This weekend marks the anniversary of the largest outburst of anti-immigrant violence in modern British history in May 1915. The homes and businesses of Germans and people accused of being Germans were attacked in cities across England. London was one of the main sites of these shameful incidents.
On 7 May 1915, the RMS Lusitania (a sister ship to the Titanic) was sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland. Of the 1,960 people on board, 1,192 died – and four more died soon afterwards. The ship had been carrying war materiel for the British but the casualties on board were civilians from numerous countries, including women and children. The killing of these civilians was seen as proof of the barbarism of German war methods, and thus of Germans in general (handily ignoring the British strategy of starving German women and children with a blockade). The attack pushed the USA closer to war with Germany and inspired one of the most widely-used British recruiting posters:
In the days following the attack, there was a wave of attacks by British mobs on the businesses and homes of those thought to be German. Some were Germans, some were of German origin, some just unlucky in having German names. East London was particularly badly hit. The Times on 13 May began a long report with a list of places hit by the riots:
Rioting In London. Shops Plundered And Wrecked., A Day Of Violence.
Anti-German rioting which had started on Tuesday resumed with increased violence on the Wednesday with outbreaks continuing in all parts of metropolitan area; shops of tradesmen of German or Austrian birth attacked, wrecked and plundered by angry crowds; unable to estimate the amount of damage but asserted that in Camden Town and Kentish Town 150 shops attacked; among districts in which there were serious disturbances: Canning Town, Limehouse, Poplar, Shadwell, Stepney, Wapping, Woolwich, Aldgate, Smithfield, Ilford, Leytonstone, Tottenham, Highgate, Islington, Holloway, Camden Town, Kentish Town, Wood Green and Bowes Park, N. Kensington, Fulham, Lambeth, Wandsworth, Southwark, Blackfriars Road; Particularly serious in Poplar and East-end districts with a number of people and police injured Damage done very great.
In some places, the attacks continued on the 13th. In Canning Town, the properties of shopkeepers who had been kind to ‘blacklegs’ in the 1912 dockers’ strike were attacked.
Among the files in the National Archives relating to mistreatment of Germans in the UK is a report of one of these mob attacks in East London/South Essex. On the evening of 12 May, a huge crowd attacked a house in Manor Park where German immigrant Martha Mittenzwei lived – it was “smashed up proper” in the words of a workman involved in its repair. The riotiers removed most of the property and attacked the landlord who let the rooms to Germans. The attack wasn’t confined to ‘alien enemies’ (as the official language of the time termed them) and the crowd broke windows at the local public house and another building. Local journalist Mr Foyle described the mob as “addle-pated hooligans” and told police that there were many ‘roughs’ from outside the district in the crowd, which numbered around 5,000.
While most of the attacks started off targeting actual Germans (who were not restricted in where they could live in London at the time, at least among those who had not been interned) they often spread on to British properties. The riots were prompted by German ‘frightfulness’ but were clearly hijacked by “addle-pated hooligans” out to cause mischief, to break and steal things with some semblance of self-justification. (Not a million miles from the 2010 riots in England in some ways). As many commentators said at the time, if people wanted to attack Germans, they should join the armed forces and do it on the battlefield – a course that became increasingly popular for a few weeks in May and June 1915.
At the time, Germans were one of the largest immigrant groups in the UK and this was the largest-scale anti-immigrant violence in modern British history. Innocent Germans and Britons were targeted by huge mobs that the police struggled to control. It was a moment of shame for London.
Sources and further reading
The excellent Lusitania Resource
Panikos Panayi, The Enemy in our Midst: Germans in Britain during the First World War (Oxford, 1991)
National Archives file HO 45/10787/298199 (cases of alleged mistreatment of German women in the UK)