Individual Stories

Adolph Ahlers

Nicholas Adolphus Ahlers had been a well-to-do North East businessman and Honorary German Consul in Sunderland until war was declared in 1914. Both he and his wife Emma were naturalised, as were their three surviving children (two had died early): May, Edgar and Herbert. Adolph was tried for treason in December 1914, accused of arranging for enemy aliens to serve in the German Army. He had been helping young men of German origin to travel home, encouraging them to leave and paying for their passage. Adolph was sentenced to death but his explanation was accepted on appeal and he was released on 19th December 1914. That evening anti-German riots broke out in Sunderland.

The family left the North East, moving to Surbiton in Surry and changing their name to Anderson. They must have been horrified by a report in The Times of 17 May 1915: “It may surprise people to learn that ex-consul Ahlers, of Sunderland, is living under an assumed name at Surbiton.”

He was interned in July 1915 in the camp at Islington. Emma was interned herself in February 1916. Sent to Aylesbury and then Holloway jail in London, she seems to have been increasingly distressed.

Emma Ahlers was 46 when she died after taking an overdose of Veronal in her prison cell. They found a letter under her pillow, addressed to the husband she had not seen for 15 months: "My darling Addi, How I long to see you. I cannot stand this present life any longer. Addi, you won't think badly of me for doing away with myself. Perhaps they will come and let you see me now. I have been very grateful for all your love all the twenty-five years of our married life".

Eduard Friedrich Philipp and Sophie Bittermann

Simon Wood writes about his great grandfather:

Eduard Friedrich Philipp Bittermann was born in Kiel, in Schleswig-Holstein in the far north of Germany, on 13 September 1867. Having been evacuated in the Second World War, he died in Hexham, Northumberland on 8 April 1942. He had travelled to North Shields some time before 13 July 1896 because, on that date, he there married Sophie Sieber. She was born on 30 October 1874, making her seven years younger than her husband and died shortly before the war in North Shields on 22 January 1939. She was another German immigrant who had followed her siblings to Tyneside, although she hailed from the opposite end of Germany, namely Schwäbisch Hall, in the area of what is now Baden-Württemberg known as Hohenlohe. Together they had four children, all born in North Shields. The family initially lived at 3 Ferryboat Landing, 28 Clive Street, in North Shields where Eduard ran his chandlery business, principally directed at servicing the many German vessels that plied between Germany and the Tyne.

Frieda Fiedler

Carol Hunt tells the story of her great-grandmother Annie Fiedler after the internment of her husband Theodor Gotthilf (Theo). The photograph shows her grandmother Frieda.

Back in Shadforth , the family s land was confiscated by the government , in case they signalled to the enemy and their landlord evicted them. An Irish family took them in, initially, but because they were ostracised and verbally abused , Annie decided to take her three younger children back to her family in Newcastle. Her parents owned ‘The Robin Adair’, a pub made famous by the song Blaydon Races, and our grandmother had an aversion to pubs, probably as having lived in one as a teenager. Annie and the girls, having never worked in their lives, did a variety of jobs to make ends meet. Caroline and our grandmother Frieda, knitted baby clothes to sell to Fenwick’s. All three did cleaning jobs and Carrie eventually went into service. Annie took a job at Armstrong’s factory; it was one of her colleagues there who reported her to the authorities for writing to Theo via a friend in Switzerland (she was spying on Annie and had spotted the letter ready to post in Annie s bag. ) The letter was intercepted and Annie was arrested and charged with communicating with the enemy. She appeared at court where, thankfully , an enlightened magistrate decided that the family had suffered enough and dismissed the case.

Max and Albert Holzapfel

In 1881, the Holzapfel brothers, Max and Albert, German-born, British by adoption, went into business with a third partner, Charles Petrie, mixing paint by hand in a shipyard shed in Newcastle on the River Tyne. Right from the start in the early days they had their sights set on growing into an international company. They developed a distinctive logo and brand, The Red Propeller. They were very successful and moved to larger premises in Gateshead and at the same time modernised their production. They moved again in 1904 to Felling on Tyne . They built a model factory there as their main base. Progress was made in 1889 when they built a factory in Russia. This was soon followed by factories in Germany, Italy and Denmark. In 1901, they opened their first operation in America situated in Brooklyn, New York and registered in New Jersey. By 1914 they were so successful that they opened new factories in Japan , France and Sweden. During the First World War , because of the military uses for their products, they became even more successful. They had expanded to nine countries in all.

They now were known as International Paints and moved their headquarters to London. Between 1918 and 1939 they expanded to a further six countries. At this time they stated to explore the domestic market for their products.

During World War Two they continued to operate supplying paints and coatings for military uses for the Allies. In 1968 they were taken over by the multi national company Courtaulds. AkzoNobel took over Courtaulds in 1998. The Coatings and Sealants division was the most profitable part of the company.

John Frederick Louis Sieber

John Frederick Louis Sieber, who went by his paternal grandfather’s name of Louis, had attended Armstrong College in Newcastle which was part of Durham University.

On 1 September 1914, just weeks after the declaration of war against Germany, he was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant with the 6th Battalion (also called the Pioneer Battalion), East Yorkshire Regiment.

Sean Mattimore, the grandson of Louis’ younger sister Lena, has always been fascinated by him. “My dad had his sword, we’ve got his Woodbine cigarette case with the Woodbines still in, it’s got the dints in it of the bullets. He was in the Officer Training Corps. At that time going to university, you were guaranteed to be an officer, weren’t you? In September 1914 he went to Sandhurst and was commissioned. His name is in the Book of Remembrance in the chapel at Sandhurst. The Pioneers, they were the ones that cut the barbed wire and reached trenches, he had quite a difficult job, and obviously, he was commanding men in a British regiment, with the surname Sieber, that must have been a challenge. “

Having disembarked at Marseille on 10 July 1916, Louis died on 4 October 1916 after a short period in hospital having been wounded on the Somme by the German enemy. He is buried just north of Boulogne in a marked grave.

Fritz Lang

Erika Martin remembers:

My father Fritz Lang (standing) owned a butcher's shop in Southwick in Sunderland when war broke out. He was interned on the Isle of Man in 1914 and remained there for the duration of the war. He wasn't treated badly, but the endless boredom etched itself on his mind. He worked with a joiner to keep himself occupied. After the war my family lived in Germany, but many years later we returned to England. My father didn't hold a grudge, but he refused to visit the Isle of Man ever again, he used to say: “You'll never get me back there.”

August Lebrecht

August Lebrecht (known as George) had come to Britain in 1872 and married an Englishwoman, Dorinda. They had two children but lost their boy at the age of three in 1883. Dorinda died in 1910 and by the time the war started George was living with his married daughter Nellie Brass in Byker, Newcastle. He clearly did not mind hard work – at the age 70 he was still employed as a labourer in charge of patterns for Hawthorn Leslie, a post he had held for over 40 years. German he may have been, but he still had a place in this munitions factory. His employers appealed successfully to the Aliens Advisory Committee to keep George with them: he was too valuable to lose. The personal guarantees they offered won the day and George worked on. He remained in Byker until his death in 1921.

Lena Sieber

Sean Mattimore, the grandson of John Frederick Louis Sieber’s younger sister Lena, remembers:

When they were putting all the shop windows out their son was probably in Gallipoli by then, but there were these people from South Shields putting the windows in and burning out the German shops. This was a subject that never got spoken about at all. My grandmother never mentioned it. There was a whole part of her life just shut off. Obviously it must have been quite traumatic, you have got this little life going on, you’re five years old, then your house burns down and then you lose your brother. He was a High School champion in athletics, you kind of go from this 16 year old boy winning all of these trophies and going to Durham University, a good looking man as well, and next thing he’s gone, isn’t he. My grandmother kept most of her heritage locked away. She didn’t speak German at all. It was only when she had a stroke that she started speaking the language again. She was born in 1911. I guess after the riots and everything that had happened you just tried to fit in.

The photograph shows Amalie, Dora and Lena Sieber.

Robert Ropner

Emil Hugo Oscar Robert Ropner was born in Magdeburg (Prussia) in 1838. Both of his parents died of cholera when he was ten. They left enough money for him and his nine siblings to get a basic education, but at the age of 19 Robert and a friend decided to run away to Australia. They reached the port of Hamburg, where they found a vessel bound for the new world. But there was only one job on offer, so Robert’s friend sailed for a new life on the other side of the globe. Another vessel in the port was about to depart. It was the SS Dora, bound for West Hartlepool. Robert climbed aboard. The voyage was so stormy and Robert was so seasick that he vowed never to go to sea again.

He arrived in England without a penny in his pocket or a word of English in his vocabulary. But the dockside of West Hartlepool was booming. Durham coal was being exported and the ships were returning laden with Baltic timber for the pits. He got a job in a bakery and married the baker’s daughter. He got a better job working for Thomas Appleby’s firm of coal exporters. In 1868, he launched Appleby’s first steamship. In 1875 he launched his own line of ships. By the 1880s, Robert had one of the largest lines in the world. In 1888, he bought the North Shore shipyard on the Tees at Stockton. It soon thrived, and became the third largest in the country, employing 1,500 people. Robert’s career flourished even further. He was elected to West Hartlepool Council and Durham County Council. He made Preston Hall in Stockton his home. He became a Colonel in the First Battalion Durham Light Infantry. He was Mayor of Stockton in 1893, became the town’s Conservative MP in 1900 and was knighted for services to shipping.

Ropner’s of West Hartlepool lost 27 steamships during the First World War. Robert Ropner died in 1924, aged 85.

Theo Fiedler

Carol Hunt tells the story of her great-grandfather:

Our great-grandfather , Theodor Gotthilf Fiedler (1869-1942) came from Künzelsau, in the Hohenlohe region of Baden-Württemberg in South West Germany. He emigrated to England in 1884 aged 15, to be apprenticed to a German butcher , Mr Heine. By the time of the 1911 census, he had settled in Shadforth , Co. Durham where he worked for the Co-operative stores as a pork and beef butcher, as well as running a small-holding where he reared his own pigs. He married Annie Lowes from Newcastle and the couple had four children, Theo junior, Caroline, Frieda(our grandmother. 1901- 2000), and Ernest Lois who was born in 1905. When war broke out in 1914, Theo senior , who was fiercely proud of being German and had never been naturalised, was arrested and sent to the Isle of Man internment camp as an enemy alien. Theo junior , who was 17 at the time, volunteered for the British Army ~ changing his surname to Fielder ~ and, before he left for France, travelled to the Isle of Man in uniform in a futile attempt to persuade the authorities to release his father. Theo Senior became very ill and because he had two unmarried sisters who worked for the German Red Cross and were able to pull strings, he was exchanged for a sick British prisoner and sent back to Kunzelsau, where he lived with his sisters and regained his health. However, like other returnees , he didn t have an easy time there; these people were regarded as British and treated with suspicion by their fellow Germans. After the Armistice, Theo Senior was refused re-entry into Britain. Annie and the children wrote , pleading his case , to The Home Office once a week for several years and eventually , in 1927, they relented and he came home.

Theo Fiedler jun.

Theo Fiedler jnr. who had tried to convince the authorities on the Isle of man to release his father from internment, changed his surname to Fielder at the age of 17 and volunteered for the British Army. Once in France the only job he was allowed to do was collecting the dead bodies from the battlefield, often under fire . He did survive the war but, not surprisingly, was severely traumatised and suffered from shell shock.

Emma Duemmler

Sandra Armstrong remembers: My grandma was about 15 years old at the time and her little sister several years younger. Her name was Emma Dummler although her surname was spelled as. My great grandfather had a pork butchers shop on Coatsworth Road in Gateshead and when he died it passed on to Emma and Florence’s elder brother, Fredderick. As a child I remember visiting the shop and having tea in the flat above.

Johann and Margareta Steinbrenner

Fritz and Wilhelmina (Minnie) Gotz (Goetz)

Susan Runham:

My grandparents were Fritz and Wilhelmina (Minnie) Gotz (Goetz). Minnie was born in England, Middlesbrough I think. Her mother was Margareta Steinbrenner, nee Kaufman, and her father was Johan Steinbrenner. Minnie was the middle sister between Mary Jung (Godfrey Young's grandmother) and Magdalena Lang (Erika Martin's mother). In December 1914 their shop was one of those which was attacked. My grandfather, along with three brothers and his brother in law Fred Lang, was interned on the Isle of Man and Minnie and Lena took their children to Bradford where Mary and Gottfried Jung had organised a house which would accommodate them all. This must have been a crush but I dare say they felt there was safety in numbers. Gottfried's brother's family were living in another house a couple of doors down, presumably his brother had also been interned.

My grandfather Fritz was born in Blaufelden. He was the eldest of thirteen children and had come to England in 1893, aged 13, with his friend Billy Jung (Gottfried's brother). When the war broke out Fritz had three of his brothers working for him and they all ended up on the Isle of Man. My grandfather's sister (Anna born in Blaufelden) had married my grandmother's brother (Conrad born in England) and at the outbreak of war they were visiting family in Germany resulting in Conrad being interned as an enemy alien in Germany. At least this meant that four Gotzs and one Steinbrenner did not have to be sent to the front to be cannon fodder for either side, though I know life in the POW camps was no easy option.

When the war ended Fritz's brothers went back to Germany, Conrad came back to England and Fred Lang took his English born wife Magdalena and little son Freddie to live in Germany where Erika was born. My grandfather wanted to return to Germany but his daughter, who by the end of the war was 16, refused to leave and so they stayed in Bradford. I can remember many trips north with my parents, grandparents and Auntie Lena to meet the family. Bedale was often the favoured meeting point being a similar distance between Bradford and the northeast.

I remember my Auntie Lena saying that her father was a changed man after the War and when he died in 1952 he ended his days in a psychiatric hospital. Presumably he was suffering from dementia but he was attacking my grandmother as he believed that he was back in the POW camp and the guards were beating him.

When he left Germany in 1893 he had promised his mother that he would come home to visit every year. He kept this promise except during the two wars. Sadly his father died during the First World War and his mother during the Second World War. That must have hurt him very much.

Image Credits

Sandra Armstrong

Carol Hunt

Erika Martin

Preston Hall Museum and Grounds

South Tyneside Libraries

Susan Runham

Tyne and Wear Museums

Simon Wood