Internment on the Island


…yet they must bear the burden their nationality had laid upon them, and suffer with their country-men. They were quite sensible about it…

The Right Reverend Herbert Bury, 1916

Who were the Internees?

When war broke out in August 1914, there were thousands of German, Austrian, Hungarian and Turkish civilians living in Britain. As citizens of enemy nations, they were seen as possible spies, traitors and threats. The Aliens Restriction Act of 5 August 1914 gave the British government the power to control them.

There were all sorts of reasons why internees found themselves in Britain at the outbreak of the war. Some were on holiday. Some of the ‘enemy aliens’ were army reservists, who might be called up to become soldiers in Germany, or soldiers captured in colonial territories such as those in Africa. However, many were ordinary working men who had made Britain their permanent home. Some of these had lived in Britain since childhood, had British families and only spoke English.

By 23 September 10,500 of them had been arrested and they were beginning to arrive on the Isle of Man to spend the war in captivity there. During the war, up to 29,000 internees were kept imprisoned on the Isle of Man.

The internees included:

“When American Embassy officials visited Knockaloe in 1916, they found 20, 563 men, of whom 16,936 were German, 3,382 Austrian, 101 Turks, and 144 other nationalities. By the end of the war the numbers at Knockaloe had risen to 24,450. The camp, which was nearly three miles in circumference…was, in fact, a camp town with a population greater than that of Douglas”.

Derek Winterbottom: A New History of the Isle of Man

Douglas Internment Camp


When internees began to arrive on the island in September 1914, they were placed in Cunningham’s holiday camp in Douglas where they lived in the tents originally provided for tourists. However, this site was only designed for 2,400 internees and soon held 3,000. A riot caused by overcrowding and complaints about weevils in the food led to the death of five internees, and the approaching winter weather made it even more important to move interns into the newly completed camp at Knockaloe.

After Knockaloe had been opened, the Douglas camp continued to be run with ‘Privilege Camp’, for about 400 wealthy or important internees, and the ‘Jewish Camp’ for those with dietary restrictions.


Knockaloe Camp

There were no ‘frills’… no permanent buildings and no visitors, it was the home of make-shift, grim, cold and monotonous. The incessant drizzle outside supplied the key-note of our existence…

Major Paul Stoffa: Round the World to Freedom

The largest internment camp in Britain, Knockaloe was situated on farmland near Peel and held up to 23 000 internees.

Effects of Internment

The internee is virtually cut off from the whole wide world of nature, the plants, animals and free living and unrestricted men, the beautiful, colourful world is somewhere outside behind the wire…”

Knockaloe Camp III Newspaper Lager-Echo, 29 December 1917

What Were the Effects of Internment?

Life in internment camps was monotonous and often uncomfortable. Internees had been treated like enemies and separated from their families, jobs and lives. Nobody knew how long it would last, or what would be waiting for them when they were released. Some had breakdowns or fell victim to depression.

However, many internees worked hard to deal with the boredom and uncertainty. The Quaker Friends’ Emergency Committee provided books, tools and equipment for the internees to set up workshops and develop new skills. Music, sports, arts, gardening and drama, as well as lectures on different subjects, all provided the internees with ways to fill the time. Camp newspapers were set up and many internees used their talents and ingenuity to craft unique souvenirs of their captivity.


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