Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy? the Troublesome Case of Sir Edgar Speyer: Books

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy? the Troublesome Case of Sir Edgar Speyer: Books

Article excerpt

Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy? The Troublesome Case of Sir Edgar Speyer. By Antony Lentin. Haus Publishing, 256pp, Pounds 12.99. ISBN 9781908323118. Published 8 March 2013

Sir Edgar Speyer (1862-1932) was born in New York of German Jewish descent, worked in Germany in the family banking business and came to England at the age of 24, where he settled into a successful life of business and philanthropy. He took British nationality in 1892 and was rewarded for his generosity to his fellow citizens with a baronetcy in 1906 and membership of the Privy Council in 1909. By 1922 he had been stripped of his citizenship, as were his three daughters, who were all born in England. Antony Lentin has written a well-researched, compelling and balanced account of a remarkable life and explains clearly how a widely admired public figure was turned into an object of hatred and derision. He has, in the process, done justice both to Speyer and to his more responsible critics, while leaving the reader in no doubt about his opinions of the vile behaviour of the xenophobes and anti-Semites who were the real authors of his subject's downfall.

Speyer did much that was applauded, not least by the press. He rescued the Underground Electric Railways Company of London from bankruptcy, using his bank's funds to stave off creditors. He saved Henry Wood's Promenade Concerts by underwriting their losses and gave generously to the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. In London's impoverished East End, he founded the Whitechapel Art Gallery and financed Toynbee Hall and Poplar Hospital. In 1904 a penny savings bank in Suffolk failed and he rescued it with his own money, an act commended by the Pall Mall Gazette as worthy of celebration by Charles Dickens.

But he was of German ancestry. When war broke out in 1914 and dachshunds were kicked in the street, his good works counted for nothing. The loathsome Horatio Bottomley (who was soon to be jailed for fraud) proposed that naturalised Germans, like Speyer, should wear a badge, an idea later taken up by Hitler for Jews. The leaseholder of the Queen's Hall, where the Promenade Concerts were held, condemned Speyer as "notoriously German" and proposed to ban German music. Wood replied: "There is no nationality in music. …

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