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Commandeered: German offices in London

21 Oct

Early in the Great War, the British Government were able to take extraordinary steps against German citizens and businesses. In 1914-15 many Germans were interned (including some held in Stratford). The Government also commandeered the headquarters of German owned shipping line Hamburg-Amerika in Cockspur Street, Westminster.

Hamburg-Amerika was a transatlantic shipping line founded in 1847 and based in Hamburg, Germany; in the early twentieth century, one of their ships held the record for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic.  In 1906-07, they had a new London headquarters built at 14-16 Cockspur Street in Westminster. The  building was designed by Arthur T. Bolton, with sculpture by W.B. Fagan (both of them Londoners) – it was a magnificent structure. The website Oriental Passions has a good set of photographs of the facade in a blog post from 2011. The English Heritage Archives have a few photos of the building just after it was built (for example this one of the facade).

At the start of the Great War, this impressive German building was taken into the service of Britain and its armed forces:

War Illustrated, vol. 1, Jan 1915

War Illustrated, vol. 1, Jan 1915

Here is the same section today:

The same section of 14-16 Cockspur Street today

The same section of 14-16 Cockspur Street today

One of the English Heritage Archive photos shows this part of the building in detail before the war. This allows us to see how it was transformed.  The company’s name was removed from the top and a banner with ‘HIS MAJESTY’S ARMY’ erected in its place. Likewise the windows have been boarded up and plastered with recruiting messages – with the words ‘Men of the Empire. Your King & Country Need You. Enlist Today.’

Around this big poster are the usual 1914-era text-based recruiting posters – the picture posters were more common in 1915.  Either side of the door is an unofficial recruiting poster that did have a large picture on it. These were reprints of the poster from a pre-war film about the army, pressed into service in 1914 to serve as a recruiting poster:

Film poster used for recruiting (image built up of two IWM poster images: title and image)

Film poster used for recruiting (image built up of the images of two sections of the poster (c)IWM)

The building’s role as a recruiting office was far from the end of its use by the British Government. By late 1916 (when voluntary enlistment had been replaced with conscription), the Hamburg-Amerika Line section of the building moved from being used by the War Office to being an Admiralty building, according the Prime Minister in response to questions about whether steps were being made to sell the building. Eventually, in July 1917, the building (now being used by the Ministry of Munitions) was sold by the British Government for £60,200 to P&O, maintaining the presence of travel companies on Cockspur Street (reported in Times 1/8/1917). Throughout all this, the British/Canadian Allan Line Steamship Company Limited had continued to occupy the right-hand-side of the building (viewed from Cockspur Street), as they had before the war. Today, that side of the building is the Brazilian Embassy.

When war was declared, German citizens in Britain were subject to restrictions on their liberty. Similarly, German property could be seized by the Government. This prominent building in Westminster was seized and put to the key purpose of the day: recruiting men to fight against the Germans.

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Posted by on 21 October 2013 in Famous companies, Places, Recruitment

 

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