Thursday, 11 September 2008

The Kaiser, a Doorway, a Bridge and his Bust!

Wandering around looking for intriguing bits of London can sometimes throw up little mysteries, little questions that knock around until you can come up with some sort of explanation, right or wrong, that manages to satisfy...well this is one of those!

The other week I was wandering down the back streets of Putney, parallel to the High Street, when I noticed a house with slightly more elaborate decoration than its neighbours. It was at the end of Werter Road, Putney and one of the most striking things about it was the florid bust of a military looking gentleman above the door arch.

One of the reasons I noticed it was because I had once picked up an interesting painted plaster cast of what seemed to be the same individual in a junk shop on a small island off of Istambul (stay with me on this one...). The cast seemed to be of a high ranking German officer of WWI-ish vintage, but there was no indication as to who it could have been. It probably wasn't all that surprising to find such a bust in Turkey as the two countries were close allies up to and during the First World War, but to find what appeared to be the same individual in Putney was a bit odd. Could this be a bust of Kaiser Wilhelm II ('Kaiser Bill')?

Then there was the name Werter Road, which is distictly German in tone, for example comprising part of the title of a book by Goethe called The Sorrows of Werter. Could the bust and the naming of the road be connected?

All a little coincidental possibly but then I began to wonder how a house with such a prominent bust of the Kaiser have fared during the war? I recall reading somewhere that Gerhold the Bakers on the Upper Richmond Road had their windows broken more than once just for having a name that sounded germanic so having the bust of the evil Kaiser above your door seems to be more than a little foolish. Why wasn't it smashed or defaced?

Then I thought I'd cracked it. I vaguely recalled hearing that the Kaiser had once visited Wimbledon Common to review the troops. He must have travelled through Chelsea and Fulham before crossing Putney Bridge and making his way up Putney Hill to Wimbledon Common. Had his visit, the visit of Queen Victoria's grandson, provided enough goodwill and excitement to cause someone to comission a bust to remember it by? A look on the Putney Conservators website confirmed the trip

In 1891 the Emperor of Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm II, inspected 22,000 troops on
Wimbledon Common of whom 16,000 were volunteers

When I thought about it a little further I also recalled that for many years the Railway Pub on the corner of Putney High Street and the Upper Richmond Road (is it now called Flannegan's?) used to feature a large painted bust of a be-whiskered German in a picklehaube helmet, high up in a niche by the roof. More evidence of the Kaiser's visit?(Update: I found this picture in an old book of architectural detailing. The head itself is no longer there)

Another avenue of enquiry occured to me as my father in law has a large collection of old photos of Putney, taken off of the original plate-glass negatives and given to him many years ago. I went through them and found this picture of the approach to the bridge

It's a nice atmospheric shot, but there's bunting out and the bridge seems to have been turned into a triumphal archway with ivy, flags and a sign. All very intriguing and when you zoom in on the sign it gets even more interesting...

The 'VELKOMMEN' (I think a bit of the 'E' has been obscured to make it look like an 'O') could only be a welcome to a visiting German dignitary of high rank and affection. An 1891 visit by the Queen's grandson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor of Germany which caused so much excitement that pubs and private houses both marked the visit with busts of the man himself.

Except there's a rather large fly in that ointment. It turns out that the whiskery chap isn't Kaiser Wilhelm II but his grandfather Kaiser Wilhelm I 'The Great' of Prussia and Germany as can be seen from this portrait

Well that's my neat theory blown out of the water. No busts for Kaiser Bill, but all of them for his grandad! Did he ever visit Putney? Not to my knowledge but there must be some link and I'd be
very interested if there are any possible suggestions out there.

And all this from spotting one small bust...


Anonymous said...

Just stumbled along this site, and despite my apparent great connections (grew up in neighbouring Southfields, now live in Germany), I'm not sure I can help with any of the questions you asked. However, I wondered if it was significant that the 'Welkommen' sign appears to be on the wrong side of Putney, ie something he'd see only on *leaving* Putney back into London. Good spot though.

And also, I'm duty-bound to mention that Werter Road is not parallel to the High Street, but *perpendicular*. Phew, glad I got that off my chest :-)


Anonymous said...

>Just stumbled along this site
OK, I'll come clean: it was from your posting on WUP. As if I have time to surf randomly these days... :-)

Yelfy said...

Hi Wayne, Interesting point about the 'Wilkommen' sign. Presumably the burghers of Fulham had one on their side saying 'Auf Widersein' and the Putney crew thought that they'd at least get him on the way home... Also nice try about the perpendicular position of Werter Road, but I spotted it whilst walking parallel to the High Street along Oxford Road. Unlike the Kaiser I'm always looking over my shoulder! ;-)

Anonymous said...


Great site! I'm about to upload mine and as you'll see they'll have quite a lot of pictures in common.
The bust does bear some resemblance to Kaiser Wilhelm I rather than Wilhalm II indeed. With regards to the picture, I'd think that the sign above the triumphal archway is in Norwegian rather than German (it would have been "Wilkommen". Even its earlier spelling forms didn't come close to "Velkommen". I can't imagine that people in Putney would have been that illiterate). Thus I was wondering whether it wasn't erected during a visit by either King Oscar II (who was supported Britain's international policies on several occasions) or King Haakon VII...
Oh, and the pub at the corner of the High Street and Upper Richmond Road is still called the Railway Pub. A steam locomotive still adorns the sign.

Anonymous said...

Great post very interesting. I have got two photos on my flickr pages of Kaiser Bill visiting Wimbledon on 11 July 1891 for the National Rifle Association meeting on the Common. One is of a similar arch to the one you have on Putney Bridge. The Wimbledon one shows an arch put up by Russel & Sons photographers on Wimbledon Bridge (over the railway) saying Welcome to the Emperor. The Wimbledonians standing underneath just look superb. The other photo I have i of Kaiser Bill riding up Wimbledon Hill to inspect some 22,000 troops. I have read and think I have in my possession an eyewitness account of the visit somewhere and will try and dig. It makes you think this man had a big hand in the slaughter of maybe many of the young boys cheering him up the hill on his horse.

Sorry I do not know how ton inbed links to the photos in the post but if you search Kaiser Bill in my photos you can see them

Yelfy said...

Thanks for all your comments on this one. Not having a clue about German I have to hold my hands up and bow to Sebastien on this one (I suspect I'd have to be counted amongst the illiterate of Putney!), although I'd also be fascinated to hear that Putney was visited by either of these Scandinavian monarchs. Dunc's photo's are really interesting as well - as you say, how many of those cheering him that day eventually found themselves or their children of in France? I did manage to find a picture of the head that used to be on the Railway Tavern though, and I've added it to the posting. This all started out as idle speculation on my part after spotting a single bust on an archway - it could be that I've been putting two and two together to make five but whether that's the case or not I've been fascinated with the comments made and the leads they've produced so thanks to you all for taking the time to comment

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nike free run 2 said...

This is certainly an art. I am amazed how the little, less seen details make impression much bigger than the huge exposed to vision things

the gun said...

It was actually a celebration in 1879 when Putney Bridge was freed from tolls.


Anonymous said...

The photo shows him riding up the hill on Wimbledon and not from the direction of Putney.