01 February 2024

‘Unworthy of our traditions as a people’

Neath’s Lusitania Riot of May 1915


On the evening of Saturday 15th May 1915, a violent crowd, angered by Germany’s sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania attacked two, long established, jewellers’ shops in Green Street, Neath.1 Neither of the shops’ owners, nor their families were related but they shared the surname of Kaltenbach and with Britain at war with Germany, the misfortune of being German.

Samuel Kaltenbach had arrived in Britain from Germany in 1859 and by 1861 was working for Xaver Ganz, a German watch and clock maker with a shop on Swansea’s High Street.2  After initially entering into partnership with Ganz, Samuel had moved to Neath by 1870 and with his brothers Weibert and Bertin, established a watchmakers and jewellers at 11 Green Street.3  By 1891 Samuel had become a naturalised British subject and the proprietor of S Kaltenbach Ltd at 17 Green Street where he lived with his British-born wife and three young sons.4  In 1895 a separate family from Germany established Kaltenbach Brothers Ltd at 24 Green Street. Consisting of Augustin Kaltenbach, his younger brothers Richard and Joseph and his sister Marie, the Kaltenbach brothers took over the bankrupt jewellery business of their fellow countryman Adolph Furtwangler5.

                                   Advertisements for S Kaltenbach and Kaltenbach Brothers

By 1911 both Kaltenbach families had experienced significant changes to their personal and commercial circumstances. Samuel Kaltenbach’s brothers had especially contrasting fortunes. In 1878 Weibert, who had established a watch and clockmaker’s shop in Windsor Road, Neath, went into liquidation and the 1911 census records that he was lodging with a family in Gowerton.6 Bertin Kaltenbach was more successful and by 1911 had his own jewellery shop in Maesteg.7 Samuel’s success in Neath had enabled him by 1901 to leave the business principally in the hands of his eldest son Edwin.8 Tragically, Edwin died in 1908, at the age of 30 and his father the following year; both men being buried in Llantwit New Cemetery.9 The two deaths left Edwin’s German wife, Cecelia, to bring up her five-year-old son and continue as the lease holder and ratepayer of S Kaltenbach Ltd. at 17 Green Street, Neath.10

Kaltenbach Brothers Ltd had similar mixed fortunes in the years preceding the First World War. After marrying Neath-born Mary Jane Collins in 1906, Richard Kaltenbach and his wife settled in Hazelwood Road, Neath, with their children Ethel and Wilfrid and a third child Albin Josef, born in 1913.11 Following Augustin’s admission to the Glamorgan Asylum in 1910 and Joseph establishing his own jewellers’ in Porth, then by 1914 Richard was the sole leaseholder and rate payer for Kaltenbach Brothers Ltd.12

On the outbreak of war with Germany in August 1914, all foreign nationals were required to register with the police and Chief Constables received powers to intern German and Austrian males who they ‘reasonably suspected’ of being ‘dangerous to the safety of the realm.’14 Unsurprisingly, interpretations by Chief Constables varied from a watchful tolerance of German residents to their immediate internment as enemy-aliens. With insufficient secure accommodation available, the Government was soon forced to halt internment and release those internees considered not to pose a threat or, like Richard Kaltenbach, suffering from ill-health. The Government’s disarray over internment compounded the allegations in the press and Parliament that those enemy nationals left at liberty would become spies and saboteurs for Germany.  As anti-German hysteria grew, there were spasmodic attacks on German owned properties and businesses and, in October 1914, Neath’s Special Constables were put on stand-by should the rumours of planned attacks on ‘certain Germans’ in the town prove to be accurate.15

RMS Lucitania at Liverpool - public domain image

The sinking of the Cunard passenger liner Lusitania, by a German submarine in May 1915 triggered the largest and most widespread outbreak of ‘racial rioting ... in twentieth century Britain.’16  With the loss of over a thousand passengers and crew, ferocious anti-German riots broke out in the ship’s home port of Liverpool and within days spread across Northern England, to London and parts of the Midlands, East Anglia, the South East and Scotland. Welsh newspapers, like those across Britain, condemned the sinking of the ship as ‘a crime against humanity’ and in Neath the Reverend Mardy Rees denounced the whole German nation as ‘worse than the heathen.’17 Unlike Liverpool, where Germans were advised for their own safety to seek voluntary internment or leave the city, the reaction in Wales was outwardly calm but on the evening of Saturday, 15th May, Neath became the focal-point for the most significant outbreak of anti-German violence in Wales during the First World War.

The first signs of disorder arose outside Richard Kaltenbach’s shop where a crowd, shouting abuse and threats, prompted the shutters to be put up and the shop closed. A crowd of ‘some thousands’ then gathered outside Cecelia Kaltenbach’s shop which, at the request of the police, was also closed. With the shop’s shutters in place, the crowd turned their attention to the windows above the shop and they were smashed in a hail of stones and bottles. Appeals by Neath’s Chief Constable, William Higgins and Captain Morgan of the National Reserve, failed to disperse the crowd and during scuffles with the police one of the shop’s shutters was torn down and thrown through the shop window.18 In the resulting melee, the police were overwhelmed and with the remaining windows smashed, the shop was looted of ‘watches, clocks, rings and other jewellery.’19 It was not until reinforcements arrived from Skewen and Briton Ferry, under Superintendent Ben Evans of the Glamorgan Constabulary, that a police baton charge secured Cecilia Kaltenbach’s shop.













Returning to Richard Kaltenbach’s shop, the crowd tore down the shutters and smashed the windows and only a further baton charge prevented the shop being looted. Even an appeal by the Mayor, Councillor Matthew Arnold, who was injured by a stone thrown from the crowd, failed to avert a street battle in which missiles, aimed at the police, smashed the windows of other shops in Green Street. It was only after additional police reinforcements had arrived from Port Talbot and Aberavon and further baton charges made, that the streets were cleared and the damaged shops boarded-up in the early hours of Sunday morning.20

In addition to the damage to property in Green Street the Western Mail estimated that between forty and fifty civilians were injured as a result of the police baton charges, yet there were no arrests.21 Ten police officers also suffered injuries, the most critical being to Briton Ferry’s Constable Young, who nearly lost his left eye and Sergeant Quartley of Neath Abbey, who sustained a serious chest injury.22 With both Kaltenbach shops wrecked, Cecelia Kaltenbach was given refuge by Father Blackborough, at the Presbytery on London Road, while her shop assistant, Oskar Birkle, left Neath on Sunday morning, as did Richard Kaltenbach.23

Reports of the riot sparked other local anti-German demonstrations. On Monday 17th May, a crowd of 3,000 gathered outside the shop of George Koos on Aberavon’s High Street. Despite being born in Merthyr and trading as a jeweller in Aberavon for over thirty years, Koos’s name was sufficient to convince the crowd he was German.24 After the damage inflicted in Neath, the fire brigade was called-out to turn its hoses on the crowd should a more serious disturbance develop but, beyond some broken shutters, there was little trouble. The crowd was dispersed by the police after they arrested three men for ‘inciting the crowd to riot’, the charges later being reduced to stone throwing and the men fined.25

Two shops in Skewen, owned by the jeweller William Kleiser and the clothier Joseph Kreischer, were also subject to noisy demonstrations following allegations that both men were German. Fortunately, trouble was avoided by the presence of the police who, the newspapers reported, ‘exercised splendid tact.’26 Like George Koos in Aberavon, both men had been singled out because of their surnames. In the days that followed, the Cambria Daily Leader apologised to the Herefordshire-born Kleiser for alleging he was German and published Kreischer’s letter attesting to his status as a British subject.27 Rather than apologise, the South Wales Weekly Post insisted that it was ‘the peculiar name of Klasier (sic)’ that had ‘misled people into thinking that a thorough Englishman is an alien.’28


A large crowd also congregated outside the pawnbrokers owned by Gustav Wehrle in Melincryddan. A serious disturbance was averted by the ‘geniality’ of Police Sergeant Michael who persuaded the crowd to disperse; the disorder consisting of patriotic singing and shouting ‘confined to the juvenile element’.29  Gustav Wehrle, a German national, had married Richard Kaltenbach’s sister, Marie, in 1895 and it was probably Marie who was the target of the crowd’s animosity. In 1918 when the Government reviewed exemptions from internment and deportation, Marie was reported as having been ‘indiscrete in her remarks which led to bitter feeling and rioting.’30 An order for the Wehrle’s to leave Neath was later  withdrawn owing to ‘the nature of [their] business’ and ‘on the condition’ they kept the shutters up and only the side door open to redeem pledges.31

The reaction of the local newspapers to the riot in Neath illustrated the political divisions regarding the treatment of Germans who were resident in Britain during the war. Within days of the Lusitania’s sinking, the Liberal Government had introduced measures to intern German males between 17 and 55 years of age and to repatriate German women and children. Predictably, the Liberal supporting Herald of Wales assured its readers that ‘the War Office authorities and the Home Office are satisfied that everything necessary has been done’ and condemned the riot in Neath as something to ‘blacken the pages of history of the ancient borough.’32 In contrast, the Conservative supporting South Wales Daily Post believed the Government’s measures should have been introduced in August 1914 and advocated the internment of all males who were enemy-aliens. Treading a fine line, the newspaper condemned the looting at Neath as ‘unworthy of our traditions as a people’, but believed the anti-German demonstrations were ‘clearly entitled to an indulgent judgement’ as ‘public patience’ had given way after the ‘shock of the Lusitania horror.’33


Note: for an image of what Kaltenbach's shop looked like before the damage perform a Google image search or go to https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/samuel-kaltenbach-and-family-jewellers-of-neath-in-south-news-photo/1216200447

The newspapers also foresaw that any compensation for riot damage would ultimately fall on Neath’s ratepayers. At its meeting at the end of May 1915, the Neath Borough Watch Committee received initial claims of over £400 on behalf of Cecelia and Richard Kaltenbach, and smaller claims for broken windows from the Maypole Dairy and the chemist, Mr Griffith Isaac.34 The advice of Chief Constable Higgins was that both Kaltenbach claims should be refused. Higgins claimed that in October 1914 he had intended to remove the Kaltenbach families from Neath, under the Defence of the Realm Act, but in consideration for being allowed to stay, Cecelia and Richard Kaltenbach had ‘agreed’ to indemnify the Council against all claims for damages or loss arising from disturbances or riots in the Borough.35 Despite not having been informed of Higgin’s action in 1914 and without sight of the ‘agreement’, the Committee accepted his advice and the Town Clerk was instructed to ‘emphatically repudiate liability’ regarding both claims.36

In the face of the Council’s continuing denial of liability, Cecelia Kaltenbach issued a writ in November 1915 for the payment of riot damage and, after requesting a copy of the Chief Constable’s ‘agreement’, Richard Kaltenbach’s solicitors issued a writ in February 1916. The dispute was eventually resolved in July 1916 when the Watch Committee reported that both High Court actions had been settled. Although the Committee’s minutes are silent on how this was achieved, Cecilia Kaltenbach, who originally claimed £168, received £160 and Richard Kaltenbach £225, which exceeded his original claim, but both payments also included the Kaltenbachs’ legal costs.37

Neither of the shops at 17 and 24 Green Street were reopened by the Kaltenbach families. From November 1915 to April 1916 weekly advertisements by the shop’s new proprietor, EG Lynn Thomas, appeared in the Herald of Wales announcing the stock clearance at ‘17 Green Street (Late Kaltenbach).’  By December 1916, Thomas had also acquired the Kaltenbach Brothers’ shop and, in a crudely xenophobic advertisement, announced the shop’s British ownership.38







Herald of Wales - 6th Nov 1915 & 2nd Dec 1917

The decision of Cecelia and Richard Kaltenbach to abandon or sell their leases and stock was a timely one. In 1916, the Government gave the Board of Trade powers to wind-up companies benefitting or controlled by ‘enemy subjects’ and to retain the assets from their sale.39 The legislation included small retail businesses and in the final years of the war both Bertin Kaltenbach’s jewellers in Maesteg and Joseph Kaltenbach’s business in Porth were wound up and sold.40

Advertisement for the Auction of Bertin Kaltenbach – Maesteg
Glamorgan Gazette - 16th March 1917

Preceded by press allegations of German atrocities in Belgium, the ill-treatment of British prisoners of war and Germany’s use of poison gas a Ypres, the sinking of the Lusitania became the tipping point that resulted in widespread violence towards German civilians and the destruction of their property. Yet the riot in Neath, which dramatically changed the lives of the two Kaltenbach families, is unique in a Welsh context. The noisy gatherings in Aberafon, Skewen and Briton Ferry largely passed without incident and in Swansea three short-lived demonstrations resulted in some broken glass but left the shop of a prominent German jeweller on the High Street untouched.41 The war undoubtedly changed attitudes towards resident German civilians, but there are no clear reasons why Neath was such an exception. The German population of Neath was a fraction of that in towns like Swansea and there is no evidence of previous enmity concerning the Kaltenbachs, nor were the local newspapers, while wholly patriotic in their content, guilty of whipping-up hostility towards resident German civilians. 

Nothing is known of the motivation of the rioters, but personalities and local circumstances were factors in Neath. The Cambria Daily Leader noted the local ‘resentment’ that the Kaltenbach’s shops had remained open and not shown respect for the loss of life on the Lusitania.42 Significantly, one aspect of the crowd’s anger in attacking Cecelia Kaltenbach’s shop was hostility towards her assistant, Oskar Birkle. Having not been interned, Birkle was alleged to be German and to hold ‘pronounced German opinions’, which he had ‘not failed to voice.’43  Having grown in conviction and confidence after the attack on Cecelia Kaltenbach’s shop and aided by the proximity of the two shops on Green Street, the crowd were further enraged by the injuries inflicted by the police baton charges. Ultimately, depleted by its officers joining the military and too small to subdue a hostile and abusive crowd, Neath’s police force unintentionally enabled a noisy demonstration to become riotous. 

In June 1915 Cecelia Kaltenbach was fined for failing to comply with an order to leave the Neath area.44 Aside from the Council’s minutes on riot compensation, it was the last public reference to Cecelia Kaltenbach. In 1918 Lloyd George’s Government made the compulsory repatriation of Germans in Britain a key election policy and it is highly probable that, as a German citizen with no blood relatives in Britain, Cecelia Kaltenbach and her son were repatriated to Germany along with thousands of other German civilians. Fortunately for Richard Kaltenbach, his length of pre-war residence in Britain, having a British-born wife, and British-born children under 16, were sufficient grounds to be allowed to remain. By the time of the 1921 census, he was living at 89 Gnoll Park Road, Neath with his wife and their youngest son Albin Josef, while their daughter Ethel and son Wilfrid attended Catholic boarding schools near London.45

In the period following the end of the First World War, suspicion and resentment towards Germans in Britain slowly abated and there is no evidence of continuing animosity towards Richard Kaltenbach because of his nationality.  In 1931, Ethel Kaltenbach qualified as a nurse and returned to Neath to work, Albin Josef became a Roman Catholic priest and, from the 1950s, Wilfrid Kaltenbach and the Neath artist William Roberts ran the jewellers and watchmakers Kaltenbach and Roberts until the business closed in 1975.46 Despite a brief period of internment during the Second World War, on Richard Kaltenbach’s death in 1945, the South Wales Evening Post published a short obituary which recognised his fifty years of business as a jeweller in Neath.47

Neath Guardian - 13th December 1963

1. Cambria Daily Leader - 17th March 1915.

2. Alien Arrivals in England, Ancestry.co.uk; 1961 Census, Swansea Clocks, Watch & Clockmakers of Swansea and District - Joanna Greenlaw (1997)

3. The Cambrian – 1st July 1870; 1871 Census, Ancestry.co.uk.

4. UK, Naturalisation Certificates and Declarations, 1870-1916, Ancestry.co.uk; 1891 Census, Ancestry.co.uk.

5. ‘Failure of Neath Jeweller’, Western Mail – 13th January 1894.

6. London Gazette – 17th September 1878; 1911 Census, Ancestry.co.uk.

7. 1911 Census, Ancestry.co.uk.

8. 1901 Census, 1911 Census, Ancestry.co.uk.

9. The Cambrian- 3rd July 1908; Evening Express- 18th June 1909.

10. T84, Neath Rate Books 1913 - (West Glamorgan Archive Service).

11. Birth, Marriage, and Death, Ancestry.co.uk; 1911 Census, Ancestry.co.uk.

12. T84, Neath Rate Books 1913 - (West Glamorgan Archive Service); Glamorgan County Asylum Records, 1845-1920, Ancestry.co.uk; 1911 Census, Ancestry.co.uk.

13. Panikos Panayi, The Enemy in our Midst (New York: Berg, 1991), pp. 46-50.

14. Cambria Daily Leader – 17th May 1915.

15. Cardiff, Glamorgan Archives, D/D CON 142, Chief Constable’s Report, Neath, 30th November 1914.

16. Adrian Gregory, The Last Great War (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2008), p.235.

17. Cambria Daily News – 11th May 1915.

18. The National Reserve was a register of trained officers and men who had no further obligation for military service. Its purpose was to enable an increase in military resources in the event of imminent national danger.

19. South Wales Weekly Post -  22nd May 1915.

20. Cambria Daily Leader – 17th May 1915.

21. Western Mail – 17th May 1915.

22. GC/SJ 1/2, Glamorgan County Council, Chief Constable’s Report, June 1915 (Glamorgan Archives).

23. Cambria Daily Leader – 17th May 1915.

24. Cambria Daily Leader - 18th May 1915.

25. Herald of Wales -  22nd May 1915.

26. Cambria Daily Leader - 18th May 1915.

27. Cambria Daily Leader - 19th May 1915.

28. South Wales Weekly Post - 22nd May 1915.

29. Cambria Daily Leader - 18th May 1915.

30. Enemy Aliens and Internees, Findmypast.co.uk.

31. Enemy Aliens and Internees, Findmypast.co.uk.

32. Herald of Wales - 22nd May 1915.

33. South Wales Weekly Post - 22nd May 1915.

34. B/N 62 - Neath B.C. - Watch Committee Minutes, 31st May 1915 (West Glamorgan Archive Service).

35. B/N 62 - Chief Constable’s Report, 31st May 1915 (West Glamorgan Archive Service).

36. B/N 20 - Neath B.C. - Watch Committee Minutes, 1st  July 1915(West Glamorgan Archive Service).

37. B/N 20 - Neath Borough Council-  Minutes, 6th July 1916 (West Glamorgan Archive Service).

38. Herald of Wales - 2nd December 1916.

39. Trading with the Enemy (Amendment) No.2 Bill paper 179, 1916, p.3.

40. Glamorgan Gazette - 16th March 1917; Western Mail - 27th March 1918.

41. Cambria Daily Leader - 18th May 1915.

42. Cambria Daily Leader - 17th May 1915.

43. South Wales Weekly Post - 22nd May 1915.

44. Western Mail - 30th June 1915.

45. 1921 Census, Findmypast.co.uk

46. UK & Ireland Nursing Registers, Pembrokeshire Electoral Registers 1970, Neath Guardian (using Findmypast.co.uk and  Ancestry.co.uk.)

47. Enemy Aliens and Internees (Findmypast.co.uk), South Wales Evening Post - 5th December 1945.


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