Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy?

Senior Member Tony Lentin is the author of Banker, Traitor, Scapegoat, Spy? The Troublesome Case of Sir Edgar Speyer (Haus Publishing, 2013).  Here he explains how he came to write about this now relatively unknown person:

I had never heard of Sir Edgar Speyer until a few years ago when his name cropped up in connection with another book I was working on at the time. His story intrigued me and I determined to find out more about him.  Though largely forgotten today, Speyer turned out to be a big-shot in Edwardian England: a wealthy Anglo-German merchant-banker, who, as chairman of the UERL (Underground Electric Railways Company of London), raised gigantic international loans to finance the construction of the deep tube lines and became known as `King of the Underground’. A generous philanthropist, he rescued the ‘Proms’ from bankruptcy and ensured their survival by subsidising them himself. He also organised the fund-raising for both of Captain Scott’s expeditions, for the relief of the explorers’ dependants and for what became the Scott Polar Research Institute. He was a friend of Prime Minister Asquith, who secured for him a baronetcy and membership of the Privy Council.  

All this changed with the First World War. A naturalised British subject of German parentage, he fell under suspicion as a spy and traitor. He was believed to be signalling secrets picked up at Downing Street to German submarines from his country-house on the Norfolk coast, and his telegraphic address was ‘Spy, London’! Remorselessly assailed by unscrupulous politicians and an irresponsible press, he sought refuge in America in 1915, despite the public support of Asquith and King George V.  In 1921 he returned to England to face investigation by a judicial tribunal, which found him guilty of disloyalty and disaffection and of communicating and trading with Germany in wartime. Speyer, his wife Leonora - a distinguished concert violinist - and their three young daughters were all deprived of their British citizenship and Speyer’s name was struck off the Privy Council roll.  

I was attracted to Edgar and Leonora as people of great cultivation whose passion was music: the friends of Elgar, Richard Strauss and Sir Henry Wood. I assumed, on the strength of received opinion, that Speyer was guilty as charged.  Still, the case interested me. I was advised that I would find nothing relevant in the archives, but I struck lucky: the first documents to come to hand in the National Archives were the complete Home Office and Treasury Solicitor’s files on the Speyer case, released in 2003, together with the transcript of the trial. On the basis of these papers, my book re-examines the Speyer case, which, as Sir Louis Blom-Cooper argues in a Foreword, was certainly less open-and-shut and more ‘troublesome’ than appeared at the time. My aim was to present the facts as fairly as I could, but I leave it to the reader to make up his or her own mind about the verdict and the punishments meted out.

What continues to surprise me is that, guilty or not guilty, more than 90 years after his fall from grace, Edgar Speyer still remains a non-person.  There is no reference to him in the current events commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Underground, despite the fact that from 1902-1915 he chaired the syndicate that built and ran it.  The Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge contains no commemorative plaque to Speyer, and while Promenaders place garlands on the bust of Sir Henry Wood on the last night of the Proms, the BBC website makes no mention of Speyer, Wood’s indispensable patron.  But for Speyer, none of these institutions would exist.  Perhaps my book will help put that right and restore to their forgotten founder the recognition he is entitled to.


Since the publication of Tony Lentin’s book, the Scott Polar Research Institute Cambridge is planning to recognise the vital contributions made by Sir Edgar Speyer to polar exploration with a memorial plaque. The unveiling with take place on 29 October 2014, and an article on Speyer and the memorial can be found here.