Ship’s sinking led to anti-German riots in South Shields

The liner Lusitania sunk by a U-boat off the coast of Southern Ireland in 1915.
The liner Lusitania sunk by a U-boat off the coast of Southern Ireland in 1915.
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Community interest company boss Sylvie Fisch today concludes her account of the backlash faced by Germans living in this country following the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania.

Sylvie says: “Anti-German riots took place throughout England, including Tyneside.

Seitz butcher's shop. Picture courtesy of South Tyneside Libraries.

Seitz butcher's shop. Picture courtesy of South Tyneside Libraries.

“Most rioting occurred on the night of Saturday, May 15, 1915.

“German-born residents’ naturalisation and level of integration were not taken into account by the rioters.

“Frederick Keith and brothers John George and John Frederick Fischer were all naturalised German butchers living in South Shields.

“They, along with Gustav Friedrich Seitz, a non-naturalised German, with premises in the Market Place, became targets of rioting.

“According to local newspaper reports, crowds gathered in the late evening in the Market Place, then spread out into adjoining streets, including John Clay Street, Frederick Street, and Westoe Road – the location of Keith’s, J.G. Fischer’s and J.F. Fischer’s premises.

“Police witness statements emphasised that only women and children were present, and that the authorities remained in control of the situation throughout.”

She said P.C. Charles Thom stated explicitly that “no attempt was made to rush the shop” owned by J.G. Fischer, while Pc George Bell and Special Constable Stanley Clay agreed that there were no men and no disorder outside Keith’s shop.

“Despite these assertions, there is clear evidence pointing to the contrary, in the form of a list of 11 men charged with offences, including obstructing the police, unlawful assembly, and riotous behaviour, which appeared in the Shields Gazette two days after the events.

“It is apparent that the police were reluctant to admit to the real scale of the unrest, probably to cover up their lack of intervention in some cases.

“This worked in the council’s favour, allowing the authorities to dismiss the victims’ claims for compensation under the Riot (Damages) Act on the grounds that May 15 did not amount to a riot, since in most cases ‘the damage was done by boys in a spirit of wanton mischief’.”

Those who were arrested, continues Sylvie, faced charges related to their conduct towards the police, not to the damage done to property.

As a consequence, the government introduced tougher anti-German restrictions which endorsed the mass internment of enemy aliens.

“The accounts of the riots which appeared in local newspapers were likely to have been exaggerated somewhat, particularly in terms of the numbers of people said to have been involved,” explains Sylvie, who is executive director and project management co-ordinator of the Newcastle-based Northern Cultural Projects CIC.

“The Shields Gazette claimed that 7,000 people had gathered in the Market Place, while the Illustrated Chronicle put this figure at 10,000.

“It should be pointed out that the mostly-silent majority was not swept up by this wave of anti-German feeling. Those who were bold enough wrote to newspapers in support of the German residents of Britain.

“The Shields Gazette received letters professing a similar sentiment, with one such writer expressing their praise for the local German community for their ‘humane and generous offer’ of allowing the German Sailors’ Home to be taken over by the St John Ambulance for the treatment of wounded soldiers, stressing that ‘they are individually in no way responsible for this dreadful struggle’.

“Many local people stood by their German friends and neighbours, even in the face of discrimination by other members of society.

“In the immediate period after 1918, many barriers still existed to Germans resettling or rebuilding their communities in Britain, with the negative experiences of the Lusitania Riots, press hostility, and finally internment, unsurprisingly causing many Germans to turn back to their country of origin, either in defiance of British oppression or due to the time spent in close proximity with other Germans while interned.”

Many of those who left, never returned, something which suited the British government.

“The Government was reluctant to allow Germans to resettle in Britain after their internment or deportation, even after peace with Germany had been settled.

“It was only in May, 1922, that the British Cabinet seriously considered allowing former enemy aliens to resettle in Britain, but even then the German population in Britain did not reach its pre-war levels even by the 1930s.”

And it is the descendants of those people who Sylvie is keen to hear from.

If anyone can help with the Northern Cultural Projects’ ‘Hunting the Hun – Germans in the NE during WW1’ can contact Silvie on silvie.fisch@northernculturalprojects.org, or write to Northern Cultural projects, at 23-24 Eldon Gardens, Newcastle, NE1 7RA.