Throughout the Victorian and Edwardian eras Herne Hill and Denmark Hill had many residents of German origin. They were mostly merchants and bankers, able to afford pleasant villas in what were then semi-rural surrounds. The outbreak of war saw the freedoms of people of German (and Austro-Hungarian) origin – there were some 40,000 in London – severely curtailed. The businesses of those whose commercial activities depended on trade with Germany disappeared overnight.
One Emil Müller, a German national, owned a house known as “Hill Crest”, at the junction of Sunray Avenue with Denmark Hill. It is probably the house in the background of the photograph shown here. In 1917 Mr Müller gave his solicitor a power of attorney to sell the house.
He then took the steamer to Flushing and returned to Germany (as was possible, if permitted by the authorities). The house was sold for £1,050 at auction to a Mr Tingley, who, having discovered the nationality of the vendor, sought to avoid the contract on the basis that it constituted trading with the enemy and was therefore unlawful. The case went to the Court of Appeal, where no less than six judges (the usual number is three) considered the point at length. The Court assumed that the vendor was resident in Germany at the time of the sale and an “alien enemy”, but this did not avoid the contract since there was no benefit to the enemy, it being agreed that the sale proceeds must be held by the Public Trustee and could not be received by Mr Müller until after the war. Indeed rendering the house unsaleable could be detrimental to British interests.
“Hill Crest” was built after Sunray Avenue was laid out in about 1895, but the house no longer survives.