German Churches

The first wave of German settlers in London were merchants. The second wave brought artisans, mainly in sugar refining, confectionery and later the meat trade, but there were also bookbinders and sellers. Many settled in East London, remaining until the First World War: at one time there were 16,000 Germans in the area. Most were Protestants (Lutheran and Reformed), but some were Roman Catholics and later, of course, many Jews fleeing poverty and persecution.

German Lutheran Church: St George's

Georgenkirche (St George's) Alie Street - left in 1920 and today - is the the oldest surviving centre of German worship, but was the fifth London congregation to be founded. The first was the Hamburg Church (Hamburger Lutherische Kirche), granted a royal charter by Charles II in 1669 (when non-Anglican churches were still banned), which met in Trinity Lane in the City until 1874, when it moved to Dalston. The second was Marienkirche, the church of St Mary-le-Savoy, meeting by William III's permission from 1694 at his chapel in the Savoy Palace in the Strand (near the site of the Savoy Hotel), and eventually moving to Bloomsbury as part of a student centre. The third was the Reformed congregation of St Paul, whose members were fleeing from religious perecution in the Palatinate, and who also met at the Savoy from 1696: see below. And in 1700 the Deutsche Hofkapelle, the German Court Chapel, was founded in St James' Palace by Prince George of Denmark, the husband of the future Queen Anne. When George I, who spoke little English, came over from Hanover in 1714, he installed his court preacher as incumbent, and this continued with George II. Thus it served mainly the royal household; it was subject to the Bishop of London and used parts of the Book of Common Prayer in German. This odd tradition continued until the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, when a successor congregation was established in South Kensington.

There were few links between these congregations, which were 'little republics', though the two Savoy congregations exchanged preachers and had an annual church feast in which followers of Luther and Calvin joined together so peacefully and cheerfully that you would think they were one congregation.

St George's was founded in 1762 by Dietrich Beckmann, a wealthy sugar refiner. His workers formed most of the original congregation, together with East End merchants from the Hamburg church. Most of the original interior of the Alie Street church survives, including the ground floor and gallery box pews and the double-decker pulpit and sounding board. On the wall above hangs a pre-1801 coat of arms of King George III and two carved timber Commandment Boards in German. The Royal Arms, obligatory at the time in Anglican churches and adopted by others as a mark of loyalty, recall the connection with Queen Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent, who was patron of the schools from 1819 (see below). Like the other churches, which do not survive, it was very similar to Anglican parish churches being built at this time (see P. Guillery St George's German Lutheran Church, Whitechapel in the Georgian Group Journal 14 (2004) pp89-96).

The first pastor (1763-99) was Gustav Anton Wachsel, Beckmann's cousin, appointed at the age of 26. He was born in Halberstadt in East Frisia, on the eastern edge of the Harz (in former East Germany) around 1735. His father was a partisan against the 'French invaders' of the area and was shot by them in 1761. At the conclusion of the Seven Years War (1756-63), a committee in London petitioned Waschel's alma mater, the Georg August University of Göttingen, for a recognition of the help he had given to escaping refugees:
It was he who provided not only for their physical needs but also for their spiritual, to the best of his ability. He accommodated, exhorted, taught and consoled these people and on their behalf, inserted articles about their plight in the London newspapers. These left a deep impression on the population who strove to help. It was therefore Herr Wachsel who had the good fortune and pleasure to be the major instigator in the alleviation of their misery. 

In the summer of 1764 Pastor Wachsel appealed in the press for help for a group of 600 Germans from the Palatines and Würzburg who were attempting to make their way to the islands of St John and St Croix in the Virgin Islands, had been abandoned in London without money or resources, and could not speak English; 200 were confined on their ship, unable to pay for their passage, and the rest were camping out in Goodman's Fields by St George's Church (sketch drawings of the campsite are extant). The Tower of London provided 200 tents to protect them from the heavy rains and a collection of £4000 was raised from 1200 donors. King George III intervened and enabled them to travel, in October of that year, to South Carolina (at that time British territory) instead, setting sail from Gravesend on three ships: the Dragon, the Union and the Planters Adventure. The Committee Minute booklet of 1765, printed by Haberkron, along with many contempoary newspaper articles, give more details. Family websites of descendants, now spread across the USA, chronicle the help they were given by the relief committee, led by Wachsel. See here and here for examples, relating to the group's time in London. The University of Göttingen granted him an honorary doctorate in 1765.

During his time, a 'curious custom' arose of having the beadle stand with his mace outside the altar rails during the reading and prayers - no-one knew why, unless it was to quieten the children. Wachsel published an edition of Luther's Shorter Catechism in German and English. In 1767 the church had 430 members. A school was established in 1765, aiming to populate the congregation in the future; it became St. George's German and English Elementary School in 1805, offering a full range of subjects, and supported by voluntary contributions. There was a tension here: many German settlers assimilated quickly, marrying English wives and generally becoming 'British'. When Wachsel attempted to introduce English services for second generation and 'mixed' families (as did the other German congregations) there were protests: his wages were stopped, he was locked out, and a 25-year battle ensued, ending with a court verdict that he could only hold services in German. There were also struggles about the church constitution: he was conservative and autocratic, but his north German members wanted rules and participation. And they also objected to music in worship, fearing that the church might become a 'playhouse' [see Goodman's Fields]. So numbers fell.

His successor, from 1799 until his death in 1843, was Dr Christian A.E. Schwabe, who rebuilt the congregation, to between 400 and 500. He was Queen Victoria's German tutor. In 1806 a Society of Friends of Foreigners in Distress was established. There was also a Ladies' Clothing Society, providing clothing for nearly a hundred poor German children a year. School numbers in 1838 were 75 boys and 35 girls.

Dr Louis Cappel was the next pastor. In his time the churchyard and crypt were closed (1853) and there were no further burials. In 1864 he ministered to Franz Müller [pictured right], a tailor who was convicted of the murder of Mr Briggs on the North London Railway. The trial, and public execution, aroused great public interest. He denied the charge, and a 'German Protection Society' was created to plead for clemency. Cappel was with him on his last day when he went to the scaffold, at which point he confessed; reports say that a fuller confession would have followed if the hangman had not been so anxious to proceed. See further George H. Knott Trial of Franz Müller (Read Books 2006).

School numbers swelled in this period, and a new building was opened in 1877, designed by E.A. Gruning, the pastor's son-in-law [left - with a rear view of the infant school behind]. It was financially supported by Wilhelm Heinrich Göschen, and others such as George Frederick Vorwerg whose will created a charitable trust (and who also left an engraved picture of the creation of the world, and £5 for a mourning ring, to Louis Cappel). It was the only German school with a nursery, for children over the age of two, to enable poor mothers to work. Relying on donations from wealthier members, it survived until 1917. The 1886 religious census of London recorded attendances of 102 (morning) and 83 (evening).

A new, and characteristically German, organ was installed the the firm of Walcker in 1886, using the 1794 case by John England. It was rebuilt in 1937, and restored in 2004, and is used for regular recitals.

Goerg Mätzold was the pastor from 1891 to 1930. He brought nurses from Germany in 1903 (when the church had 166 in the congregation), and founded Ostdiakonieverein, a social welfare organisation for the East End. The school canteen provided meals for pupils and also some parents. Julius Rieger followed him (1930-53); during the Nazi period he set up a relief centre for Jewish refugees from Germany who were provided with references to travel to England. He founded the church magazine Der Londoner Bote.

Sunday worship was transferred to St Mary's in Bloomsbury in 1996, though there is a monthly midweek service and special events - including a 2006 BBC Songs of Praise to mark the centanery of Dietrich Bonhoeffer's birth, and the premiere of Richard van Schoor's Mass, on texts by Bonhoeffer.

The church is now the base of the Historic Chapels Trust, for the conservation of non-Anglican places of worship. Following a break-in in 1995, the library of Gustav von Anton (750 volumes, kept in the vestry) was transferred to the British Museum. The building was restored at a cost of £900,000 (including the organ) and re-opened by the Duke of Gloucester in 2004.

See here for more about Alie Street.

German Evangelical Reformed Church: St Paul's

The third German congregation in London, meeting at the Savoy Palace (see above) was formed of immigrants from the Palatinate who were of the Reformed (Calvinist) tradition. In 1715 there were only 20 paying members, and 60 others; the pastor's stipend was provided by their patron, King Friedrich I of Prussia. Numbers increased, to between three and four hundred, under Dr Carl Gottfried Woide (1768-90): he was an eminent orientalist, on the staff of the British Musuem, and also chaplain of the Dutch Court Chapel. In 1771 a new church was built in Duchy Lane, Savoy, on the site of a former French church.
When the Savoy Palace was vacated for the building of Waterloo Bridge, this church was demolished in 1816, and a new church in Hooper Square, off Leman Street, was consecrated in 1819.  This brought them into the heart of the German working class colony - artisans, tailors, butchers and cobblers from Westphalia, the Rhineland, Hessen and Frisia: the businessman disappears, and German craftsmen, living under difficult conditions in the East, arrive. This move, plus attachment in 1822 to the Prussian church union, merging the Calvinist and Lutheran traditions, ended its purely Reformed tradition. The church had an adjacent burial ground, though the 1873 Ordnance Survey map shows that the church schools had been built over part of it.

The pastor from 1822 to 1858 was Johann Gerhard Tiarks (1794-1858), who published A Practical Grammar of the German Language (1834). He came from a large and distinguished family and studied at the University of Heidelburg, and married an English wife; several of his descendants became Anglican clergy, and Captain Mark Philipps was his great-great-grandson. In his time schools for boys (1832) and girls (1852) were established. Sunday worship was advertised for 10.45am and 6pm, with the Lord's Supper at Christmas, Easter, Whitsunday and the first Sunday in October - seats to be had in the vestry.

During Theodor Kübler's time (1858-75) butchers, from the Würtemberg area, predominated in the congregation. In 1887, railway works forced another move, when the bridge over Leman Street into Fenchurch Street was constructed, and on the Hooper Street site were built a warehouse and Pump House - a hydraulic pumping station to power the hoists for wagons at the London, Tilbury & Southend Railway's goods depot on Commercial Road, between Gower's Walk and Backchurch Lane (see here for more details). Now restored [left], it is a Grade II listed structure; see here for a nearby hydraulic accumulator tower. The congregation moved to Goulston Street, Aldgate. German assimilation proceeded apace, and the schools were closed in 1896, and sold to the Jewish Missionary Society.The sugar factories had closed, and their workers moved away; however, in 1903 there were 175 at the morning and evening services.

Heinrich Deicke was pastor from 1905.  From 1933-35 the theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer [right] was pastor at St Paul's, before he returned to Germany and set up the Confessing Church seminary, and became involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler. (He is arguably the greatest theologian and pastor ever to have ministered within the confines of our parish.) The church was bombed in 1941, and it merged with St George's Lutheran Church. The Goulston Street site is now part of London Metropolitan University, and in 2009 a blue plaque commemorating Bonhoeffer was unveiled there in memory of Bonhoeffer, who is commemorated in the Anglican calendar as 'Lutheran pastor and martyr' on 9 April.
This is the American Episcopalian collect for his day:
Gracious God, the Beyond in the midst of our life, you gave grace to your servant Dietrich Bonhoeffer to know and to teach the truth as it is in Jesus Christ,
and to bear the cost of following him;
Grant that we, strengthened by his teaching and example, may receive your word and embrace its call with an undivided heart;
through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

The Meissen Agreement - a common statement between the Church of England and other British Anglican churches and the Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland (EKD), signed in 1988 and gradually implemented in the following years, enables us to recognise each others' ministries and work closely together, and there have been many positive fruits. It stands alongside other similar ecumencial agreements, such as Porvoo (with Baltic and Nordic Lutheran Churches) and Reuilly (with French Reformed and other churches), all of which have had significant practical consequences in East London.

German Wesleyan Church

A congregation was formed at Grosvenor Street Stepney, which then moved to Coopers' Hall (off the Commercial Road, with its entrance on Berner Street - first right on Goad's 1899 insurance map), before acquiring its own premises at 262 Commercial Road, more or less over the East London line - second right. A missionary sister took care of German housemaids. Initially the church was served by English preachers who spoke some German, but from 1874 Paul Schweikher was its minister; in 1870 there were 130 'full members'. An account from that year describes a congregation of about 100 of equal numbers of men and women; there was nothing except the language to remind one that it was other than an ordinary English meeting. It has a mix of comfortable tradespeople with the working classes, to whom the emphasis on simple gospel preaching, stressing conversion and the after-life, appealed, and gave a sense of community belonging. The 1886 religious census of London records attendances of 84 (morning) and 97 (evening), with Jakob Urech as minister; J. August Wiesenauer was also a regular preacher. (Back in Germany, both were members of the German Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church of the USA - Urech as superintendent of the Heilbronn district.) In 1903 the attendance was 108, and by 1913 there were 220 members, of whom for a time a number were commuting back to the church once the sugar factories had closed - the reasonably well-off from the south and west, the poorer from the north and further east (though a new chapel had been built in Canning Town in 1893). The newer German Wesleyan congregations in Bloomsbury and Fulham benefitted from the aspiring classes.

German Catholic Church

A 'German chapel' for Roman Catholic settlers in Britain was established near Mansion House in 1809 by two priests (Swiss and Austrian); its dedication included St Boniface, in English 'Wynfrid', a Benedictine from Devon known as 'the apostle to the Germans'. In 1862 they acquired the Methodist Zion Chapel in Adler [formerly Union] Street, Whitechapel (just outside our parish), which was rebuilt in 1875 following a collapse. Bells from the nearby Whitechapel Foundry were added, and a primary school and a range of welfare and cultural organisations were established. The 1886 religious census listed attendance as 344 (morning) and 407 (evening). Charles Booth, in Life and Labour of the People in London (1902) commented:
The German Catholics have a special church in Union Street, near St. Mary’s, Whitechapel, which is filled every Sunday morn­ing and evening with a very devout congregation, drawn largely from the working classes. The remarkable feature of this church is the bachelors’ club which is connected with it, or with which it is connected, for the backbone of the mission seems to be the club. The full members are all unmarried men, mostly young. A married man can only be an honorary member; a rule made to avoid all chance of petticoat government. The club, which adjoins the church, is open every evening, but its activities are greatest on Sunday. On that day it opens at 10 a.m., closing at 11 o’clock for Mass; and after the service the members enjoy a glass of Munich beer. Then some dine at the club, but the greater part go home. At 4 o’clock, when the priest gives a short address to the members, the club is again full, and amusements, billiards, &c., fill the time till 7, when the club again closes for the evening service. After­wards ladies are admitted. The entertainments of the club include lectures, concerts, and dramatic performances. The priest is its president. Perfect order is maintained. It is not a solitary institution, but to be found, we are told, wherever there are many German Catholics. More than a thousand of such clubs exist in various parts of the globe, affiliated in such fashion that to be a member of one is to be welcome at any other, wherever it may be. Amongst the members there is, no doubt, something of that mixture of class which seems to be always practicable under Catholicism.

In 1903 the Pallottine Fathers took charge of the church; in that year, there were 670 attending worship. Slightly damaged by a Zeppelin raid in 1917, the mission continued, and the church was consecrated by the Archbishop of Cologne in 1925.

But it was destroyed in the Blitz in 1940, and worship continued in temporary accommodation until a fine new church, by Plaskett Marshall & Partners, was consecrated in 1960. It has a distinctive campanile, and the Wynfrid Centre provides residential and conference accommodation. The church has also for many years been the base for chaplaincy to the Maltese community who first settled in and around Cable Street.

See here for a fuller account of this church's history.

See here for an overview of current provisions for German Christians in London, and for more historical detail, Susanne Steinmetz 'The German Churches in London, 1668-1914' (chapter 4 of ed. Panikos Panayi Germans in Britain since 1500 (Hambledon Press 1996), which comments
For Germans and other European minorities in Britain during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, religion played a less important role [than for Jews] in the maintenance of ethnicity, allowing cultural activity to play a larger part. Amongst Germans hundreds of clubs must have existed during the Victorian and Edwardian years, catering for both the middle and the working classes and for a wide variety of interests, reflecting the situation of German communities in other parts of the world. German clubs, or Vereine, in London were described in an article by Count Armfelt in 1903, who outlined the activities of both working class and middles class organisations. Charles Booth's survey of London at the end of the nineteenth century identified a mixture of working class and middle class bodies in the East End, including the United German Club, with 400 members in 1881, the Sonnenscheine and Niremberg's in Whitechapel, the German Club and a German Bakers' Club in St George's, and a German Social Club, as well as a German Dramatic Club in Shoreditch. In addition, clubs frequented by the highest stratum of German society in Britain existed in cities throughout the country. In London these included the British Wagner and Goethe Societies, the German Athenaeum, and the Turnverein, or German Gymnastic Society ...

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