hall with the labouring classes was a Hungarian tailor called Benny Cseh, whose pitiful letters to his wife Mabel are in the Imperial War Museum. Much of their correspondence concerns a 2s 6d postal order which went missing, and the fact that she sent him pears which became squashed. He described his day: 'We get up at 6am, breakfast at 7am, go outside till 12. Dinner at 1, go out till 7, out till 9, bed at 10pm. Every morning, running round the horse race track.'

Another man whose letters are in the Imperial War Museum was the young RH Sauter, the nephew of John Galsworthy, and a Harrow educated aspiring artist. He lived in one of the towers with the upper classes, in far superior conditions.

The men occupied themselves according to their status and experience, running a post office, laundry, carpenter’s workshop, tailor's shop and barber's shop. Many were employed in the kitchens, where the great organ bellows powered the ovens. In 1915 the menu was reasonably good, including stewed meat, goulash, corned beef and herrings. Those with money could buy cakes, cheese, butter and jam.

The men could receive letters and parcels and were allowed a weekly visit, which seemed to range in time from 15 minutes for labouring men, to 2 hours for the upper classes. Benny Cseh describes the agony of the short visit: 'I was very much disappointed with your visit. Not with you my dear, but with the time, as I did not know how to divide that 15 minutes between you and Ilona. I have been told she was crying for me when you left.'

Paul Stoffa's memoir details the visits: 'It was pathetic to watch the painful excitement of the men whose visitors were due that afternoon. Long before three o’clock they assembled with their little bundles of flowers and toys for the children.' The visitors were 'elegant young women with engagement rings on their fingers, poor working women with a bevy of half starved children… None of the women visitors came empty handed: but their parcels had to pass the censor first. Whilst some of the well-to-do men received huge parcels containing all manners of expensive delicacies, the small packets containing perhaps only a pinch of tea and a diminutive piece of butter, bore eloquent testimony to the self-sacrificing affection in which these poor women held their husbands.'

As well as finding work to occupy themselves the men gave lectures, calling themselves the 'University on the Hill.' They used the theatre for Sunday services, started an orchestra and had a weekly cinema. Their favourite was Charlie Chaplin. In the summer they sailed boats which they’d made themselves, on the boating pond. One man, called Otto Weiss, was allowed to keep canaries in cages.

As the war drew on, the civilian internees where joined by prisoners of war billeted at Ally Pally on their way to other camps and even a group of missionaries, captured in West Africa. But not all the prisoners were what they seemed. One man had been taken from a German ship and was classed as an enemy alien, until someone realised that the language he was speaking was Welsh! There were even reports of an escape, during an Zeppelin air raid, though this is impossible to verify.

As time went on, conditions at Ally Pally grew more harsh, and the diet became 'rice, rice, rice, three times a day with swedes and turnips and salt herrings.' They were served biscuits which were broken and full of worms and maggots. They sent some for analysis but the report said the worms were harmless and they should eat them. More fights erupted over food than any other cause.

Two camp heroes emerged from adversity: the deputy commander, Major Mott, and one of the prisoners, the anarchist / socialist Rudolf Rocker. He managed to get many important concessions for the prisoners but became very ill during the harsh winter of 1917 when the heating in the Great Hall wasn't working and everyone froze. 'It was terrible at night; the coughing and groaning kept us all awake.'

The food and physical conditions became worse and worse, but there were things which caused more mental anguish. There was no welfare state of course, and the men had no means of supporting their wives and children. The Society of Friends, the Quakers, sold the toys the prisoners made and took food parcels and clothing to the wives and families.

The constant noise, and constantly being surrounded by so many people caused many men to have nervous breakdowns. So many in fact that a Swiss doctor studied the condition which he called ’Barbed Wire Disease.'

Throughout the war, the YMCA ran classes, Rudolf Rocker gave lectures about art and literature, and the men found something to do according to their class and habit. 400 allotments were cordoned off on the slopes of Ally Pally, and of all the ways of passing the time, this seemed to have the most positive effect.

Finally, the end of the war drew near, and the men spent the morning of November 11th 1918 in great nervous excitement, until, at 11am guns were fired, to mark the end of the war.

A little later, newspapers arrived, which set out the armistice conditions. RH Sauter wrote this in a letter on Armistice Day: 'I have just read the armistice conditions and now I see the real ideals for which the money-grubbing lawyers of the 23 nations have been fighting. Here one is living among the defeated … it is upon their fathers, their mothers, their relatives and friends that these conditions of slavery have been imposed. The whole of Germany, one great internment camp. I see the child of this very day, like a ghost, haunting the future, another war.'

When I first read that, I was so shocked and appalled that even on armistice day it would seem obvious to an ordinary young man that another war was inevitable, that I decided to end my book at that point. But for the men at Ally Pally, life went on. Slowly, slowly they were called to hearings, to decide who could stay in Britain. Many were deported back to Germany. Rudolf Rocker was deported, but was refused entry by Germany. George Kenner, the artist whose paintings feature in this article returned to Germany where two of his children died in the great depression, before he eventually went to America.

And the century rolled on, towards another war …

Huge thanks to Christa Bedford for permission to use the wonderful paintings by her father George Kenner.


Carol Drinkwater said...

My goodness, Maggie, when we see what is going on in Gaza, it astounds me and breaks my heart that we simply don't learn. How heartbreaking for these men. Thank you so much for this post, Carol D

Penny Dolan said...

Maggie, thank you for this post.

As a child I lived in Wood Green, with the outline of 'Ally Pally', high on the horizon, always a special destination for treats and outings. Although I might have heard, in passing, 'they once kept prisoners of war there', I never realised the extent of the camp or its population, serving out the war surrounded, I think, by lot of suburban housing.

Those paintings are a remarkable record and so of that era.