Category: Immigrants Made Good

Immigrants Made Good – Hugo Hirst

Hugo Hirst is perhaps best known as the Father of the British General Electric Company (not to be confused with the American company General Electric). He was a brilliant businessman and industrialist and played a key role in the advancement and manufacturing of electric appliances, communications and engineering. He would eventually become Lord Hirst of Witton and a naturalized British citizen, but this great man began life under a different name – and in a much humbler setting.

Scans from Forty Years of Electrical Progress ...
Sir Hugo Hirst, Bart. Chairman and Managing Director of the General Electric Company, Ltd. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hugo Hirst was born Hugo Hirsch on November 26, 1863 in a tiny Bavarian market town called Altenstadt. His family was decidedly middle class, though his Jewish parents were well established as part-owners of a local distillery. Hugo’s father Emanuel ran the firm of Meyer and Hirsch with his three brothers.

The Hirsch family soon moved to Munich, where Emanuel Hirsch set up a new distillery. Young Hugo was enrolled in the technical school Städtische Handelsschule where he excelled in mathematics. As he progressed academically, he chose to specialize in chemistry with plans to enter his father’s business. Before he could follow through on those plans, he became unhappy with life in Munich, and he instead launched out to begin a career of his own in England.

He was greatly encouraged in his immigration plans by his uncle, Dr. Henry Dick, who worked as a medical consultant on Wimpole Street. A distant cousin, Gustav Binswanger had also emigrated in 1872 and the two shared lodging for a time. Hirsch loved England immediately, and quickly took on the language and customs of the land – even Anglicizing his name to Hirst within months of arriving.

Hugo took a job with a mercantile shipping firm, though he received no salary at first and survived on a small allowance from his father. Soon the firm discovered that young Hugo was proficient in Morse Code – a skill that was vital to the firm’s daily communications with their Indian office. Messages were often long and prone to error, but as soon as Hugo took over, he developed an error correction system that resulted in a significant reduction in messages that had to be re-sent – resulting in major financial savings. In spite of this, his employer refused to pay him more than a pittance, so he began looking for a new job.

He found work with the Electric Power Storage Company, and this marked his entrance into the world of Electrical Engineering. At the same time, his cousin Gustav Binswanger had founded G. Binswanger and Company (an electrical good wholesale company). Hugo soon formed a partnership with Binswanger and they changed the name of the company to The General Electric Apparatus Company.

The original version of General Electric's cir...
The original version of General Electric’s circular logo and trademark. The trademark application was filed on July 24, 1899, and registered on September 18, 1900 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The two found almost immediate success through selling electrical components. The entrepreneurial Hirst saw the potential of electricity and capitalized on the budding industry. The company soon acquired its first factory where telephones, electric switches and electric bells were produced.

As the company continued to expand, they began opening new factories and branches that offered “everything electrical”.  They incorporated as a private company in 1889 and became known as General Electric Company Ltd. In 1909, the company’s name was changed to Osram and was soon leading the way in electric lamp design, producing some of the best tungsten filament lamps at the time.

In 1910, Hugo became Chairman and Managing Director and the company began to export their products overseas. GEC continued to expand throughout WWI, as they became heavily involved in war time production.

In 1925, Hugo Hirst was made the Baron of Witton in the County of Warwick. He passed away in 1943 at the age of 79.

Immigrants Made Good – Cornelius Vermuyden

Sir Cornelius Vermuyden was a brilliant Dutch engineer who introduced some of the very first land reclamation methods to England. He was one of the most talented Dutch waterway and drainage engineers and made groundbreaking attempts to drain The Fens of East Anglia. Through his work he reclaimed many tens of thousands of acres for new development.

Tranquility - The Ouse Washes at Sutton Gault ...
Tranquility – The Ouse Washes at Sutton Gault (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cornelius was born in 1595 on the Isle of Tholen in the Netherlands. He was the son of Giles Vermuyden and Sarah Werkendet. As a young man, he completed his training in the Netherlands before briefly working in England on embankments in the Thames Estuary. He spent time repairing a sea wall at Dagenham and then moved on to Essex where he worked on reclaiming Canvey Island in a venture financed Dutch haberdasher Joas Croppenburg.

Through these various ventures and some subsequent work at Windsor, Cornelius caught the attention of King Charles I. The English King commissioned him with the task of draining Hatfield Chase in the Isle of Axholme, Lincolnshire. The King owned a number of manors in the region, and offered Vermuyden one third of the drained land as payment for his work. In order to finance the venture, Vermuyden sold shares to his land, bringing in a number of Dutch, French and Walloon investors.

As the King also intended to enclose a full third of the common fen for his personal use, the local population was left with a mere third. Locals were enraged, and though they didn’t particularly care about the drainage attempts, they were unhappy about losing much of the common land. They made their displeasure apparent by attacking the Dutch workers. In 1630, an agreement was finally reached, the Fenmen were compensated for their losses, and work proceeded.  The project was completed in 1637, though other engineers objected that the system was inadequate for proper drainage.

Nonetheless, Vermuyden was knighted for his efforts and he became a full-fledged British citizen.

He soon became involved with lead mining ventures in Derbyshire, and with an effort to make the county’s River Derwent navigable. In the 1650s Vermuyden got involved in the efforts to drain the Great Fen in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. The marshland was inadequately drained by a mess of poorly maintained rivers. Attempts had been made to solve the problem, but the work did not really begin in earnest until Vermuyden got involved. He proposed two innovative solutions: washes to catch floodwater in bad weather, and a catch drain around the eastern edge of the fen. The first solution was completed in the 1650s; however, the second phase was not put in place until the 20th century.

When the Civil War broke out in the 1640s, much of Vermuyden’s work was destroyed. Parliament ordered the dykes broken in order to flood the land and stop the Royalist advance. Once the war was over, Vermuyden was commissioned to reclaim the Bedford Level. Over 40,000 acres were drained and the New Bedford River was flowing.

Cornelius Vermuyden passed away on October 11, 1677.

Immigrants Made Good – Prince Rupert of the Rhine

Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of King Cha...
Prince Rupert of the Rhine, nephew of King Charles I, grandson of James I, great-grandson of Mary, Queen of Scots (Photo credit: lisby1)

Prince Rupert was born in Prague on December 17th of 1619. He was the third son of German prince Fredrick V, Elector Palatine and Elizabeth, sister of King Charles I of England. When Prince Fredrick laid claim to the throne of Bohemia in 1620, the Hapsburg Emperor answered in force and Fredrick’s family was exiled to Holland. They spent their years in the court of the Prince of Orange, where young Rupert grew up and was well-educated in mathematics, art, music, and the major European languages. He was brilliant, but headstrong, and his obnoxious antics quickly earned him the nickname “Rupert the Devil.”

Though he was academically brilliant, his passion was fully focused on the military, so at age 14, he joined the forces of the Prince of Orange at the siege of Rhynberg. Two years later, the Prince included Rupert as a member of his lifeguard during the invasion of Brabant. In 1636, Rupert and his elder brother Charles Louis (now Elector Palatine) journeyed to the court of King Charles in England. The King was impressed by young Rupert and awarded him with an honorary MA at Oxford.

He returned to Holland and continued in military service, first serving the Prince of Orange and then joining Charles Louis on a campaign to regain the electorate. The campaign ended poorly, however, and Rupert was captured by the forces of Austrian General Melchior von Hatzfeldt at the Battle of Vlotho. He was held prisoner at Linz for three years, where he whiled away the time studying military textbooks, learning the art of engraving, and carrying on an affair with the daughter of the governor of Linz.

Eventually, King Charles was able to arrange for Rupert’s release and in August 1642, Rupert and his younger brother Maurice arrived in England. Civil war has just broken out in England, and this provided Rupert with a perfect opportunity to advance his military ambitions. King Charles bestowed the Order of the Garter on Rupert and placed him in command of the King’s Cavalry.

He fought his first major battle at Edgehill in October of 1642. He was absolutely fearless and his cavalry charge routed the parliamentarians. Unfortunately, his impetuosity carried him away once more and rather than staying at the battlefield to help ensure a decisive victory, he took off after the routed enemy cavalry, chasing them too far. His dashing fearlessness served him well for the most part though, and he quickly earned an almost legendary reputation amongst the Roundheads. Some even credited him (and his dog Boye) with supernatural powers.

Though he had earned a formidable reputation through military success, his relations with his fellow commanders were tense. Most found him unbearably arrogant and impetuous, while he thought them overly cautious and direly unprofessional.

He continued to lead superbly up until his outstanding relief of the Siege of York in 1644. Just months later, however, his forces were defeated by a parliamentary army at Marston Moor. The Royalists rapidly lost York, and then the north of England. After the Royalists were once again defeated at the Battle of Naseby in 1645, Rupert advised Charles to seek a treaty with Parliament; however, the king would hear nothing of it. When Rupert surrendered Bristol to the Parliamentary forces, Charles stripped him of his commission and Rupert went into exile in Holland.

Rupert held a number of military posts throughout Europe and spent a decade in the West Indies and Germany. When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Rupert returned and was given a series of commands in the British naval forces. He was appointed admiral of the English fleet in 1673, but retired following a number of English losses.

After a serious attack of pleurisy, Prince Rupert died on November 29, 1682 at his house at Spring Gardens. He was buried at Westminster Abbey after a full state funeral.

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Immigrants Made Good – Abraham Gottheimer

Few will recognize the name Abraham Gottheimer; but perhaps the name Baron Albert Grant will be more familiar. He would become one of the country’s richest men through his wily (and often dodgy) business dealings, but his beginnings were humble and rather inauspicious.

Abraham Gottheimer was born in December of 1831, to desperately poor parents living in Dublin’s Jewish Quarter. His mother Julia was British, and his father Bernard was a refugee from Prussian Poland. Bernard Gottheimer had moved to Dublin in the 1820s and worked the streets as a peddler. The little family was in such dire straits financially that members of their local synagogue had to provide them with blankets when little Abraham was born.

Little is known of Abraham Gottheimer’s younger years, though he boasted of an education in London and Paris. He was extremely charming and uncannily money-smart – traits that he developed early on. In 1856, he took on the name Albert Grant, shortly before marrying Emily Isabella Robinson.

He soon began to make his mark on the economic scene, working as a company promoter. Using his signature charm, he convinced investors to back companies. Rather than aiming for savvy businessmen, Grant approached widows, clergymen and other small targets that easily fell for his sales pitches. By working this way, he rapidly amassed an impressive fortune.

He was far ahead of his time where marketing and direct sales were concerned, and he truly knew how to capitalize on the average man’s impulse for speculative greed. He made millions for himself and his investors – but he lost an equal amount on a regular basis. Anyone who stayed with a Grant float for too long was bound to lose a fortune.

He put enormous stock in his public image and worked hard to maintain it. He bought and published his own newspaper, and successfully earned a seat in Parliament in 1865. He engaged in philanthropy, but even this was to his own ends, as his patronage was targeted toward the art galleries and projects that would earn him recognition and gratitude from the right crowds – particularly, the government. By patronizing a slum clearance in Milan, he earned a Baronetcy from King Victor Emmanuel. He did the same in Portugal and quickly began using his new titles.

The Baron’s fortunes continued to skyrocket, and by 1867, his wealth was estimated at over half a million sterling. Any time investors began to lose money, Grant would whip out another extravagant display to distract them. In 1874, the Baron bought and  developed a neglected piece of land in Central London which had beome a reknowned rubbish dump. It was called Leicester Field, he tidied it up, added a bust of William Shakespeare and gifted the city. We know it today as Leicester Square.

It wasn’t long though before Grant’s day of reckoning came. In 1874, the day after Leicester Square opened, the Baron was charged with bribery and kicked out of Parliament. He held his head above water for a time, but when the Emma Silver Mines Scandal broke in 1879, the Baron declared bankruptcy. He spent the rest of his life in seclusion, in and out of bankruptcy courts and hounded by allegations of fraud and misrepresentation.

Grant spent his last years in relative poverty. He died of heart failure at Aldwick Place, Pagham, near Bognor, in Sussex in August 1899 aged 67

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