Fitzrovia has always been known for its busy eating places owned and staffed by immigrant waiters and chefs from all over Western Europe. At some points in history, waiters like these have been given an unwanted spotlight, wrongly suspected of being spies.

Union flag and gas lamps.
In the 1900s British nationalism and paranoia meant German waiters in Charlotte Street received harsh treatment.

As recently as February 2017, #SpyWaiter became a Twitter meme after President Trump and the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, were observed by diners and staff at Trump’s Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago, discussing North Korea’s provocative test firing of a missile into the Sea of Japan, immediately after the firing. Comments were made on the startling lack of security surrounding this urgent discussion and the consequent scope for eavesdropping on it. Although there is no proof that any waiters were spying at the resort, speculation flourished.

The #SpyWaiter story has long retreated from the forefront of the news. However, it makes for an interesting comparison with British politics one hundred years earlier. Although emerging from widely differing scenarios, both spy narratives can be seen as responses to political events threatening national identity by undermining the power of a leading economy. A century ago, Britain’s anxiety about its future as a Great Power challenged by a rising power, Germany, had crystallised into paranoid-seeming fears that the many German waiters in London and other cities were hostile agents. Immigrant catering workers, often struggling on the economic margins, were scapegoats for public anxiety about national security rather than actual agents of espionage, or saboteurs. It is in a period of increasing withdrawal and nationalism that the theme of ‘spy waiters’ – albeit half-jokingly – has again appeared in the news.

The 1901 UK census reported a total of 8,634 foreign waiters in Britain, of whom 3,039 were German while many others were Austrian, Swiss, French or Italian. The catering industries in London relied on migrant labour; and catering staff were highly mobile. The flows of labour between the Continent and the UK seemed to anticipate aspects of the European Union. Before the Aliens Act of 1905 there were no immigration restrictions and people could arrive and leave freely.

Fitzrovia, a centre of German migration, played a vital part in a Europe-wide catering apprenticeship system and young German waiters and cooks thronged the neighbourhood due to its low rents and numerous job opportunities. One building in Charlotte Street was used as a rooming house for waiters and chefs until the 1960s. Charlotte Street at that time was known by some as ‘Charlottenstrasse’, reflecting Germans’ predominance there.

Waiting and chef-ing were sweated trades, and immigrants were more likely to be exploited. A small minority could do well: a head waiter at a top restaurant could make as much as £10 or £12 a week. However, smaller restaurants might pay £1 to £1.50 – if they paid regular earnings at all. It was quite common for immigrant waiters to take home only tips. Waiters worked 12 to 14 hours a day and working conditions were sometimes worse than poor.

Apart from cheapness of labour there were advantages in employing foreign waiters: they were well trained and could speak several languages. However, tense relations between Britain and Germany from around 1900 fostered an atmosphere of conspiracy and anti-immigrant feeling. One of the most persistent disseminators of German spy scares was William Le Queux, a journalist and amateur spy who played a role in setting up a voluntary Secret Service department before the First World War, working with Field Marshal Lord Roberts. They both believed that Great Britain was about to be invaded by Germany. Together, they produced a fictionalised account of a German invasion, serialised in the Daily Mail during 1910 and proving hugely popular. At the same time, numerous writers were publishing spy novels like Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands in 1903. Although Le Queux was never taken seriously by the British government, he had influential supporters whose conviction that Britain, unawares, was host to a vast network of German spies gained considerable exposure. Catering workers’ frequent movements between England and Germany no doubt fuelled concerns that some were passing on secret information. The press, above all the Daily Mail, sometimes accused them of being spies. Waiters came under suspicion because they could get close to powerful people at their dining tables and eavesdrop. The Mail told readers: “Refuse to be served by an Austrian or German waiter. If your waiter says he is Swiss, ask to see his passport.”1

In 1905, there was a ‘spy waiters’ scare. The Mail reported on 10th May that, at a meeting of the Royal United Service Institution, Admiral Sir N. Bowden-Smith had asserted that “danger existed in the many thousands of foreign waiters who might be used as spies.” But a responding article in the Daily Mirror on 11th May dismissed these claims, reporting that foreign waiters, when interviewed, seemed bemused by spying accusations. The Mirror argued that most waiters were either naturalised citizens married to British women, whose sympathies were with Britain; or they were here to avoid military service in their home country and were obviously disinclined to help that country.

After the war began, the rhetoric against German immigrants increased, with even naturalised British citizens attacked by The Mail and other newspapers. Even though no real ‘spy waiters’ came to light, the issue rumbled on until after the war, excusing some harsh treatment of Germans and others, including mass dismissals, deportations and internments. The National Union of Catering Workers spoke up for their foreign colleagues against the prevailing public dislike. The NUCW was strongly internationalist: its journal, The Catering Worker, was written partly in French, the language spoken by many members. In wartime it defended members against the strongly nationalistic and xenophobic tone of the times.

To return to Trump’s America today, the Mar-a-Lago catering staff are probably as low-paid, insecure and unorganised as were their predecessors one hundred years ago; and their presence is as liable to political exploitation as the German ‘spy waiters’ of Britain’s First World War.

(1 Qu. Philippe Blom. The Vertigo Years: Change and Culture in the West, 1900-1914. London: Phoenix, 2009, p.181)

Ann Basu is a writer and historian. Her book Fitzrovia: The Other Side of Oxford Street was published in 2019.