The North Sea has always been more of a highway than a barrier and, over the years, many groups of German-speaking people have made their way to Britain in the hope of a better life. When George I, the Elector of Hanover, came to the British throne in 1714, he was followed here by large numbers of Hanoverians and Brunswickers.
The 18th and 19th centuries saw a huge influx of German-speaking immigrants from all sectors of society. These included bankers and merchants, who came to the City of London, such as the Rothschilds and Barings; artists – Angelika Kauffmann and Johann Zoffany; musicians like Sir Charles Hallé, founder of Manchester’s Hallé Orchestra, and the numerous German bands that played in British cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
There were also craftsmen such as piano makers, cabinet makers, tailors and furriers; shopkeepers, particularly hairdressers, pork butchers and bakers; sailors, soldiers and even labourers – especially in the sugar refining industry, which was largely German-owned, -run and -manned until the mid 19th century.
States of flux
Germany as a state did not exist until the German Empire was formed in 1871. Until then, the German-speaking parts of Europe were divided into many separate states ranging from the tiny Schaumburg-Lippe and the city of Hamburg to major European states such as Prussia. The European wars over the previous 100 years led to many smaller domains being incorporated into larger ones.
As Prussia conquered less powerful regions including Hanover, Schleswig-Holstein, and much of Hesse in the mid 19th century, many of their citizens fled to Britain. The crack-down by the rulers of the larger German states on the attempt to set up a democratic German Confederation in 1848 also led to many political refugees – among them Karl Marx – fleeing to London.
The inpouring of poor Central European Jews from the 1880s onwards, however, did not include many Germans; most came from Russia. It was in the 1930s that German Jews, escaping from the Nazi threat and the Holocaust, started coming to the UK.
But why did they come here? Until 1914, there were few controls over immigration. People could set up in business anywhere they wished and Protestantism, the faith of many of the incoming Germans, was openly accepted in the UK.
Also, Britain was the centre of the Industrial Revolution and the Empire, which meant there was a growing market and demand for willing and skilled workers. But in many cases – especially in the mid 19th century and the 1930s and 1940s – the principal reason to come here was to escape tyranny.
If you want to find out more about your German ancestors, your first move should be to join the Anglo-German Family History Society and/or the Jewish Genealogical Society of Great Britain, both of whose members have many years of expertise.
Town and local archives
There are large numbers of records kept in local archives in Germany, which should gladden genealogists’ hearts. The organisation of these varies in different parts of Germany but look for the local Stadtarchiv or town archive to start with. If there isn’t one, try the local Kreisarchiv or county archive.
The kind of information they may hold includes detailed records of everyone who lived in the town or village. These Einwohnermelde (inhabitants’ listing) records were required to be kept from 1876, though many areas have similar records from much earlier; Leipzig holds them from 1811. The records (on cards) list each family, where they came from and went to, their politics and even any suspected criminal activities.
There are no national census records, but many individual states did hold headcounts similar to the British censuses at various times. Few are indexed. The 1819 census for the Duchy of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, however, is particularly detailed and has been indexed by the Immigrant Genealogical Society in the USA.
A very useful source in the former Kingdom of Württemberg is its Familienregister or family registers. By legislation in 1807, the local Catholic priest was required to keep a detailed register of everyone living in the parish – whatever their religion. This recorded everyone alive in 1807 – organised by family – and lists, with dates, the birth, marriage and death of everyone.
It also holds records for immigrants to the parish including where they had come from, as well as where anyone leaving the parish went to. So it could include family details back to the mid 18th century! Most of these have been microfilmed by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) Church and are available in Salt Lake City.
As each town or city in Germany has a unique administrative history, it is worth asking what other goodies your ancestral archive may hold. You never know!
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