In Ruhleben Camp: weathering class divisions in winter

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.

If Home Rule meant a more democratic camp, as suggested previously, the coming of winter brought stark reminders of persistent inequality.

Internment had caught British subjects unaware, from the cosmopolitan world-traveler to the sailors detained in Hamburg harbor. As a result, the camp’s diverse population cut across economic and social classes. Although a handful of the most prominent internees, such as Sir Timothy Eden (brother to the future Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden) secured early release in individual exchanges with German prisoners, only eleven such exchanges occurred before 1916, when the head of the newly established Prisoner of War Department, Lord Newton, rejected what he called this “old-fashioned, aristocratic” approach (Stibbe, p. 126).

Many wealthy and well-connected internees thus remained all four years, and soon found ways to distinguish themselves from the hoi polloi.

One way to assert class affiliation was sartorial. Once parcel deliveries were less restricted after March 1915, internees could write home for clothing, allowing “the school tie, the blazer, the club badge” to stage a comeback, according to former internee Frank Stockall (qtd. in Stibbe, p. 95). Internees could also spruce up using amenities within the camp. J.D. Ketchum remembers shoe-shining as the first “service” offered in Ruhleben. In 1914 “no Englishman above the working class ever cleaned his own shoes,” Ketchum reminds us, and since the job required little capital outlay, shoeblacks initially prospered—until supply overwhelmed demand (Ketchum, p. 27 n. 1).

Advertisement. In Ruhleben Camp, No. 8, Sept 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 503
Advertisement. In Ruhleben Camp, No. 8, Sept 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 503.

Along with the rash of shoeblacks came other services considered de rigeur for keeping up appearances. From the magazine’s second issue onward, its back pages featured adjacent, full-page advertisements for the tailor Steinbock and the hairdresser George Teger.

Tailoring is a valuable service, especially in winter, but Steinbock’s autumn advertisement doesn’t mention fit or warmth. Instead, he makes a posh virtue of necessity, announcing a “NEW FASHION: Special Winter Overcoat! NOW ON VIEW!” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 503), next to a drawing of two well-heeled men modeling full-length coats, positioned as if passing each other in the city. By evoking sartorial standards at Home, Steinbock appeals to fantasies of freedom, especially among a clientele pining for the bustling commerce of London, where the cut of a coat, the pleat in a pinstriped trouser, the filigree on a cane, or the whiff of a cigar spoke volumes to the knowing observer.

Advertisement. In Ruhleben Camp, No. 8, Sept 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 504
Advertisement. In Ruhleben Camp, No. 8, Sept 1915. Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 504


This pair of advertisements from Steinbock and Teger (“Professional Hair dresser” offering a “First-class Pedicure”) make the back pages a one-stop shop for upper-class grooming (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 504). Whether these entrepreneurs considered their services complementary, or the editors bundled them together, both businesses were sufficiently well-funded in 1915 to take out at least one full-page ad each month.

If the editors were responsible for the pairing, they may have had a chuckle at the vision of an internee decked out cap-a-pie in Ruhleben finery. Certainly readers of the September issue had occasion to shake their heads at hairdressers and their clients: the short story “Johnny,” published pseudonymously, offers a classic Ruhleben parable starring a hairdresser.

The story begins with the narrator waiting to collect a parcel. Near him in the queue, he notices a man he dubs “Johnny.” “He was a nut,” the narrator gushes, admiring the man’s style: “hair nicely oiled and beautifully parted” with “plump rosy cheeks [that] vaguely reminded one of a “Frivolity” beauty” (the cross-dressing men who were prima donnas of the popular stage in Ruhleben). With a mischievous twinkle, the narrator continues, “Of course his suit was of a most nutty cut. It had been made in Ruhleben, therefore it was really exquisite” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 469).

Eager to hear Johnny’s “version of the Ruhleben “if,”” the narrator timidly addresses him, and is gratified to learn that if Johnny’s “Pater” hadn’t sent him to be educated in Germany, he would “be having an extraordinarily charming life riding round our park at home with my old school chums, y’know” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 470).

With his professionally-styled hair and his suit native to Ruhleben tailor shops, Johnny captivates the narrator—who, sadly, is doomed to lose his new upper-crust friend before he even reaches the parcel window. Seeing “Snippy” coming, Johnny scampers aristocratically out of the queue, leaving the narrator quizzical. “He’s a barber’s assistant,” Snippy reveals. “Used to work in a saloon I went to near the Strand” (Masterman Coll., Box 2 Seq. 472).

This satirical parable takes swipes at pretensions across the board: peacock’s feathers are too easily borrowed from a superficial elite, and command extravagant deference from gulls like the narrator, but woe betide those who put on airs, which the least brush with outside reality can dispel.

Yet it remains true that the blank Ruhleben slate allowed internees to reinvent themselves, to play the part they wanted. In this “little secret history” we see that some men—like those “Frivolity” beauties who found greater freedom in Ruhleben than outside*—could use this strange, raw society to move fluidly across the rigid divisions and hierarchies of post-Victorian Britain.

* See Alon Rachamimov’s insightful essay on cross-dressing in POW camps, cited below.

Bibliography & Further Reading

Ketchum, J. Davidson. Ruhleben: A Prison Camp Society. With a Foreword and Postscript by Robert B. MacLeod. Canada: University of Toronto Press, 1965. Foreword (Ithaca, NY, April 1964)

Rachamimov, Alon. “The disruptive comforts of drag: (Trans) gender performances among prisoners of war in Russia, 1914–1920.” The American Historical Review 111.2 (2006): 362-382.

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.

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