Armistice 100: Granddaughter’s memories of an Ilford barber accused of being a First World War ‘enemy alien’

PUBLISHED: 11:00 08 November 2018

Ilford barber Theodore Dembon, born in Vienna, was interned as an

Ilford barber Theodore Dembon, born in Vienna, was interned as an "enemy alien" in Stratford Camp in 1915. Photo: Mary McCarten


It was only in his final days that Mary McCarten’s 91-year-old father came clean that his own dad – an Ilford barber – had been interned as an “enemy alien” during the First World War.

Ilford barber Theodore Dembon, born in Vienna, was interned as an Ilford barber Theodore Dembon, born in Vienna, was interned as an "enemy alien" in Stratford Camp in 1915. Photo: Mary McCarten

Hubert Theodore Denbon had until that point always told Mary, who is now 74, that her grandad simply died in “an accident” – the details of which were always vague.

“It wasn’t until he was terminally ill that the truth came out,” she said.

“He just didn’t want to talk about what happened.”

In 1915, Hubert was only seven-years-old when his father Theodore Dembon, as his surname was originally spelt, was interned in a Stratford camp on suspicion of being a German spy.

At the outbreak of the war, the nation became gripped in anti-German fervour and the Vienna-born Mr Dembon was one its unfortunate casualities.

“Buy British!” declared an advert in the Woodford and Wanstead Bugle.

“Don’t buy low-grade SUGARS made in Germany and Austria.

“We are still selling British and Colonial Sugars,” it continued.

After his father’s internment, Hubert was placed in an orphanage while his younger siblings were adopted by relatives.

Their mother – an Englishwoman – died earlier that year due to complications during childbirth, according to official records.

But Mary’s research leads her to believe she had also contracted diphtheria.

Mary has been hunting to uncover the full truth about her grandfather – trawling through the records of the Red Cross, reaching out to Redbridge Museum and the National Archives among other institutions.

She understands that Theodore’s former barbershop - in 374 High Road - was well respected and attracted an upmarket clientele.

“They say he could shave a man while he was sleeping and not wake him up,” Mary said.

As pictured, his name was emblazoned in gold script across his shop’s frontage – not exactly discreet for an alleged spy.

She has also established that he was moved from the Stratford camp to one in Alexandra Palace before eventually being repatriated to Austria in 1918.

What happened to him thereafter she still does not know.

Theodore is only one of the many who bore the brunt of First World War anti-German hysteria.

More than 50,000 Germans were present in the country in 1914, many starting families and businesses in east London.

Redbridge Museum manager Gerard Greene has collected the stories of some of those affected by the policy of internment in his book Redbridge and the First World War.

In it he refers to a special notice taken out by the owners of the Salway & Sons Bakery, in George Lane, South Woodford who aimed to dispel rumours they were German.

The notice read: “WE ARE ENGLISHMEN bred and born in the County of Devon and all goods supplied by us are made entirely by BRITISH LABOUR.”

While in October 1914, 26 Germans were arrested in Barking and Ilford and sent away to be interned.

A letter to the Woodford Times from sugar merchant Franz Riggenbach serves to “capture the local spy scare but also to sum up accurately the patriotic British view of the war,” Gerard adds.

Mr Riggenbach wrote: “To the Busybodies who have written twice to the police that I am a German… I beg to notify once and for all that I am Swiss and have been in England for forty years.”

He went on: “No Briton can wish more passionately than I do that freedom and justice may triumph in this war, which has been forced upon this country, and that the Kaiser and his military gang may be utterly crushed.”

More than one hundred years on, the site where Theodore’s shop used to stand in High Road is now home to Aladdin’s Shisha Lounge.

Though much has changed, the impact of those extreme wartime measures is still felt.

“I was shocked,” Mary said, describing her reaction to her findings.

“And I was sorry that my father had to keep it secret for so long.”

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