The prisoners in Handforth came from different countries (Germany, Austria, Hungary, Turkey and beyond), different geographical regions and from different social backgrounds. However, on top of this, the prison population also enjoyed considerable religious diversity. The vast majority of internees – both civilians and military – were either Catholics or Protestants, but there was also a sizeable Jewish population in the camp. In September 1915, for example, the Jewish Chronicle reported that 80 Jews now resided in Handforth. Given that the camp held some Turkish prisoners, it is likely that a small number of Muslim prisoners were also interned there. Despite this religious diversity, the military authorities overseeing the camp only made provision for the Christian prisoners to practice their religion. This occurred primarily through a large, airy chapel established in one of the camp buildings.
It was one thing for the prisoners to establish a chapel, but further effort was required before it could become fully operational. To help with this, the Catholic priest from Wilmslow donated candles, a crucifix and a service book for the chapel. However, the local Church of England vicar, Samuel Stockton, was less enamoured by the new arrivals, who were housed just down the road from the Paris Church of St Chad’s. Instead of donating religious paraphernalia, he launched a petition against the practice of allowing POWs to march through the village when exercising.
Running the camp chapel, therefore, needed to come from the prisoner population itself. Indeed, the Catholic and Protestant priests had been civilian internees themselves. Vincent Steinhart, who came to represent the Catholic prisoners, had been part of a German emigrant community based at Erdington Abbey, near Birmingham. Steinhart visited Handforth for the first time in 1915 to offer mass to the civilian internees. He then visited Handforth each week to hold services, although this became a bit more sporadic as the war dragged on.
Oskar Goehling, who had been pastor of a German Church in London, was also a regular visitor to Handforth. Like Steinhart, he had been interned in the early weeks of the war, but then released. The War Ministry later gave permission for Goehling to visit camps to offer services for the Protestant German POWs interned throughout the British Isles. From his London base, he regularly travelled up to Handforth to hold services, which often took place in the camp theatre, filled to bursting point. However, these services ended suddenly in 1918 when the War Ministry withdrew Goehling’s travel rights.
In contrast to the Catholic and Protestant prisoners who enjoyed regular religious visitors, the Jewish internees were offered less support. Instead, they had to rely on the help of Manchester’s Jewish community for their religious needs. The community in Manchester decided to send kosher food to the camp twice a week at its own costs. During autumn 1915, the community also allowed one of its representatives, a Mr Shaffer, to visit Handforth for the Jewish festivals. Shaffer, along with his family, spent several days in the camp during the festival period. It is not clear if he or other members of Manchester’s Jewish communities repeated this exercise on future occasions.