All Edgar Speyer’s good works could not save him amid the hysteria of the First World War
The Promenade concerts are a great British institution, combining high musical culture with popular enthusiasm and gentle patriotism. Now run by the BBC, the Proms began life in 1895 as a private enterprise, albeit one designed to make classical and modern music accessible to the widest possible public. The driving force behind them was the impresario Robert Newman, aided by the conductor Henry Wood, with whose name the Proms are now invariably associated. But in 1902, Newman was bankrupt, and the Proms were saved by the intervention of Sir Edgar Speyer — now largely forgotten but then one of the most influential men in Britain.
The Proms’ original home was the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, but the orchestras were scratch affairs, often poorly rehearsed. Speyer set up the Queen’s Hall Orchestra as a limited company with himself as chairman and Newman as manager. The orchestra was put on a professional footing. He largely paid the costs himself, persuading leading performers and composers of the day to appear. He kept ticket prices to a minimum, and it was possible to buy a season ticket that worked out at fourpence per day. Henry Wood continued as principal conductor, and was overwhelmed by Speyer’s generosity: when, for instance, Wood lamented the absence of a decent first oboe, Speyer whisked him off to the Paris Conservatoire to audition and hire the best in France.
Edgar Speyer was the scion of a prominent German Jewish merchant banking family from Frankfurt, originally wealthier than their neighbours the Rothschilds. By the middle of the 19th century there were branches in New York, Frankfurt and London. In 1886, Edgar himself took over Speyer Bros, the London branch housed at 7 Lothbury, an extravagant Venetian Gothic building behind the Bank of England; he became a British citizen in 1892 at the age of 30. His brother James ran the New York bank and brother-in-law Eduard Beit von Speyer oversaw Frankfurt. The three branches cooperated on a global scale, investing in major trade and infrastructure projects, while maintaining substantial domestic businesses. Edgar was thus part of the pre-war cosmopolitan elite, sophisticated, cultivated and philanthropic.
Speyer rapidly integrated into British life, taking British citizenship in 1892, joining the Church of England and becoming a member of the Liberal Party. As a friend of the Liberal leader Herbert Asquith, he was created baronet in 1906 and appointed to the Privy Council in 1909 — a signal honour for a man of German Jewish origins, and one that would return to plague him.
In 1902, at the age of 40, Speyer married the German-American violinist Leonora von Stosch, with whom he had three daughters. He knocked together 44 and 46 Grosvenor Street in Mayfair and commissioned the fashionable architect Detmar Blow to build the imposing Beaux Arts mansion that still stands there today. The heart of the house was a music room dominated by John Singer Sergeant’s portrait of Leonora. Among the guests who performed there were Elgar, Debussy, Grieg, Richard Strauss, Percy Grainger and Henry Wood.
Speyer was an active and daring financier, and became heavily involved in the development of London’s first deep Tube lines using electric traction. Of undoubted probity himself, Speyer had to rescue the tangled affairs of the Underground Electric Railway Company following the death of its founder. This was an immensely expensive undertaking, and though in the end it made Speyer even richer, for several years the issue — and the fortunes of the bank — hung in the balance. Londoners owe the existence of the Northern, Central, Piccadilly, Bakerloo, Circle and Metropolitan lines to the success of his intervention. To provide the electricity, Speyer built the Lots Road power station in Chelsea, then Europe’s largest, and only decommissioned in 2002.
The rescue and establishment of the deep Tube lines was perhaps his greatest business achievement, demonstrating his financial genius, strength of purpose and public-spiritedness. But he should be honoured too for his extraordinary philanthropy.
In addition to rescuing the Proms, Speyer was a major benefactor of the Whitechapel Art Gallery, of which he became a trustee in 1900. The gallery was close to his heart because it made art accessible to London’s labouring poor.
In the medical field he was chairman of the Nervous Diseases Research Fund, and president of Poplar Hospital in the East End of London. He visited the accident ward at Poplar every week, and, if a patient was a breadwinner, supported their families. He gave £25,000 (equivalent to around £2.5 million today) to the King Edward’s Hospital Fund. Today known as the King’s Fund, it channelled money to London’s voluntary hospitals before the establishment of the NHS in 1948.
In 1904 Speyer gave £5,700 to replace the losses suffered by investors in a failed penny savings bank in Suffolk. And from 1909 he was honorary treasurer of Robert Scott’s British Antarctic Expedition, donating £1,000 and taking responsibility for the £40,000 balance still required. One of Scott’s last letters, found on his body, was to Speyer: “I thank you a thousand times for your help and support and for your generous kindness.” Mount Speyer in Antarctica is named after him.
By the summer of 1914, Speyer was at the peak of his wealth, power and influence. He and Leonora seemed to lead a charmed life. In the months before the assassination at Sarajevo, they gave opulent balls at Grosvenor Street, took the waters at Karlsbad, dined with the German ambassador Prince Lichnowski and attended a musical soirée at Downing Street with the Prime Minister and Mrs Asquith. Speyer approved the design of the Scott monument, and William Orpen’s portrait of him was exhibited at the Royal Academy’s summer show. Leonora played the violin at recitals in Grosvenor Street, accompanied by the composers Gabriel Fauré and Richard Strauss.
As Europe slid towards war, the Speyers decamped as usual in high summer to their house at Overstrand on the Norfolk coast. The adjoining cottage was rented by their friends Winston and Clementine Churchill. In late July Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, left Overstrand for London to make naval dispositions, and the Speyers pressed Clementine to make full use of their telephone to keep in touch.
In his book Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy? (2013), Anthony Lentin records that Edward Marsh, Churchill’s private secretary, visited the Speyers at Overstrand. Marsh found Speyer on the terrace listening to his daughters recite poems — “a perfect little picture of simple patriarchal German domesticity . . . they were the last Germans I spoke to for many years.”
War swept away such Gemütlichkeit. The onrush of events transformed the public mood. Germans invaded neutral Belgium and soon British troops were heavily engaged: by early September the army had suffered 20,000 casualties, and by the end of November the total exceeded 100,000, half of them dead or missing.
Reports of German atrocities, often exaggerated at the time, were widely believed. In fact, the Germans did behave appallingly, murdering some 6,500 Belgian civilians in retribution for usually imagined acts of resistance.
The British government introduced stringent controls on enemy aliens, beginning with the Defence of the Realm Act and the Aliens Restrictions Act. The 65,000 Germans and Austrians residing in Britain faced immediate restrictions, with growing calls for internment or expulsion. Fear and suspicion of strangers was not new, although in the years before the war the focus had been on Russian and German Jews. Powerful forces in politics and the press moulded opinion in what was by today’s standards an extraordinarily patriotic nation. The radical Right embodied a wide range of nationalist and imperialist opinion, and was strongly represented in the Unionist wing of the Conservative party. Lord Northcliffe’s papers — The Times, Daily Mail, Evening News and Weekly Despatch — led the Fleet Street pack.
The sudden hatred of Huns affected Germans of every rank, including the Royal Family: as is well-known, Saxe-Coburg-Gotha became Windsor, and Battenberg became Mountbatten.
The eminent military historian Professor Sir Michael Howard told me that his family, the Ehrenburgs, had been in England for 50 years before the outbreak of the war. Immensely wealthy, they had a house in Eaton Square, were received in the best society and were notable for their charitable giving. “By the beginning of October 1914, we had not a single friend left.” Unlike the Speyers, they managed to cling on, though changing their name to Howard. As a young man, Sir Michael was commissioned into the Coldstream Guards and won a Military Cross fighting the Germans in 1944.
At the other end of the social scale, my great-grandfather, Anton Friedrich Heren, moved to London from Rhineland-Palatinate in about 1870. A painter and decorator, he married an English girl and raised a large family in the East End. His son Anton Robert, a regular soldier, was mortally wounded at Mons; he succumbed to his injuries at Brighton, reputedly the first Tommy to die on home soil in the Great War. Another son, my great-uncle Lou, was blinded at Passchendaele, aged 17. Anton Friedrich was spared deportation on account of his age, his marriage to an Englishwoman and the fact that most of his sons were in the army. Nevertheless, the Heren family collectively rebranded itself: by the 1920s they had decided that they were of French Basque origin (ostensibly from Bayonne, rather than Bayern).
Sir Edgar Speyer, although a naturalised British citizen, a baronet and a Privy Councillor, was under no illusions about the gravity of the situation. On August 12 he wrote to his brother-in-law Eduard Beit von Speyer, the director of the German branch, ending their partnership: “This war has altered everything. It is like a tremendous hurricane which uproots trees.”
The first attack came from William Boosey of Chappell & Co, who had lost out to Speyer when he took over the Queen’s Hall Orchestra in 1902. Under the headline “Highly Placed Spies”, Boosey wrote to The Times warning of:
The paramount position of many Germans in our world of finance, often with their necessary and attendant purchased titles . . . The position and sympathies of these Germans here needs defining. In some instances they exercise an almost exclusive control over some of our railways and other means of locomotion. It is impossible to imagine Englishmen occupying similar positions in Berlin at this moment.
This was a thinly-veiled direct attack on Speyer.
Chappell cancelled Speyer’s lease on the Queen’s Hall, and tried to ban the performance of German music. Speyer nevertheless continued to finance the remainder of the 1914 Proms season. The attempt to ban German music was defeated by Sir Henry Wood and many prominent musicians.
At this stage Speyer clearly thought British common sense and generosity — as well as his connections — would allow him to stay. He subscribed £38,000 (nearly £4 million in 2016 money) to the first British war bond. But his brother James, director of the New York branch Speyer & Co, continued to do business with German banks and industrialists such as Krupp. The US was neutral in 1914, and this trade was legal there, but it led to the firm being blacklisted in Britain. Furthermore James was a close friend of the German ambassador to the US, Count Bernstorff, whom he entertained lavishly shortly after the outbreak of war. Bernstorff actively sought to influence American opinion, and funds earmarked for propaganda purposes were deposited with Speyer & Co.
As events unfolded Sir Edgar carried on as best he could, dealing with financing challenges connected with the Underground Electric Railway Company (UERC). He also continued to socialise with the Asquiths at Downing Street. In October the Speyers dined at Number 10 with the Churchills and others. Shortly afterwards it was alleged in the press that at the dinner Churchill had discussed naval dispositions which Speyer could have passed to the German admiralty. He had already been fancifully accused of signalling to the German fleet from his house at Overstrand.
Speyer was deeply wounded by the allegations. He resigned from the UERC, from the boards of all his charities, and withdrew his three daughters from their schools. In public he maintained what he thought of as a dignified silence, but which was regarded by his enemies as Hunnish arrogance.
On May 7, 1915, the Germans sank RMS Lusitania, killing 1,198 passengers and crew. The playwright Sir Arthur Pinero called for prominent naturalised Germans to write “loyalty letters”. Sir Ernst Cassel, Sir George Henschel, Sir Karl Meyer and Sir Felix Schuster complied, but Speyer refused. Instead he wrote to Asquith to ask for his baronetcy and Privy Council membership to be revoked:
Nothing is harder to bear than a sense of injustice that finds no vent in expression. For the last nine months I have kept silence and treated with disdain the charges of disloyalty and suggestions of treachery made against me in the Press and elsewhere. But I can keep silence no longer, for these charges and suggestions have now been repeated by public men who have not scrupled to use their position to inflame the overstrained feelings of the people. I am not a man who can be driven or drummed by threats or abuse into an attitude of justification. But I consider it due to my honour as a loyal British subject and my personal dignity as a man to retire all my public positions. I therefore write to ask you to accept my resignation as a Privy Councillor and to revoke my baronetcy.
This was fatal to any chance that Speyer might recover his reputation. It was in any case futile as there was no mechanism for withdrawing honours, and King George refused to contemplate doing so. Asquith repeated his strong personal support in a letter that was also published in The Times, but the Speyers had had enough. On May 26, 1915, they sailed to New York to see out the war in America. Neither their departure, nor their subscription of a further £27,000 (£3 million today) to the British war bond, lessened the stream of vitriolic attacks.
As the war continued its bloody course, anti-German feeling in Britain became deeper and more bitter. Around the time of the Speyers’ departure, Asquith had bowed to pressure and increased the round of internments and repatriations of “enemy aliens”. Quasi-legal tribunals dealt with both sanctions, and, from the number of exemptions granted, appeared to have been reasonable, if not exactly lenient. This did not satisfy the jingoists, who forced through parliament further measures to penalise “enemy aliens” including those who were naturalised.
Meanwhile Edgar and Leonora remained in Boston, the most English of American cities, and spent their summers in Bar Harbor, Maine, a suitable substitute for Overstrand. Brother James (whose attitude to his own contribution to the damage to his brother’s reputation is unrecorded) remained in New York, trading with Germany until America’s entrance into the war in 1917. He then retreated to his country estate, Waldheim — though he had the sign with the name taken down.
In London, the knives were still out for Edgar. MI5 was asked to dig for dirt on him, although its initial efforts were not encouraging: the Washington embassy reported only that Speyer had lent moral support to Karl Muck, the chief conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, under pressure to resign as a German.
The end of hostilities brought no relief. In 1921 the Home Office’s Certificates of Naturalisation (Revocation) Committee met in camera to consider a number of charges. It was a treason trial in all but name. Sir Edgar travelled from America to attend in person, but did little to defend himself. He made it clear he thought most of the questions were without merit, and he resisted his own counsel’s attempts to draw out his record of financial support for the British war effort, as well as much war-related charity. He seemed to think such special pleading to be bad manners. Although, to a modern eye, there is little of substance to be held against Sir Edgar, and certainly no evidence whatever of treason, the committee decided that he had
1) . . . shown himself by act and speech to be disaffected and disloyal to His Majesty, and
2) . . . during the war in which His Majesty was engaged, unlawfully communicated with subjects of an enemy State and associated with a business which was to his knowledge carried on in such manner as to assist the enemy in such war.
The Home Secretary, Sir Edward Shortt, ordered his certificate of naturalisation to be revoked, and that his wife and three daughters cease to be British subjects. Urged on by Sir Almeric Fitzroy, his Germanophobic private secretary, King George V ordered Speyer’s name to be struck from the list of Privy Councillors, though he refused to wield the pen himself.
The four officials most closely associated with this process — Mr Justice Salter, Sir Edward Shortt, the Attorney General and the Solicitor General — had each lost a son in the trenches.
The Speyers returned to New York, where they bought a fine house on Washington Square, appropriately enough for people who might have been characters from a late Henry James work. In Britain, meanwhile, E.F. Benson put them into his anti-Semitic novel Robin Linnet, barely disguised as Sir Hermann and Lady Aline Gurtner:
Sir Hermann had lately built an enormous house in Curzon Street, and had furnished it with anything in the way of tapestry, lacquer, Louis XV, and old oak that was expensive enough. There was no taste of any sort exercised over his purchases; the only point was that they should be extremely costly, and in consequence the whole house resembled a museum. He spoke German with an English accent, French with a German accent and English with a Yiddish accent. But he spoke all three sparingly, for he had nothing much to say in any of them.
Why should we care, a century later, about these wealthy minor casualties of a war in which 20 million people died? They continued to live luxuriously, and to indulge their artistic and philanthropic interests. Sir Edgar — he retained the baronetcy — died in Hamburg during the course of a routine nose operation in 1932.
Leonora won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1927 and lived to 1956. Her poem “The Ballad of a Lost House” imagines a painful supernatural return to the mansion on Grosvenor Street. Recently set to music by the composer David Lawrence, it was performed at the Grosvenor Chapel during a concert in honour of Speyer:
On with the tale and on to a door
Where a man had passed to pass no more:
A quiet man with a quiet strength,
And over the threshold his shadow’s length
Lay like an answer for Time to weigh;
And the dust from his feet spread thick and gray.
And I thought: Well shaken!
All three of her daughters returned to Britain. Pamela Speyer married an Austrian aristocrat, Count Hugo Moy de Sons, in 1926, and died in Sussex in 1985. Leonora the younger lived with the concert pianist Maria Donska and died in Kent in 1987. Vivien, ironically, returned in the Second World War as a member of the US Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps.
Natural justice should oblige the 21st century British — and in particular the BBC — to acknowledge the Proms’ debt to the Speyers. This year Crossrail has been named the Elizabeth Line in honour of our great Queen, the latest in a 300-year dynasty of German monarchs: Transport for London could do more to celebrate the achievements of the man who made sure London’s deep Tube lines were financed, built and powered with electricity.
But there is more at stake here. The Speyers’ disgrace was the most personal manifestation of the wave of hatred for Germans and Germany that was one of Britain’s principal legacies of the Great War. The truly evil nature of the Nazi regime in the subsequent conflict cemented a popular view of Germans as militarists with a hysterical streak. Yet Germany has utterly transformed itself since then: despite our pivotal role in rebuilding Germany after 1945 (for which the Germans are profoundly grateful) it is the British who remain stuck in a century-old groove, giggling reflexively at jokes like “don’t mention ze var”.
With the European Union in crisis, Germany has once again emerged as the continent’s leader. Luckily, it is now a peaceful, generous and quixotically liberal nation, as demonstrated by its decision to accept a million refugees, not to mention its radical energiewende policy. As the UK ponders a future outside the EU, it is more important than ever that we should draw culturally closer to Germany — that we should stop thinking of Germans as the enemy.
The tale of Edgar and Leonora Speyer shows us how closely Britain and Germany were once intertwined. We need to re-forge those bonds, not necessarily within the EU, but culturally, recognising what our forebears knew, that Britons and Germans are cousins.
The definitive account of the trials of Sir Edgar Speyer is Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy? (Haus, £12.99) by the historian Antony Lentin. He bases much of the book on the previously unpublished transcripts of the quasi-judicial tribunal that in 1921 found Speyer guilty of disloyalty and trading with the enemy during wartime. That judgement led swiftly to Speyer being stripped of his British citizenship and membership of the Privy Council.
Lentin is at pains to be impartial. Speyer’s position was in some respects ambiguous. He felt personally loyal to Britain, supported the war effort by subscribing generously to war bonds and always made it clear that Britain had no choice but to go to war with Germany. Yet during the course of the war he communicated with friends and relations in Germany, using the networks available to him as an international banker and, crucially, evading British intelligence. In this respect, and perhaps also in the imperious way he had written to Prime Minister Asquith to renounce all his honours, Speyer may have seemed too loftily detached from the bloody struggle in which his adopted country was engaged.
Beautifully written, Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy? is unlikely to be surpassed as an account of Speyer’s life. “There is tragedy in the fall of a great benefactor of English musical and artistic life, who had basked in the approval of Edwardian society; but that individual tragedy reflects the wider tragedy of a war in which few in the land were untouched.”
George W. Liebmann’s The Fall Of The House of Speyer (I.B. Tauris, £25) widens the focus to the last half-century of the family banking network. His account of Sir Edgar’s misfortunes owes much to Lentin’s work, but the tale of the Speyers’ far-reaching investments in railways and other infrastructure projects in the 40 years before 1914 is original and illuminating. The New York branch under James Speyer was for a time the third largest US investment bank, though it was always implacably opposed by the leader, J.P. Morgan. Before the first war it brought European investment into the US, and after the war American capital into central Europe. James was a prickly man and, despite his many charities, had few friends in American society. Like Edgar, he had no sons, and the rise of Nazism in Germany, combined with the depression in the USA, meant that the House of Speyer could not survive his death in 1941.
Liebmann also uncovers the tale of James Speyer Kronthal, a relation by marriage of James and Edgar, who was an early member of the OSS, forerunner of the CIA. Apparently involved in efforts before and after the war to retrieve art works looted by the Nazis, he killed himself in 1953.
An exhaustive survey of British Germanophobia is The Enemy In Our Midst, by Panikos Panayi. This shows signs of having begun life as a PhD thesis, but is nevertheless an indispensable resource for anyone interested in this extraordinary episode.