University of Cambridge > Talks.cam > Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term > Anglo-German Victims of The Great War: The Troublesome Case of Sir Edgar Speyer

Anglo-German Victims of The Great War: The Troublesome Case of Sir Edgar Speyer

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Sir Edgar Speyer (1862-1932) was a conspicuous figure in the financial, cultural, social and political life of Edwardian London. For heading the syndicate which financed the construction of the new `tube lines’ he became known as the ‘King of the Underground’. He was also a connoisseur and active patron of the arts who rescued the ‘Proms’ from collapse, enhanced the nation’s musical and artistic life and directed the funding of Captain Scott’s Antarctic expeditions. Speyer and his wife, the concert violinist Leonora Speyer, lived in a fabulously magnificent style. In the early summer of 1914 they stood at the peak of their success and celebrity in London society.

However, within weeks, at the outbreak of war, they became pariahs; objects of suspicion and aversion. Despite having been a naturalised British citizen for over 20 years and a ubiquitous public benefactor, Speyer found himself ostracised by society and mercilessly harried by the Northcliffe Press. Under the Aliens Act of 1918 Speyer was summoned in 1921 before a judicial enquiry, which found him guilty of disloyalty and disaffection and of communicating and trading with the enemy. He was stripped of his citizenship and membership of the Privy Council. Pilloried by The Times as a traitor, Speyer vehemently denied the charges, but he never returned to England again and never forgot his ordeal.

The downfall of Sir Edgar Speyer has been described as `a minor tragedy of the war’. Tony’s book, to be published in March, is the first detailed account of the episode, the Speyers’ prominence in London society and their fall from that height. It re-examines the Speyer case from documents newly released, presents the evidence and invites the reader to decide whether Sir Edgar was an innocent victim of nationalistic war fever, a scapegoat for the perceived failings of Prime Minister Asquith and the UK’s last Liberal Government, or a traitor to his adopted country.

Tony Lentin, formerly a Professor of History at The Open University, is a senior member of Wolfson and the author of Guilt at Versailles: Lloyd George and the Pre-History of Appeasement (1985), Lloyd George and the Lost Peace: From Versailles to Hitler (2001), and General Smuts (2010, in the series published by Haus: `The peace conferences of 1919-23 and their aftermath’).

A Barrister and former law tutor, he is the author of The Last Political Law Lord: Lord Summer 1859 – 1934 (2009) and is currently working on a life of the controversial Mr Justice McCardie (1859-1933). His other main interest is eighteenth-century Russia, on which he has published widely. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

This talk is part of the Wolfson College Lunchtime Seminar Series - Wednesdays of Full Term series.

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