Could you live on £1 a week? Especially when you were told you could only buy certain things? This was just one of the rules which operated at Alexandra Palace from 1915 until 1919 – the time when the palace was turned into a civilian internment camp for German, Austrian and Hungarian enemies (FO 383/33). 1
Not being a local Londoner, it was only by chance that I stumbled across Alexandra Palace. Being German, I was fascinated by its varied and troubled history, particularly with regards to the First World War, and I wanted to find out more. This is exactly what I have been able to do over the past three months in my internship at The National Archives – part of my Public History MA course at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. The vast number of documents available at the archives reveal the almost forgotten history of Alexandra Palace.
‘The Palace for the People’
For those of you, who, like me, aren’t familiar with ‘Ally Pally’ (as it was nicknamed in the 1930s), here’s a brief history. Alexandra Palace – named in honour of the Danish Princess Alexandra who, in 1863, married the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) – is located in the North of London between Muswell Hill and Wood Green. The palace was originally built as ‘The Palace for the People’ (sounds grand, doesn’t it?) to cater for the education, entertainment and leisure of the masses. Things didn’t go smoothly, though. The planning process started in 1858 and the building process began in 1864, but financial difficulties continually overshadowed the project. The palace finally opened to the public on 24 May 1873, but disaster soon struck. Alexandra Palace burnt down on 9 June 1873, only 16 days after it had opened, and three palace workers died.
No time was lost. The palace was rebuilt in a mammoth project and opened again on 1 May 1875. A vast variety of attractions and events like concerts, plays, a cinema, a skating rink, a race course, water-chute rowing on a lake and a 3000-seat theatre were planned to attract the public (FO 383/469). However, this wasn’t sufficient to draw in a big enough crowd; low levels of public attendance – as well as expensive maintenance and heating charges – turned the project into a financial disaster. 2 The following years were marked by turbulent times and upheavals; the palace had to be closed and reopened again several times.
One man’s joy, another man’s sorrow
When the First World War broke out in 1914, Alexandra Palace was turned into a refugee camp for Belgians who were fleeing their country in the face of the German invasion (FO 383/469). The Aliens Restriction Act, passed in the same year, also meant Germans, Austrians and Hungarians were now ‘enemy aliens’: enemies to the country many of them considered home. They had lived, worked and married British women in the UK, but with the outbreak of the First World War, things changed. Following the act, they had to register with the police in the district where they lived. 3
It was not long before the British Government decided that all German, Austrian and Hungarian males between the ages of 17 and 55 were to be interned (FO 383/33). Ironically, Alexandra Palace turned from a place of shelter and security – a haven for Belgians who had escaped from German attacks in 1914 – to a place of captivity for people of German origin.
From 7 May 1915 and for the next four years, 3,000 people would enter Alexandra Palace as prisoners.
Cigarettes, horse meat, ink and socks
Was it all bad? Officials at the time certainly didn’t think so. All internment camps across the UK were inspected on a regular basis, and thanks to The National Archives’ extensive materials and records, a report from 27 May 1915 still survives (FO 383/33). 4
The report tells us that 1,368 prisoners were interned at Alexandra Palace back at that time and the palace was divided into three subdivisions, each to contain 1,000 people. The kitchens were described as bright, airy and clean and they were presided over by German cooks. A committee of prisoners prepared the menus which offered dishes of roast beef and vegetables, as well as mutton stew for lunch; bread pudding was served for dessert. The quantity of food prepared seemed ample to the inspector and he was told that there were always leftovers from every meal.
A large outdoor space was allotted for exercise with a football ground and a lake where the prisoners could sail; a big gymnasium was installed for indoor activities. Besides, the men had facilities for making toys like model aeroplanes and boats.
Privacy was a privilege the prisoners had to dispense with as they slept in large halls marked ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’. Each man had a raised board bed covered with a straw mattress, pillows and three blankets (FO 383/33). In addition, canteens offered ‘luxuries’ like cigarettes, horse meat, ink or socks (FO 383/469). As already noted, prisoners were allowed to spend £1 each per week, for example on these goods the canteens had in stock, from money that was sent to them – kept on deposit with the Camp Treasurer.
Visitors were also permitted, received in a reception room with a guard present; the guards were housed within the palace, too. One inspection record shows that the hospital arrangements were not yet complete on the day of the inspection, but a temporary hospital was in operation and, according to the inspector, up-to-date. The inspector stated that he spoke to the prisoners and that none of them made complaints regarding their treatment or the quality and quantity of food (FO 383/33).
How does this report sound to you? The records of civilian prisoners interned at Alexandra Palace reveal, as expected, different experiences of their confinement and shed light on their individual lives.
‘A feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction’
Many interned civilians, contrary to the several official positive reports, made complaints about their situation. Complaints of poor hygiene and food were particularly prevalent. Throughout the war years, prisoners consistently sent appeals to the British Home Secretary or to the Embassies of neutral states against their internment and asked for improvements of their confinement or for their repatriation.
One example is the prisoner Richard Perls, who complained in May 1916 that ‘acute mental breakdown frequently occurs [among the inmates], cases of insanity result, symptoms of many illnesses appear,’ and that the ‘breaking up and ruin of mostly English-raised families’ was an unbearable hardship (FO 383/190). Two ex-prisoners of Alexandra Palace, Max Cogho and Karl Klein, testified in July 1916 that they had seen meat stamped in 1911 which was defrosted for their meals; they also complained that the sanitary arrangements in the camp were unheard of (FO 383/190).
Another example comes from the Battalion leaders of halls ‘A’, ‘B’, and ‘C’, who sent several letters to the Army Council at the British War Office in 1918 and reported a ‘feeling of unrest and dissatisfaction in the camp’. They asked to ‘at least authorize the issue of ½ oz. of margarine per man per day because the rations were ‘barely sufficient to sustain a man,’ but their appeal was rejected (FO 383/360). Besides, the noisy environment – with so many men living together – was very difficult to bear, and the separation from their families cruelly felt (FO 383/469). The men were unable to provide for their families, many even had to ask their wives to send them food parcels.
Some prisoners even tried to escape, so unbearable did they find camp life. The 18-year old German Heinrich Evers was just one example of a prisoner who tried to escape in 1915. Unfortunately for him, he was recaptured and sentenced by a Court Martial to six months in penitentiary. He only had to serve his sentence for a little over two months, though; owing to his good conduct in prison, the remainder of his sentence had been remitted and Evers was transferred to the prison camp at Stratford (FO 383/78).
It was only in 1919, several months after the signing of the Armistice, that the prisoners were finally allowed to leave Alexandra Palace Prison Camp and were able to return home. These accounts, held by The National Archives, provide insight into some of the prisoner’s thoughts, needs and worries during their time of captivity at Alexandra Palace. The sheer numbers and statistics of official reports become meaningful personal stories once again, opening up new perspectives.
Ally Pally then and now
Three weeks ago, I visited Alexandra Palace for the first time. It was a sunny Sunday; many families enjoyed the good weather and used the grounds of Ally Pally in the purpose for which it was built – for their enjoyment and leisure.
While I was exploring the area, a plaque, rather inconspicuous and mounted on the palace walls, suddenly caught my attention. It reminds visitors of Alexandra Palace’s past life as prison camp. The sign reads:
‘1914 – 1919 // This plaque was placed here on Sunday 4 June 2000 by members of the Anglo-German Family History Society to remember over 17,000 German and other civilian prisoners of war interned at Alexandra Palace between 1914 and 1919, in particular those who died during that period.’
Just like its diverse history, Alexandra Palace reveals many different and personal stories from the time of the First World War – and many still wait to be discovered.
You can also visit the official homepage of Alexandra Palace for more information.
- 1. I admit that £1 in 1915 would, according to the Bank of England, nowadays cost round about £92, so this is not a fair comparison to the present but it gives you an idea of the regulations back at that time. ↩
- 2. See Janet Harris, ‘Alexandra Palace: A Hidden History’ (Stroud: The History Press, 2013), 19. ↩
- 3. See Janet Harris, ‘Alexandra Palace: A Hidden History’ (Stroud: The History Press, 2013), 46. ↩
- 4. Inspectors from Britain as well as representatives from other countries were sent to the camps, for example from America, Switzerland or Sweden. ↩