Hackney’s German Orphanage was ‘a little bubble of German life’ in the East End
- Credit: patrick Wiegand
Emma Bartholomew meets author Patrick Wiegand, whose grandparents ran an orphanage in Dalston – for Germans
Many people will have heard of Hackney’s former German hospital and a German church that served that thriving community from the late 19th century. But few know there was also a German orphanage, which once stood on the site of Norfolk House in Cecilia Road.
Fewer still, perhaps, know one of its teachers turned out to be a recruiting officer for the Hitler Youth.
Patrick Wiegand has been interested in the orphanage for “as long as he can remember” – because his grandparents Max and Sarah Wiegand were were employed there as master and matron between the wars.
Now he’s written a book about the centre’s history.
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Max was given the job after the First World War, when he was interned by the British government – like all German citizens of military age.
The orphanage had been founded in 1879 to celebrate Kaiser Wilhelm’s golden wedding anniversary, and was funded by rich German merchants and bankers – notably the Schröder family.
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With German staff, teachers and domestic servants it became “a little bubble of German life” in the East End.
Not all the children were orphans: many had a parent still alive, who may have been too poor to keep all their kids at home.
Patrick, 68, a retired lecturer, said: “Here was a tiny German world in the East End of London. It’s a fascinating idea that children would grow up speaking a different language to those in the streets around them.
“You have to imagine this crocodile of children walking every Sunday from Cecilia Road to church, and in the First World War being subjected to pretty uncomfortable situations, like cat calls and abuse – which is familiar to many immigrant groups in London today. They would have looked distinctly different.”
Patrick’s father Gustave was born in the orphanage and raised there with his two sisters. “I suppose it must have been hard sharing his parents,” he said.
“He said although times were very hard, compared to other children living in Dalston in the 1920s, the children at the orphanage did rather well. They had companionship and friendship. They were well looked after.
“Christmas was a particularly marvellous time of year for them as many people sent presents and gifts of food, like the German marzipan Christmas cake Stollen. My father told me about my grandfather who made his own beer and country wine in the cellar, and he talked about excursions.”
Patrick’s book describes some notable episodes in the orphanage’s history, including a visit from the Empress of Germany – as reported by the Gazette at the time.
Patrick found it moving to interview others who had lived there, including Tomas Zewski, now 92 and living in Sussex.
“He told me the dog in one of the photos was called Brownie. He was my family’s dog and all the children were very taken with him,” said Patrick. “During mealtimes the dog would prowl the dining room waiting for scraps, but he didn’t know some of the boys would go to the cellar and steal his biscuits. This was the ’30s – there was a depression and people were hungry.”
Demand for the orphanage dwindled by the mid-30s, and it was shut in 1939 as war looked inevitable and most Germans living in London moved back to their homeland.
The German Orphanage, Dalston 1879-1939 is published by the Anglo-German Family History Society and costs £9.