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Sam Plank update 36: July 2021

Don't mention the war: the German community in London in the early 1800s

One of the hardest things about writing the Sam Plank books – and one of the reasons I am already planning a new series, and even thinking about what I could do after that – is that there is so much that is fascinating about history.  That sounds trite, I know, but what I mean is that even if you confine yourself, as I do, to only one decade and only one city, there is more history than I can possibly read.  One of the joys of indie publishing, of course, is that I can write what I like – I don’t have to satisfy a publisher’s view of the market – and so when a particularly enticing rabbit-hole of research presents itself, off I go!  And this month, on the slimmest, nay, flimsiest of pretexts, I have been looking into the German community in London in the early nineteenth century.

London has been a magnet for wave after wave of immigrants – historically because it was more religiously and socially tolerant than many other places, and recently for more purely economic purposes.  When the Elector of Hanover arrived in London in 1714 to be installed as King George I of Great Britain and Ireland, he brought with him German bureaucrats, bankers, merchants, scholars, artists and doctors – so the London German community of the eighteenth century was highly educated and well-connected.  By contrast, the majority of Germans who arrived in the nineteenth century were economic migrants, usually from an agricultural background, who were leaving their homeland due to poverty.  There were also some wealthy families who arrived – including those who founded the Schröders and Kleinwort banks – as well as political refugees attracted by the liberality and free speech tolerated in England (such as Karl Marx, who arrived in London in 1849).  In the nineteenth century, it’s estimated that six-sevenths of foreigners in London were German.
As might be expected, they settled in different parts of the metropolis.  Business families and professionals headed for Fitzrovia, or bided their time in Kentish Town, Camden and Islington while they saved their pfennigs.  Poorer Germans remained in East London, close to the docks where they had originally disembarked.  Whitechapel, St. George-in-the-East, and Mile End Old Town were the main districts where they settled, and this area became known as “Little Germany”.  Here they mixed with Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, and German and Jewish names appeared over the doors of shops and businesses of all kinds.  Thousands of German working men and women crowded into tenements (and it won’t surprise you to hear that this is where we will find Sam in “Plank 7”).  Poor workers unable to rent their own accommodation could take a bed in a Handwerker Heim (or “craftsman home” – a hostel offering meals, lectures and religious teaching, books and periodicals).
Yes, the German community was heavily religious – mostly Lutheran.  There were three German churches within a few hundred yards of each other in Little Germany: St Georgeskirche opened in 1763 in Little Alie Street, off Leman Street, and remains on the same site today; St Paul’s Evangelical Reformed Church was founded in the City during the late seventeenth century before moving to Whitechapel; and St Bonifatius Roman Catholic church was likewise founded in the City before moving to Whitechapel.  The latter two were destroyed by German bombing during the Second World War, although St Bonifatius was rebuilt and reopened in 1960 (and is now called St Boniface).
So why my interest in immigrant Germans?  Well, if I tell you that they had a reputation for fine drawing skills, and were renowned for their ability to make perfect counterfeits, might that be a clue?
A drawing of Pelham Street, a typical street in Little Germany (from a book called "London", published in 1842 by Charles Knight & Co.)
St George’s German Lutheran Church and associated buildings in Little Alie Street, from an illustration by Dolfer in 1821
St George's German Lutheran Church today - the tower has gone and the clock is now a cross, but otherwise, it's much the same
The new St Boniface church, designed by Donald Plaskett Marshall.  The landmark south-west tower rises 130 feet and is clad with concrete slabs faced with grey-scale patterning in ceramic mosaics.  At its top an open belfry houses the bells made in the Whitechapel Foundry and salvaged from the original church.  When it came to funding, the tower was chosen in preference to central heating, toilets and a vestry room.
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