Monday, 3 October 2016

Victorian London had Germans up the wazoo - good 'uns and bad 'uns: doctors, sugar bakers, pimps and murderers

Walter Pater
The magnificently moustachioed chap on the right is Walter Pater, who was (among other things), a Victorian essayist, novelist, art critic and Oxford don. I recently read his most famous work, The Renaissance: Studies in Art and Poetry, published in 1873, and I can understand why its determined Godlessness and the whiff of amorality and hedonism upset conservatives at the time (one critic dismissed Pater's philosophy as "rococo epicurianism", and George Eliot described his work as "poisonous"), and why his attitude to art and life made him a friend of - and a huge influence on - the Aesthetic/Decadent/Art for Art's Sake movement(s) in late Victorian Britain. The confirmed bachelor who talked of success in life as requiring that one "burn always with this hard, gem-like flame", and who believed that "all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music" was particularly close to Oscar Wilde and Arthur Symons. Anyway, that's all irrelevant: my purpose in mentioning Pater is that, looking into his background (i.e. looking him up on Wikipedia) I discovered that his father was a German physician who tended the East End poor - Pater's early years were spent in Stepney. Well, so what?

Pater's father died when Walter was an infant, so the German influence on him probably wasn't marked. His racial origins piques my interest because I'd just finished Jan Bondeson's Rivals of the Ripper: Unsolved Murders of Women in Late Victorian London. No, I'm not going to finger Pater or his father as a murderer - it's just that Bondeson's survey of 14 unsolved murders of females in and around London between 1861 and 1897 reveals that the city and the surrounding countryside was awash with German immigrants. I didn't keep an exact count, but they're mentioned as suspects in about half of the cases in the book. At the end of the chapter on the Kingswood Rectory Murder of 1861, in which the wife of the parish clerk was battered to death by burglars, Bondeson (whose lip-smackingly ghoulish tone recalls the television performances of Edgar Lustgarden - at one point he actually uses the phrase "sanguinary exploits") reaches the following conclusion:
The truth of the Kingswood Murder is lost in a ghostly Hinterland of German vagabonds infesting the London streets. These half-starved, monoglot wretches dreamed of a future in the faraway United States but lacked the money to afford a passage to the transatlantic paradise. What such desperate Untermenschen were capable of when tormented by hunger, frustration and the realisation of a wasted life was something that the blameless murder victim Martha Halliday would find out to her detriment.
In the Great Coram Street murder of 1872, in which the body of a prostitute was discovered in her room on Christmas Day,  the main suspect was a surly man who'd visited a local shop with the prostitute at one am on Christmas morning (now, that's what I call late-night opening), and who, according to the shopkeeper, spoke with "a guttural German accent; the greengrocer did not know German himself, but he had several German customers." At one stage, the police wrongly charged Dr George Hessel, a German ship's chaplain bound for Brazil on missionary work: the Daily Telegraph raised £1200 to help pay his legal expenses. (Although he wasn't the murderer, it later emerged that the pious Dr Hessel was a distinctly dodgy character.)

During the whole of the Victorian and Edwardian period, roughly half of all German immigrants in the UK were to be found in London, where the number in 1861 - some 16,000 - rose to over 27,000 by 1911: chickenfeed by today's standards, but Germans represented the largest immigrant group in the capital for much of that time. Why did so many of them emigrate to England? Given that a total of five million Germans emigrated during the 19th Century, a relative handful chose England as their preferred destination - as Bondeson points out, some of those who landed here intending to cross the Atlantic  ran out of money and found themselves stranded, but some undoubtedly just liked the look of the place and decided to stay. Overpopulation seems to have been the main underlying factor: the German population doubled in 100 years. The use of land was uneconomic: thanks to the inheritance laws, South Germany became a patchwork of tiny, inefficient smallholdings. Britain's industrial revolution destroyed many cottage industry textile jobs in Germany. There was a mid-century agricultural crisis across Europe. Britain's economy was more successful than Germany's - and Britain had an empire to help absorb its own excess population, so there were gaps to plug in the labour market.

Most of the Germans who ended up here worked as sugar bakers, butchers, waiters, musicians, sailors and clerks - but there were a significant number of businessmen, bankers, doctors and academics in the mix. Inevitably, there were many political refugees, as Panikos Panayi discusses in "The Settlement of Germans in Britain During the Nineteenth Century":
The underlying push factor was the autocratic system of [German] government. However, German refugees only entered Britain after periods of repression within their own country, and, in some cases, the countries to which they had originally fled. Three main waves of refugees entered Britain. These occurred: firstly, in the 1830s, following the repression of progressive movements, including Young Germany; secondly, in the years immediately following the failure of the 1848 revolu­tions; and, thirdly, as a result of the passage of the Anti-Socialist Laws of 1878.
Britain’s most deep-seated political attractions lay in its liberal system of Government, especially as perceived by Germans, who were attracted by the vaunted freedoms enjoyed by Britons and denied to Germans in their own country. More importantly is Britain’s policy of asylum for much of the nineteenth century, which meant that it accepted anyone, including autocrats, liberals and socialists. This asylum policy concretely manifested itself in the fact that from 1826 until 1848, and again from 1850 to 1905, there was nothing on the statute book to enable the executive to prevent aliens from coming and staying in Britain as they liked.
 It all sounds strangely familiar.

Inevitably, some of the new arrivals proved not to be agents of cultural enrichment. As well as the poor and the political refugees, there were a sizeable number of dyed-in-the-wool villains:
The second strand of the German underclass consisted of criminals. Leopold Katscher believed that 'an astonishing number of swindlers and impostors exist among the Germans of London', while a report on the German Catholics in London from the 1860s claimed that people who had committed crimes in Germany continued with the same activities once they had arrived in London. Lucio Sponza, meanwhile, has revealed that the main criminal activities of Germans in London consisted of larceny, receiving of stolen goods, housebreaking, forgery, and crimes against the person. Germans also became involved in prostitution either as pimps and brothel keepers or as prostitutes. Much information survives on the last of these. Women became involved in this trade either by answering bogus advertisements in German newspapers, which offered them respectable employment, or by being enticed upon their arrival in London, where the major area of their activities consisted of Leicester Square.
Again this all sounds remarkably familiar - only the nationalities have changed. But at least I now understand why so many Germans cropped up in 19th Century British criminal investigations.

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