Sir Edgar Speyer – Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy?

Have you ever heard of Sir Edgar Speyer?

The chances are that unless you have stayed at his former sprawling home on the North Norfolk coast where his story and sad demise is displayed in the lobby – now the splendid Sea Marge Hotel where I first heard of him – it is unlikely that his name will be familiar to you.

Yet  Sir Edgar, with his German ancestry, became a British citizen and a member of the Privy Council, and was a celebrated figure in the financial, cultural and political high life of Edwardian England. He was a truly inspirational, philanthropic and generous figure whose vision had a transformational impact on some of the greatest British projects around the turn of the 20th century.

Without Sir Edgar there would be no London underground, no Proms and no expeditions by Captain Scott to the Antarctic or Scott Polar Research Institute. He was a friend of Liberal Prime Minister Asquith  and Sir Winston Churchill who had a holiday cottage in Overstrand close to Sir Edgar’s home, was a regular visitor there.

His rapid fall from grace resulted after the outbreak of World War 1 when he was judged to be disloyal to Britain and guilty of communicating with Germany in wartime. He was driven to exile to the United States in 1915.

It is a riveting and intriguing tale, and I am not the only one to think so as Sir Edgar’s dramatic background also captured the imagination of Cambridge academic Tony Lentin who has thoroughly researched his extraordinary life in book just published entitled, Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy? The Troublesome Case of Sir Edgar Speyer. A foreword is written by the eminent and distinguished barrister Sir Louis Blom-Cooper who believes Sir Edgar suffered a great injustice, saying that “the State failed one of its prominent citizens and blotted its own copy book.”

Lentin, who presents us with all the facts, prefers readers to make their own mind up, and here he explains why he felt drawn to write about Sir Edgar’s life:

I had never heard of Sir Edgar Speyer (1862-1932) until a few years ago when his name cropped up in connection with another book I was working on at the time. His story intrigued me and I determined to find out more about him.  Though largely forgotten today, Speyer turned out to be a big shot in the financial, cultural and political life of Edwardian England: a wealthy Anglo-German merchant-banker, who financed the construction of the deep tube lines of the London Underground, organised the fund-raising for Captain Scott’s Antarctic expeditions and rescued the “Proms” from disaster. Yet none of these achievements is officially recognised today.  I was curious to know why.

Born in New York of German-Jewish parents and brought up in Germany, Edgar Speyer came to England in 1886 aged 24 to run Speyer Bros, the London House of the Frankfurt family bank.  Housed in Lothbury, near the Bank of England, Speyer Bros thrived under his direction. Edgar became a naturalised British subject in 1892.

In 1902 Edgar Speyer, with the American tycoon Charles Yerkes as chairman, founded the Underground Electric Railways Company of London (UERL), the forerunner of London Transport. On Yerkes’ death in 1905, Speyer took over as chairman. The UERL raised a colossal capital of £18 million, most of the shares being sold to U.S. and continental investors. The three deep-tunnel electrically-powered `Tube’ lines –the Piccadilly, Bakerloo and Northern –were completed in record time and the trains were up and running by 1907.

But the UERL was in financial straits.  Estimates of passenger numbers were over-optimistic and revenues were not covering running costs. The Government and the LCC declined to provide assistance for this undoubted public amenity. After bailing out the UERL with capital from Speyer Bros, Edgar struggled to restore its finances. This was finally achieved in 1910 with his purchase of the London General Omnibus Company, whose profits offset the UERL’s losses. In 1912, he further consolidated the UERL’s control of the Underground by taking over London’s two other main tube railways, the Central and the City and South London. Speyer, who regarded the UERL as his “pet enterprise”, became known as “King of the Underground”.

A generous philanthropist, he founded the Whitechapel Art Gallery, rescued the ‘Proms’ from bankruptcy and ensured their survival by subsidising them himself. Sir Henry Wood described him as `a lover of art willing to spend any amount of money to advance the cause of good music’. He also organised the fund-raising for both of Captain Scott’s expeditions, for the relief of the explorers’ dependents and for what became the Scott Polar Research Institute. In a last letter from Antarctica, the dying Scott wrote to Speyer: `I thank you a thousand times for your help and support’.

Speyer was a supporter of the Liberal Party, a friend of Winston Churchill, and of Prime Minister Asquith, who secured for him a baronetcy and membership of the Privy Council.  In 1914 he stood at the peak of his fame. His portrait by William Orpen was exhibited at the Royal Academy summer exhibition.

All this changed with the First World War. Though a naturalised British subject, Edgar was shunned and slighted because of his German birth and connections. The Anti-German Union sought to deprive him of his membership of the Privy Council. He was obliged to resign from the UERL and from the boards of the charitable trusts of which he had been an active member (including the Whitechapel Gallery and the King Edward VII hospital ).  He even fell under suspicion of being a spy and traitor. He was believed to be signalling naval secrets picked up as a dinner-guest at Downing Street to German submarines from his country-house, `Sea Marge’ at Overstrand on the Norfolk coast. It did not help that his telegraphic address was ‘Edgar Spy, London’!  Shortly after the sinking of the Lusitania, remorselessly assailed by unscrupulous politicians and an irresponsible press, his London house besieged by a hostile mob, he sought refuge in America, despite the public support of Asquith and King George V.

In 1921 he returned to England to face investigation by a judicial tribunal set up under a newly enacted Aliens Act. The tribunal found him guilty of disloyalty and disaffection and of communicating and trading with Germany in wartime. Edgar, his wife Leonora –a distinguished concert violinist (and later a winner of the Pulitzer prize for poetry)– and their three young daughters were all deprived of their British citizenship and Edgar’s name was struck off the roll of  the Privy Council.

I was attracted to Edgar and Leonora as people of great cultivation in pre-war London whose passion was music and who greatly broadened and enhanced the nation’s musical life: the patrons and friends of Elgar, Richard Strauss, Percy Grainger and Sir Henry Wood. It had cost Edgar `many thousands of pounds’, he told Henry Wood, `to make Richard Strauss’s Symphonic Poems known in England’. Elgar, whose violin concerto and Second Symphony were premiered at the Proms, wrote to Speyer of `the indebtedness of the English people to you’.

I assumed, on the strength of received opinion, that Speyer was guilty as found by the judicial enquiry under a High Court judge, Mr Justice Salter. Still, the case interested me. I was advised that I would find nothing relevant in the archives, but I struck lucky: the first documents to come to hand in the National Archives were the complete Home Office and Treasury Solicitor’s files on the Speyer case, released in 2003, together with the transcript of the trial.

On the basis of these documents, my book re-examines the Speyer case, which, as Sir Louis Blom-Cooper QC argues in a Foreword, was certainly less open-and-shut and more ‘troublesome’ than appeared at the time. My aim was to present the facts as fairly as I could, but I leave it to the reader to make up his or her own mind about the verdict and the punishment meted out to Speyer and his family.

The downfall of Sir Edgar Speyer has been described as `a minor tragedy of the war’. What continues to surprise me is that, guilty or not guilty, more than 90 years after his fall from grace, Edgar Speyer still remains a non-person.  There is no reference to him in the current events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Underground. The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge contains no commemorative plaque to Speyer and while Promenaders place garlands on the bust of Sir Henry Wood on the last night of the Proms, the BBC website makes no mention whatever of Speyer’s indispensable contribution. But for Speyer, none of these institutions would exist.  Perhaps my book will help put that right and restore to their forgotten founder the recognition he is surely entitled to.

*Tony Lentin is a Senior Member of Wolfson College, Cambridge, a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and a Barrister. Formerly a Professor of History and Law Tutor at the Open University, he is the author of Guilt at Versailles: Lloyd George and the Pre-History of Appeasement (1985), Lloyd George and the Lost Peace (2001), The Last Political Law Lord: Lord Sumner (1859-1934) (2009)  and General Smuts (2010). He has published widely on 18th-century Russia and has edited the Odes of Horace for Wordsworth Classics.  

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