German ancestors

This guide was last updated in 2009

With a long history of German immigrants coming to Britain, many family researchers may find they have some Germanic ancestry. There are plenty of ways to find out more, as Peter Towey explains.

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.

Why Britain?

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.

Photo © Getty Images


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