You are here:   Features > German Victorians Who Helped Transform Britain

 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.

View Full Article

Post your comment

This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.