MEMORY LANE: The alien ‘spy’ who was sent into the cold

Hartlepool Docks, where George earned his living as a sailor after marrying a local girl.
Hartlepool Docks, where George earned his living as a sailor after marrying a local girl.

THE outbreak of war on August 4, 1914, sent anti-Germanic feelings soaring sky-high across Hartlepool and the North East.

Dozens of people with German heritage – including many from the business and commercial communities – were arrested and forced to register as aliens.

Hartlepool following the bombardment in 1914 - at the same time as George Royal was imprisoned for failing to register as an alien.

Hartlepool following the bombardment in 1914 - at the same time as George Royal was imprisoned for failing to register as an alien.

Not even Detective Sergeant George Royal, of Sunderland’s River Wear Watch, could escape the long arm of the law – despite being married to a Hartlepool lass.

Indeed, after failing to register as an alien – and trying to deny his “foreign roots” – Royal found himself on the wrong side of the court dock.

“He had been with the police for several years and, with his ability to speak seven languages, was useful to have around the port,” said historian Trevor Thorne.

“But, shortly after the start of the war, the Chief Constable started receiving letters about Royal’s nationality. When challenged, Royal insisted he was British.”

Was he just unlucky – or a carefully placed spy?

Trevor Thorne, historian

As “proof” of his claim, Royal insisted his father had been the captain of a Dutch ship, and that he had been born on-board the boat in 1872 – within UK waters.

His early life, he claimed, had been spent in Florida. He then became a sailor at 14 but, after “finding love”, he settled down and made Hartlepool his new home.

Records reveal George married Rachel Hartley in 1898 and, by 1901, the couple were living at 5 Hilda Street, Hartlepool, with their children Henrietta and Gustav.

“Rachel and the children were all born in Hartlepool. What is strange, however, is that young Gustav’s name was changed to Emmanuel at some point,” said Trevor.

“Just a few years later, in 1904, the family moved to Sunderland after George became a police officer. By 1911, the Royals were living at 9 Old Mill Road.

“George had an exemplary record until his arrest. Under interrogation he denied any German links – except a half-brother, Rufus, with whom he had ‘no truck’.”

Just a few weeks later, however, following the arrest of Rufus in London, a rather different story started to emerge relating to the European roots of “George Royal.”

He was dragged in for questioning once more, after affectionate letters between the brothers were found, and finally admitted he was an alien – called Gustav Rohl.

Rohl/Royal was immediately arrested for failing to register as such. He was also charged with being in a restricted area without a permit and being an alien enemy.

His case was held at Sunderland Borough Police Court in September 1914, when claims were made that he had started, but not finished, the Naturalisation process.

False papers, however, were found at Royal’s home, which gave his birthplace as Faversham in Kent, while his marriage certificate named him as Gustav Royal.

Royal’s claims to have no German connections were exposed as a lie too, after local sailor Robert Francis testified he had actually travelled to Germany with him.

“Royal had demonstrated his knowledge of Germany during the visit and, when they stopped in Hamburg, asked to be allowed to see his parents,” said Trevor.

Eventually, following a complicated and confusing hearing, the court decided on a simple solution. Royal – or Rohl – was an alien and he deserved to go to prison.

“Royal was jailed for six months and then deported. Nothing further is known of him. Was he just unlucky – or a carefully placed spy?” said Trevor.

“And what of his wife Rachel and his children, Henrietta and the young lad Gustav/Emmanuel? Did they stay in England, or leave with George? It is a mystery at the moment.

“I would very much like to know what happened to this once-happy family. Hopefully, a Memory Lane reader will be able to help.”

Do you know what happened to Rachel? Contact Sarah Stoner via email at sarah.stoner@jpress.co.uk