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Anglo-German Family History Society - Background

By Chairman Peter Towey

The Anglo-German Family History Society has more than 750 members, principally from England but also from USA, Australia, New Zealand and - of course - Germany.

People often wonder why so many English people have German roots. There are several reasons;
i) the proximity of the two countries, on either side on the North Sea, and the ease of travel, in times past, from one to the other by sea; 
ii) the lack of any bureaucratic controls over immigration into England until the late 19th century; and
iii) England was ruled by German-born and/or German-speaking monarchs from the accession of King George I, the Elector of Hanover, in 1714 until Victoria's reign - and she married a German: Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

There were large movements of Germans into England from the Palatines who came in in 1709 to the Prisoners of War who stayed on after the Second World War; and now that we are both part of the European Union, the number of Germans living in England can be expected to increase.

The Society aims to help its members find out about their German ancestors through the English records and then to help them with the German records. As with most people trying to trace immigrant ancestors, the first main hurdle is to identify the immigrant and then to find out where in Germany - or the German-speaking parts of Europe - the ancestor came from.

In England that is often very difficult. The main source would be the naturalisation records but few immigrants bothered with that until the 1890s. Anyone could come and live in England without obtaining naturalisation until the First World War; naturalisation was expensive and was only needed if you were an adult male and wanted to leave real estate by will or join a London Livery Company.

Naturalisation was, however, becoming more common by the 1890s as anti-German feelings built up in the political rivalry that lead to the First World War. If you are lucky enough to find naturalisation papers for your immigrant ancestor, they will give you his age, date and place of birth, parentage, and details of his wife and children in UK. All the records are kept in the Public Record Office, Ruskin Avenue, Kew, Surrey, UK, and there is an index to them.

Another potential source is the church registers. Most German who came to England were Protestants though there were some who were Roman Catholics. The Society is gradually identifying the German churches in England and trying to index their registers. In some cases the register entries give the place of origin of the parties. 

There have been German Lutheran churches in London since the 17th century. St. Georg's German Lutheran Church, Alie Street, Aldgate, in East London has just closed after holding services in German since the 1760s. Many Society members attended the last service on 24th November 1996 and it was a very emotional occasion. The church is to be preserved as an exhibition space (we believe) but it will not quite be the same.

The Society holds indexes to the registers of baptisms, marriages and burials for that church, St Pauls Gemeinde Church, Hooper Square (the church was destroyed in the blitz but the registers survive), St Boniface's German Roman Catholic church, London, and many others. The most recent additions to our collection are the indexes of the registers of the German churches at Bradford, Yorkshire (1876+), Hull, Yorkshire (1848+), Islington, North London (1858+), and the Hamburg Lutheran Church, Dalston, North-East London (1850+).

The main influx of Germans took place in the 19th century. There were many reasons: fleeing political and religious persecution or over-population at home; looking for work in the main industrial centre of the World - London; even getting lost on the way to America! Yes, that is true. 

Germans on their way to America often left their ship in London, walked to Liverpool and took ship again for the New World. Many ran out of money or energy (London to Liverpool is quite a long walk!) and some were told by the ship's captain, as they got off the boat in London, that they had arrived in America. As many did not speak English, it was often some time before they realised that they had been swindled.

Many came over to work in the sugar industry, the main concentration of which was in the East End of London. From the late 18th century, the main sugar refining companies were in German hands and they preferred to import German labourers to work for them. They came mainly via Hamburg where the British Consul often acted as agent for the Companies.

The job was very hot, hard work and dangerous and the second generation of immigrants usually looked for other work causing a need for further recruitment from Germany to fill their fathers' places. There are no records giving details of where these "sugar bakers" or "sugar refiners" came from but they can often be found in the local East London church registers or the 10 year censuses.

Censuses were taken in England every 10 years from 1801 but the detailed schedules giving personal details only survive from 1841. From 1851 the census should give the age and place of birth of everyone living in the Country on census night. It normally only says "Germany" or "Prussia" but sometimes you can be lucky and it will give the town or village. Now that the index to the 1881 census is available for the whole Country and every Family History Library, it is possible to track down every German in England and Wales then. 

Many Germans also came to join the British Army. During the French occupation of Hanover (King George III of England was also Elector of Hanover) during the Napoleonic Wars, the Hanoverian Army escaped to England and was reconstituted as the King's German Legion. Until Hanover was liberated in 1815, they served as part of the British Army and many of the personal records are at the British Public Record Office. One of our members has indexed them. Another member in Hanover is working on indexing the records in Hanover - including Army pension records.

Many other Germans escaped from French-occupied Germany at the time and joined other regiments of the British Army, the Royal Navy or the Royal Marines. There are indexes to the service records of all British soldiers who retired on pension from 1760; the Navy and Marine records are not so easily accessible but can be searched if you know the ship he was serving in. There are also records of British-registered merchant seamen (some of whom were German) for the mid 19th century and 1914 to 1941 - though these latter are currently being filmed and will not be available to be searched until mid 1997.

The German community in England was really destroyed during the First World War. Due to the fear of Fifth Columnists, spies and sabotage whipped up by the Press, the Government gradually interned all German males between 16 and 70 and deported many back to Germany during and after the War. Thus many people who had lived in England for 50 years or more were suddenly up-rooted and sent back to a Germany that they did not know and which was disrupted by war. Many British wives and children were deported also - knowing no German, with no relatives over there and at risk of being persecuted for being English!

We are trying to get the records of the civilian German internees in the United Kingdom during the First World War. There were originally three sets of books: the British Government set; the Red Cross set and the set sent to the Protecting Power. We have copies of about half of the British Government set: 1916-1919, which we managed to find in the German Archives in Koblenz (where it had been sent in the 1950s). But the Red Cross will not allow access to their set and we are still trying to find where the set sent to the Protecting Power (the United States from 1914 to 1917 and then Switzerland) now is. Any advice from America would be gratefully received.

We are now beginning to unearth local records of the dole paid to the dependents of the internees and police records of aliens who had to report to police stations every week during and after the War, though many of those records appear to have been destroyed. Incidentally, aliens included US citizens and there are several of those on the few lists we have so far found.

The Society aims to publish more booklets on the special problems of researching Germans in England and on allied subjects. We have published booklets on Sugar Bakers, German Regiments of the British Army, German Churches in England; the German Hospital at Dalston in London and the German School in London. We have several more in prospect.