The Parkside Asylum

The rigours of internment took their toll on those locked up in Handforth and other camps. Being confined with thousands of other individuals in a small space away from friends and family was exceedingly hard, particularly as no one had any idea how long these circumstances were likely to continue. At Handforth and other camps, a rich programme of sports, educational courses and cultural events provided some relief, but still boredom and apathy persisted. Perhaps unsurprisingly, therefore, instances of mental illness rocketed in the internment camps. One Swiss doctor, Adolf Vischer, termed the phenomenon ‘barbed-wire disease’ (Stacheldraht-Krankheit) to explain the psychological impact of life behind wire.

Adolf Vischer (1884-1974)
Adolf Vischer (1884-1974)

In Handforth, there were numerous cases of mental illness both amongst the civilian internees and the military prisoners. The most severe cases were transferred to specialist asylums for intensive treatment: the POWs to Broadmoor Hospital in Berkshire which had its own military wing and the civilians to the Cheshire County Asylum or Parkside Asylum near Macclesfield. Parkside was a large Victorian-era institution established in the 1870s with accommodation for up to 1,500 patients.

Cheshire County Asylum
Cheshire County Asylum

Between April and September 1915, 15 civilian internees were transferred from Handforth to Parkside, with most being formally signed over by the camp’s chief medical officer, Dr Peter Drummond. It is unclear whether internment in the camp caused new psychological problems or merely exacerbated pre-existing illness. What is clear, however, is that a number of those transferred to Parkside were confused and disorientated. One could not ‘remember the name of the camp he came from’, while another had no ‘idea where he came from or how he came here’. Again this should not come as a complete surprise, as these men had been suddenly removed from friends, families and jobs. Out of those incarcerated in Parkside, five were married, four worked as waiters, six as labourers with the remainder in other occupations. 36 year-old Alfred O., for example, was originally from Essen, but had moved to London in the pre-war years. Renting a room behind Kings Cross station, he plied his trade as a general builder.

Alfred O.'s pre-war place of residence in London
Alfred O.’s pre-war place of residence in London

All but one of the 15 patients had left Parkside by May 1918. Nine were transferred for further treatment to the London County Asylum, while five sadly passed away in Parkside itself. The cause of death for these five patients was listed as ‘confusional insanity’ in three cases, ‘senile dementia’ and ‘syphilis’ in the case of the remaining two. The bodies of those who died in Parkside were moved down the road from the asylum to Macclesfield Cemetery, where they were buried in anonymous graves. In 1914, all five had been civilians, living and working in the North West of England; by 1917, they had travelled via Handforth and Parkside to rest permanently in Macclesfield cemetery.

Macclesfield Cemetery
Macclesfield Cemetery

This, then, leaves one Handforth patient unaccounted for. The story of Ivan B., a married farm labourer from East Cheshire, is surely the most remarkable. Interned in the Handforth camp in early 1915, Ivan B. was moved to Parkside on 1 September 1915, reportedly due to being confused and ‘morose in manner’. Unlike the other surviving civilian internees, he was never transferred to the London County Asylum, but instead remained in Parkside. A full 30 years after being first admitted, Ivan B. was still a patient in Parkside. Locked up as an enemy alien during the First World War, he lived to be an enemy alien in the next world war, finally dying in Parkside in December 1949 at the age of 70. At the time of his death, Ivan B.’s records stated that he had no relatives. What happened, therefore, to his family from 1915 remains unclear.

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