Once the war had started, Britain as with the other belligerent nations suffered a shortage of labour as men gradually left for the front. With a lack of workers to fill factories or to toil in the fields, it did not take long for people to realise that the Handforth POW camp offered a potential solution. Indeed, in 1915, Lord Newton – Thomas Wodehouse Legh – articulated these very thoughts when he asked the question: “Why not use Germans on our Farms?” The Cheshire War Agricultural Committee heard Newton’s plea but failed to give him the answer he wanted. In the Committee’s view, Cheshire’s farms were far too small to utilise POW labour, as it would have meant spreading guards too thinly.
The following year, however, the Agricultural Committee had a change of heart. With the introduction of conscription in March 1916, even more workers disappeared from Cheshire’s factories and farms for the frontline. The need to find an alternative source of labour, therefore, became even more pressing. For this reason, the Committee agreed – somewhat reluctantly – to allow farmers to employ “interned aliens” should they so wish. By 1917, the Committee extended this invitation to include the use of POWs as labourers as well.
Management of the POWs as farm labourers was done with a fairly light touch. Prisoners were allowed to work within a three mile of radius of the Handforth camp. They could only work beyond this distance if accompanied by a farmer. After work each evening, the prisoners were to be returned to the camp for rest and recuperation. It was agreed that a similar system could function across Cheshire as long as small, temporary camps could be established, which would serve as a base for the workers each night. The owner of Flittogate Farm near Tabley, for example, was quick to take advantage of these opportunities, employing 6 POWs by 1918.
Both the farmers and the POWs quickly came to embrace the working arrangements. For the farmers, using POWs provided them with a cheap, efficient labour source at a time of a severe shortage of workers. One Cheshire farmer was so pleased with his POWs that he told the Agricultural Committee that he wants “more German prisoner labour before paying any more to Englishmen”. At the suggestion of employing Germans over English workers, the Committee remarked indignantly: “Reads very well doesn’t it?” The Germans prisoners also warmed to the relative freedoms of farm work, particularly as once the POWs had gained the trust of the farmer, they were often left alone in the fields. Another obvious plus point for the POWs was that the farms offered them the opportunity to lay their hands on meat and vegetables, which were often smuggled back into the camp.