Germans lived side by side with South Shields folk
A local community interest company has been in touch to appeal to Time Of Our Lives readers for help with its latest project.
Northern Cultural Projects CIC, which was founded in Newcastle in 2008, is hoping to track down Shields families who have German descendants.
Executive director and project management co-ordinator Sylvie Fisch is particularly keen to hear from one-time Gazette contributor Irene Buckle. But she would also like to spread her net even further afield.
I’ll let Sylvie explain: “‘Hunting the Hun – Germans in the NE during WW1’ is a community heritage project that looks at the lives of people from German communities in the North East during and after the First World War.
“It is run by Northern Cultural Projects, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
“The 19th century was the high-point in the history of German settlement in the British Isles.
“They lived as well-respected citizens among the indigenous communities.
“But the First World War brought an end to this existing harmony.”
Sylvie says according to current research “no immigrant minority in 19th and 20th century Britain has had to endure the level of hostility faced by the Germans during the First World war” when both government and public became obsessed with Germanophobia, which led to the destruction of their communities.
“The German community of the North East had its centres in South Shields and Newcastle,” she reveals.
“That community on Tyneside had a long history, dating back to the late medieval period, and had become a sizable minority by the turn of the 20th century.
“The German immigrants tended to be young, and they married in Britain, further expanding the community.
“Though their dominance of certain trades, such as butchery, and a common religious interest meant that there were usually close ties between German residents, though this was not at the expense of their British identities.
“Anglicisation and integration were possible alongside a German ethnic consciousness, and until the First World War, they largely escaped the sort of anti-immigrant hostility demonstrated towards other minorities in the early twentieth century.”
However, things changed with the coming of hostilities.
“The wartime experience of the German minority on Tyneside, up to May 1915, was generally negative.
“German cultural and religious institutions were almost immediately closed down, and German residents came under intensified scrutiny from the state and some of their British neighbours.
“A spy fever was whipped up by the right-wing press.”
But matters really came to a head with the sinking of the Lusitania.
RMS Lusitania was a British ocean liner that was sunk by a German submarine in 1915, causing a major diplomatic uproar.
When the Lusitania left New York for Britain on May 1 of that year, German submarine warfare was intensifying in the Atlantic.
Germany had declared that the seas around the United Kingdom was a war zone, and the German embassy in the United States had placed a newspaper advertisement warning people of the dangers of sailing on Lusitania.
On the afternoon of May 7, Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat, 11 miles off the southern coast of Ireland and inside the declared “zone of war”.
A second, unexplained, internal explosion sent her to the bottom in 18 minutes, causing the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew.
Next time: Sylvie reveals how the sinking of the ship and the terrible loss of lives led to riots throughout England – and across Tyneside.