How did a small industrial town like Skipton cope during the monstrosity that was the First World War?

Continuing his analysis of historic records surrounding Raikeswood camp, historian Alan Roberts takes a look.

The presence of 683 unwelcome guests at Raikeswood Camp must have placed a considerable strain on the town’s limited resources, particularly when so many Skiptonians were serving with the British armed forces. At first glance it might not seem that exciting a subject, yet it gives some interesting, if not quirky, insights into a town trying to do its best under extremely difficult circumstances. Skipton U.D.C, or Skipton Urban District Council was one of the forerunners of today’s Craven District Council. The minutes of the meetings were taken, but reports of some of the proceedings could not be reported in the press because of restrictions on publishing anything which could possibly assist the enemy, and that included any mention of Raikeswood Camp.

In August 1917 work was being carried out to convert the former British Army camp to accommodate German officer prisoners-of-war. A few necessities included the provision of two parallel barbed-wire fences, but the opportunity was also taken to carry out essential maintenance on the many wooden army huts intended to house the prisoners.

At that time Skipton had its own gasworks where town gas, a highly toxic and dangerous fuel, was made by the distillation of coal, in a process which produced several strong-smelling but useful by-products. The military authorities therefore asked the Gasworks Committee to supply 1500 gallons of coal tar in order to waterproof the roofs of the huts. The price was agreed at 35 shillings a ton.

The full council met in November to discuss the opening of the camp. It is doubtful what effect the deliberations of the Council could have had. After all there was a war on. A motion was passed saying that although the Council regretted that Skipton had been chosen as an internment camp, under the difficult circumstances existing, objection would not be offered provided the prisoners of war were securely fenced in, and kept within the bounds of the camp. The Council was to be disappointed on both counts. The following June two officers escaped from Skipton Camp on a Saturday night and were recaptured the following afternoon when the landlord of the Black Bull in Chatburn near Clitheroe became suspicious of his newly-arrived guests and their strange accents.

Prisoners were entitled to leave the camp under escort for regular walks into the surrounding area provided they gave their word of honour as officers not to escape. The walks used to pass through the town centre, but this ended when an iron bar was apparently thrown at a German officer by an off-duty British soldier. The German officers innocently claimed that the British simply did not like the way in which they marched. The Craven Herald was incandescent with rage:

‘The morbid curiosity exhibited in watching the German prisoners of war emerge from the camp… is altogether out of place, and we hope it is discontinued. It only gives the captured enemy an opportunity of exhibiting his nauseous ‘swank’ and supercilious airs. An entire absence of interest and total indifference would be a more becoming and dignified attitude on the part of men, women and girls.’

Whatever the truth of the matter, German soldiers marching through the town were clearly unacceptable and these walks were immediately banned.

The German officers were entitled to two hot showers a week on Saturdays and Wednesdays. They regularly complained that the water was not hot enough, while some took a cold shower every day, and some twenty hardy souls continued the practice throughout the entire winter. Spare a thought for the poor British Tommies guarding them. Their washing facilities were grossly inadequate and their commanding officer was forced to ask the Baths and Washhouses Committee if his men could use the municipal baths on the other side of the town. The committee agreed that the men could bathe in the early morning provided they each paid two old pence and provided their own towels and soap. A labour unit working on refurbishing the camp was granted similar terms.

It had become the custom for the camp to incinerate its own rubbish. The German officers report that the smoke was like that from a burnt offering which the gods on high had refused to accept and instead of rising into heaven chose to descend down the hill towards the town. The Streets, Buildings and Health Committee offered to remove waste from the camp at cost price plus 5%. A request to remove empty tins was refused unless the tins were first crushed.

When the first German prisoners had arrived in Skipton the Craven Herald reported that the streets were thronged with onlookers, but perhaps as an in-joke to be shared with its readers and as a sop to the wartime censors later declared that there had actually been no-one there to witness the prisoners arrival in the town.

After the ceasefire was signed reporting restrictions were eased and one of the big stories was the fate of the huts. Could they perhaps be used to solve Skipton’s housing shortage?