South London housed one of the largest German communities in England in Victorian times. Forest Hill and Sydenham were home to German clerks and musicians but Champion Hill was the choice of a group of entrepreneurial German businessmen who went on to found City firms many of which still survive in some form today. Attracted to London by its increasing importance in world trade and to South London by the proximity of the City and the fresh air, the Germans of Champion Hill were clever, ambitious, became as rich as Croesus and though at first they moved in a strictly Teutonic world they later became assimilated, disappearing into the English upper middle classes and becoming ‘more English than the English’.

In 1829 Hermann Greverus, descended from a long line of German theologians, moved to England and settled in Denmark Hill. A charming, good-looking man originally intended for the church, Herman instead went into commodity broking, opening an office off Lombard St. He made a great deal of money both for his firm and for himself, earning the equivalent of around £150,000 a year from trading on his personal account alone. He was the London agent for Drake Brothers, then the largest sugar and tobacco shipper in Cuba, and often dealt with a young German executive there called Alexander Friedrich Kleinwort. Alexander Friedrich was ambitious and as Drake’s business expanded, so Greverus and Co also prospered. When Alexander came to London he stayed with the Greverus family and soon fell in love with Herman’s only child Sophie, asking for her hand in marriage. Alexander Kleinwort was a cautious man and their courtship lasted six years while he remained in Cuba, accumulating capital with the aim of starting his own business. He saw that the real profits would come not from physically trading commodities but from financing that trading. When he did decide to set the date he acted decisively however, and Sophie was given just 10 days notice of her wedding. She told her bridesmaids: ‘Do not trouble yourself much about dress. I have no time to be particular’. The couple married in 1852, Sophie was 32 and Alexander Friedrich 36 years old. They moved to Cuba but the climate did not agree with Sophie so after three years they returned to London where her father bought them The Glebe at one end of Champion Hill.

Sophie was a vivacious woman and, though weakened by bouts of tropical fever and difficult labours, she provided a convivial, sociable home for her highly driven, commercially minded husband. The Glebe was an extensive house, convenient for Alexander Friedrich’s office in the City to which he walked each day, yet in a salubrious rural location that was not yet part of London. It stood on a hill in its own large grounds with a view of the new Crystal Palace. The Kleinworts had more than a dozen live-in indoor staff alone with a further half a dozen gardeners and an unknown number of ‘dailies’ or adhoc staff. Alexander must have thought life was good as he surveyed his house, young family and flourishing business.

Alexander Friedrich and Sophie lived in an unassimilated German community. Germans imported both their domestic staff and their spouses from Germany. Known to some as ‘Little Germany’, Camberwell shops sold German food, toys and clothes and many displayed little signs in the windows: ‘Hier spricht man deutsch’.  Miss Stoffell the German dressmaker was employed by the wives of the German bankers, Mr Steiert the clockmaker mended the clocks of the large villas of Champion Hill. There were lectures from visiting German academics and recitals from German musicians. Around eighty German families lived within walking distance of each other and the Kleinworts socialised and did business with the Greveruses, Schroders, Beneckes, Donners, Huths and Brandts amongst others. Sadly, they were only married for eight years when Sophie died aged 40. Their eldest child, Minnie, was seven and Alexander, their youngest, only two. Their father had Alexander’s cot moved into his bedroom and by all accounts was loving and affectionate towards his children. A cousin later reminded them that Alexander Friedrich often spent his Saturday mornings playing with them in the chicken yard at The Glebe.

At first all four children were educated at home. They had lessons in the morning and in the afternoons went riding around Camberwell with their friends. Like many German fathers, Alexander Friedrich then sent his two sons Herman and Alexander, to school in Germany while Minnie and Sophie continued to be educated at home. Later still, the next generation would be educated at Dulwich College.

German families in Champion Hill had been worshipping at the ancient St Marien-Kirche at the Savoy Palace until it was demolished to make way for the Victoria Embankment. It then moved to Bloomsbury but by 1855 there was a large enough congregation for South London to merit its own church. Built in Windsor Road (now Walk) for £2,000 and paid for by local German families it held services in German for congregations of several hundred and helped to reinforce the sense of community among the German residents.

In 1875 an additional church was built in Forest Hill, partly due to expanding migration of Germans to the greener suburbs of South London but also due to theological differences; the two churches reflected the wider German Protestant divisions of the time. At first Windsor Road followed orthodox Lutheranism; the pastor reporting back to Germany that ‘The women are German and still very attached to the church. The proletariat is not much in evidence’. Their faith was similar in some respects to Puritanism but from 1871 began to move towards a more open version of Protestantism. The German families welcomed this change and it was said they wanted ‘Goethe and Schiller in the pulpit’. Schiller was certainly popular: in 1859 over 10,000 people, mostly German, attended a celebration of the centenary of his birth at Crystal Palace. The musical celebrations, torchlight processions, firework displays, speeches and poems were a staggering success, so much so that it was all repeated a year later in honour of Felix Mendelssohn.

Like other sons of merchant banking families, the young Kleinworts began clerkships in their father’s firm, walking to work with their father each morning. They were paid the same salary as any other clerk and Alexander Friedrich was determined they should learn every aspect of the firm before they took charge, sending them on an eighteen-month tour of the bank’s agents and clients around the world.

Both Kleinwort daughters married German cousins. Minnie married the deceptively British sounding Robert Martin who also lived on Champion Hill and Sophie met her husband John Charles Andreae, known as Carlo, when he came over from Germany to stay with his Martin cousins.
Minnie and Robert Martin set up home in Redcourt on Champion Hill.
Redcourt. Source: ideal-homes.org
Sophie and Carlo Andreae moved into Crestalta, Champion Hill which was opposite Redcourt. Carlo was a ‘jolly, exuberant’ man who would take his eldest sons and their Martin cousins out riding every day. Their sons went to Dulwich College along with their Andreae cousins. Sadly, Carlo died from pneumonia in 1888 when Herman was only 12 and the youngest child, Frank, was only one year old. Aunt Minnie wrote poignantly of how the children tried to cheer their mother up. Herman Andreae, was very like his father and was similarly described as ‘larger than life’.
 
In 1912 one of their daughters, Caroline, married Frank Trier, a civil engineer, who lived on Denmark Hill and had been at Dulwich College with her brothers. They were married in the German church of course and the bride’s brother, Rev Alexander Andreae, a Unitarian minister, officiated. Frank’s father, also named Frank, was instrumental in creating Ruskin Park. Caroline and Frank lived at Black Forest Villa on Champion Hill

The Germans brought their love of music with them from the old country, setting up the Camberwell German Choir and enjoying musical soirees in the villas of Champion Hill. It was while staying in the area that Felix Mendelssohn was inspired to write his lyrical ‘Spring Song’, originally entitled ‘Camberwell Green’. He had been engaged to perform in London in 1842 but finding the city too stuffy, he and his wife left central London to stay with her aunt, Mrs Benecke, on Denmark Hill. One day a picnic to Windsor Park was arranged but Mendelsohn stayed behind with the children (picnic fun was strictly for the grown-ups). The quaver rests and the staccato notes in Spring Song are said to represent the continual breaks in his piano playing as the children try to drag him away to join their games. Mendelssohn gave the piece to Clara Schumann as a birthday present. Later Berlioz came to visit another branch of the Benecke family on Denmark Hill and sang with the daughters of the house. He said the audience ‘drank it up like consecrated milk’. Richard Wagner also visited the Beneckes.

Marguerite Gunther was very rich, she had a personal fortune of £300,000, equivalent to millions today. Her father, Otto, was a cousin and business connection of the Kleinworts and one day Marguerite came home to be told by Otto, ‘There are seven umbrellas in the hall and they belong to seven suitors. Only one of them is worth considering: Herman Kleinwort’. Herman and Marguerite married and went on to have seven daughters. In 1900 moved to the Platanes, an imposing house which still survives on Champion Hill. Originally built eight years earlier for George Egmont Bieber, another German merchant, and named for German plane trees, The Platanes was close to other family members at the Glebe, Redcourt and Crestalta.

Alexander Friedrich had anchored his family firmly on Champion Hill. He used to visit his daughters every day on his way back from the office and on Sundays his children, their families and assorted governesses, nannies and nursemaids would decamp to The Glebe: ‘It was like an anthill’, Gussie Martin remembered. Christmas alternated between The Glebe and Crestalta and Grandpa Alexander would send the children into fits of laughter with his party trick of pushing his dentures in and out.

When Alexander Friedrich died his son, Alexander, as yet unmarried, continued to live at The Glebe. He had been a slightly depressed, aimless young man but when his brother-in-law Carlo died he took on the role of father figure to his sister Sophie’s children and this new purpose in life appeared to be the making of him. He supervised his nephews’ education, enrolling them at Dulwich College then sending them to Germany and Antwerp to perfect their languages and begin their business training. He took a more active role in the bank and he found himself a wife, Etiennette Girard.

All the Kleinworts were now extremely rich and began to follow the traditions of the English gentry while also being conscious that Champion Hill was losing its prestige. Alexander sold The Glebe and moved to Curzon St, buying a country estate in Sussex at the same time. Similarly Herman moved to Belgrave Square and had an estate in Kent, donating The Platanes to King’s College Hospital when he could not find a buyer for it. Herman was very much interested in health, especially his own: he paid his London doctor £500 and his Kent doctor £200 pa to visit him daily, regardless of whether he was ill or not. From being wrapped up in the ‘Little Germany’ of Camberwell, the Kleinworts began to socialise with the English aristocracy where the beautiful Marguerite Kleinwort caught the eye of the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII and Alexander received a baronetcy from Lloyd George ‘soon after writing a cheque for £20,000’. Sophie Andreae stayed loyal to Champion Hill and continued to live at Crestalta well into old age but her children moved out; her son Herman, for example, bought an estate in Hampshire and also bought three Hebridean islands, South Uist, Benbecula and Eriskay for sporting purposes.

In the build-up to the First World War there was an increase in anti-German feeling. German names were dispensed with or anglicised: just as the royal family became Windsor and the Battenbergs became Mountbatten, so the Gutentags became Goodays, the Waldsteins became Waltons. The Bechstein Hall became the Wigmore and even German shepherd dogs became known by the more euphemistic ‘Alsatian’. The Kleinworts however, resisted an associate’s suggestion that they change their name to Kenilworth, a nickname given to Alexander Friedrich when he arrived in England all those years before. The public was urged to boycott any ‘enemy alien’ establishments so the shops in Camberwell took down their ‘German spoken here’ signs and stopped selling German delicacies. There were frequent disturbances and Zollers, a bakery in Brixton, was surrounded by an angry mob of over five hundred people but the police managed to keep the peace. For the younger members of the German colony this must have been as baffling as it was frightening. Born and bred in England, educated in English schools, they found themselves ostracised and the target of attacks on both person and property. The Stock Exchange told members of German or Austrian birth not to attend until further notice. Although they did not have to apply for licences like their German-born employees, like many of German extraction they were placed under surveillance. A retired admiral was billeted as a ‘guest’ at Herman’s country residence which Herman found particularly insulting, especially as his daughters’ husbands were away fighting at the Front.

As London encroached on the pleasant backwater of Champion Hill and more and more fields were built over, members of the German colony dispersed, moving further into the countryside. The German community melted away: assimilated, name-changed and relocated. They sold or in some cases gave away the huge houses that were proving to be white elephants in the post-war economic climate, where servants were in short supply and it was easier to live in the country and commute to work. The German church was finally demolished in the 1970s after it had fallen into disrepair and used by a witches’ coven. There is little evidence for Little Germany now: only Frankfurt Road, named for a villa on Denmark Hill, remains.

Go to top