Joseph Jonas was born in Bingen-am-Rhein, Germany in 1845. In his youth he worked for a couple of German iron-and-steel companies until he emigrated to England in 1867 to avoid military service.
He arrived in Sheffield, a total stranger, and initially worked as a commercial traveller. He began his own manufacturing business in 1870 and two years later went into partnership with Robert Colver making high-quality crucible cast steel and, later, “Novo” high-speed steel for high-temperature cutting edges in hand tools and machine tools.
The partnership, which became a limited-liability company in 1892, was based at Continental Works and Novo Steel Works in Attercliffe, the heart of Sheffield’s heavy steel industry, and developed a reputation as one of the largest and most reliable suppliers of specialist steels in the industry.
Joseph Jonas made an outstanding contribution to public life in Sheffield. He joined the town council in 1890, became a magistrate and an alderman and served as Lord Mayor in 1904-05. As an Attercliffe councillor he took a lead in acquiring High Hazels Park, Darnall, for public use. He also acted as German Consul for Sheffield.
He gave financial support to the University’s Applied Sciences, French and German programmes, and was knighted in 1905 when King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra visited the city to open the Sheffield University building on Western Bank. In 1916 he contributed £5,000 to a bequest from the late Edgar Allen to found the Allen & Jonas Laboratory for metal-testing.
The company took the name Sir Joseph Jonas, Colver & Co Ltd in 1907. Robert Colver kept a lower public profile than his partner, except that he served as Master Cutler in 1890. He died in 1916, aged seventy-four, leaving Sir Joseph to continue the business.
Continental Works was heavily involved in supplying steel for armaments in the First World War, but in 1918 Sir Joseph was accused of contravening the Official Secrets Act by obtaining and communicating “certain information prejudicial to the interest of the State and information useful to the enemy”.
This prosecution harked back to an answer to an enquiry from a German customer in 1913 about a new rifle to be marketed by the Vickers company. There was considerable pre-war trade between Sheffield steel firms and such companies as the Krupp corporation: orders, materials, equipment and information were regularly exchanged until the declaration of war abruptly broke contact.
Sir Joseph and his co-defendant were found not guilty of a felony but convicted of a misdemeanour on a legal technicality. They were fined £2,000 and £1,000 respectively, plus costs.
Then Sir Joseph’s troubles began.
He immediately retired and gave up his position as chairman of Sir Joseph Jonas, Colver & Co Ltd, which shortly afterwards was renamed simply Jonas & Colver.
Three weeks later he was deprived of his knighthood by King George V, and the following month he was removed from the magistrates’ bench.
What in 1913 had been an entirely normal exchange of trade information between companies in two countries that were not at war became in 1918 a pretext for anti-German prejudice against a naturalised British subject, as an article on Chris Hobbs’ website shows in detail: Joseph Jonas (1845-1921) – Was a former Lord Mayor of Sheffield, a traitor? (chrishobbs.com).
Sheffield people would have none of it. His workers continued to call him “Sir Joseph”, and after his death aged seventy-six on August 22nd 1921 his funeral at Ecclesall Church was attended by the Lord Mayor and the Master Cutler, the Pro-Chancellor and the head of the Applied Science Department of Sheffield University, the chairman of the Sheffield Education Committee and, according to The Times, “representatives of every side of the city’s activities”.
Sir Joseph was not alone.
At the very beginning of the Great War the Lord Mayor of Coventry, Siegfried Bettmann, was, so to speak, sent to Coventry: World War One: Coventry mayor vilified over German roots – BBC News.
Similarly, Sir Edgar Spayer (1862-1932), chairman of the London Underground Electric Railways group, was ostracised after the War: On the margin | Mike Higginbottom Interesting Times.
It was not a time to reveal any connection, by name, birth or association, let alone activity, with Germany.
This was, after all, the period in history when German Shepherd dogs became Alsatians.