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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 July 2007, 14:04 GMT 15:04 UK
A royal by any other name
Crown
The Royal name was Saxe-Coburg-Gotha

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Nine decades ago the Royal Family switched to an English-sounding name because of anti-German feeling, as did some of their subjects. Is there an echo of this predicament today?

In this era of the carousel of mass migration, family names are more important than ever. When we alter them we lose a little bit of where we came from.

Yet 90 years ago, perhaps Europe's most famous family decided to change its name, backed into a corner by a public increasingly hysterical about the enemy within.

On 18 July 1917 the Times newspaper carried a royal proclamation introducing the name Windsor and dropping "all German titles and dignities".

King George V
King George V was under considerable pressure

Since the marriage of Victoria - the last of the Hanovers - to Prince Albert, Britain's royal family had been "of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha", or Saxe-Coburg-Gotha. In a time of brutal war with Germany, a more German family name would be hard to find.

After three long years of World War I, anti-German feeling had approached fever pitch, fuelled by wild tales of alleged German atrocities.

In 1915, with the war less than a year old, the sinking of the liner Lusitania by a German submarine - with the loss of almost 1,200 lives - prompted a fresh wave of outrage in Britain, as well as the US and the Empire. The consequences for Germans in Britain were grave.

Days of anti-German rioting in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and elsewhere saw Germans menaced and buildings wrecked.

So many bakers' shops were destroyed in the East End of London, with bags of flour emptied and loaves smashed in the street, that a local shortage of bread immediately followed.

Windows smashed

In Bradford and Nottingham, groups of naturalised Germans rushed to sign letters expressing their desire to see Britain victorious and Germany crushed. But it wasn't just Germans in danger, as the Times noted.

"There were many streets in the borough [of Poplar] which had turned German shopkeepers out with a thoroughness which involved also the victimization of people whose name was not so distinctively English that no mistake on the part of the mob was possible."

A mob in Leytonstone took one look at the name of a Scottish landlord Strachan above the door of a pub and promptly smashed all the windows.

Sketch of the sinking of the Lusitania
The Lusitania sinking sparked days of rioting

The newspaper backed the segregation of all Germans of military age and the deportation of those who were not. There were estimated to be 60,000 Germans, Austro-Hungarians and Turks in the country as well as 8,000 naturalised citizens of "enemy origin".

Significantly, it noted: "We find evidence of a widespread feeling that naturalization should not necessarily procure exemption."

These words would have chilled King George V to the marrow. Austrian-born Prince Louis of Battenberg, a key member of the royal circle, had to resign his position as First Sea Lord because of his German heritage in 1914. By 1917, the pressure had spread to the whole family.

Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty magazine, said pressure from politicians had forced the king's hand.

"It got to a certain point in World War I where even if you had a dachshund you were regarded as German. Pressure was applied to the king. The consensus started to be spread that the king was pro-German. It was politicians as much as anything."

Overnight change

So in 1917 the royal family saw their name change overnight, princes lost their titles and became lords, the Battenbergs opted for literal translation and became Mountbatten, and the quintessentially royal and English "Windsor" was introduced - the brainchild of the king's private secretary Lord Stamfordham.

"Prince Louis of Battenberg went to stay with his son at a naval base in Scotland and wrote in the visitors book 'arrived Prince Hyde, left Lord Jekyll'," says Mr Little.

A non-German shop displays a heartfelt plea
Many Russians were caught up in mob violence

But the royals' decision to change name was a path also trodden by immigrants to the UK in the 19th and 20th Century, particularly Jewish.

For Jews and other immigrants arriving in the 19th Century to live in an East End populated by co-religionists a name change was unnecessary, but for those aiming for middle class respectability it could be a temptation.

'Easier' names

"Among common or garden East European Jews from the 1880s to 1914, probably name changes were quite rare, partly because it would have just been complicated to carry out," says Jewish relations historian Prof Tony Kushner.

"But sometimes people might have been given slightly 'easier' names by immigration officials when they landed at the docks, an unofficial form of assimilation. And for those aspiring to the middle classes and the professions, it might have been more common. It might have eased their way."

Coming from a background of brutal oppression, one can see the temptation to accept a little loss of identity. There is an echo in Iraq.

Kaiser Wilhelm and King George
The king and kaiser were cousins

With the current rabid sectarian violence, Sunnis living in Shia areas, and vice versa, have to take precautions against falling victim. There are names that are regarded as distinctively Sunni or Shia, and residents have been known to go as far as changing their name, or more commonly, carry multiple IDs with Shia and Sunni identities.

But in the UK today it is hard to imagine anyone having to go to the lengths of changing their name to either protect themselves or further assimilation.

In a tolerant and ethnically-diverse society, where racism is condemned by the establishment, do people still feel compelled to surrender part of their identity?

There has always been the occasional shortenings or informal replacements of South Asian first names, Harry for Harvinder or Monty for Mudhsuden [Panesar] being typical. But none of the main immigrant groups can identify a current trend for changing surnames.

But some Muslims are coming under pressure to play down their identity because of the country-wide problem of "Islamophobia", says one campaign group.

Woman in veil
Campaigners say Islamophobia is rising

Massoud Shadjareh, chairman of the Islamic Human Rights Commission, says although there is little research on the subject, he has been told of numerous cases of Muslims either shortening their names to make them sound less Islamic, or even changing them completely in order to get jobs.

"It is becoming probably more common, especially since 9/11 and 7/7. We are now facing such an ever-increasing Islamophobia. All the indications are that people are less likely to get an interview [for a job] with a Muslim name."

There is nothing wrong with changing your name, but as Mr Shadjareh concludes, being forced into it is unacceptable.


Below is a selection of your comments.

Re: Destruction of bakers shops in London I was intrigued by the paragraph in this article. We have a photograph of my husband's grandfathers bakery store in London on the corner of Lismore Circus. I wonder whether this was destroyed? The family name was changed from Stubbenhagen to Hagen around this era, we do not know whether this was a legal, formal change. We were told that at one time Herman Stubbenhagen was interned in the grounds of Alexandra Palace in north London, but as the father of 12 children he was told after a short while he could go home.
Pamela, Vancouver, BC, Canada

To Dan Kalms: you think everyone should Anglicise their names - should recent English emigres to Spain change Jones to Gomez or Francis to Fernandez? And why haven't you anglicised the Jewish name Kalms anyway? People have a right to use their historic family names - try telling Stelios Haji-Iannou to be Steve Harrison!
Ken , Hornchurch, Essex

The last will and testament of King Edward VIII, later Duke of Windsor, shows quite clearly that he always kept his surname of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha despite his father's acquiescence to political pressure for the family to call itself Windsor. Personal family documents relating to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor also attest to their use of the Saxe-Coburg-Gotha surname.

Royal Archives also show that George V's own last will and testament - which left Windsor Castle and Sandringham House to his eldest son -uses the family name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha despite the change in the dynastic name to Windsor.
anabel burton, London

Bob's grandfather may well have served through WW1 with a German name. A battalion of the Middlesex Regiment was formed to accommodate men with German names from London, and was promptly christened "The Kaiser's Own". A number of German names can be found in the pages of the London Gazette as receiving decorations - if you doubt me, "just" (the LG search engine is infamously bad) search for Seligsohn.

If anything it seems to have been easier at the front than at home, where the most rabid anti-German, anti-pacifist, anti-whatever the latest threat was feelings were found.
Adrian, Oxford

Having an unusual surname can work either way but is rarely a neutral factor. My grandmother's newsagents shop in Weymouth was vandalised and forced to close in 1915. But she retained the name.
Dave Kahn, Ottawa Canada

My father's father/ grandparents changed their name around the same time (for the same reason) from Hoepstein to Lancaster. I believe they had to report to the police station regularly during the war.
Louise Lancaster, Camberley, UK

It is not unusual for Tamils to shorten their surnames in order to get a job interview. My full name is 14 letters long... enough to subconciously scare any potential interviewer into avoiding giving me an interview for fear of not being able to pronounce my name. My father advised me to shorten my surname to 5 letters to ensure that I got job interviews. It is a strategy that works and is commonly used.
A Param, London

It is a myth that immigration officials at Ellis Island or elsewhere changed anyone's name. It didn't happen. Assimilation often took time: I traced one cousin into the US as "Yankel" on his arrival about 1905. Five years later he is "Jacob". Ten years after that he was a real American and used "Jack".
Paul Hattori, London

My mother's family changed their name from Weiss to Vice in order to sound less German and then I changed my name to Abdul-Sabur from Beagin as it sounded too Jewish in the Middle East even though my father's family is in fact of Irish origin. I sometimes think numbers would make life easier as people are are so quick to judge and condemn.
nadia abdul-sabur, Alexandria, Egypt.

My mother's maiden name was Haynes which was engineered from Heinz a couple of generations earlier. I'm sure many families can tell a similar tale.
Jon Smith, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

After my wife's grandmother died, we found a deed poll notice dated 1919 where her grandfather had changed his name from Schwartz to Black... I'm pretty sure he didn't go thorugh all his service with the british army as Private Schwartz though...
Bob, London

I don't mean to provide any distraction from the main bent of your article but the phrase 'wild tales of alleged German atrocities' is not just dismissive, it's actually wrong. Evidence of Wilhemine atrocities against the Belgian population - including the terror bombardment of Liege, an 'Open City' - were well known as was Berlin's open policy of Unrestricted Submarine Warfare against civilian shipping.

Individual war 'legends' like that of the 'Crucified Highlander' are now, so evidence seems to show, widely regarded as true. So perhaps the Windsors were not only entitled -but also wise - to wish to distance themselves for their German forbears. Perhaps if you had been living in those times, you might have decided that 'Finlo Rohrer' was a name a little too Teutonic to wear with pride too.
Alex Clarke, London

Yes, I have considered changing my name to an English one just to be accepted. But I can't change the colour of my skin and sometimes it just boils down to racists, using any excuse to bad mouth you - not just religion.
Asif, Manchester

Whilst in the U.A.E some years ago, I hads an Indian hydrographic surveyor known as M.S Roy.I dont know what R.S. stood for but Roy was changed from Royachan. Roy was accepted as his name and I'm sure he benefited from it. A most excellent fellow and good luck to him.
gwynne rimmer, milford haven u.k.

Join the club. My ancestors' surname used to be O'Carroll but under laws passed in the 18th Century to penalise Irish Catholics it was changed to simply Carroll to disguise the bearers' ethnicity. Scores of other Irish surnames underwent the same change.
Peter Carroll, Salisbury, England

Wanting to assimilate is a good thing to be encouraged. Changing your name, and giving your children anglicised names is a public way of demonstrating that. None of this Liberal nonsense about multi-culturalism please. I thought that unfortunate political fad was over. And yes, an Anglicised name WILL help you get a better job.
Dan Kalms, London, England

On the subject of changing names, I was the military officer with the power of a "registrar" on a German base in the 1990s and one of my servicemen came to change his name because he had become a Muslim. His original name was George Ham and I immediately saw his reason for changing his name. But when I asked what the change was to be, to my surprise he said "Ali Ham" I asked him if he was sure that was the only change he wanted to make and he said yes. Suffice to say, he suffered a great deal of good-humoured banter!
Roseanne Allen, York

The city of Kitchener in the Canadian province of Ontario was called New Berlin prior to WWI. It still has a strong German identity and into the surounding hinterland, much celebrated today. When people change their name it causes problems for genealogists and family historians. I'm sure I've got Jewish blood in my family line. Finding it after a name change is another matter.
Adrian, Bristol

This reminds me of that Goodness Gracious Me sketch a few years ago...Mr Kumar? No, Mr Cooper! (Apologies to anyone who hasn't seen it!)
Mandeep Singh, Cambridge

A few hundred years ago when the Huguenots escaped to this country from France a similar thing happened. Initially the immigrants kept their names but as anti French feeling increased due to the Napoleonic wars the names were changed. Our name Gracey was originally LeGrace and is predominantly found in Eastern areas of Northern Ireland where the immigrants first landed. Interestingly the LeGraces who landed in Scotland also changed their name in the same way but with a slightly different spelling (Gracie). There are no records of Legrace in this country but plenty of Graceys in N.I. and Gracies in Scotland.
Steve Gracey, Bognor Regis, Est Sussex

When my great grandfather arrived from Poland the story goes that the customs official asked his name, "Milowski" he replied, "okay, Miller" was the response!
Nik Miller, Tel Aviv, Israel (UK ex-pat)

Although I have spent most of my life living on the Continent, my home is in Northern Ireland. I have always been amazed at how easily people can differentiate between Catholic and Protestant purely by virtue of a name or even sometimes by clothes or accent. In the recent past, the wrong name at the wrong time would have landed one in serious trouble. Thank God, those days are now behind us.
Edward, London

Interesting article, but it failed to point out the modern phenomenon of mainland Chinese people adopting English first names, which seems quite commonplace. I've met Chinese Edgars, Edmunds, Georges and even a Mildred recently.
aidan reid, london, UK

It's not just the Germans, Jews, or Muslims that have these concerns. A friend of mine at University several years ago had real concerns that his christian name would mark him out as catholic and, in Glasgow, this could have automatically ruled him out of many possible jobs. This may seem a little paranoid, but I don't believe his fears were completely unfounded. Other than that it's a wonderful city - come visit - spend lavishly!
Joe, Glasgow

Curious that a lot of Asian friends who have done the best are called Gill and Dillon (originally Dhillon but they dropped the 'h' on naturalisation). In the States, Americanising your name is, however, positively regarded as an act of patriotism - perhaps it should here.
Katy Charles, London, England

Having worked in H.R. myself, I often see applications being turned down because of a name. It's not just Muslim names, it's anything different. African, Asian, and 'foreign' names are grudgingly accepted if not outright rejected in many places. Even with a British-Sounding surname, if an application indicates the applicant immigrated to this country, they will have more difficulty getting a job.
E. H., Newcastle Upon Tyne, U.K.

Despite the fact that my ancestors had been living in this country since about 1873, in WWII certain branches of the family felt duty bound to change their surname from the original Italian to a more anglicised version. They lived in London and apparently their neghbours were about as keen then as in WWI about 'the enemy within'.
Theresa, Cambridge

Even natives of Britain have had to change their names. In Wales, Dafydd ap Harry, for example would become Dafydd Parry. After over a millennium living next to Wales, English people still can't say "Dafydd". My Irish great grandfather had to change his name to a more anglicised version - and he wasn't, strictly speaking, an immigrant.
Paddy, Cardiff

I have a distinctively German surname and have immense difficulty tracing my ancestors who must have come to the UK around 1880-1890. For some reason they kept the surname, despite the situation as described in the article. My great-grandfather was officially a RAF Lieutenant (but a design engineer) in WW2 and I get the impression that it was slightly easier for those with German surnames in that war (but inevitably some suspicion still lingered). I like my surname, it is distinctive, but having to spell it each time to new people can get a bit tiresome and can make you wish that your surname was 'Smith'!
Nick, Brighton, UK

Taking any measures to avoid violence, save violence itself, is worth serious consideration. As animals of an evolutionary process and arguably the most destructive on this planet, we must adapt to our 'climate' or suffer the consequences. To consider ourselves 'above this', is dangerously ignorant. A name is a foolish abstract concept and should not be confused with an 'identity'.
Mr Leigh M Evans, Crawley

I was born in 1981 in Belfast Northern Ireland into a predominantly Protestant area. My mother decided to give me a name that could not be identified with either side so that I could make friends with people from both sides of the community. Still in Northern Ireland today there can be discrimination within more traditional families regarding first and surnames. Thankfully this trend is dying out.
Jenni, Hatfield, Hertfordshire

I hate the idea of people changing names just to fit in - it's much more fun having a Daragheh (Iranian), a Niemczyck (Polish) and a Taj (Pakistani) on my register... and good exercise for my tongue to pronounce them all!
Megan, Cheshire UK

This happened after the Second War as many that arrived in the 1930/40s followed suit. It was practical and helpful. It also happened during the great immigration to the USA with countless numbers getting a new name in the dockside huts as the officials could neither pronounce nor spell the names.

Rabbi Lionel Blue relates how his mother said, "The English have their Whites and Browns and Greens ... we shall be the Blues." Names matter but the person matters more.
Simon Allen, Hertfordshire, UK

Concerned by anti-semitism in France and after his and my mum's families suffered badly during the second world war, my father took the decision to change his surname of Jewish Russian origin from Jakubowicz to Jacquemain, before he and my mum had kids. "Jacquemain" is quite rare in France and even more so in Britain where I now live with my Franco-English family but I have no intention of changing our name. It may be amusing to see if when my daughters get French lessons at school, the teacher manages to pronounce their surname properly!
Pascal, North Yorkshire

On this side of the pond, my grandparents' last names changed as they passed through Ellis Island, assigned the spelling designated by the clerk. Something they just had to live with coming to America along with all the other language and cultural differences.
Candace, New Jersey, US

When I was at University studying Psychology in the mid-1970's, a brilliant post-grad student who had a First class degree changed his name from his Arabic original to a random English one because he could not get a job interview. As soon as he changed his name, employers fell over themselves to try and recruit him based on the quality of his CV. It is not at all hard to imagine that in Britain today people still suffer such indignities purely because of their name.
Kevin Friery, Portsmouth UK

My great-great grandparents were a part of the Eastern European Jewish migration of the late 1800s/early 1900s. Interestingly, my great-great grandfather changed his first name from Jacob to James, but kept the surname, Feinson. Skip to the second world war, when my grandmother was of school age. Because so many teachers had been called up, a lot of retired teachers were drafted in to take their place. My gran was unfortunate to have one of these, as the first thing this particular teacher did was to make my gran stand on a chair in front of the class before proceeding to accuse her of being "A German spy" because she "Couldn't possibly be English with a name like that".
Katrina, Nottingham




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