Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Friday, February 23, 2018

To Be German in London in 1914

By Jerry White
Excerpted from London in the First World War

Outside Buckingham Palace, 11 P.M., 4 August 1914

Not all London men of military age were eligible to fight. A significant part of London’s population growth was made up by migration. London’s draw on young people of working age had never abated in the countries of Britain and the provinces of England. But for 30 years and more, London had attracted increasing numbers from Europe too. The largest of these minorities was made up of Russians and Russian Poles, mainly Jews, who clustered most of all in the East End of London. In 1911 they totalled some 68,000, not counting those born in Britain since their great emigration had begun thirty years before. The next largest migrant group by far was the German-born, over 30,000 in the County of London and 5,000 or more in the outer suburbs, two-thirds of them men; another 10,000 or so Austro-Hungarians, mostly Austrians, might be added to the German-speaking minority in London. They all far outnumbered the French, London’s oldest-established European minority, 14,000 of them in the County of London in 1911, and the Italians, around 12,000. All of these foreign-born communities had increased in number since 1901 and in all likelihood continued to do so in the few years immediately before 1914.

That year London was a more cosmopolitan city than for centuries past. The Germans, for instance, were long-established in both the East End and West End, with suburban communities at all points of the London compass. Charlotte Street, west of Tottenham Court Road, was the main West-End artery, known as “Charlottenstrasse” and famous for its restaurants and clubs. In the rest of London there were a dozen German churches, a Salvation Army German Corps, a German hospital, two German-language newspapers, a great German gymnasium at King’s Cross, and associations for every interest-group from amateur theatricals to chess-players, cyclists to military men. German merchants and traders, stockbrokers and bankers, had carved out an important niche in the City; the German governess had become a necessity in many upper-class homes; and the German waiter among proletarian migrants, and bakers and barbers among tradesmen, had become what seemed like irreplaceable fixtures in London’s economic life. With their high rates of intermarriage with English women and their readiness to stay in London rather than return “home", no foreign community was more integrated than the Germans. August 1914 would change all that.

The war began a process of eradication of German influence from London life, an influence honourably exerted over many generations that had given much to metropolitan culture. Everywhere German-born Londoners were thrown out of work, from lowly German waiters to Theodore Kroell, popular manager of the Ritz in Piccadilly since 1909, to Prince Louis of Battenberg, First Sea Lord, forced out of the Admiralty by the press, jealous enemies and “a stream of letters, signed and anonymous”, calling for his dismissal. German surnames became anglicised or abandoned: the orchestral conductor Basil Cameron changed his name from Hindenburg, the Merton-born writer Ford Hermann Hueffer became Ford Madox Ford, and the House of Commons was assured there were no clerks employed in the Treasury of German or Austrian nationality: “One British-born clerk, who had a name of Teutonic origin, has changed it since the outbreak of War.”  

There were adjustments everywhere. In the Reform Club, as in the rest of clubland, notices were posted asking members not to bring alien enemies as guests. In Sainsbury’s, “German sausage”, a big favourite with the Londoners prewar, was quickly renamed “Luncheon sausage”. In Bermondsey, where “We were not without a large share of aliens in our midst”, shop fascias were transformed from “Schnitzler, et cetera” to “The Albion Saloon”, or “The British Barbers of Bermondsey”. The study of German was abandoned at Toynbee Hall, the university settlement in Whitechapel. Pubs changed their names, so that the King of Prussia, formerly popular in London, now became a rarity (one in Tooley Street became the King of Belgium); and local residents across the metropolis campaigned for the Teutonic taint to be removed from their street names often, after much delay, with success—Stoke Newington’s Wiesbaden Road becoming Belgrade Road, for instance.

All this was productive of much misery. Among the large number of prosecutions of Germans for failing to register was a trickle of press reports from September 1914 of the suicide of Londoners who overnight had become enemy aliens: Joseph Pottsmeyer, 52, a gramophone packer from Hoxton, sacked from his job and unable to get another, found hanged in his room alongside a note expressing admiration for England; John Pfeiffer, assistant manager at the Holborn Viaduct Hotel, who shot himself in the eye and then, with extraordinary determination, the temple; and four weeks later an Austrian couple, recently married and only in their twenties, who took poison “it is believed…from fear of internment and separation.” There would be many others.

In addition, sporadic violence against German shopkeepers in the poorer trading streets of London began immediately after the declaration of war. Before 1914 was out, it turned much worse. That October saw the first serious outbreak of collective violence by the Londoners, beginning at Deptford and widely copied in other parts of south London for a few nights after. The crowds of 5,000 or so were so fierce and persistent that the police had to call out the military for assistance—butchers’ and bakers’ shops were wrecked and looted, shopkeepers and their families fleeing to friendly English neighbours for protection. These alarming riots had been triggered locally by the arrival in south London of Belgian refugees fleeing from the fall of Antwerp and arriving in London with little more than the clothes they stood up in.

Anti-German Riot in London After the Lusitania Sinking

Worse was to come. On the afternoon of Friday 7 May 1915 the great Cunard liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed off Queenstown, Ireland, with the loss of 1,198 lives, including many women and children and 124 U.S. citizens. The sinking shocked and horrified the world. The news reached London with the evening papers. It was received as a culmination of atrocities, the horrors of the German invasion of Belgium widely aired in the British press. Over the weekend of 8 and 9 May serious anti-German rioting broke out in Liverpool, the Lusitania’s home port. Then, beginning in Canning Town, West Ham, and other parts of east London on 11 May, and building to a London-wide conflagration on Wednesday the 12th, a frenzy of violence fell upon Germans in London. Over the next six days, every Metropolitan Police division from Harrow to Croydon and Hayes to Romford experienced violent disturbances. At least 257 people were injured, including 107 police officers, regular and special, beaten for standing between the Germans and the crowd. There were 866 arrests. By great good fortune no one was killed. Shops thought to be run by Germans or Austrians had windows smashed and doors broken down. Interiors—staircases, cupboards, ceilings—were "hacked to pieces." Provisions and property were carted away by the barrowful. The looting and violence extended to homes as well as shops.

This would prove the worst outbreak of violence against the Germans in London, though sporadic outbreaks followed many air raids later in the war. But official action against them through the internment of men, including men well beyond fighting age, and the repatriation to Holland of thousands of German men, women, and children continued throughout the war. The results were plainly apparent. In 1911 the census had recorded 31,254 German-born residents of the County of London, excluding all or most of the outer suburbs; in 1921 the number had fallen to 9,083. The comparable figures for Austrians were 8,869 and 1,552.


  1. Another example of name changing is the German Shepherd dog, which were known as Alsatians from WW1 to well after WW2.

  2. This is why, some years after WWII, a Nisei friend, a veteran of the U.S. Army's 442nd Infantry Regiment,(noted for their valorous service in Italy and France)told me how welcomed by those ethnically Japanese G.I's,was the knowledge that their families,who had been living on the U.S. West Coast, were lodged safely in Internment facilities.

    Even then,a mob of civilians in 1945, at Santa Fe, New Mexico, armed themselves and threatened to break into the local internment camp and wreak vengeance upon the inhabitants. The malice was based on the newly known information that the New Mexico National Guard unit captured in the Phillipines, in 1942, had been treated horribly while in Japanese captivity. It later was established that 1000 of the 1800 members of the unit had died while POW's. The mob was persuaded by the camp commandant that retribution in Japan against the remaining POW's would be a result of any attack against the Santa Fe facility. In retrospect, it is hardly possible the Allied POWs could have been shown less mercy, under any conditions.

  3. Thank for your very good article! i always enjoy & read the post you are sharing!