At first the enemy aliens in Handforth were interned principally out of a fear of spying. However, as time went on, the prisoners also arrived for their own protection. Throughout Britain, public anger towards the enemy citizens still free continued to grow. Violence, attacks, even small riots targeting Germans and Austrians became increasingly common. One of the worst incidents in the early months of the war occurred in Crewe.
The brothers John and George Gronbach, aged 43 and 27 respectively, had been born in Germany. After moving to Britain at the turn of the twentieth century, the brothers had established themselves in the pork butcher business, a common trade amongst Central European immigrants. John owned a shop in Victoria Street Crewe, while his younger brother George, built up his own establishment in neighbouring Nantwich.
Their businesses had become well-established in Cheshire, but problems for the pair occurred with the outbreak of war. On the weekend of 24-25 October 1914, the brothers’ shops were attacked. According to the press, some 4,000-5,000 people had gathered on the streets of Crewe, before moving to the front of John Gronbach’s shop. A few men managed to break in and stole whatever they could lay their hands on, while outside “women with pickaxes dug up huge stones from the paved streets” and threw them through the windows. After the riots, John Gronbach and his family fled to the USA; George, though, remained in Cheshire.
George’s freedom proved extremely short-lived. On 7 May 1915, the great ocean liner, RMS Lusitania, was struck by a German torpedo and sank off the coast of Ireland in less than an hour. The loss of almost 1,200 lives provoked considerable anger. In multiple cities across Britain, there were riots targeting mainly German and Austrian owned businesses. Liverpool, Manchester, Cardiff and London all witnessed scenes of extreme violence – smashed windows, ransacked shops and frightened civilians were commonplace.
After the Lusitania riots, the British government took the decision to intern all remaining male ‘enemy aliens’, mainly for their own safety. This included George Gronbach, who was arrested at his home in Nantwich, then taken without his young family to the Handforth camp. Once there, he joined hundreds of other Germans, Austrians and Turks recently rounded up from Birmingham, Leeds, Manchester and Liverpool. At this point, the Handforth camp grew in size from 1,600 to 2,100 civilian internees.