In May 1940, following Winston Churchill’s appointment as prime
minister of the war-time coalition government, a policy of mass
internment of aliens was introduced. The established categories
were extended and in total some 27,000 aliens, including Jewish
refugees, Italians, non-Jewish Germans and Austrians, were interned.
Eleanor quickly responded to the new policies, which she largely disagreed
with, and launched a barrage of questions relating to tribunals and
conditions in the camps at Sir John Anderson, the home secretary, and
other ministers. She was particularly vociferous during the adjournment
debate on refugees and other aliens which took place on 10 July 1940.
In a session lasting nearly six hours, Eleanor was one of only nineteen MPs
to speak, and besides her numerous supporters, there were a few MPs who
showed no sympathy with the plight of those interned. What Eleanor
wanted was for the internees to be treated humanely, from the basic provision
of soap and toilet paper to books and personal musical instruments.
She pressed for the tribunal process to be speeded up and for the hardships
suffered by elderly, sick and invalid aliens to be addressed. The fact that
one German professor of chemistry had committed suicide rather than be
interned highlighted the renewed fear of incarceration experienced by
those who had escaped from Nazi Germany. Permission for MPs to visit
the internment camps came more speedily than Eleanor had anticipated,
and on 20 July 1940 she and H.Graham White, (Liberal MP for East
Birkenhead), a member of her all-party Parliamentary Committee on
Refugees, travelled up to Liverpool to Huyton to see conditions for themselves.
Internees were housed in the recently built Woolfall Heath Estate, which
was divided by an eight-metre high barbed wire fence. Conditions were
often appalling: inmates lived crowded into unfurnished houses and tents,
many sleeping on mattresses on the floor. Food was limited in quantity
and monotonous. Morale amongst inmates was understandably low
and there were instances of insanity and suicide…….(to be continued)