The thread about the Edinburgh Hostels for Women Students and their brief wartime role as an Internment Camp for German “Enemy Aliens”

This thread was originally written and published in January 2023.

An intriguing image was tweeted today, with the caption “WWII Prisoner of War Camp, Scotland, November 1939

Where was this camp? The soldier is very obviously equipped by the British Army, but the building doesn’t look very Scottish, does it? In fact it looks more like a French chateau. Is it a school, a hospital wing or a sanatorium? I didn’t know, so I shared the picture and quickly the answer came back (thanks Sean McPartlin, Graeme Dickson and Ian “Silverback”). It is the Suffolk Road Halls of Residence or to give them their proper name, the Edinburgh Hostels for Women Students. These were used as an internment camp for “enemy aliens” at the start of the war.

Carlyle Hostel in 2001

A 20 acre site in Newington, which had formed part of the the Craigmillar Golf Course, was purchased in 1913 for £10,000 by the Edinburgh Association for the Provision of Hostels for Women Students for a purpose-built accommodation hostel – or halls of residence. The Association was a joint venture between the Edinburgh Provincial Committee for the Training of Teachers, Edinburgh University, the Edinburgh College of Art, the Edinburgh Merchant Company and the Edinburgh Episcopal Training College. The hostels were “for the more satisfactory housing of women students” and were intended to eventually have a capacity for 350, with 250 reserved for teaching students at Moray House College. There already existed two small halls of residence for women medical students, converted from houses, on George Square.

Each hostel had a common room, library and dining room and 52 separate study bedrooms. They were grouped around a quadrangle which had a hockey field and tennis courts. The architect was Alan Keith Robinson. This was the first large commission for Robinson and his partner Thomas Aikman Swan, but would be his last. Both volunteered to fight in WW1 and Robinson refused a commission so that he could fight “in the line”. He was severely wounded and was invalided out of the army in 1917. He attempted to restart his practice and partnership but his wounds prevented him properly realising this and he died from them in May 1925.

Carlyle (l) and Darroch (r) Hostels

The first three hostels (Buchanan, Balfour and Playfair) were opened in June 1917 by Sir J. Alfred Ewing, Principal of the University at a cost of with £79,000; £44,000 from the Treasury and the bulk of the remainder from the Carnegie Trust. The running costs were to be met entirely by fees, in 1917 this was an annual £30 (about £2,600 in 2023).

The glory of the Scottish Universities is that they are open not simply to the rich but to those of very moderate means indeed. In Scotland we have always been proud of the fact that we have to cultivate the Muses on a little oatmeal, and even at the present price of oatmeal a Scottish University Education is cheap! There will, I feel sure, be a great satisfaction to all that a comparatively new side in university life will be developed in Scotland, namely the communal life; true education is not simply a matter of listening to lectures and studying books.

Opening speech by Sir Alfred Ewing

Two further hostels – Carlyle and Darroch – were added in 1928 to Robinson’s original designs by Frank Wood, at a cost of £60,000, adding 120 additional bedrooms.

So how did the hostels end up in the photo at the top of this page, fenced off behind barbed wire and with armed guards in watch towers? A brief notice in the Edinburgh Evening News of 30th October 1939 states that the hostels had been “taken over for national purposes.” But the “prisoners of war” in the picture are not servicemen, they are interned civilians. Most were sailors who had been caught in – or en route to – British ports, or in service on ships of Allied-aligned nations at the outbreak of war. Others were simply people of German birth who had been resident in Scotland but now found themselves to be undesirables; “enemy aliens“.

One of the latter category was Adolf Theurer, an hotel chef at the North British Hotel in Edinburgh who “hated the war, and hated the Nazis, but was a German.” Theurer, 61, had lived in Scotland for 44 years and had been at the NB for 37, but had never become naturalised – with war approaching he felt his poor health and good record as a citizen would stand in his favour. He had been interned during WW1 for 4 and a half years and had declared to his family that we would “rather be put against a wall and shot than be interned again“.

Adolf Theurer, picture in the Sunday Post

However, when he appeared at the “Aliens Tribunal” on October 12th 1939 they found against him and interned him at East Suffolk Road. Those subject to appearance at the tribunal were allowed no legal representation, but Theurer’s manager at the hotel had attended and spoke in his favour. He never saw his family again, and died 5 days later, “broken hearted”, from a heart attack. His family, at 16 Claremont Crescent, were only informed after his death and had not been allowed the opportunity to visit him during his final illness.

Theurer's "Male Enemy Alien" index card, with the word "Dead" coldly printed in block capitals. © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives
Theurer’s “Male Enemy Alien” index card, with the word “Dead” coldly printed in block capitals. © Crown Copyright Images reproduced by courtesy of The National Archives

Theurer had been an active member of the German Congregation of Edinburgh, which had been forced to disband during WW1, and had assisted in the sale of its chapel to the Brethren after the war, an order in which he was also active. His wife – Johanna Becker – was also German (although her mother was Aberdonian and she was born in London) and they had three children in Edinburgh; Adolf, Christina and William. His family were not allowed to take possession of his body, instead it was kept in the police mortuary. He was tragically unlucky; at this early stage of the war, relatively few Germans had been incarcerated. In May 1940 the Minister of Home Security, Sir John Anderson, informed the House of Commons that of 73,535 “aliens” in the country, only 569 – less than 1% – had been interned. There was an outcry of public sympathy for him and his funeral at Piershill Cemetery was well attended. John Mcgovern, the Independent Labour Party MP for Glasgow Shettleston raised a question in the House of Commons about the circumstances surrounding his death. Anderson replied that a “report would be prepared“.

This was not even the end of the Theurers’ travails however; on Friday 10th May 1940, two detectives knocked on the door of the Theurer house in Edinburgh while the family were eating a meal and requested that Johanna Theurer pack a case and follow them. Despite her protest, she was taken to Saughton Prison and sent into internment too. Her younger son, William, was a promising footballer who played with Blackpool and in Edinburgh, St. Bernards and later Hibs. He was a British citizen and was exempted from war service as a conscientious objector, telling his tribunal “I am not a member of any church, but my father was a member of the Plymouth Brethren. The horrors of war have been brought to my own door by his death“. He accompanied his mother to the prison gates.

William Theurer
William Theurer

An observation about the photo was made (by Adam Brown of the Scottish Military Research Group) that some of the men were dressed rather like sailors; zooming in we can definitely see men dressed in what look like peaked caps, sweaters and trousers tucked into sea boots! Contemporary newspaper reports confirm that all inmates were required to sew a circle of contrasting coloured cloth on to their outer garments and that most of the 100 kept at East Suffolk Road at this point were merchant seamen – unsurprising given the trade between the Port of Leith and the Baltic.

Prisoners at East Suffolk Road, November 1939
Prisoners at East Suffolk Road, November 1939

On November 18th, three men escaped from the camp, described as “a bow-legged boy of 15 and two others aged 17” The 15-year old was Rudi Platta and the other two were Walther Bartels and Gunther Berger. They were merchant seaman and had managed to steal khaki uniforms – including caps and boots – from off-duty guards while they slept, climb through a window, climb the barbed wire fence and a 10 foot high wall to escape under cover of darkness. Without money, with no English spoken amongst the three and with no real idea where they were going, their chances were not high. They were found 10 hours later walking along the road to Peebles some 20 miles away after a motorist who had passed them heard of their escape on returning home.

Further embarrassment was caused to the authorities (and further sensation was reported in the papers) just 3 days later when two men escaped on the night of 21st November. The pair – George Sluzalek (24) and Franz Feltens (22) were in their civilian attire and again had no money or food, little English, and no plan of where they were going. They became lost, thinking they were heading for the sea but actually they were moving inland. They resorted to eating turnips from a field that had been left out for wintering sheep and were later found nearby, cold and wet, hiding in a yew tree near Dalkeith by an alert gamekeeper.

A detective returns Fischer (in his sailor's pea coat) and Waderphul to Police Headquarters in Edinburgh. Photograph from the Courier and Advertiser, November 22nd 1939
A detective returns Sluzalek and Feltens (one in his sailor’s pea coat) to Police Headquarters in Edinburgh. Photograph from the Courier and Advertiser, November 22nd 1939

A second pair of men – Eber Hord Rolf Fischer, aged 23, and Max Waderphul, aged 38 – also escaped that night, parting company with Sluzalek and Feltens after their breakout. Again they had little idea where they were and had no resources with them, but managed to make an impressive distance on foot. Around 430PM the following day they knocked on a cottage door to the south of Edinburgh to beg for tea in broken English. Although they aroused the suspicion of the householder, she showed them kindness and welcomed them in to her house and made them a small meal of bread and butter, cheese and cold mutton, telling reporters “I never saw anyone so grateful in my life“. They left after 15 minutes and she phoned the police; the men had disappeared by the time they arrived. They were on the run for 36 hours and a man hunt of hundreds of police and soldiers combed the Lothians looking for them. They were recaptured cold, wet, hungry and exhausted by the search parties near Heriot, some 22 miles south of Edinburgh and seemed glad to have been found.

Remarkably, a further three men almost escaped on the 21st but were spotted by a sentry who fired his rifle in their direction, raising the alarm. They were quickly captured by the camp defence unit. Some of the escapees were allowed to answer questions by press. when asked if they “had anything to complain about of the treatment they were receiving at the camp, one of them said emphatically, ‘No‘”. All of the men were reluctant to be drawn into answering questions about the quality and availability of food in Germany vs. Britain.

The Corporation of Edinburgh was deeply unhappy about the location and security of the camp, and at a meeting on the 23rd November it was resolved to make a formal request to relocate it out of the city boundary; Lord Provost Steele was able to tell the assembled councillors that he had already been given notification of the intention to move it. On Monday 4th November, the Aberdeen Evening Express announced that a “motley company” of almost 200 German men had left Edinburgh at Waverley station from “an internment camp on the south of the city – the camp which has been so much in the news recently because of escape bids.” The prisoners were reported to be in good spirits and waved and smiled to morning commuters. Some conversation was made between men who could speak English and railway employees, and cigarettes were shared with the captives.On Tuesday 5th, the Daily Record reported that in total 300 German internment prisoners had left Scotland for England “for the duration of the war”.

On 28th December, the Edinburgh Evening News reported that the camp would now be formally closed, with transit accommodation for processing prisoners “for no more than 48 hours” having been arranged at an unspecified hospital. The East Suffolk Road Hostels were turned over to the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) officer cadets; the women’s branch of the British Army.

ATS Officer Cadets at East Suffolk Road Hostels, 1941. © IWM H 11075

The requisition had caused something of a crisis for University Accommodation, which also saw 200 cadets billeted in its other accommodation. As a result most students who kept up their studies in wartime had to stay “in digs”, with the Scotsman reporting they were now sharing 3 and 4 to a single bedroom. The hostels were quickly returned to civilian use post-war, with adverts being taken out in the local newspapers for new wardens in August 1945. Later, they became the Newington Campus of Moray House Teacher Training College, closing in 1997 when this institution merged with the University of Edinburgh. They have since been converted into private housing.

If you have found this useful, informative or amusing and would like to help contribute towards the running costs of this site (including keeping it ad-free) or to the book-buying budget, why not consider supporting me on ko-fi.

These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s