As the centenary approaches of the outbreak of the First World War, Simon Buck of Eastside Community Heritage invites support for a local initiative in London’s East End to remember the treatment meted out to the tens of thousands of German nationals living in Britain at that time:

Stratford Camp- Mess Hall. Image copyright of the Imperial War Museum & Newham Archives
Stratford Camp Mess Hall. Image copyright of the Imperial War Museum & Newham Archives.

On Tuesday 15th December 1914 a small group of Germans were led to William Ritchie & Sons, an old jute factory on Carpenter’s Road in Stratford, one of their many new homes during the First World War.

Stratford Camp. Image copyright the Imperial War Museum & Newham Archives.
Stratford Camp. Image copyright of the Imperial War Museum & Newham Archives.

It is certainly not common knowledge that a hundred years ago there were over 50,000 Germans residing in the country. Many Germans settled down and started families in East London, forming a significant sector of the local community as the area’s bakers, butchers, hairdressers and jewellers. At the outbreak of the war this significant proportion of London’s diverse metropolis was to be irrevocably disturbed.

Image copyright the Imperial War Museum & Newham Archives
Image copyright of the Imperial War Museum & Newham Archives

‘Spy fever’ gripped the public’s imagination. Germans were suspected of leaking information to the enemy; paranoia fuelled by the sensationalist press. Across East London, and the country on the whole, German-owned shops, that had at one time been neighbours, were attacked by violent mobs. One Russian businessman offered a reward for the person to find those who circulated the libellous rumour that he was in fact a German.

Image copyright the Imperial War Museum & Newham Archives.
Image copyright of the Imperial War Museum & Newham Archives.

Public outrage at the supposed inhumanity of the Germans pressurised the government into adopting a heavier policy of internment. Many Germans surrendered themselves rather than face persecution from the local community. Others did so reluctantly on a police officer’s orders. Common was a tearful goodbye between young German men and their English wives and children in boroughs such as Newham and Hackney at this time. Some internees had lived in the county so long that they themselves had children serving on the frontline against the Germans.

Stratford Camp shower room. Image copright of the Imperial War Museum & Newham Archives.
Stratford Camp shower room. Image copyright of the Imperial War Museum & Newham Archives.

Stratford Camp, as it was then known, held one of the worst reputations amongst internees; labelled a ‘veritable hell’ by one. Men, women and children spat and shouted at prisoners on their way to the camp. Privacy was scarce in the old factory. Gambling, a piano and theatre stage amongst the only aids to compensate the endless boredom; all under the watchful eye of mounted machine-guns. One complaint, signed by over one-hundred and forty Austrian internees, was that the camp’s commandant had slapped a prisoner for not replying ‘sir’ to a question, despite the fact that the prisoner in question was suffering from consumption (T.B). It is nearly always described as a ghastly place.

Stratford Camp kitchen. Image copyright of the Imperial War Museum & Newham Archives.
Stratford Camp kitchen. Image copyright of the Imperial War Museum & Newham Archives.

Compared to some internment camps in the world, this may seem tame, even humane. On reflection, the human spirit managed to shines through in this otherwise bleak ‘prisoner camp society.’ Productions formed for the Kaiser’s birthday celebrated with a full programme of classical music, mouth organ solos and a one-man musical entitled ‘The Jolly Prisoners.’ The Quakers, acting as one of the few humanitarian groups in the camps, supported the wives and children of internees outside the camps, conducted camp inspections, sent Christmas cards to prisoners and brought news and parcels from relatives and sympathisers. As well as halting men of military age leaving the country to fight for the enemy, a perfectly practicable solution in a war, the government intended to protect these German civilians against persecution from the xenophobic general public. German soldiers meanwhile found respite from the horrors of the trenches.

Stratford Camp theatre. Image copyright of the Imperial War Museum & Newham Archives.
Stratford Camp theatre. Image copyright of the Imperial War Museum & Newham Archives.

Signs of the German community are still present to this day in Stratford. Though now named the King Edward VII, Stratford’s historic and still popular pub was once the King of Prussia, and is in fact still ‘The Prussian’ to its locals. It changed its name to distance itself from its German ancestry at the height of Germanophobia, as did our own royal family from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to the British-sounding Windsor.

Eastside Community Heritage, based in Ilford, will be running school workshops, oral histories of both German descendants and those with strong local memories, as well as a public exhibition of our findings in early August. Anyone interested in being involved in the project are more than welcome to join our motley crew of local historians.

On the centenary of the First World War, stories such as these must be told to remember the sheer totality of the war, even so far from the trenches. Here at Eastside Community Heritage, we intend to ensure the memories and lessons learnt from this history are passed on to those living two hundred years from the start of the war. I implore anyone who has memories of their own, or passed down from their families, of Germans in East London during the First World War to contact us to share their history with us before it is lost by the tides of time.

Eastside is in search of volunteers to aid their research as well as participants for their oral histories. Relatives of Germans who had lived in London during the war, or those with strong local ties to the East End, are welcome to come and share their stories by contacting Simon Buck, an oral historian working for Eastside, at Simon@ech.org.uk or 020 8553 3116/07969 483596.

Eastside’s blog: http://little-germany-stratford-1914.tumblr.com/

Eastside on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EastsideCH

8 Comments

  1. Anna Davin

    What wonderful images and narrative. I hope that many people see Eastside’s work here, elsewhere, and in the August exhibition, and that more contributions come in too. Especially important to challenge the dominant versions in the next four anniversary years.

  2. Roger Roberts

    Gerhard Kaemena. A distant cousin of mine was the son of a German internee who originated from Bremin Germany. His Dad was also called Gerhard. His Dad ran a Pub in the East End of London. Gerhard junior, was killed in 1917 aged 38 years fighting for the British. He served in the Royal Engineers as a Sapper.

  3. Pete kurton

    Excellent work. Brilliant & informative.

  4. David Housden

    Only just found this item. Hope it isn’t to late to add to it. In trying to trace my adoptive mother’s family, I stumbled across on Wilhelm Bruns. My Uncle Harry, Mum’s brother, married Wilhelm’s daughter, Bertha in 1915. On a family tree website, I found a copy of a Red Cross record of Wilhelm’s internment in the Stratford area. Google to the rescue and I found this site. Fantastic ! Is there any record of the names of those in the photograph ? Wilhelm’s family originated in Bremen. He was variously shown as a stoker ( marriage certificate of Burtha Taylor nee Bruns ) or a labourer (Census 1911 ) . I can add to the story of anti German feeling. My uncle was ostracised by his brothers and although we lived at 24 Essex Street, Forest Gate and Harry over the road at 47, my mother rarely spoke to him or Bertha.
    Another family, living at 51, was the Milhensteds. Their relatives ran the undertakers business in the next street. A mob stoned the business, breaking every window in the shop and living accommodation above.

  5. Susan Tebby

    My great grandfather, Otto Albert Eduard Schultz was born in Berlin 16th February 1845 (baptised in March 1845; I have the certificate). He came to England just after the 1861 census and is entered on the 1871 census as a bootmaker, living in Mile End Old Town. He married my great grandmother, Louisa Millwood – a widow with one son (I have the marriage and death certs of her first husband plus funeral card), whom Otto married in 1872. He brought the child up as his own. Otto set up his own business as a cordwainer in Old Ford Road in Bethnal Green. They had 8 children. Otto paid for all the children to attend school, including the 5 girls. All then had very respectable jobs, and lived at home until they married. Otto was hard working, an upright citizen but it did not occur to him to obtain British citizenship as he though of himself as British.

    At the age of 69 in 1914 the first world war broke out. Otto ceased working in Old Ford Road. Many shops were smashed there. In 1915 when he was 70 years old (far beyond the 18-55 age group claimed) he was interned as an enemy alien for the remainder of the war. He was released on or around Armistice day and died two weeks later, a shattered man, his respect for the British and British way of life gone for ever. He had thought Britain was wonderful until then and was so grateful for all that he had found and achieved here. I was told he did not, could not, speak of his ordeal at the hands of the British. He could not believe he had been imprisoned for more than three years at the age of 70-73. What threat was he, such an elderly man? Whether he was imprisoned in the notorious Stratford interment camp, or put to work as a bootmaker elsewhere for the war-effort and the need for many thousands of soldiers’ boots – because of his undoubted skills. We do not know because he would not talk about the situation. I was told by my mother when I found out about the family history in the early 1990s that my great grandmother also would not talk about it. One of their ‘children’ changed his surname so they would not be recognised as German. One of Otto’s brothers became a hairdresser and barber on a ship back and forth to Australia for at least the duration of the war (I found this information on a School’s admission certificate for one of his children). His family took the wife’s surname. Nobody spoke about the war and none of us knew we were descended from Prussian ancestors. The matter was never mentioned. My mother (1915-94) would not discuss the matter even though she had been close to her grandmother (1848-1932). Even my father did not know his wife’s grandfather was German until I told him in the late 1990s. All so very tragic. Not quite how the British seem to be portrayed in the archives…

  6. David Housden

    The secrecy within Susan Teby’s family was probably not unusual. I was adopted into the Housden family in 1945. My adoptive mother had four brothers. Whilst I have been unable to track down three of them, one, Henry, known as Harry Taylor made the mistake of marrying one Bertha Bruns, daughter of Wilhelm (Anglecised to William ) Bruns, a stoke whose family came from Bremen. Although he lived over the road from me in Forest Gate, West Ham, I never knew the family history. None of the immediate family spoke of it. It wasn’t until I attended the funeral of Harry’s daughter, Doris, this century, that I heard the story. My mother was the only member of the Taylor family who spoke to him. Even her father, who lived with my adoptive mother and father until his death in 1946, refused to acknowledge him.
    The local attitude to anything vaguely Germanic was clearly demonstrated by their treatment of our local undertaker. The Milhenstedt family still had two branches living down our road. The owners of the business lived and worked in a corner shop close by. Every window in their premises was smashed. Obviously the family were made of tough stuff because the business was still running in the late 1950s and early 60s
    William Bruns was actually interned in the Stratford camp but more than that I do not know. Sadly the one remaining daughter of Harry and Bertha has no clear memory of the family history. The three sons that they had died relatively young. One was shot down over Montecasino. He stayed at his tail machine gun, shooting at the fighters planes killing his fellow crew members on their parachutes. One died of pneumonia after he absconded from a mental hospital in nothing more than his pyjamas. That was in the fearsome winter in the early 1960s. His mind had been badly affected by his experiences as young Naval nurse taken to help in one of the death camps. The third died in the late 1950s from health problems following severe shell shock some time during or just after D Day.
    So, like so many families, ours was sorely tried by the effects of both wars.

    • Roger Roberts

      The Germans living in the East End of London prior to WW1 were themselves escaping from religious persecution in Prussia and Northern Germany. My Grt Grt Grt Grand Uncle came from Bremen and ran the Castle Pub in Commercial road, Whitchapel. His son Gerhard fought for the British and was killed in 1917. The number of Soldiers with German parents who fought for the British and were killed in WW1 has never been acknowledged nor respected. It is time to acknowledge those young men born of German parents who fought and died for our freedom here in Great Britain.

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