Anti German Attacks in Deptford in World War 1

There were around 53,000 German’s living in Britain at the outbreak of WW1, while many of those in London attempted to return to Germany in the first few days of the war, routes out soon dried up.

Many with English wives, husbands, families or businesses stayed in England. The Alien Restrictions Act was hastily passed through Parliament on 5 August and required all Germans, Austrians and Hungarians to register with the police – it is estimated that over 40,000 Londoners had to register (Jerry White ‘Zeppelin Nights’ p70).

There had been some limited violence and protests against Germans from the outbreak of the war, including a 5,000 strong demonstration outside a butchers on the Old Kent Road.

However, it was in Deptford where attacks became much more widespread and violent; several German businesses were attacked from Saturday 17 October to Monday 20 October 1914 – this included bakers, butchers, a confectioner and an Austrian owned pub. In total, around 5-6,000 men, women and children were involved.

The initial attacks started after pub closing time on 17 October, and it was a butcher’s that initially had its windows smashed combined with shouts of ‘Down with the Germans, We Want no Germans here!’. A pub, the Prince Regent at 82 Deptford High Street, now a Barclays (below, left), and dozen shops with foreign, not necessarily German, names were smashed and often looted with bread, meat and many personal possession looted. Many of the victims were naturalised, second generation immigrants who had become British Nationals.

The Mirror, quoted in Bulman, Hegarty and Hill, suggested that the first shop to be attacked was a butchers called Peseti – the name may be incorrect as there appears to have been no butcher of that name on the High Street, although there was one called Pfisterer (at 209 – above right). This was followed by two more butchers Arold (at 79 – below, right) and Riegler (at 55 – below, left) – whose family lived above the shop and had to take refuge with neighbours during the attacks (see comment from Hilary Baker below).

One of the shops on Deptford High Street that was attacked was a bakers run by J Goebel was invaded by around fifty rioters, and the family home above the shop was vandalised. They tried to throw a piano out of the window, although this backfired as it blocked their escape leading to eighteen rioters being arrested.

It took the police nearly three hours to bring things under control but it required help from soldiers from the Royal Army Medical Corps who were billeted in Deptford, and it was not until 3:00 am until everyone was cleared from the scene. There were 21 arrests, three of which were women.

Violence started again on the Sunday with a corn dealers being set on fire.

The immediate trigger in Deptford seems to be the arrival of 800 Belgian refugees from the front – who were housed at Carrington House – one newspaper report (picked up in New Zealand) described the Belgians as having been ‘dumped’ and with British casualties already occurring it was enough to light a powder keg. Another report suggests that around a hundred of the previous residents of Carrington House had been evicted to make way for the Belgian refugees, and those evicted had made their way to the Prince Regent, whose German landlord had apparently started a rumour that two British battleships had been sunk. as well as news from the front of the fall of Antwerp.

While the violence was the first major outbreak of this nature in London, over the previous days there had been attacks in Aberystwyth, Saffron Walden, Keighley and Peterborough.

There were also attacks at Lee Green and in Catford on 17 and 18 October – in total around 60 arrests were made following the attacks in South London.

These were dark days for the German population of South London and reflect badly on Deptford with local people turning on their neighbours.

The immediate aftermath of the events in Deptford was a decision by the Home Office to resume internment of Germans and Austrians, although with the influx of Belgians at the same time space quickly ran out. There was a reciprocal arrangement with the German government for the repatriation of women, children, men not of military age along with doctors and priests – around 8-9,000 were repatriated through these means.

More general internment of Germans began in May 1915 following the sinking of the Lusitania. One of the main camps used in London was Alexandra Palace. Frederick Riegler, the butcher from 55 Deptford High Street was one of those interned, he ended up at Knockaloe on the Isle of Man until his release in 1919, with the rest of his family deported, it is hard to imagine what threat to national security that he or any of his family posed (See comment from Hilary Baker below.)

The war resulted in a dramatic reduction in the numbers of Germans in London, in the old London County Council area there were 31,254 Germans and 8,869 Austrians in 1911, by 1921 the numbers had fallen to 9,083 and 1,552 respectively (Jerry White ‘Zeppelin Nights’ p92). As for the German businesses most seem to have been taken over by English owners; Goebbels the bakers at 111 Deptford High Street where there was an attempt to throw a piano out of it, was taken over by a small chain of bakers, H Johnson and Son. Not all the Germanic traders left the area though, the landlord of the Prince Regent, Abraham Mandel, continued there until at least 1921.

As for the 250,000 Belgians whose arrival as refugees seemed to have triggered the events in Deptford, most returned home after the war, encouraged by the British Government. There is an interesting article on the BBC website about the lack of long term impact of their stay despite them being one of the largest ever influxes of refugees.


16 thoughts on “Anti German Attacks in Deptford in World War 1

  1. Steve

    Fascinating post! I absolutely love that piano story. It is also really interesting to see how the make-up of a community can change over a relatively short space of time. It seems like a lot of people from a lot of places have passed through South East London, more than I thought.

    1. runner500 Post author

      The piano story is brilliant isn’t it? I’m not sure that there were that many Germans in SE London, but there were big communities in other parts of the city – certainly Fiztrovia had a big concentration and they were the waiter of choice in posh restaurants pre WW1.

    1. runner500 Post author

      You can just imagine the repercussions and reprisals in the stairway, but looters quite often don’t think about the mechanics of getting their ‘prizes’ home – there were riots in London a couple of summers ago people tried (and failed) to get fridge freezers home on bicycles.

  2. Hilary Baker

    My grandfather was Frederick Riegler, (who emigrated from Germany sometime before 1901), who had the butcher shop at 55 High Street (the building pictured is not the original shop; that was bombed out by during WWII). He, his wife, and 2 small sons (who were both born in London) lived above the shop. Thankfully after the shop was attacked, some kind neighbors intervened before the shop burned, and offered shelter to my grandmother and uncles (I believe my grandfather stayed on at the site, trying to salvage what was left). His older boy, also called Frederick, recalled the fear and confusion of that night, not understanding why everyone was so angry at them. Subsequently my grandmother and uncles were deported back to Germany, and my grandfather was interred at Knockaloe on the Isle of Man until 1919.

    1. runner500 Post author

      Thanks for posting Hilary, it must have been an awful time for your family and other German members of the community in Deptford and elsewhere. The threat that the overwhelming majority of Germans posed was negligable to non-existent, and the Government’s reaction completely disproportionate. It was a dark weekend for Deptford.

      1. Hilary Baker

        It was a dark time for so many. Even today, fear can easily overtake common sense. Thanks for your reply, and for the interesting article.

      2. runner500 Post author

        Thank you so much for your comments Hilary, I have added some of them into the main article and made a few other changes on re-reading the piece in the context of your comments.

    1. runner500 Post author

      Thank you, it was an episode that I stumbled across when reading Jerry White’s “Zeppelin Nights”, while it took a bit more digging to find out about it than I had expected, I thought that it was a story worth telling and reflecting on.

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  7. Valerie Weber

    Oh my! My father worked in Johnson’s the bakers for years. All who remember it will attest to the fact that theirs was the best baker’s around. Ironically, my father’s dad was a baker near the Elephant, but contemporary documents show he, his “German-born wife and English-born children” were “nothing against”. (His two eldest sons fought for Britain at Salonika.) He used to cook locals’ Sunday roasts and, having arrived in the country pre-1885 according to the records (he was born in 1868) he was an accepted part of the community. His brother, however, who arrived much later, and had a baker’s shop in Lothian Road, Camberwell, had his shop smashed up. His wife was visiting relatives in Germany as war broke out and had the opposite problem to Germans visiting Britain and trying to get back home. Their daughter was with her. But he and their two sons were interned. While he was sent to Knockaloe on the Isle of Man, the boys, aged 10 and 12, were sent “home” through war-torn Europe with luggage labels round their necks.


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