I began my research by leafing through Reading Prison’s 1916-18 Nominal Register for ‘Aliens & Irish’ (held at the Berkshire Record Office)…
During the First World War, prison populations dwindled due to increased employment opportunities and the army’s recruitment drive. As noted by Peter Southerton in The Story of a Prison (1975), ‘by November 1915, the inmate population of Reading prison had fallen to a mere 71’ (p. 127). Instead of holding traditional criminals, prisons accommodated foreign nationals who were suspected of spying and/ or having anti-British sympathies; Reading Prison was redesignated ‘H.M. Place of Internment’. Over the course of the war, Reading played host to various ‘aliens’; the majority were inmates of German origin but Latin Americans, Belgians, and Hungarians were also interned.
In July 1916, the ‘aliens’ were joined by the ‘Irish’ – a group of around 35 men who had been involved (either directly or indirectly) in the Easter Rising. The Nominal Register tells us that the majority of the men were transferred from Frongoch Internment Camp, but others came from Wakefield Prison, Knutsford Prison, Stafford Prison, and Woking Prison. They were interned without trial under the terms of 1914 Defence of the Realm Act and housed in the E Wing, formally the women’s prison.
The Nominal Register gives us an insight into the kinds of people these Irish internees were. We know their heights (they ranged between 5’2” and 6’1”, with most being around 5’7”); ages (between 20 and 55, with most being around 30); hair colours (mostly brown or dark brown); religions (mostly Roman Catholic, but not all); and jobs (farmers, builders, clerks, secretaries, shopkeepers, printers, book-keepers, teachers, solicitors, doctors, authors, several journalists, one musical instrument maker, one house furnisher, one harbour official, one ironmonger, one motor agent, one sailor, one unemployed, one insurance officer, and one painter).
The register also gives us the names and birth places of each Irish internee. Some inmates are of particular note (as politicians and authors) and were written about in the Irish press – see below (with thanks to Irish Newspaper Archives and the Meath Chronicle, 12 August 1916).
Some of these ‘big names’ – plus other interesting indivuals – will be getting their own blog posts in due course. Watch this space!