Edgar Speyer was a classic turn of the 20th Century philanthropist of great wealth; a German financier whose family bank had branches in New York, Frankfurt and London. Speyer took over the London branch in 1887. He was most interested in the railways and in the early 1900s joined with the notorious Charles Tyson Yerkes to take over the Metropolitan District Line and develop three new Tube lines, employing the station designs of a London Historians hero, Leslie Green. So with Tube150 happening this year, it’s a good time to remember men like Speyer. He was also a major backer of the Whitechapel Gallery and so would have definitely known another London Historians hero, Cornish philanthropist John Passmore Edwards. In addition, he bankrolled the first Promenade concerts and sponsored musicians and orchestras as well as visits by prominent European composers and conductors. He supported hospitals, Scott’s Antarctic expedition and dozens of other needy projects, including friends who were simply down on their luck. Speyer and his wife Leonora (a musician), along with their two daughters, had a town house in Grosvenor Street as well as a country retreat on the Norfolk coast: they entertained and offered music-themed hospitality at both. Edgar, a naturalised British citizen, was knighted in 1906 and made a Privy Councillor in 1909. Friends of the Asquiths, the Speyers were at the apex of the Liberal ruling establishment.
Despite his position at the high table and his deep and wide generosity, freely given over many years, things unravelled badly for the Speyers when war broke out. All Germans came under suspision and were widely vilified. Edgar suffered particularly badly in this respect. This book tells the story of how he was attacked daily by Tory hawks and pretty much unanimously in the press, not excluding establishment up-market titles such as the Times. His enemies wished for him to be kicked off the Privy Council, to be stripped of his baronetcy and to even have his British citizen ship revoked. The banker attempted to draw the sting by resigning from the first two, but the King and Prime Minister refused. Rather than placate his enemies, they simply turned these gestures against them.
In 1915, the exhausted Speyers decided the fight not worth the candle and left for New York. Even after the war, there was no let up. Edgar’s enemies persued him through the courts until even his British citizenship – along with his wife’s and British-born daughters’ – were revoked, in 1921. The grounds were apparent second-hand and possibly unintended collusion with Germany during the war involving financial transactions from the USA. As Speyer himself and his counsel correctly pointed out, dozens of British individuals and institutions were guilty of more: the case was a very thin gruel indeed. And no matter that he had donated more to British military causes than the transactions in question. But by this time, Edgar was fighting for honour, nothing more.
So was Speyer a traitor and a spy? Or simply a scapegoat?
The received wisdom of this footnote to the Great War passed down the decades is that on balance, Speyer’s sympathies were too pro-German – his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography is a good example. Perhaps he should have done more, like his compatriot Sir Ernest Cassell, to ingratiate himself with the totality of the press and British public opinion. Later in the book, Prof Lentin reluctantly concedes that Speyer didn’t do as much as he could have to help himself. But Speyer felt too hard-done-by and maligned for that. The author is very much of this persuasion. Using newly-released source documents, he gives a well-written, astute and persuasive analysis which utterly refutes (although without completely destroying) the almost century-old orthodoxy on the case of Edgar Speyer.
It’s nice to read a First World War book which doesn’t involve the trenches in any way. There will be plenty of that in the next five years.
Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat Spy? The Troublesome Case of Sir Edgar Speyer (216pp, paperback) by Antony Lentin is published by Haus Publishing on 4 March 2013 at a cover price of £12.99 but available for less. Pre-order here.