During the early years of the Handforth camp, the aim was to ensure that the prisoners remained behind barbed wire. It was only as the war moved on and camp life became somewhat ‘normalised’ that prisoners started to be sent out to work. In total, 17 small sub-camps came under the direct command of Handforth. Some of these existed only for a short while; others remained in situ for a number of years, almost becoming distinct camps in their own right. But in all circumstances, Handforth was directly responsible for each of the smaller sub-camps. Prisoners were selected in Handforth and then distributed according to their skills to each of the smaller camps. Supplies, post and religious support also came through Handforth.
In the spring of 1918, around 200 POWs were moved from Handforth to Frodsham on the western side of Cheshire, where a small sub-camp was developed. From the start, the camp was of a very temporary design, consisting of 17 bell-shaped regular army tents, which housed the men, as well as one large marquee for administrative purposes. The POWs themselves were employed by the Cheshire County War Agricultural Committee and were tasked with draining the marshes north of the town. A Swiss report from August 1919 noted only one complaint in the whole camp: the tents apparently did not “offer sufficient protection in rainy weather”. However, this must have been an overly optimistic interpretation of circumstances, as the following month a number of the POWs in Frodsham went on strike over poor pay. There may well have been some justification to the POWs’ complaints, because the War Agricultural Committee had previously boasted that marsh draining would normally cost £5,000 but by using POW labour it cost only £1,000.
Soon after the strike at Frodsham, the camp was closed. The reason, though, was less to do with POW relations, but rather with the lack of winter accommodation – the tents were rightly deemed unsuitable for the winter. In May 1919, the Frodsham camp reopened again, initially with a contingent of only 25 prisoners, but this soon rose to 200 again. At the end of October 1919, the camp was still open, but presumably it closed permanently soon after.
Bidston on the Wirral – then part of Cheshire – was the site of a further Handforth sub-camp. It was slightly smaller than Frodsham, holding some 175 men. As was the case with Frodsham, the prisoners provided a cheap source of labour for marsh clearing; here the marshy lands that lay between Birkenhead and West Kirby. The camp itself appears to have opened in 1917 and remained open until late 1919.
A mere six miles down the road from Frodsham was the site of another of Handforth’s sub-camps at Thornton-le-Moors. The situation at Thornton was very similar to Frodsham. The Cheshire County War Agricultural Committee used the prisoners once again to help clear marsh land along the Cheshire side of the River Mersey. About 100 POWs, most of whom had previously worked at the Nell Lane Military Hospital in Didsbury, were accommodated in ten bell tents. The camp existed from May 1919 through until late autumn 1919.
4. Rowrath (Whitehaven)
A sub-camp at Rowrath in Cumbria was originally under the command of the Leigh Prisoner of War camp but moved under Handforth’s umbrella in 1919 when Leigh finally closed. Rowrath – later known as Whitehaven – consisted of a series of wooden huts for some 100 POWs who were employed in the neighbouring quarries and forests. The camp operated from 1917 through until late 1919.
In September 1916, a large sub-camp was established at Redesdale in the Northumberland moorlands. This was a large camp with over 700 POWs at its height, who were employed on road building and general construction tasks. Despite being located on “a slope of a hill in a high open space”, sleeping accommodation was limited to bell tents and canvas ‘Aylwin’ huts. Presumably for this reason, the prisoners made numerous complaints not only about accommodation but also about the lack of wet weather clothing. The camp’s precise closure date remains unclear.
6. Healeyfield (Castleside)
A few weeks before the opening of the Redesdale camp, a similar site was established slightly further south at Healeyfield in County Durham, which in some reports was referred to as the Castleside camp. The camp was as isolated as Redesdale, situated “on a high hill” overlooking the Derwent valley. Accommodation at first consisted entirely of Bell tents and to the chagrin of the prisoners all cooking had to be done out in the open over a fire trench. However, the prisoners’ complaints appear to have sparked improvements, as by 1917 the tents had been replaced by a set of five wooden huts that included a separate canteen. At any one time, about 110 prisoners were based at Healeyfield, from where they were employed in a neighbouring quarry.
The Newlandside camp, near Stanhope in County Durham, was a larger version of its near neighbour Healeyfield. On opening in August 1916, the 563 prisoners were housed first in Bell tents and then in wooden huts “lined with asbestos sheeting”. As in Healeyfield, the men worked in a large stone quarry. The one difference, however, was that the prisoners in Newlandside suffered from very poor morale. “They seem somewhat depressed, and dissatisfied”, noted one Swiss inspector. What certainly affected morale was the death of one German prisoner, Joseph Ingert, in May 1917. Ingert had been sitting on a wall above the quarry, but then he was hit by “momentary dizziness” and fell 30 meters to his death. In 1918, control of the camp moved from Handforth to Catterick.
8. Coal Aston
Coal Aston, on the outskirts of Sheffield, was home to a large working camp, housing 650 men in wooden huts. The Barton Daily Mail described the facilities as containing “a number of spacious huts”, which were “thoroughly fenced round with wire and guarded by a number of sentries”. Once at Coal Aston, the prisoners were employed in a range of roles, including quarrying and road building. Some of the men were reportedly also employed in industries within Sheffield itself.
A sub-camp was established in Altrincham, south-west of Manchester, in late 1916 / early 1917. By the spring of 1917, the camp had almost 1,300 prisoners; this figure had risen to 1,500 by the summer. As it was such a large camp, facilities for the prisoners were more extensive than in many of Handforth’s other sub-camps. For example, there was a library with 700 volumes as well as a camp band. The prisoners, who were all housed in wooden huts, were employed by a local construction company as bricklayers, plumbers and carpenters.
Ternhill in Shropshire – about 15 miles north of Shrewsbury – had its own very small sub-camp, employing only 105 men. It was classed as a temporary camp and as such had only very basic facilities: tents for sleeping and outside toilets. The men were set to work on construction and road building, possibly for the nearby air force base. In June 1917, it was reported that the camp was to be closed by the end of the month.
Throughout 1918, the Cheshire County War Agricultural Committee repeatedly returned to the idea of constructing a small working camp in Knutsford. In November, it reported that 40 POWs had been transferred to Knutsford with a further 60 0n their way. However, by the following spring discussions were ongoing again about the precise location of the camp. For this reason, it is unclear whether the sub-camp was ever fully established.
Brocton on Cannock Chase was home to several large military camps as well as a prisoner of war camp. According to a report from April 1917, the Brocton camp, at that stage with 500 prisoners, came under the responsibility of Handforth.
Hadnall camp in Shropshire held 250 prisoners. As with the Brocton camp, a report from April 1917 listed Brocton as coming under the jurisdiction of Handforth.
14. North End
North End camp had been under the control of the Leigh camp until the latter’s closure in May 1919. The camp and its 50 POWs then came under the jurisdiction of Handforth.
15. Bigger Bank
Bigger Bank camp had been under the control of the Leigh camp until the latter’s closure in May 1919. It then came under the jurisdiction of Handforth, but only for a matter of weeks, as in June 1919 the camp started to be closed and the remaining prisoners moved to the North End camp instead.
Milnethorpe camp had been under the control of the Leigh camp until the latter’s closure in May 1919. It then came under the jurisdiction of Handforth, but by this time only 10 prisoners remained.
Kendal camp had been under the control of the Leigh camp until the latter’s closure in May 1919. It then came under the jurisdiction of Handforth. As was the case with Milnethorpe, the camp only had a few prisoners remaining, reportedly 19 in June 1919.