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.