Germans in England

Kory L. Meyerink, MLS, AG, FUGA

Americans of German descent may be surprised to learn that thousands of Germans chose to immigrate to England and other British countries, rather than coming to America. Indeed, Germans were settling in Great Britain hundreds of years before there was even an America to colonize. Granted, after immigration to America began, the numbers settling in England never approached the thousands who came to America, but their impact has been significant. It was enough so that there is now even a genealogical society for Britains of German descent. The Anglo-German Family History Society was founded in 1987 and has close to 1,000 members, mostly in England, but also in other English-speaking countries.

Despite the differences between these two countries, and their culture, many English people have German roots, for a variety of reasons:

  • The two countries are physically close, being on either side on the North Sea. This made travel between them quite easy.
  • England imposed no bureaucratic controls over immigration until the late 19th century.
  • The English royal house was of direct German ancestry from King George I, the Elector of Hanover, in 1714 until Queen Victoria in 1837, and even she married a German: Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha.

Thus, there has been a continuous German presence in England, and specifically London, for many centuries. During the middle ages, the merchants of the Germanic “Hanseatic League of Cities” had significant power and influence. Later, the political and religious turmoil of the 16th and 17th centuries in Germany brought many Protestant refugees to London. While most moved on, some stayed.

The 1851 census reported that 9,566 residents of London had been born in Germany, and by 1891 the number was 26,920. These censuses report similar numbers resided throughout the rest of England. The German community in London included businessmen, tradesmen, scientists, common laborers, and political refugees. The most populous group were those working in the sugar refining industry. The greatest concentration of Germans was in an area of Stepney, sometimes known as “Little Germany.”

History of German Immigration to England

Some of the first Germans in Great Britain were the German soldiers serving in the Roman army, followed later by Anglo Saxon settlers of the fifth century. By the end of the 1600s, a significant German community had developed, consisting mostly of businessmen, mainly from Hamburg, and sugar bakers. In fact, by 1700, there were four German churches in London.

One of the most significant groups came due to religious persecution. The single largest influx of Germans into London (and England) occurred in 1708/09 from the Palatinate, for a myriad of religious and political reasons, on the parts of both England and some German states. Within five years, between 13,000 and 15,000 Germans came to London. Those numbers brought significant persecution in London, so nearly all of them left the city and settled elsewhere, notably North America and southern Ireland.

The largest numbers of Germans to come to England occurred during the 1800s, and are due to a wide variety of reasons. There appears to be no single factor, or particularly significant time period, but rather a constant stream of immigrants, with typical ebbs and flows over time. Some key reasons included flight from political and religious persecution, over-population in some German localities, and economic opportunities in London, which was the main industrial center of the word.

One of the most curious, and not insignificant, reasons for German settlement in England was aborted immigration to America, sometimes by choice, sometimes by deception.

While most 19th century Germans sailed directly from the main ports of Bremen and Hamburg, a sizable number took the less expensive “indirect” route, especially from Hamburg. Many of these Germans on their way to America had to leave their ship in London, walk to Liverpool, and take another ship for North America. Of course, some ran out of money or energy (it’s a long way from London to Liverpool). Some were even told by the ship's captain, in London, that they had arrived in America! Not understanding English, the captain had swindled them out of the rest of their passage.

Crossing the Atlantic via England meant a short stop in the country. Surely some of the immigrants decided to settle down in England, rather than America. In Liverpool, for instance, some emigrants who found work in the city decided to remain. Even as late as 1910 the German Society of Benevolence mentioned the presence in London of many German emigrants who had made their way to Britain as part of their journey to the United States but found that they did not have enough money to make the second part of their trip.

Deliberate German immigration to England from the late 1700s well into the 1800s was often to work in the sugar industry, which was mostly in the East End of London. The main sugar refining companies were in German hands, who naturally preferred to import German workers. Most came via Hamburg, and even the British Consul there sometimes acted as an agent for the owners. The British military was also a strong influence on many Germans to settle in England. Americans remember the many Hessians (and other Germans) whom England hired (as mercenaries) to fight in the Revolutionary War. While a few of the returning soldiers may have opted for British residence after the war, the greatest influx came a couple decades later.

During the Napoleonic Wars, France occupied Hanover. King George III of England was also the Elector of Hanover, so the Hanoverian Army escaped to England and was reconstituted as the King's German Legion. Until Hanover was liberated in 1815, they served as part of the British Army and are documented in the personal records at the British Public Record Office. A member of the Anglo-German Family History Society has indexed those records, while another member in Hanover is working on indexing the records there.

There is also evidence of chain migration into Britain during the nineteenth century. A small number of immigrants from northern Germany went to England because members of their families already lived there. For instance, Anton Friedrich Schröder emigrated from Quakenbrück in 1866 because of the residence of his brother-in-law in London. Members of the merchant Engel family in Hamburg had a relative who married an Englishman. Later, some children of that family moved from Hamburg to England, primarily due to those relatives. Clear evidence for chain migration exists in the residence of Germans from particular states in particular areas of Britain. For instance, for much of the 19th century, east London attracted many natives of Hanover and Hesse.

Unfortunately, the German community in England was decimated during the First World War. Fears of spies and sabotage encouraged the British government to eventually imprison all German males between 16 and 70. Many were deported back to Germany, so that people who had lived in England for 50 years or more were suddenly sent back to a Germany disrupted by war. Even British wives and children were deported, although they knew no German, and had no family there!

Since that darker chapter of national relations, the Germans have been returning to England, including some prisoners of war who stayed on after the Second World War. With both countries now part of the European Union, the number of Germans living in England will almost surely continue to increase.

German Settlements in England

The exact number and location of Germans in England is difficult to determine until the middle of the 19th Century. Although the first British census dates from 1801, the first to identify immigrants was in 1851. From that time through 1891, Germans were the largest continental group in the country. After that date, only the Russian Jews outnumbered them. According to the census figures, the number of Germans in England and Wales increased from 28,644 in 1861 to 53,324 in 1911.

From at least the 1830s to World War I, approximately 50 per cent of all Germans in England and Wales resided in London. There the German population rose from 16,082 in 1861 to 27,290 in 1911. As indicated, the core of Germans was in the East End, where the German population focused upon Whitechapel, St. George’s in the East, and Mile End. Over time, the German population shifted towards Hackney.

Another center of German settlement developed in the West End of London. The first of these centered upon Soho, where many refugees settled. By 1900, a new area of German settlement had developed around Goodge Street and Mortimer Street, primarily being a working class community, close to the West End houses of business. A middle class German community grew in Sydenham in southwest London, with others in the north, Islington and Hampstead.

Beyond London, small German communities developed in a few northern cities. With 1,300 Germans in 1911, Manchester was the second largest German community in 1911. Bradford had a smaller community. The Germans in Hull (855 in 1911) apparently settled there as it was on the transportation route to America, and was visited by German sailors.

Resources for Tracing Germans in England

Now that hundreds of thousands of British and Americans descend from these German settlers in England, the interest in tracing their origins is growing. As with most families tracing immigrant ancestors, the first task is to identify the immigrant(s), and then to learn where in Germany he or she came from. This can be a challenge in England, where one would expect the best source to be naturalization records. However, few immigrants bothered to naturalize in England until the 1890s, because it was not required by English law.

Church records are therefore usually the best source. Most German who came to England were Protestants and in some cases the register entries give the place of origin of the parties. As indicated earlier, German churches were established in London quite early. The growth of the German population of London during the 1700s led to the establishment of a new church in Little Alie Street, Whitechapel, and another in Ludgate Hill. The first German Catholic parish was established in 1809.

Immigrant aid societies are an untapped source for most immigrants, both in America and in England. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the Society of Friends of Foreigners in Distress, which was essentially a German charity, was founded. In this same vein, all the German churches founded schools and other philanthropic organizations. By 1849 the pastors of the German churches in London had founded the German Mission Among the Poor in London.

German natives living outside of London also established churches. Manchester, for instance, had three protestant churches by the end of the 1800s. German protestant services in Liverpool began in the 1840s, and by about 1900 the congregation averaged 300. Other congregations developed in Hull, Sunderland, Bradford, Edinburgh, and Birmingham. The exact number of German Lutheran and Evangelical churches is difficult to document, but one source lists fifteen locations in London and thirteen elsewhere in Britain in 1913.

Newspapers are an untapped source for many family historians, but are becoming more utilized today. Don’t overlook German newspapers in England. Many came and went in London during the 1800s, but where they have been preserved, they will provide excellent documentation of an ancestor’s life, including religion, trade organizations and politics.

The British census is also a very useful tool, as it is for natives of England as well. Remember however, that personal details are only available beginning with 1841. From 1851 the census should give the age and place of birth of everyone living in the country. It usually only says “Germany” or “Prussia” but, as in America, sometimes the census taker wrote more and you will get the town or village of birth. Take note that since the 1881 census has now been abstracted and published on the Internet (at <>) for the whole Country, you can now find every native born German living in England and Wales that year.

Military records offer another avenue for some German-born residents of Great Britain. Some Germans escaped from French-occupied Germany and joined regiments of the British Army, the Royal Navy or the Royal Marines. There are also records of British-registered merchant seamen (some of whom were German) for the mid 19th century and 1914 to 1941.

Read More About It

The Anglo-German Family History Society, <>

Ashton, Rosemary. Little Germany: Exile and Asylum in Victorian England. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986. (Deals mainly with refugees and exiles rather than permanent immigrants)

Colvin, Ian D. The Germans in England: 1066-1598. London, 1915.

Farrell, Jerome. “The German Community in Nineteenth Century East London” in East London Record, no. 13, 1990. pp.2-8.

The German Churches of England. Cookham, England: Anglo-German Family History Society, 1992.

Harris, Janet. “When the Germans Invaded London” in Family Tree Magazine, vol.14 no.5, March 1998.

Kellenbenz, Hermann. “German Immigrants in England” in Immigrants and Minorities in British Society, edited by Colin Holmes. Allen & Unwin, 1978, p.63_80.

Panayi, Panikos. “The German Poor and Working Classes in Victorian and Edwardian London” in Outsiders &Outcasts, edited by Geoffrey Alderman and Colin Holmes. Duckworth, 1993.

Panayi, Panikos. “Germans in London” in The Peopling of London: Fifteen Thousand Years of Settlement from Overseas, edited by Nick Merriman, Museum of London, 1993, pp 111_117.

Panikos Panayi, “Germans in Britain’s History”, in Germans in Britain Since 1500, London 1996, pp. 1–6.

Towey, Peter. Tracing Your German Ancestors. Ramsbottom, Eng.: Federation of Family History Societies, 1998.


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