The German Community in London during the 19th century

Germans arriving by steamer at the London docks in the end of the 19th century. Some would have stayed in Britain while others made the onward journey to North America.

German sugar-refiners followed George I to England and brought with them the closely-guarded secrets of their methods. Their arrival coincided with a ready-supply of the raw material from the American and Caribbean colonies. There was then no word in English for a sugar-refiner so the German word of Zukerbäcker was anglicised to ‘sugar-baker’. By the mid-18th century there were about eighty German refineries in London. They were initially located in the City, close to the wharves where the bulky raw materials were landed. Prone to fires due to the furnaces used in the process, they were banned from the City in 1807 and gradually moved to East London. By that time the raw sugar was anyway being landed at the new West India Docks. The main centres of refining during the 19th century were along Leman Street, Alie Street, Wellclose Square and Cable Street.

Sugar-baking was the largest occupation for Germans of East London in the mid-19th century. The work was extremely hot and dangerous. Due to the heat, workers were provided with unlimited amounts of beer. Few of them survived into old-age and many were admitted to the German hospital with lungs encrusted with melted sugar. The local refining industry suffered from foreign competition at the end of the 19th century, leading to a rapid decline. More modern refineries were also opened by Abraham Lyle and Henry Tate further east at Silvertown, where raw materials could be unloaded directly from ships.

At the end of the 19th century the major occupation of Germans was as restaurant waiters, being about ten percent of all waiters and waitresses in London, as well as many hotel and restaurant managers. They would have arrived in England fully-trained due to the apprenticeship system in their homeland. Germans also made up a large percentage of butchers, bakers, confectioners, business clerks and tailors. Bread-making was then virtually monopolised in the East End by Germans.

Three German newspapers were established. These were London Zeitung from 1858, the twice-weekly Londoner General Anzeiger, and the financial journal Die Finanzchronik.

Musical entertainment provided by German bands was a popular feature on London’s streets and at events. One of the best-known musical-hall songs at the beginning of the 20th century was Down at the Old Bull and Bush. The song refers to the pub close to Hampstead Heath, where Londoner’s flocked during fine weather.

Come, come, come and make eyes at me
Down at the Old Bull and Bush,
Come, come, drink some port wine with me,
Down at the Old Bull and Bush,
Hear the little German Band,
Just let me hold your hand dear,
Do, do come and have a drink or two
Down at the Old Bull and Bush, Bush, Bush

From the beginning of the 20th century there was diplomatic rivalry between Britain and Germany. Rumours began to circulate that Germans in Britain were acting as spies. Germans were portrayed as such in popular novels, serialised in the Daily Mail. This led to the formation of a government committee and the creation of a secret service. The registration of aliens was introduced.

In August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany. Severe and increasing restrictions were introduced on Germans in this country. Politicians and the right-wing press, particularly those newspapers owned by Lord Northcliffe – the Daily Mail, The Times, and Evening News – called for the internment of Germans. Camps were opened on the Isle of Man, Alexandra Palace, Islington, and elsewhere. Most German and Austrian males of combat age were held in confinement for the duration of the war. Wives, many of whom were British citizens who had married German men, and their children, either moved to Germany or survived the best they could. (This internment led Germany to retaliate. Thousands of citizens of the British Empire thus spent the war confined in camps in Germany).

Encouraged by anti-German editorials in the press, riots took place in London and elsewhere, the worst that has ever occurred against foreign nationals. These took place in August and October 1914; in May 1915 after the sinking of the Cunard passenger liner Lusitania with the loss of over 1,000 lives; in June 1916 when Secretary for War Lord Kitchener was killed at sea by a German mine; and in June 1917 when a German air-raid killed fifty-seven in North London. In these riots, shops, businesses and homes owned by Germans and Jews were targeted by mobs, severely damaged, and looted. In 1917 the royal family were forced under public pressure to change their name from Saxe-Coburg to Windsor.

In December 1918, a month after the ending of the war, over 24,000 Germans remained in internment camps. Their deportation became a major issue in the General Election of that month and the new Parliament was dominated by anti-German MPs. Repatriation quickly began to take place and within a year the majority of Germans had left the country. The First World War therefore destroyed what had previously been the vibrant and extensive German community in London and elsewhere in Britain.

Sources include: Count E. Armfelt ‘German London’, Living London, ed. George R. Sims (1903); Panikos Panayi, ‘The Enemy In Our Midst’; Panikos Panayi, Docklands History Group conference, 2014; Jerome Farrell, ‘The German community in 19th century East London’, East London Record No.13, 1990; Elizabeth McKellar, ‘The German Hospital in Hackney’, The Hackney Society, 1991; Maureen Sprecht, ‘The German Hospital in London and the community it served, 1845-1948’, Anglo-German Family History Society; Bryan Mawer, ‘Sugarbakers – From Sweat to Sweetness’, Anglo-German Family History Society, Revised Edition 2011; Walter Besant’ East London’ (1903); Charles Booth, ‘The Inhabitants of Tower Hamlets (School Board Division), Their Condition and Occupations’, Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Vol. 50 (1887); ‘The Survey of London’; Mitteilungsblatt 127, Autumn 2020 and 128, Spring 2021, Anglo-German Family History Society.

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