Mistaken Identity, Changed Identity

Dr Jim Beach
University of Northampton

On the outbreak of war with Germany a strange scene was played out in Birmingham’s suburbs. As the Birmingham Gazette reported it:

‘There had been a demonstration in front of the house of Mr Gustav Schürhoff, who is the Birmingham Consul for Mexico. A number of people gathered in the roadway and shouted and booed but no damage was done. Presumably the demonstrators had mistaken the residence of Mr Schürhoff for that of the German Consul, who lives in Richmond Hill Road, close by. The crowd, which was composed mostly of excited young people, proceeded along Farquhar Road, continuing to shout, and made an attack on Dr Frederick Martin’s house, breaking several windows with stones. No arrests have been made as yet, but the police have the matter in hand.’ (1)

In other parts of Britain the violence against the German community was more serious than this window-breaking in Birmingham. But for one family this incident of mistaken identity would set them, collectively, on a path to a new identity.

Gustav Schürhoff and his brother Walter had migrated from western Germany to Britain in the 1870s and, as soon as the law allowed, became naturalised as British citizens. By 1914 they were successful manufacturers of decorative tableware for export. Their business connections to Latin America led to them becoming consuls for Mexico and Colombia.

Because they were naturalised, Gustav and Walter were not treated as ‘aliens’ but as the war unfolded their German heritage put them in a difficult position. After the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 the two men made a public donation to the relief fund for the victims and Walter wrote to the Mayor of Birmingham to say that:

‘Words fail me to express my feelings of abhorrence at the barbarous methods employed by Germany in this war.’ (2)

Walter’s son Vince had joined the army in September 1914 and, after frontline service in the infantry, his German language skills prompted a transfer to intelligence work. For his conduct during the German offensive in March 1918 Vince was awarded the Military Medal.

But in the first half of 1918, with the military situation deteriorating, the ultra-nationalist press blamed an enemy within for the reverses. This ‘hidden hand’ could no longer be attributed to enemy aliens because they had been interned. Therefore attention focused upon naturalised Germans like Gustav and Walter. One publication even suggested that they should be made to wear a special badge in public.

It is therefore unsurprising that in July 1918 the Schürhoff family changed their surname to Shirley. According to their descendants, the new surname was chosen because it was the name of a Birmingham suburb. Their choice can be interpreted as a stand against xenophobia. By choosing a local place-name they cemented a thirty-year connection to their adopted home of the West Midlands.

(1) ‘Disorderly Scene: Mexican Consul mistaken for German’, Birmingham Gazette, 5 August 1914, p5

(2) ‘Birmingham Consuls Protest’, Birmingham Mail, 13 May 1915, p3; ‘True to their Oath: German Loyalists’ Protest in Birmingham’, Birmingham Gazette, 21 May 1915, p8

Further Reading

Jim Beach (ed.), The Diary of Corporal Vince Schürhoff, 1914-1918 (2015)

Panikos Panayi, The Enemy in our Midst: Germans in Britain during the First World War (1991)

Originally posted on July 10th, 2016

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