German Victorians Who Helped Transform Britain

Prince Albert’s compatriots were the largest immigrant community in London. Their cultural legacy is still visible across the capital

Features History
Patron of the arts: As chairman of the Royal Commission, Prince Albert oversaw the building of Crystal Palace for the 1851 Great Exhibition

Around 1880 there were more than 30,000 Germans living in London, making them the city’s largest immigrant community. In the 1840s some had arrived in search of jobs, while others were escaping political turmoil. Most would return when circumstances became more propitious. But then there were those more or less wealthy Germans attracted by the Victorian boom, neither political refugees nor economic migrants, who simply chose to come. Some were academics, like the geographer Ernst Ravenstein, who also brought the Jahn tradition of moral education through gymnastics to London. Others were bankers and businessmen in the mould of Johann Heinrich Schröder (already established here in 1804) and the scientist Carl Wilhelm Siemens, and many were commodity traders. When the Great Exhibition of 1851 celebrated Britain’s world-beating wealth and ingenuity, German Anglophilia was a kind of answering echo. Affluent Germans wanted to live in the capital of the British Empire, and after the Crystal Palace moved to Sydenham three years later, south London because a popular choice. A number stayed and, like Siemens, were naturalised. Siemens was also knighted. 

One can’t quite call Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha their patron but, indirectly, as the leading force behind the Exhibition, and as a German who became a British subject on his marriage to Queen Victoria in 1840, he was a beacon of possibility. In 1868, when Ernst Ravenstein was thanked for being the chief guest at the Third National Olympian Games in Wellington, Shropshire, forerunner to today’s Olympic movement, it was observed that all Germans were now our cousins and some were more, perhaps, thanks to the royal relationship. Cue for laughter and cheers. Never was Germanness more evident in this country than during the 21 years of Albert and Victoria’s marriage, when the socially ambitious took on German governesses in order to teach their children the newly fashionable language. It worked both ways. One new arrival, Wilhelm Oswald was so keen to be British that he changed his name to William O’Swald, just as Siemens became Charles William. Albert instigated a revolutionary cultural interchange at the upper end of the social scale. It’s no longer the done thing to consider what happens there, but 150 years later our arts scene evidently owes the royal consort a great debt. Albert established our Coburg-Wagnerian heritage.

We were a philistine lot in the early 19th century, as Carlyle and Mill kept telling us. Step forward Albert, with his informed appreciation for music and poetry, painting and sculpture. Here was an educated young man with a Romantic streak, which meant he placed a high value on art in all its forms. He wasn’t as formidable as he might have been, however, because he had a Goethean breadth to his interests. Wanting to know about everything from plumbing to Palestrina, rivets to Raphael, he created a bridge to a more down-to-earth nation. The prime minister, Robert Peel, responded by making Albert chairman of the Royal Commission for the Arts in 1841. As in effect this country’s first arts minister, he then had the power and credibility to make the Great Exhibition happen. Its unexpectedly huge profits later financed “Albertopolis”, the transformation of South Kensington into a hub of museums and educational organisations. But the prince’s legacy was more than bricks and mortar. Albert persuaded the governments of the day that artistic sensitivity should enhance a British notion of civilisation, and not remain alien, as it had done through the materialistic years of the 1820s and 1830s.

When the Crystal Palace was rebuilt in Sydenham, the Prime Minister Lord Derby’s exact instruction to the Crystal Palace Company was to “preserve the high moral and educational tone which they had shown in giving practical effect to their magnificent scheme” of three years before. Was it because the company delivered on that requirement that more well-heeled Germans came to live in the area? Surrounded by rolling parkland, and with a magnificent view out to the weald of Kent, Crystal Palace, with its Coburg connection, was suddenly the chic place for a residence out of town. German diplomats flocked there. On a recent trek south, I could find only a single semi-derelict mansion said to have belonged to a German ambassador, coupled with the still-thriving German church in Forest Hill, although local historians have turned up other names and addresses. It wasn’t all a matter of art. From Kaiser Wilhelm II onwards wealthy Germans aspired to and emulated the upper-crust English way of life: bloodsports, breakfasts, country houses. But thanks to Albert, and particularly to his concerns with architecture and music, the basis for something artistic and powerfully shared was laid.

This spirit-most marked in music and architecture — that we shared with Germany from the middle to the end of the 19th century is almost mysterious. In 1896, as if finally and officially responding from the German side, Berlin offered the architect, builder and writer Hermann Muthesius the post of cultural attaché at its London embassy to report back on why the ways of the British — one might say their art of life —  were so attractive. In 1904 Muthesius made his name in Germany with his three-volume work Das Englische Haus, a celebration of the spirit of William Morris and the garden city movement. As competitive hostility between the two countries increased, Muthesius was accused of disloyalty, but  we can see in the architectural story a thin line of cross-cultural continuity leading from Albert’s concern for the poor, and his first experiments in social housing, which had a German prototype, through Ruskin’s and Morris’s efforts to make living en masse more civilised, to Muthesius, who extracted the wisdom of 50 years and passed it on.

When I began looking for the Coburg past in England it took a 20th-century German, the exiled architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner, to show me (in his book High Victorian Design: A Study of the Exhibits of 1851) that a clock face draped with water maidens, a prominent exhibit in the Hyde Park show, shared so much, imaginatively, with Wagner’s Rhinegold, in composition at the same time. Coburgian England loved the allegorical and the full-blown in its artefacts, just as Wagner did in his music. 

Pevsner, who liked to make German connections in London, then linked the music back to the architecture. He found that both the 1851 clockcase and the opera being written during 1853-54, recalled the classicising grandeur of the architect Gottfried Semper, who was one of London’s German political exiles in Albert’s day. The man who had built the Dresden opera house was a friend of the revolutionary-minded Wagner. When the 1848 revolution failed, Wagner fled to Switzerland and Semper to London. Semper’s influence hovers over Albertopolis before settling on the Albert Hall; and its Coburgian connection is further marked by the music that began to be staged, on a huge scale, first of all at the Crystal Palace, later transferring to the Albert Hall. A  precursor was the Schiller Festival organised by the London German community in 1859, the year of the poet’s centenary. Much of the celebration was musical, but torchlight processions, illuminated fountains and fireworks delighting a crowd of at least 10,000 turned it into a spectacle that far exceeded the concert hall. A choir of 1,000 sang a setting of “The Song of the Bell” under the Crystal Palace’s glass dome. The size and success of the event were staggering, and became the model for a British Mendelssohn Festival a year later, when a chorus of 3,000 performed the oratorio Elijah, with an orchestra including 250 string players. Mendelssohn, who loved London and lived there for long periods, was a friend of Albert and Victoria, and the royal couple recalled many hours of music-making together. When he died in 1847 they commissioned a bronze statue, exhibited in 1860 on the illuminated terraces at Crystal Palace, where crowds danced around it. 

The German community felt upstaged, and as the British embarked on a new era in their artistic life, the exiles’ newspaper Hermann couldn’t resist commenting: “Just let these poor Cockneys take a trip for once and learn what German art can do . . . These gentlemen forget that we possess a Mozart, Hayden [sic] and Weber, and in their ignorance don’t know that Händel, whom they forcibly remould as an Englishman, was born in Halle . . .”

Albert championed above all the orchestral music of the classical and Romantic periods. When he arrived in England the Queen’s brass band shocked him and he replaced it with a string orchestra. According to his biographer Roger Fulford, Lohengrin was first heard on English soil at Windsor. As Albert’s influence spread, these were the tastes that typified the repertoire at the Crystal Palace, where an orchestra of that name was formed and began giving Saturday concerts. A performance of Wagner’s Rienzi must have set ablaze, metaphorically, that vast greenhouse of a show space, set in its Versailles-like gardens.  

But it was not only the power of grand opera to which Wagner had given a unique northern turn, it was also the use of the grounds and involvement of the audience. The sheer scale of the Crystal Palace events showed how music could feature in the life of the people, and that was Wagner’s message in his völkisch — mythological dramas. No one minded the nationalistic element back in the 19th century. Indeed, according to the scholarship of the day, the Anglo-Saxons and the Germans were fellow Teutons, who had resisted Normanisation and retained their national essence, so of course they could and should share in music like this.  

The long-term south London resident Alfred Manns was conductor of the Crystal Palace Orchestra as its reputation soared. Manns, later knighted by Edward VII, was another naturalised German, and he followed directly in Albert’s footsteps, winning over the British to the symphony. Crystal Palace was the arena where the great Hans Richter conducted Wagner, and where Henry Wood got the idea for the Proms in 1895.

Though hostility had been building since the foundation of Bismarck’s Reich, and many Germans had returned to a country which now had its own employment and business opportunities to offer, this cultural partnership worked for half a century, during which many Germans resident in London, Manchester and elsewhere, married Britons. 

The First World War was a terrible shock to these residual cultural bonds. After 1914 the whole common cultural area had to be redivided and renamed. The Hanoverian royal family became the House of Windsor and Count Battenberg translated himself into Mountbatten. The Coburg Hotel became the Connaught and the Bechstein Hall the Wigmore. During the Great War Germans resident in Britain were interned and many were expelled. A British schoolteacher, forbidden to teach “German gymnastics”, hid the parallel bars under the stage. 

Gymnastics was the German community’s other great influence on Victorian culture, thanks to Ravenstein. Under his presidency of the German Gymnastic Society, a German gymnasium at King’s Cross flourished from 1860 both as a sports club open to all comers and also, inevitably, as a German cultural centre — for sport and culture alike were a matter of self-improvement. All over the country sports and athletics clubs were formed on the model of the Pancras Road Turnverein, and the Olympian movement began with a three-man committee, one of whom was Ravenstein.

But it was the music that really mattered. To draw a third British prime minister into the story, Arthur Balfour is reported to have said in 1922: “If the music of Germany were destroyed, we could not go on.” 

It’s a simple story, really. Germans came to this country out of admiration for our wealth and prosperity, and gave us their music as a leaving present. Albert helped to attract them. And then the theatre of war took the place of the symphony and the opera and nearly destroyed us both.