Overstrand hotel at the centre of wartime spy book
PUBLISHED: 08:00 21 August 2013
Archant Norfolk 2013
An Edwardian Norfolk hotel is at the centre of a book about the trial of a suspected spy who was kicked out of Britain at the outbreak of the first world war.
The true story – Banker Traitor Scapegoat Spy? – looks at the life of German-born Sir Edgar Speyer who was highly regarded by politicians before the Great War.
He and his family had a country retreat – Sea Marge – in Overstrand, now a hotel under the same name, from 1902 to 1920.
The book was written by former barrister and law and history tutor Antony Lentin, 72, from Cambridge, who came across the case while writing a biography about Lord Sumner.
Prof Lentin said: “It seemed he was a traitor and a spy and the verdict was correct. Afterwards I wondered what the real story was.”
Speyer came from a merchant banking family and ran a London office called Speyer Bros. In 1886 aged 24 he settled permanently in the capital and became chairman of Speyer Bros following his father’s death.
He became a naturalised British citizen in 1892.
Before his downfall in society he helped finance the transformation of the London Underground system in 1902 with £5m.
The London Proms were saved by Speyer, who gave about £26,000 from 1902 to 1914 after the manager of the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, Robert Newman, went bankrupt.
He also co-ordinated the funding of both Antarctic expeditions by Captain Scott.
Speyer was a philanthropist, member of the Privy Council and friend of Winston Churchill and Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, who both stayed at his country retreat.
He bought the house in 1902 for £6,400 and spent £8,000 rebuilding it for his wife Leonora and their three children, who have all since died.
From the start of the war many letters were sent to Scotland Yard’s Special Branch alerting it to “wireless installations”, “suspicious lights”, “powerful motor cars with strong headlights”, and “foreign employees” at Sea Marge and his London home. It was later suggested that the tennis court at Sea Marge was intended as a landing place for zeppelins.
Prof Lentin wrote in the book: “Before the war, Edgar and Leonora had been well thought of at Overstrand where they had done many kindnesses to the locals.
“Now [in 1914] they were warned to keep away.”
The Speyer family moved to America in 1915 and settled in Boston. Speyer joined the St Botolph Club, a meeting place for people in the Boston literary world, and mainly mixed with musicians.
Charges from the British Home Office were brought against him in February 1920 and they related to his activities after he left England.
The 11-day trial at the Royal Courts of Justice in London took place in 1921 and he was found guilty of showing disloyalty during the war by communicating with, assisting and doing business with Germans, among other charges, mainly through his association with Speyer Bros. His punishment was to surrender his certificate of naturalisation to the Home Office, which meant he could no longer be part of the Privy Council.
Prof Lentin said: “It was amazing to find out so many institutions and forces of the state were out to get one man.”
Speyer returned to America in 1921, Speyer Bros was dissolved in 1922 and he was granted American citizenship in 1925. He moved to Berlin in 1932 but died soon afterwards following a haemorrhage during a nose operation.
Cromer historian Peter Stibbons said: “It is a terrific story. It has become a story that anyone who is interested in Cromer and Overstrand should read.”
The book costs £12.99 and is available from major bookshops.