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A haven in the 1930s The last major influx of Germans was in the 1930s. The pastor, Julius Rieger, set up a relief centre for Jewish refugees and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached at the church. History Got a story to tell? If you have a tale about East End history, write to John Rennie or email him at johnrennie@gmail.com www.eastlondonhistory.com The East End’s own Little Germany BY JOHN RENNIE AS the pastor of St George’s opened the Whitechapel church, he immediately knew that something was wrong. Burglars aren’t choosy about their targets and, like so many inner city churches, the ‘Georgenkirche’ had fallen prey to opportunistic thieves looking for gold plate… or simply the money out of the collection box. There was unlikely to be much in it. By autumn 1995, the congregation had been in decline for more than a century, and within a year the Lutheran church would close its doors forever – to the handful of survivors of what was once one of the largest German communities outside Germany itself. The thieves couldn’t have known, but there were far greater riches tucked away in a little room above the vestry – though nothing they would have recognised as such, and certainly nothing they could sell on in the pubs of Whitechapel. There lived the church’s library, an extraordinary collection of some 750 German language titles, dating mainly from the 18th and 19th centuries. A varied collection of religious tracts, philosophical works and German folklore, they are unlikely to be tales any of us have read. But they reveal a fascinating story of how this part of the East End was once ‘Little Germany’. As so often before and since, political ructions had seen a wave of incomers wash up in the East End, and establish their own community. Historical events have myriad unexpected consequences. The genesis of Little Germany lay in the ousting of James II, the end of the Stuart dynasty with the death of Queen Anne and the accession to the British throne of an obscure bunch of her cousins from northern Germany (despite the best efforts of James’s Jacobite descendants). Over to London, in 1714, came George, Elector of Hanover, as King George I. With him came an entirely German-speaking court, as well as an ancillary cast of thousands of German traders, manufacturers and bankers, servicing the new ruling class. The posher ones settled around the Court of St James and in the City, with many engaged in printing and publishing; while those involved in the more hands-on and ‘stink’ industries, especially the expert German sugar-makers, butchers and bakers, settled in Whitechapel. Soon the scattered German community numbered many thousands. St George’s (it was always politic to pick a patron saint who shared the name of the monarch) was the fifth German foundation church in London (one of them being the Royal Chapel at St James’s Palace) and there were 11 in total. The Alie Street (in those days it was called Little Ayliffe Street and the area Goodman Fields) Georgenkirche was built in 1762 by Dietrich Beckmann, a wealthy sugar refiner. His workers formed most of the original congregation, alongside East End merchants from the Hamburg church. There were refugees too, many of them from the conflicts between the French and Germans during the Seven Years War. In summer 1764, Pastor Wachsel appealed in the London papers for aid for a group of 600 Germans who were attempting to make their way to the islands of St John and St Croix in the Virgin Islands. Abandoned in London without money, several hundred of the refugees were Over to London, in 1714, came George, Elector of Hanover, as King George I. With him came a German-speaking court, as well as an ancillary cast of thousands.” stranded on their ship at Wapping and hundreds more were camping in Goodman Fields, next to the church. None of them spoke English. The Tower of London provided 200 tents to protect them from the rain and £4,000 was raised from 1,200 donors. Finally, King George III himself intervened and sent them Anti Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached at the church in 1935 to settle in the British possession of South Carolina instead. The parish peaked in the 19th century with a community of some 16,000 Germans in and around Whitechapel. Then began a long decline, with World War I proving almost fatal to the church. Many local Germans changed their surnames and became as English as they could (the Royal Family included). The last major influx of Germans was in the 1930s. The pastor, Julius Rieger, set up a relief centre for Jewish refugees. The parish played a further role in the fight against the Nazis as theologian and anti-Nazi activist Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached at the church for a brief period in 1935. After both World Wars, a number of East Enders would return with German wives, breathing a little life into the congregation. It was only a stay of execution though. The church was being prepared for closure when the thieves struck. The pastor and church elders contacted the British Library, which was able to provide a safer home in 1996, becoming instead the HQ of the Historic Chapels Trust. Today, beautifully preserved, and an elegant example of an 18th century Lutheran church, St George’s is still used for organ recitals. See more at: ■ britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/european/ 2014/01/-german-parish-life-in-londonand an-east-end-church-library.html ■ www.stgite.org.uk/media/german churches.html The family history records of the former congregation are held at Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archives, 277 Bancroft Road, Mile End. St George’s was built in 1762 by sugar baron Dietrich Beckmann 3 – 9 FEBRUARY 2014 NEWS FROM TOWER HAMLETS COUNCIL AND YOUR COMMUNITY 13


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