In Ruhleben Camp: weathering class divisions part 2 (The Camp School)

In Ruhleben Camp follows the production schedule of the magazine created by prisoners at Ruhleben, an internment camp for British civilians in Germany during WWI. Around the day that an issue of the magazine was released a hundred years ago, Marissa Grunes will post highlights from that number and tell part of its story.

As the winter of 1915 swept across Germany, warm clothing and rich food became increasingly urgent matters in Ruhleben Camp. These were especially elusive for impoverished prisoners relying on the British government’s Relief Fund. The greatest source of public contention, however, was access to indoor space.

Internees were guaranteed shelter in horse stalls or lofts, but the men also needed an escape from these cold, cramped quarters. Meanwhile, activities that had flourished during the summer, from classes to cricket matches, either had to migrate indoors or be suspended for the winter. Conflicts over communal spaces became more heated, and were frequently aired in the September and October issues of the magazine.

Ruhleben 1918, General View, East End. VIA record number olvwork427605
Ruhleben 1918, General View, East End. VIA record number olvwork427605

By now, three halls were open under the grandstand seats (visible above), but these couldn’t begin to accommodate the public life of the racetrack’s 4,000-some occupants. The halls were regularly booked for ticketed events, which excluded the poorest Ruhlebenites and sparked debates over the Camp’s financial organization. With the Ruhleben Dramatic Society on strike in September, one hall was freed for casual use (for instance, as a smoking room), prompting a wag to quip that a “rabble fills the hall” where Thespis once reigned (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 364). Nonetheless, many Ruhleben groups struggled to find indoor venues. Of these, the one that captured the magazine’s attention was the Camp School.

Issues no. 8 (September) and no. 9 (October) of In Ruhleben Camp both open with an appeal from the Camp School for funds to secure “Partitioning, Books & Apparatus” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 448). As if in sympathetic response, John C. Masterman’s copy of issue no. 8 (held in HLSL) includes a prospectus for the School’s Winter Session folded into its opening pages. This prospectus explains that the “advent of warm weather” had made the School possible, but since classes and lectures required partitioned spaces, “the failure to obtain adequate accommodation all but extinguished its life during the Winter and early Spring.” The author admonishes anyone who “values Culture and Education” to observe that internees spent as much time studying as they “passed in the Entertainments Hall: and yet the School has been treated with comparative neglect” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 450).

Within issue no. 8 of the magazine, the editors champion the School as “of far more use than even the Football Clubs,” calling it “the most popular and, we venture to say, the most useful institution in the Camp” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 462). They also call on the Education Committee to support the more informal “Circles,” organized around shared intellectual pursuits, by helping them “procure a suitable room…during the winter sessions” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 500).

But the editors go further, amplifying the School’s distress signals into a challenge against wealthy internees who had cordoned off exclusive “clubhouses.” In particular, they remind the Summer House Club of its promise to share its boxes with the School. The Summer House’s cosmetic philanthropy had been used to “justify the existence of such a Club in a British Concentration Camp,” the editors recall, yet card-playing Club members regularly chase out students with “scant ceremony” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 462).

Come October, the editors had more to lament: space constraints had forced John C. Masterman (the Camp’s “best all-around man” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 479)) to call off his popular lectures. “That lack of space should preclude us from hearing another course from him during the winter would seem a severe reflection on the organising ability of the Camp as a whole,” the editors grimly scold their readership. “The size of his audience has been no less extraordinary than the variety of its composition,” discrediting the notion that the “student section” of the population represents only “one class” of internees (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 514).

As winter threatened to cement class barriers, it seemed that educational institutions—less lucrative than theatrical or musical entertainment—would be edged out. But the School was not so easily beaten. Not only did it carry on, but over the four next three years it would establish a relationship with the University of Berlin, building a diplomatic bridge that eventually extended across the Channel, where the University of Leeds took on responsibility for supporting the education of German civilians interned on the Isle of Man.

The “University of Ruhleben” became a great source of pride, and its graduates sat for official degree and certificate examinations from the University of London, the London Chamber of Commerce, and the Royal Society of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce—all within the (dis)comfort of Ruhleben Camp.* The era of correspondence courses had begun.

* See Stibbe, pp. 3, 145-6.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Stibbe, Matthew. British civilian internees in Germany. The Ruhleben camp, 1914-18. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2008.

Marissa Grunes is a PhD candidate in English Literature at Harvard University, focusing on transatlantic literature of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Her dissertation project explores frontier architecture in 19th century poetry, fiction, and non-fiction of the United States.

2 thoughts on “In Ruhleben Camp: weathering class divisions part 2 (The Camp School)”

  1. christine Greene

    this article came through via my Facebook page, i must have “liked” a previous article i guess to have this .. anyway, the article is totally fascinating. my Grandfather was interned in the camp from day one as he was unlucky enough to be working in Berlin prior to the War. He was not a wealthy young lad. We have letters that he wrote about his time in the camp when he was much older. We also have some letters from a person from within the camp writing to my Grandfathers Mother, however, we now know that the person who wrote this letter was something to do with the language school at the camp, maybe he started it. A Mr Prichard I do recall his name to be as my Grandfather refers to him in his letters. amazing .. He was only a young lad when interned, in fact i think he was only 20 yrs when the war ended. But most importantly, my Grandfather loved languages, and was already teaching french in his spare time when working in Berlin, so when in the camp, he taught language as well as learned languages. I do believe we have several language certificates of my Grandfathers that he received, though i would have to check when and where he did these, though i guess within the camp as per this article. I will have to take a look at our family documents.

  2. Dear Christine: Your Grandfather sounds like a fascinating and tremendous individual. Would his name also have been Greene? I can look for him in the notes I’ve collected thus far. The gentleman you mention was most likely Mr. Matthew Prichard (sometimes spelled Pritchard by the Camp magazine). In his book, Matthew Stibbe identifies Prichard as an “Italian scholar and art critic.” He was a prominent figure in the camp, who was on the Education Committee and was very involved with the school, including as a teacher of Italian. (There was also a Mr. Patchett who taught German literature and philosophy, but I would assume that Prichard is the one your Grandfather meant). If you do have a chance to peruse the certificates or letters, I would love to hear what you discover there!
    – Marissa

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