Hamburg and Great Britain – a brief history of relations

May 6, 2011 in History of Hamburg's relations with Britain

Reproduced from “The British Consulate-General in Harvestehuder Weg” by Michael Ahrens (British Consulate-General, Hamburg, September 2003) by kind permission of the author.

The British feel at home in Germany’s “most anglophile city”, whose origins date back to the ninth century when the “Hammaburg” was built as the seat of Bishop Ansgar, the “Apostle of the North”. Emperor Barbarossa’s Charter of 1189 granted Hamburg the privilege of toll-free river and sea trade. Hamburg’s links with Great Britain began almost 100 years later.

Together with merchants from Cologne and Lübeck, Hamburg opened a central trading office in London in 1281. Known as the “Steelyard”, it was Hamburg’s bridgehead in England. In 1321, Hamburg joined the Hanseatic League. English sheep provided the wool for cloth, the most important product. In the 16th century, the cloth trade was organised by the “Right Worshipful Company of Merchant Adventurers of England”, an amalgamation of local traders’ associations which had formed out of religious fraternities. The Adventurers began trading cloth with Hamburg in 1567. The city provided the English Court guest house in Groninger Straße free of charge. In 1611, Hamburg concluded a contract with the Adventurers which gave them the right to hold church services in English for their members. The “English Church of St. Thomas à Becket”, situated on the Zeughausmarkt and completed in 1838, was the first non-Lutheran religious community in Hamburg and the oldest Anglican church on the continent. It is still used today and comes under the bishopric of London.

Trade between Hamburg and Great Britain flourished: Hamburg merchants were the only Germans to have a permanently reserved place at the London Stock Exchange. The prosperous herring trade was protected by bilateral agreements. In 1618, Hamburg became a “free imperial city”. Sir Paul Rycaut was the first British diplomat to be accredited in the Hanseatic city over 70 years later in 1689.

It was a tradition for the sons of Hamburg merchants to serve an apprenticeship with a British company. They “imported” the sport of rowing to Hamburg. As a result, the “Hamburg Rowing Club” was founded in 1836 and still exists today as the “Germania Rowing Club”. The British passion for equestrian sports also came galloping across to Germany in the early 19th century. The first ever horse race in Germany took place in 1835 on the “fields near Wandsbek”. The first Polo Club was founded in Hamburg just 60 years later.

The “Great Fire” of 1842 destroyed a third of the city. The British engineer William Lindley came up with the idea of stopping the fire through controlled explosions and thus prevented worse damage. Together with Alexis de Chateauneuf and Gottfried Semper, he proposed the complete reorganisation of the city centre immediately after the “Great Fire”. Lindley played a major role in the subsequent urban redevelopment measures. Under his leadership a modern sewerage system was constructed. A 62-kilometre network of pipes was built between 1844 and 1848. Lindley was also responsible for public lighting being changed to gas, and Hamburg’s first gasworks was built according to Lindley’s plans on the Grasbrook between 1843 and 1845. He also designed the first public baths and wash¬house on the Continent, built in Steinstraße in 1855.

Furthermore, Lindley established northern Germany’s first rail link, from Hamburg to Bergedorf. The locomotives were built by the British company Stephenson. A bronze statue by Hans-Jörg Wagner was erected at Baumwall in 1993 as a memorial to Lindley’s work.

The great British architect Sir George Gilbert Scott also worked in Hamburg after the “Great Fire”. Scott‘s design for the rebuilding of the Nikolaikirche was selected in a competition which attracted 42 entries and the church was rebuilt in Neo-Gothic style between 1846 and 1874.

Hamburg became part of the German Empire in 1871 and joined the German Customs Union when the free port was established in 1888.

The cholera epidemic of 1892 claimed 9,000 victims. The British historian Richard J. Evans documented this terrible year in his book “Death in Hamburg” (1990).

In the years up to 1914, there were extremely positive developments in relations between Hamburg and Great Britain. The British way of life, style of dress and know-how were admired and imitated. On 28 June 1904, King Edward VII was given an enthusiastic welcome as the first British monarch to visit Hamburg.

The First World War (1914 — 1918) cost 40,000 Hamburg citizens their lives. After the war, Hamburg‘s economy was also at rock bottom. A democratically elected city parliament was formed for the first time in the city’s history in 1919. The “Greater Hamburg Law” of 1937 incorporated Altona, Harburg-Wilhelmsburg, Wandsbek and other Prussian municipalities into Hamburg.

In the same year, Hamburg’s Alfred Toepfer Foundation F.V.S. awarded the “Shakespeare Prize” for the first time. It is dedicated to the Anglo-Saxon contribution towards the fostering of European culture and is awarded annually.1 The first winner was the British composer Ralph Vaughan Williams.

The Second World War (1939 — 1945) caused severe damage to the city. More than 45,000 people died in allied air raids; over half the residential accommodation was destroyed. The worst damage was inflicted by the bombing campaign “Operation Gomorrah” (25 July to 3 August 1943). More than 8,000 Jewish citizens were deported and murdered by National Socialists during the war.

The end of the war in Hamburg was signalled by British troops crossing the Elbe at Artlenburg on 29 April 1945. This is where the first talks on the surrender of Hamburg were held between German negotiators and the British. General Wolz capitulated on 2 May 1945 and British troops marched into the city the following day. At 6.25 p.m. General Wolz surrendered the city to Brigadier Spurling at the entrance to the town hall. On the same evening, the British military occupied the broadcasting centre of the “Reichssender Hamburg” on Rothenbaumchaussee. it was from there on 4 May that “Radio Hamburg” proclaimed itself not only the radio station for the Allied Military Government but also the first allied broadcasting station in occupied Germany.

As well as building up the broadcasting sector, the British military government helped to develop Hamburg as a media centre by licensing the weekly newspaper “Die ZEIT“ (in February 1946) and four new dailies. On 29 July 1945, the British Forces Network (later BFBS) began broadcasting from the Hamburg Concert Hall. The forces radio remained in Hamburg until 1954 when it moved to Cologne.

The “appointed city parliament” was convened on 27 February 1946. The first free elections since 1932 were held on 13 October 1946. Max Brauer (SPD) became Mayor. Henry Vaughan Berry was British “Regional Commissioner” from August 1946 until May 1949. During this period, Berry gained much respect for his reserved and decidedly civilian approach. During the harsh winter of 1946/7 he forbade the heating of the British administration offices.

The Anglo-German Club (AGC) was founded in Hamburg on 11 June 1948. The founders included the future Land Commissioner and British Consul-General John Dunlop, Axel Springer, members of the British Military Government along with figures from trade, industry, politics and culture. Henry Vaughan Berry was appointed its first chairman. The British Consul-General is still Honorary President of the AGC², together with the Mayor.

The town-twinning link between the London district of Leyton (Borough of Waltham Forest) and Hamburg-Wandsbek was established in 1950. Since 1960 the German side of the link has been cultivated by the “Leyton-Wandsbek Freundschaftsverbund e.V.”, whose former chairwoman, Margaretha Ziemer, was appointed an honorary “Member of the British Empire“ (MBE) by HM Queen Elizabeth II. In 1954, the Alfred Toepfer Foundation initiated the “Masefield concerts” in memory of the British Poet Laureate John Masefield. In the sameyear, Hamburg University entered into a twinning link with the University of Southampton, the first of 40 such links to date.

On 13 April 1962, the Beatles appeared at the opening of the Star Club on “Große Freiheit”. For the “mopheads”, Hamburg was the springboard for later worldwide success. HM Queen Elizabeth II and HRH Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, visited Hamburg on 28 May 1965. Tens of thousands lined the streets to greet the royal couple. They left Hamburg on board the Royal Yacht Britannia.

The “Hamburg Players”, an amateur drama group which puts on three plays a year at the Theater an der Marschnerstraße, was founded in 1965. The “English Theatre” at Mundsburg, which performs British and American classics of all genres, was founded 10 years later.

TRH The Prince and Princess of Wales came to Hamburg on 6 November 1987. It was the last stop on their tour of Germany. One of the places they visited was the English Church of St Thomas à Becket. The German edition of Prince Charles’ children’s book “The Old Man of Lochnagar” – the rights for which were obtained by the Hamburg publishing house Olaf Hille – was launched at the British Consulate-General in June 1993. In the same year, Prince Charles supported Hamburg’s UNICEF partnership by donating 10 signed copies of the book.

The British have also played – and continue to play – an important role in Hamburg‘s cultural life: Michael Bogdanov was Director of the Deutsches Schauspielhaus from 1989 to 1991, John Eliot Gardiner was Chief Conductor of the NDR Symphony Orchestra and Robin Gritton was Conductor of the NDR choir from 1994/5 to 1997.

In April 2003, there were approximately 70 British subsidiaries based in Hamburg. Firms such as Shell and Unilever even maintain their German headquarters in the Hanseatic City.

1)    The Shakespeare Prize was awarded for the last time in 2006.
2)    The British Ambassador in Berlin since the closure of the Consulate-General in 2006.

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