The archive comprises papers relating to the affiliation of the Ruhleben Horticultural Society with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) including correspondence, annual reports, testimonial of appreciation, and 115 (including duplicated images) photographic postcards and photographs of Ruhleben Horticultural Society activities. A camp magazine was donated to the RHS in 2014.
Records of Ruhleben Horticultural Society at Ruhleben Civilian Internment Camp, Berlin, Germany
Scope and Content
Administrative / Biographical History
The Ruhleben Internment Camp was established in Nov 1914 on the site of a racetrack near Berlin, Germany. Following the outbreak of the First World War, all male British citizens between the ages of 17 and 65 living, working or holidaying in Germany were apprehended and about 4000 of them were brought to Ruhleben. At its peak there were 5,500 men in the camp, and about 2,000 men spent the entire four years of the war there. Camp internees were permitted to administer their own affairs and many sporting and interest societies were formed.
In the beginning horticulture at the camp was limited to a few enthusiasts, but interest grew and in 1916 a gift of seeds from the Crown Princess of Sweden prompted the formation of a horticultural society. The first meeting was held on 25 Sep 1916, at which L.P. Warner was elected president and chairman, L.P. Roberts vice chair, and a committee of ten was appointed to take charge of the affairs of the society. The committee drew up a constitution which was adopted at a meeting on 13 Nov 1916. 50 members attended the inaugural meeting, and by the end of 1916 there were 454 members on the society’s books, and 943 in Sep 1917. The aim of the society was to further the knowledge of horticulture and permit study of the subject by practical work in the gardens. Membership was open to all with a DM 1 [DM, Deutsche Mark] subscription payable. Members could attend lectures (held fortnightly during the winter months) and have access to horticultural reading matter. On 12 Dec 1916 the society became affiliated with the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).
600 square yards of land were procured behind barrack 10 and the wash house for use as a nursery. Frames were made in the camp joinery shop using packing cases and glazing was carried out by members of the society, and the first frames were used to bring on bulbs sent from England (gifts from the RHS and a number of firms and individuals) which were sold to raise funds. In the first nine months of 1917, 20,000 seedling annuals were raised in the nursery for use as bedding plants in the various gardens around the camp. The financial report reveals the expenses of the nursery and flower department were defrayed out of subscriptions, donations and sale of cut flowers and plants.
In Jan 1917 permission was obtained to rent part of the land inside the race course to use as a vegetable garden. Initial expenses of the vegetable garden were met by a grant of DM 3517.85 from the Captains’ Committee (a captain was appointed in each barrack), to cover the purchase of necessities such as tools and manure until the crops could be gathered. The sum was repaid within the year. Around 23,000 vegetable seedlings were raised in the nursery for the market garden in 1917, and when the early seedlings were planted out, the frames were used to grow melons and cucumbers. In spring 1917 a greenhouse was constructed and used for tomatoes. In the particularly harsh winter of 1916-1917 work was done out of doors, but in Sep 1917 permission was obtained to construct a potting shed. Labour in the vegetable garden was provided by 18 members of staff paid by the society and 10 volunteers. Produce was sold to the camp canteen and the financial report records handsome profits.
Problems encountered included harsh winter weather and hot, dry spells, delay in delivery of watering cans, sand storms that wiped out rows of seedlings, poor soil and difficulties procuring manure, as well as insect pests including cabbage white caterpillars, cabbage aphis, cabbage moth, diamond-backed moth and turnip flea beetle.
The society organised two flower shows in its first year, which proved popular in the camp. The first, held on 7 Apr 1917 in the YMCA hall, was of bulbs grown by the society, and the committee reported that ‘the flowers were eagerly sought after by the public’. The show held on 3-4 Aug 1917 included competitive exhibits by individuals (102 entries in 11 classes) and an exhibition of flowers and pot plants from the nursery and of vegetables from the market garden. 1400 plants were staged at the summer show, and the sweet pea section was a special feature. The show was well attended and members of the Netherlands Legation visited. The subsequent sale of plants raised DM 487.55, and expenses of the show amounted to DM 129.85.
The committee met 23 times during the first year and attendances are recorded in appendix 6 of the annual report. On 12 Jan 1917 the society was granted the status of a sub-committee of the Captain’s Committee. A subcommittee of the Ruhleben Horticultural Society managed the nursery and vegetable gardens, and another arranged the two shows. The committee was convinced the formation of the Ruhleben Horticultural Society was one of the most successful ventures in the camp in 1916-1917: ‘In the early days of the camp the pioneers of gardening were met with compassion and derision; but thanks to the society’s efforts the public is now convinced that it is worthwhile to spend money and trouble in order to relieve, even in a small measure, the drab and dismal surroundings of a concentration camp.’
The committee’s report of Apr 1918 records that in the society’s second year the greenhouse had been extended, a pit house constructed and heating introduced thanks to the purchase of a second-hand boiler in Berlin which was installed by members of the society. This enabled the camp to enjoy cut flowers ‘through the dismal months of winter’. A spring flower show was held on Easter Saturday, with 600 pots staged. 2000 pots and many cut flowers were sold, the profits from which amply covered the cost of the heating installation. Gifts of bulbs and seeds continued to be received at the camp, and in addition bulbs were purchased from a company in Haarlem.
The committee reported there were 83 varieties of sweet peas in the nursery, including 14 ‘novelties’. They expected 15,000 bedding plants to be ready for planting out in May 1918. They had encountered difficulty buying flower pots locally, and the problem was overcome with the help of the Prisoners’ Aid Committee in Berlin which broadcast an appeal and received donations of 1600 pots for the society. Bulbs were flowering around the camp which, according to the report, had been ‘widely admired’ and ‘the early yellow crocuses and the scarlet Duc van Thols have been particularly beautiful’. ‘There is every prospect of many new spots of colour amid the wilderness of ashes and sand. The rock garden by the general wash house deserves particular mention for having redeemed one of the most melancholy views in camp.’
The 1918 report states that in Apr 1918 8000 lettuce seedlings had been raised in the nursery, of which 4000 were already planted out. Accommodation had been provided on the field for 2000 tomato plants, 250 marrows, and 16,000 leeks.
The report concludes that ‘though the novelty of the enterprise has by now worn off, interest in the society’s work still continues to grow.’
The internees were released in Nov 1918.
Sources: Ruhleben Horticultural Society reports (reference RHS/Ruh/1/07,08); ‘British civilian internees in Germany: the Ruhleben camp 1914-18’, by Matthew Stibbe (2008).
This archive has been temporarily catalogued as though it is a collected archive, in order to provide early access to it; in time it will be catalogued as part of the official archive of the RHS and reference numbers will be changed accordingly. Loose photographs were found in no particular order and arranged according to the photographer’s running numbers (which appear to be chronological) inscribed on the negatives and printed on most photographs. Photographs with no number were inserted in the arrangement according to their date.
RHS/Ruh/1/01-08 Annual reports, correspondence and papers, including plans and membership card, 1916-1918
RHS/Ruh/2/1/001-110 Photographs, 1917-1918
RHS/Ruh/2/2/01-12 Photograph album, 1917
RHS/Ruh/3/01 Testimonial of appreciation, Jun 1918
RHS/Ruh/4/01 Leather pouch, c.
RHS/Ruh/5/01 1918The Ruhleben Camp Magazine, Dec 1916
Conditions Governing Access
Open for consultation. It is essential to check opening hours and make an appointment. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org
The majority of material in this archive was sent by the Ruhleben Horticultural Society to the Royal Horticultural Society during the period of affiliation. The 'Ruhleben Camp Magazine' was donated by David Freemantle in March 2014.
Other Finding Aids
The Lindley Library descriptive catalogue, available on-line via the Archives Hub, and as a paper copy in the Research Room. An electronic copy can be emailed on request by contacting email@example.com
Catalogued by Liz Taylor, RHS Lindley Libraries archivist, in April 2014. Photographic postcards and photographs were catalogued with the assistance of Jennian Geddes, and packaging of the archive was carried out by Annie Johns, both RHS Lindley Libraries volunteers.
Conditions Governing Use
Please contact the Lindley Library for conditions governing reproduction.
Articles based on this archive were published in the ‘Journal of the RHS’, volume 113 part 11, Nov 1988, and in ‘The Daily Telegraph’ Gardening supplement, 1 Feb 2014.