History of the British in Hamburg

February 7, 2012 in History of Hamburg's relations with Britain

Given Hamburg’s reputation as a mercantile city, the self-styled “gateway to the world”, it should come as no surprise that the relations between Hamburg and Britain were founded on trade.

The city’s links with England go back to 1281 when, together with merchants from Cologne and Lübeck, Hamburg opened a trading office in London, the Steelyard. In 1321, Hamburg joined the Hanseatic League, which maintained further trading posts on the east coast of England – in King’s Lynn and Boston – and in Aberdeen. Trade flourished, and Hamburg merchants were the only Germans to have a permanently reserved place at the London Stock Exchange.

It was not until the 16th century, however, that the English became established in Hamburg, when the Company of Merchant Adventurers moved its continental headquarters here and negotiated the contract that marked the beginning of the “English Church”. Consular relations date back to 1632, and in 1689 the historian Sir Paul Rycaut – an expert on the Ottoman Empire – was the first diplomat to be accredited to Hamburg, where he died in 1700.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the influence of the Merchant Adventurers had dwindled and the British in Hamburg were increasingly independent entrepreneurs. A good example is the Sloman family. William Sloman was a ship’s captain who moved with his family to Hamburg from Great Yarmouth in 1785, becoming a Hamburg citizen and establishing a ship broking company in 1798. His son, Robert Miles Sloman, inherited the company in 1800 and, despite the French occupation of Hamburg during the Napoleonic Wars, went on to open the first regular transatlantic service from Hamburg to New York. In 1851, he became a member of the first Hamburg Parliament. Today, Rob. M. Sloman is Germany’s oldest shipping company.

Few Britons can have had a more lasting impact on Hamburg than the engineer William Lindley. Born in London in 1808, Lindley visited Wandsbek as a teenager to learn German, returning in 1833 as a qualified engineer to build Hamburg’s first railway, linking the city with Bergedorf. Following the “Great Fire” of 1842, Lindley contributed to plans (with Alexis de Chateauneuf and Gottfried Semper) to reorganise the city centre. By the time he left Hamburg in 1860, Lindley had been responsible for changing public lighting to gas –Hamburg’s first gasworks were built to his plans in Grasbrook – constructing a 62-kilometre modern sewerage system and designing the first public baths and washhouse on the Continent, built in Steinstrasse. A pioneer of modern civil engineering, Lindley did much to improve the quality of life in 19th century Hamburg and establish it as a modern city. There is a statue of him near Überseebrücke.

It was in the 19th century and in the years up to 1914 that Hamburg laid the foundations for its claim today to be the most British city in Germany. The British passion for sport spread to the city, with the first horse race in Germany held on the “fields near Wandsbek” in 1835, the foundation the following year of Germany’s first rowing club, the Hamburger Ruder Club, by young Hamburg merchants apprenticed to British companies (today the Hamburger und Germania Ruder Club) and, in 1898, the establishment by Anglophile Hamburgers of the Hamburger Polo Club, the first in Germany. The British way of life, style of dress and know-how were admired and imitated. On 28 June 1904, just 10 years before the outbreak of war, King Edward VII was given an enthusiastic welcome as the first British monarch to visit Hamburg.

Hamburg-British relations in the first half of the 20th century were dominated by two World Wars, an enmity epitomised by the horrors of the German bombing of London and Coventry and the firestorm unleashed by Allied bombing of Hamburg in July 1943. The ruins of St Nicholas Church (the Nikolaikirche), completed in 1874 to plans by the British architect Sir Giles Gilbert Scott and destroyed in 1943, serve as a memorial and a symbol of reconciliation.

For many British men and women of our parents’ and grandparents’ generation, their first experience of Hamburg will have been as members of the military occupation forces or the civilian administration that governed the city in the post-war years. (It was not until 1958 that the last British garrison troops left Hamburg.) But some opted to stay, having met and fallen in love with people from Hamburg. It is they, together with the many who came to Hamburg from Britain and the USA for their jobs, who formed the backbone of the Anglican community in Hamburg in the post-war years before the demographic shift which saw St Thomas Becket become the inclusive, international community it is today. It is in part their legacy, together with that of the Merchant Adventurers and all those in between, that we are celebrating in this 400th anniversary year.

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