german watch-makers living in sheffield ended up in wartime internment

Watson's Walk following Sheffield Blitz, taken 13 December 1940.''Picture Sheffield, s01266.
Watson's Walk following Sheffield Blitz, taken 13 December 1940.''Picture Sheffield, s01266.
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A family who came to Sheffield from Germany and ran a successful business here but were interned as enemy aliens during World War One are the focus of university researchers.

From at least the early 1820s, Sheffield was home to a number of watch and clock makers, many of German origin.

One family, the Sermins, provide a fascinating story of a continued link to Germany.

Hallam University historians Chris Corker and Matthew Stibbe are appealing for people to unlock more hidden histories of Sheffield businesses.

They have uncovered a fascinating tale about the Sermins, who were based in Watson’s Walk, and later, after Second World War bombs wrecked their premises, on Sharrow Lane.

Chris, from the university’s department of humanities, said: “The story of the Sermin family is intertwined with that of numerous other German families who settled in Sheffield from the 1820s onwards.

“Their personal and business experiences are a crucial, if often forgotten part of the city’s links with Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

“As we move towards the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War, it is timely to look once again at those links from a time where a German watchmaker in Sheffield was something to be celebrated.”

Joseph Sermin was born in 1846 in Neustadt, south-west Germany, and moved to London in his 20s. His future wife, Maria, moved to London in the late 1870s and the two were married in 1880.

The second half of the 19th century represented the high point of German migration to Britain, with Germans resident in England and Wales rising from 28,644 in 1861 to 53,324 in 1911. Sheffield’s German population remained small, with 390 residents in 1911.

The Sermins moved to Sheffield in 1887 and Joseph bought the watch and clock-making business of Winterhalder and Quenett, founded in 1814.

The business had passed between several German families. Lawrence Shwerer was listed at the address as a ‘German Watch Maker’ in 1822 and 1833. John Tritschler listed as proprietor in 1852, John Brugger and Co in 1862 and Winterhalder and Quenett by 1884.

The shop was at 12 and 14 Watson’s Walk, between Hartshead and Angel Street.

The watches and clocks made by Joseph were noted for their “accuracy and general perfection”.

Joseph’s three sons were to become successors to the family business and each would undertake a six-year apprenticeship in watch-making in Germany and Switzerland.

In November 1912, perhaps sensing the danger ahead, Joseph Sermin Sr, now aged 66, was naturalised as a British subject, so when the First World War broke out in August 1914, he was not categorised as an enemy alien.

His children, born in Britain, were counted as British nationals. However, three were in Germany when hostilities began. Joseph and Victor were in Baden as part of their apprenticeships.

Their youngest sister Lucy had also travelled there for a family wedding. Enemy aliens were initially denied the right to leave Germany.

Eventually in October 1914 the British and German governments agreed to allow the repatriation of women, children and men over 55.

Men of military age were interned in November 1914 at a camp at Ruhleben near Berlin. Among the 24 Ruhlebenites who signed a postcard sending seasonal greetings ‘to the Lord Mayor and Citizens of Sheffield’ at Christmas 1914 were Joseph and Victor Sermin.

Joseph Sermin Sr died in late 1914 at the age of 68, without seeing his children return from Germany.

Albert took control of the family business and continued it on his own throughout the rest of the war.

Lucy managed to come back in 1915. At the end of the war, Joseph Jr and Victor were returned to Sheffield.

Joseph Jr joined Albert from 1919 in the family business, Victor joining in 1922.

In 1940 the three of the b orthers were listed as directors of J Sermin and Sons on Watson’s Walk in a local trade directory.

Disaster would strike the family in the same year. During the first night of the Sheffield Blitz on December 12, 1940 Watson’s Walk was bombed, destroying the shop that the Sermins’ father had bought 53 years before.

Undeterred, by 1941 the brothers were trading again at 8 Sharrow Lane, where a third generation would continue the business in the decades that followed.

n Did you know the Sermin family or buy jewellery from their premises? Or do you know more about the German families who lived in Sheffield in the last two centuries, some of whose members may have been interned in Britain or Germany during the First and Second World Wars?

Contact Chris Corker at chris.corker@shu.ac.uk