19 November 1914 – Guest Post: She married an alien….

Of all the Wandsworth families shattered by war, there was one group which could expect little sympathy from their neighbours. These were the British wives and children of German husbands arrested and interned for the duration.

When war broke out there was a thriving German community in London. The 1911 census records 53,324 Germans in England and Wales, and about half of these were living in London[1]. Wandsworth was not by any means the largest centre of German settlement – in the East End and around Tottenham Court Road there were enough Germans to have established their own clubs, churches and even a German Hospital at Dalston – but here too there were Germans living in every part of the borough.

On 5 August 1914 the Aliens Restrictions Act was introduced in a single day. This required all German nationals to register immediately, usually at the nearest police station, and shortly thereafter the government started to round up German males of military age. German women were able to return home via a neutral country, but many German nationals had British-born wives and children, who had no wish to be sent to a hostile country. Technically the wives had become German nationals the moment they married, even when their husbands had arrived in England as infants, and themselves spoke little German.

The earliest date of internment recorded for a Wandsworth man is for Thomas Jacob Diener. By 8 August 1914 he had been picked up from his job as a waiter at the Waldorf Hotel Aldwych, leaving his 22 year old wife Lily and their baby daughter Margaret in Sheepcote Lane Battersea with no means of support.

Reciprocal arrangements between the combatant countries were reached to make provision for these families when the breadwinner was interned, and in the UK these were administered through the local Boards of Guardians who administered the Poor Law.

Wandsworth Board of Guardians received a letter dated 19 November 1914 letter from HC Monro, the Secretary of the Local Government Board (LGB) :

“The German and Austrian embassies are said to have placed funds at the disposal of the American embassy for the benefit of their distressed nationals, but they have said it cannot be used for British-born wives of interned persons and their children. The Government has decided that the Boards of Guardians should administer the Funds for these people, but from a special LGB fund.

It is only payable if

–           the husband is an interned alien

–           the wife is of British birth

–           the wife has insufficient resources

A uniform rate of 10s a week should be paid per woman, with 1s 6d for each dependent child, regardless of the husband’s former earnings. This is the London rate, a lesser amount being paid outside London.

The women are to be informed that this is not Poor Law relief.

It should be recorded separately and submitted to the LGB for the Treasury to reimburse the LGB. The register should include the name and address of the wife, names and ages of the children, maiden name of wife, place and date of internment of the husband, and his last address. The Boards should also seek reimbursement for any additional costs, eg if anyone is placed in an institution. The police should provide details, but if in doubt refer to the Prisoners of War Information Bureau, 49, Wellington St, Strand.”[2]

Wandsworth Board of Guardians then maintained a register of all those who applied for help. They received 182 applications from families who had no means of support because the husband had been interned, living all over the boroughs of Wandsworth and Battersea.

How Lily managed to keep herself and her baby until the support arrangements came into effect in November remains a mystery. While the relief fund kept her going through the war, Thomas disappears from UK records after the war. Like 84% of German internees still interned at the Armistice, he will have been repatriated at the end of the war, never to see his family again.[3] Lily remarried in 1940.[4]

Only six other families applied for funds in 1914, but as the war intensifies in 1915 we will see that the pressure to intern more aliens becomes irresistible.

[1] Quoted in “The Enemy in Our Midst : Germans in Britain during the First World War” Panikos Panayi, Oxford, 1991, p.10

[2] WABG/207/01, Wandsworth Board of Guardians Aliens Relief Register, held at the LMA.

[3] Cf Panakos Panayi, “Prisoners of Britain : German combatant and civilian internees during the First World War, p 279

[4] Births, Marriages and Deaths Index, Jul-Aug-Sep 1940, Registration district:Kensington

Volume Number:1a, Page Number:481


Ann Stephenson

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