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:
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.
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.
‘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.
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, 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.
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.
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/
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