A Merchant Adventurer

English House, Hamburg, Lithograph by Jess Bundsen 1811.

English House, Hamburg, Lithograph by Jess Bundsen 1811.

I went on a short adventure to Hamburg recently. I stayed in the Harvestehude quarter of the city, an area not unlike London’s Holland Park or Richmond: tall town houses and small front gardens, and a park, the Innocentiapark, planted with oak, horse chestnut and ash. An Englishman, and particularly a Londoner, can feel at home here (bar the lack of organised flowerbeds, deck chairs and the sound of leather upon willow). Add to that the regular sightings of MGB GT’s and original Mini Coopers in British racing green, and you might wonder if you’ve stepped through a portal to old Blighty.

It got me wondering why Hamburg is so enamoured by the English way of life and to find out if its not just me seeing the world through St. George-tinted glasses: the good Bürgers of Hamburg are self-confessed anglophiles. Using a pre-Google method of finding things out, I went to the Historical Museum of Hamburg by the beautiful Alte Elb park, another place reminiscent of London’s parks. Here I discovered that a group of English traders called the Merchant Adventurers began trading in Hamburg with the agreement of the city as early as 1567. The Merchant Adventurers specialised in exporting cloth from England to the Continent in the early fifteenth century, but set up shop, as it were, some hundred years later in Hamburg. The term ‘merchant adventurer’ also refers to those who were willing to adventure or risk their money on speculative ventures.

The Hamburgers and the Adventurers seemed to hit it off, and after 1611 the Adventurers’ foreign trading activities in Europe were centred in Hamburg, with the city offering them a property free of charge in Alte Groeningerstrasse, aptly named the English House (see picture). The company survived in Hamburg as a trading guild until 1808, when the Napoleonic Wars forced them to retreat west of the English Channel.

Perhaps these old trading ties are the reason why Hamburgers continue to have a soft spot for their neighbours across the water. And the affection is not one sided: Hamburg merchants were the only Germans allowed a permanent place on the London Stock Exchange, and for many years it was a firm tradition for Hamburg merchant sons to serve an apprenticeship in a British company. So perhaps there are older and deeper reasons for Hamburg’s enduring fascination with England – the traditional tailoring, the sporting pursuits like rowing, horse racing and cricket, or design like the parks, cars and houses. Ultimately, we are perhaps not so very different: adventurers, of the mercantile persuasion.