Throughout the First World War anti-German sentiments and rumours of spies were reported in various local Somerset newspapers.
Many of these stories were based on rumours and appear almost comical to a person living in the 21st century, but in a country living in the shadow of war the threat of ‘foreigners’ or ‘aliens’ infiltrating Somerset towns and villages must have been troubling at the time.
The Western Gazette in August 1914 reported that a tramp in Crewkerne was mistaken for a spy, whilst the Weston Mercury in 1917 sought to dispel the story that had been printed in the Bristol Guardian of a spy arrested in Weston-Super-Mare and subsequently shot in the Tower of London.
Other reports from across the county would no doubt further the anti-German feeling that much of the country was experiencing. These include the arrests of Germans not registering as aliens, and the report from the Bridgwater Mercury in October 1914 about the vicar of Brent Knoll’s daughter being captured by Germans in South Africa.
One particular story from the Western Gazette in 1914 shows how Somerset became gripped in spy mania in the early part of the war and had connections to Edwardian high society.
In August 1914 the home of Count Conrad Hochberg was occupied by the police following his rapid disappearance when war was declared.
A week later there is another account of a raid on the home of the alleged spy Count Hochberg, Croydon Hall near Dunster. The headline is self-explanatory:
The article goes on to describe how the Count’s Somerset home (described as being both a castle and a mansion in the article) contained 300 rifles, 7000 gallons of petrol and plans of the coast around Minehead. This coupled with the disappearance of the Count and his supposed instructions to the staff to ‘blow up the premises’ led to the suspicion that he was a spy.
In September 1914 it would become apparent that Hochberg was not just a possible spy but related to the Edwardian elite. A letter is sent to the editor of the Gazette from William Cornwallis-West, Lord-Lieutenant of Denbighshire, after receiving news of the story from Somerset peer Lord St. Audries.
Cornwallis-West attempts to undo the potential damage done by the Western Gazette in their articles about the Count by including the fact that he is the brother-in-law of his own daughter Princess Pless. Daisy, Princess Pless, was well known in Edwardian society due to her family connections and marrying the extremely wealthy German Hans Heinrich XV, Prince of Pless, Count of Hochberg, Baron of Fürstenstein.
After the articles of 1914, the home of Count Conrad Hochberg would be mentioned again in the Western Gazette towards the end of the war. In November 1918 it is reported that the Parish Church of Old Cleeve planned to remove the coat of arms belonging to Count Hochberg from bench ends, the headline: ‘A HUN’S ARMS IN SOMERSET CHURCH.’
It would appear that despite attempts to silence critics and clear his name, the Count remained a largely unpopular figure, living in a time when the British people held great anger and resentment towards the German nation.