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Wonder and Dread (4): A Cautionary Tale

Immigration has always been part and parcel of Bradford's wool industry, which is why I had wanted to include in my show work that responded to Bradford's textile immigrants. Bradford's large South Asian population - who initially came to work in the mills in the 50s/60s - made me feel kind of at home on my very first visit because where I live we also have a similarly large Asian population. And of course I made a beeline to Bradford's famous Bombay Stores (and the Asian supermarket nearby).

However, my exploration of Bradford's textile migrants took an unexpected turn when I discovered the German cloth merchants who had settled in Bradford from the mid-19th century and contributed much to the city's cultural life and commercial success. You get a sense of the importance of this community when walking through Bradford's "Little Germany", a cluster of streets lined with the imposing warehouses built by the German merchants.

Being a German immigrant myself I was fascinated, particularly when I found out that many of these merchants had come from Northern Germany, like me. Jacob Moser, who was Lord Mayor of Bradford in 1910/11, came from a little town called Kappeln just some 15 miles from were I grew up. I had no idea. Apart from Marx and Engels, you don't really learn much about German 19th- century immigrants in England in German schools.

If there is one win-win story of immigration it must surely be that of Bradford's Germans. They were merchants keen on selling British worsted fabrics in Germany and other countries in continental Europe, so it made sense for them to open warehouses and offices right at the source in Bradford. This was great news for Bradford's textile manufacturers - suddenly the trade part of their business was taken care of! Everyone was winning. Moreover, the Germans invested themselves wholeheartedly in Bradford's business and civic community, e.g. setting up Bradford's chamber of commerce and technical college, and taking an active part in Bradford's social and political life. Many of them got very wealthy indeed and made significant charitable contributions to cultural, education and welfare organisations throughout their lives. The German merchant community attracted other Germans to Bradford, notably pork butchers and bakers, and there were also some German workers in the wool mills.

And then the First World War brought all this to an end. Anti-German sentiment that had already simmered in the UK in the run-up to the war went into overdrive, fueled by the right-wing press. Non-naturalised Germans were required by law to register with the police, and all male adults were interned in ‘concentration camps’. (It was news to me that the British had actually invented this term).

‘Pillars of the community’ quickly became ‘enemies in our midst’. The latter was the title of a regular column in the Daily Mail at the time which, apart from the latest scare story about Germans living in the UK, included handy boxed-in hints for readers how to deal with the German peril, e.g. "Refuse to be served by a German or Austrian waiter".

Bradford had its share of anti-German sentiment, including riots in Keighley in August 1914 when several German butchers' shops were attacked by angry crowds in the streets. However, it seems that most of the middle-class German textile merchants were not directly affected - although in 1915 they did feel the need to publish a letter of protest against the German army's gruesome attack on the passenger ship "Lusitania". So they obviously were very aware of the general sentiment. Meanwhile, the bacteriologist Dr. Eurich who invented a method to disinfect wool against anthrax feared for his position in the Bradford Royal Infirmary after rumours (wrongly) accused him of working for the Germans.

After the war the German community all but disappeared. This may have had a number of reasons, and the start of the wool industry's decline was surely a factor. But, I kept wondering, how must these Germans - long term residents who saw Bradford as their home - have felt in this hostile environment, even if they were not personally threatened or attacked? How do you feel if suddenly the political climate around you changes radically from welcoming to hostile, whilst you are still exactly the same person?

And then it struck me: They would have felt just as I feel now: a resident of 25 years with British citizenship who sees Britain as her home, I am suddenly surrounded by a climate of hostility against EU immigrants. Never before had I even considered myself as an immigrant! And despite the fact that I have so far never encountered any sign of hostility myself, this toxic anti-EU immigrant background noise spread by the Daily Mail and others is unpleasant. And deeply worrying. As is the government's official policy of creating a "really hostile environment" for immigrants. Now, as 100 years ago, media and government policy seem to be egging each other on.

So there was the idea for my "immigration piece": Drawing parallels between the fate of Bradford's Germans after World War 1 and the current anti-EU immigrant sentiment by mixing up relevant newspaper quotes from 1914/15 and from the mid-2000s onwards. Newspaper quotes, because I believe that media campaigns (whether social or print media) play a major role in stoking xenophobia and fear, and can influence government policy. I spent some unpleasant but very instructive hours looking at 1000s of hostile, fear-mongering articles on EU migrants in the Daily Mail's online archive that popped up when I put in the search term "EU migrant". I think I saw one positive story. This is how you create a distorted picture. Sometimes it was hilarious, e.g. when EU migrants were simultaneously accused of taking away jobs from the British and living on benefits.

The search of old newspapers in the British library wasn't quite so upsetting because of the historical distance - although "the scum of Europe...", "a race of savages" or "shoot them on sight" wasn't exactly nicer than what we read these days! For both time periods, I didn't pick the most hateful and inflammatory quotes for inclusion in my works because I don't want them to give them any more visibility.

The medley of newspaper quotes is layered over screen prints of

  • historic Bradford buildings connected to the wool industry: the Wool Exchange, a cloth warehouse in Little Germany, and St George’s Hall, which was financed by textile manufacturers and merchants;

  • famous Bradford Germans: cloth merchants Jacob Behrens and Jacob Moser, bacteriologist Dr Eurich, and the composer Friedrich Delius. Eurich and Delius were sons of cloth merchants.

  • 4 young Bradford men, sons of German cloth merchants and former pupils of Bradford Grammar School, who died for Britain in WW1. I found these on the WW1 commemorative pages of Bradford Grammar School.

I also included handwritten quotes from individuals caught up in the respective xenophobic climates: A German man who fought in the British army during WW1 and then - surreally - got arrested in Aldershot for not registering as an ‘enemy alien’, and two French women who have been long-term residents in the UK and now worry about their future.

Finally, I quoted JB Priestley from his "English Journey", where he ponders the loss of Bradford's German community. He knew Bradford with and without the Germans - and preferred the former.

As "canvas" to screenprint and paint on I used gorgeous worsted suiting fabric made in Yorkshire and sold by Bradford's Bateman Ogden, as well as woollen fabric. I worked on 5 fabrics simultanenously (taking inspiration from Robert Rauschenberg when he worked on his famous 1960s screen pints), because when collaging multiple screen prints with added layers of paint in between, you never quite know how it will turn out in the end....

Work in progress. Left, laying out the fabrics after the first sceenprinting session. Right, screen print of a German cloth warehouse on worsted suiting fabric made in Yorkshire.

It was quite chaotic in the print studio - with my large pieces of fabric hanging everywhere to dry, and me covered in paint. One thing I don't like about screen printing is that you have to work so quickly otherwise the paint dries and clogs up the screen. I got really stressed out there for a while but it was worth it in the end!

"Pillars of the Community" 3 and 4; screen print and acrylic on worsted fabric, each 75 x 75 cm.These two works are actually not in the exhibiton because there was not enough space for the whole series.

PS: On my strolls through Little Germany saw signs that the neighbourhood is slowly getting another lease of life (albeit probably one involving high rents and property prices!). It would be nice to see some kind of "inclusive" regeneration with a mix of uses and at least some affordable housing .... I'll keep watching.

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