A European journey

Peter's grandfather Robert is standing on the left

Robert Schwikert arrived in the UK with just enough savings for the journey. Although bi-lingual, he spoke no English. Given the draconian, short-sighted immigration rules of this far right Johnson government he would not in today’s Britain have been allowed to stay.

His grandson Peter looks at his grandfather’s story to show how Robert’s move to the UK has provided long term benefit.

By Peter Rowberry

I have decided to consider the impact the current government’s immigration policy would have had on my family, especially my maternal grandfather. Robert Schwikert and his family lived in Strasbourg, part of Germany at the time. His parents were printers, but for some reason they chose to buy him an apprenticeship as a pastry chef in a hotel in Brussels. He was probably around fourteen years old when he took up this position.

Reports showed that, although he was a good worker, he could never do the right thing for the head chef. He was regularly beaten, and he was not prepared to take that behaviour any longer. He wrote back to his family asked if he could come back and work in the family business. He was met with a point-blank refusal. The apprenticeship was paid for and he must finish it.

He had to think hard about his future, and he made the difficult decision to move to England. He caught the boat train to Victoria. He had saved a small nest egg, but other than that had nothing.

Although he was bilingual French and German, Grandad didn’t speak a word of English when he arrived. The story goes that he saw a restaurant with a French name and found someone who he could talk to. They helped him find lodgings. He found English newspapers lining the drawers in his room and used this to help him learn the language.

During World War One he was interred as an enemy alien. It was only the intervention of the French government and their insistence that Alsace Lorraine, including Strasbourg, was part of France, not Germany, that permitted his early release. He married my Grandmother, Florence, or Flo, who was working as a waitress in a coffee bar.

He went looking for jobs and although not much is known about his work history in the early days, he was soon employed in the kitchen at the Savoy hotel, one of the most prestigious hotels in London. His fortunes changed when he contracted tuberculosis. He spent many months in a sanatorium, but I understand he was also able to convalesce with relations in the mountains somewhere in Europe.

In the meantime, Flo was left to look after the children, probably four of them by that time. She sought help from the “parish”, the precursor to the modern social security system, only much more judgemental and brutal. My mother recalls being told that a loaf of bread and a lump of cheese was all the help she got. Flo was also told that she had too much furniture for the people living in the flat, so would not get any more assistance unless she sold the bed and wardrobe in the spare room. My enterprising grandmother refused and soon was able to take in a lodger to help her see through these difficult times.

Fortunately, Grandad’s TB responded to treatment and he was able to return to work, but of course working in a kitchen was no longer possible. The Savoy were very good to him and offered him a job as a porter. His grasp of languages made him a natural for this job. He was soon working as a hall porter, meeting and greeting, providing theatre tickets and tourism advice, even having a stock of postcards with the necessary stamps and air mail stickers. He always took his customer service obligations seriously. To get the job he had to “pay for the uniform”. I understood that it may have cost as much as £25 to “buy” the position. I don’t know how much, if any, salary he received, but the tips could be substantial, and the initial investment was worth it.

I remember once overhearing Grandma saying that the Aga Kahn was in town and that Grandad would be getting some good tips. Being rather naïve, I asked if I could have some tips too. On being asked what I meant I said that, if the Aga Kahn knew which horses would run well, we could place a bet and make a lot of money.

Grandad was an intelligent and thinking man. He refused to change his German surname to one more anglicised. I am sure that this would have posed problems for his children, especially his two youngest boys, who were still at school. It may have been easier when they were evacuated to Wales as school wasn’t a priority. As a pointer to Grandad’s resilience and intellect, he recovered from bowel cancer. As part of his recovery, he learnt Portuguese and became fluent in less than two years. He even took up a post as a courier/guide for Americans in Europe with the Thomas Cook travel agency.

Everything I have written is based upon the stories shared by the family. I do not claim that it is accurate in every respect. History often changes in the telling; but the major parts of the story are true.

Arriving as an unskilled worker with very little savings, no job and not a word of English, he would have been refused entry under the Home Secretary’s new rules. My mother, originally classified as an enemy alien during World War Two, would not have gone on to work with the WAAF in Gloucester as a secrets clerk. Her elder two brothers would not have served the UK in the Second World War. One died tragically at Monte Casino when the Americans dropped their bombs short of their target.

The UK would not have benefitted from the many contributions my Grandad’s family have made to this country. Can we really afford to be without talent like this in the future? Of course not!

Editor’s note – Printing in Strasbourg

Peter has explained that his printer family originally came from Dusseldorf. They moved to Strasbourg sometime after the Franco Prussian war to print newspapers in German.

Photograph by Jacqueline Banerjee

Strasbourg has a long association with printing and Gutenberg, who is credited with the invention of movable type, is believed to have worked on his early experiments with a hand mould for casting type metal alloy. Gutenberg is thought to have been active in Strasbourg sometime between 1430 and 1440.
This statue of Gutenberg is situated in Place Gutenberg in the centre of the old town. Image by Jacqueline Banerjee

Peter Rowberry is an occasional Newsnet contributor. We will shortly be publishing Peter’s story on his journey to Scotland.