Dicksons boss attends wartime history gathering of North East's German butchers

Tyneside businessman Michael Dickson flies to Germany the week for a wartime history gathering

Managing director of Dicksons, Michael Dickson, with new director Elena Dickson
Managing director of Dicksons, Michael Dickson, with new director Elena Dickson

While events to mark the centenary of the First World War have been many and varied, Tyneside businessman Michael Dickson flies to Germany this week for an occasion like no other.

He will be attending a gathering of the descendants of German pork butchers who set up shop in the UK but whose world - like that of millions of others - was turned upside down by the outbreak of the conflict.

The four-day event is an example of how the impact of the war still echoes down the generations.

Michael is managing director of the South Shields-based Dicksons chain of pork butcher shops, now totalling 23 across the region.

His grandfather, Georg Friedrich Kuch, was a German pork butcher who, with wife Rosa, opened a shop in Raby Street in Byker, Newcastle, after they married in Gateshead in 1907.

Georg was part of the extended Kuch family, a number of whom had moved to the North East over a period of 40 years to set up shops.

Other Germans did the same.

Georg and Rosa Kuch pictured with their children on Tyneside during peacetime
Georg and Rosa Kuch pictured with their children on Tyneside during peacetime

They came from the rural area of Hohenlohe, near Wurttemberg, where the eldest son would inherit the family farm.

The others had to make an alternative living, and learning the craft of the pork butcher was the answer.

The North East, with its booming industries and rapidly growing towns, was a good place to go.

The Germans’ cooked meats, pies, sausages, sandwiches and saveloys were in demand from the working population.

Then came the war. It devastated the lives of Georg Kuch and his family.

Today, Michael returns to his grandparents’ home region in Germany to be part of the event organised by German historian Karl-Heinz Wustner.

Michael will be among around 50 descendants of German pork butchers from across the UK.

Karl-Heinz says: “ My aim is to bring all these people together, to show them the region in Germany where their forefathers came from.

“There were thousands of young people throughout the 19th Century who took their chance in England by becoming a pork butcher and young women their domestic servants, shop assistants or children’s nurses.

“They were often able to prosper. But at the outbreak of the war they became enemies in the country of their choice.

“They were interned, women and children deported. In many cases, their families were torn apart and their life planning was destroyed.

“Therefore we are also commemorating this dreadful fate many of them suffered, especially at the 100th anniversary of the war.”

Fred Cook who served as a tank driver in the Second World War
Fred Cook who served as a tank driver in the Second World War

Michael’s sister, Dorothy Ramser, has carried out exhaustive family research over the last 10 years and has built up a detailed picture of the fate of her grandparents and their family.

Georg was born in 1883 in Alkersthausen, and arrived in the UK in the late 1890s. The wider Kuch family had shops in South Shields, North Shields, Whitley Bay, Newcastle and Sunderland.

Dorothy’s research shows that Georg met Rosa, from the same area of Germany, when she was working in the household of another pork butcher, a Mr Kaufmann, in Leazes Terrace in Newcastle.

Georg and Rosa lived above their shop in Byker, where in 1908 their first child, Helena, was born - Michael and Dorothy’s mother.

Two more children, Rose and Frederick John, followed.

With a successful business and a young family, the future looked bright. Then came war.

Dorothy says: “ On October 23, 1914, there was a knock on the door, and it changed the life of my mother, Helen, forever.

“Detectives took her father away because his naturalisation had not been finalised and he was regarded as an enemy of the State, and arrested.”

The Journal of that day reported: “A large number of Newcastle and Gateshead detectives visited the homes of all Germans and Austrians who had not been naturalised and brought them to several police stations.”

Georg was sent to an internment camp on the Isle of Man. He was not to see his children again until 1919, and his wife never.

Rosa and the youngsters, all under seven, were put on a boat and deported to Germany. She died, aged 34, at the family farm in Alkertshausen.

Helen Dickson, centre, in one of her family's shops
Helen Dickson, centre, in one of her family's shops

The archive which Dorothy has created contains a haunting photograph of Rosa and the children almost certainly taken so that Georg could carry it with him to the internment camp.

“The strain and sadness are etched on Rosa’s face. It must have been so frightening for her,” says Dorothy.

“When it was time for the men to be sent to the internment camp, the relatives were told they could see them off at Newcastle Central Station. The guards would not allow the men to turn around to make a sign to their families.”

For the deportation voyage, Rosa and the children had to wear labels around their necks in case the ship was torpedoed.

“I know it was an extremely frightening, stressful voyage for my mother and left an indelible mark on her all her life,” says Dorothy.

German pork butcher shops had been attacked and damaged by crowds across the country.

The Journal carried reports of attacks in North Shields, South Shields and Gateshead.

But the hostility did not stop when the children arrived in Germany,

Dorothy says: “My mother and her siblings were stoned every day on their way to school amdist cries of Kuchs Englander! It would seem they were doomed to be on the wrong side in each country.”

Rosa, no doubt shattered by the upheaval, died in 1916.

“My mother and Aunt Rose were traumatised by these events that were triggered by the outbreak of war. It marked them for life,” says Dorothy. My mother was perpetually hungry. All she was given to eat was potatoes and the juice of the sauerkraut and black bread. A boiled egg, incredibly, was given only once a year.”

In 1919, internees like Georg were deported to Germany.

He was reunited with the children, remarried, and returned to the North East in 1925. The family were to change their name to Cook. Frederick, the youngest, served in the British army as tank driver in the 23rd Hussars in the Second World War.

Managing director Michael Dickson with new general manager Harry Howarth
Managing director Michael Dickson with new general manager Harry Howarth

When he returned he opened his own shops.

In 1949 Helen married Michael Dickson, who had a butcher’s shop in Wallsend, and they started the Dickson’s chain.

“It all left a mark on my mother until the day she died. But you either sink or swim and she became the one who looked after the two younger children,” says Dorothy.

“My mother was extremely tough. She said you never give up hope. Neither my grandfather or my mother were in any way bitter.

“They were saddened in that things would have been different. But they wouldn’t have come back to England if there had been any bitterness.”

Michael, about to make his trip to Germany, says: “ They were ordinary folk going about their daily lives. But it was war, and in war there aren’t many winners.”


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