Representing Germany in the UK

Honorary German Consul John Knight.
Picture by Jane Coltman
Honorary German Consul John Knight. Picture by Jane Coltman

An Alnwick man, who was the longest-serving Honorary German Consul in the UK, has retired from the role after 25 years.

John Knight, of Stott Street, was officially appointed an Honorary Consul for the Federal Republic of Germany by the country’s President on July 1, 1991, and the appointment was confirmed by the Queen that October.

There are 19 honorary consuls around the British Isles, including the likes of the Channel Islands, and John’s ‘patch’ was North Yorkshire and Tees Valley, as he was based in Middlesbrough at the time, where he worked in the shipping industry.

However, he has lived in Alnwick for the past six years, becoming involved in the community through his attendance of St Paul’s Church and volunteering for the youth charity Contagious and the town’s food bank.

And while his life-long career in the shipping industry did not really involve similar work to his consular post, there certainly used to be a tie between the two as shipping people often used to get the consular roles.

For example, John’s boss had been the area’s previous consul and put forward John, who already had ties to the German Seamen’s Mission, to take up the post after him, with the application taking around 18 months to be approved.

Being an honorary consul means representing Germany to the area, which is a mixture of one-off events and the more mundane, administrative side of the business, dealing with the likes of passport and visa advice, people drawing a German pension living in the UK and inheritance laws.

Another aspect is being available to German citizens who may get into difficulty while in the UK, such as losing a passport or being seriously injured and ending up in hospital.

“You don’t do it for financial reward, you do it for as a service basically,” John said. “It’s a position you can make of what you will.

“I found it interesting; there are times when you wish you weren’t – I have had calls on Christmas Eve, for example – but, all in all, I have enjoyed my time doing it.”

The most interesting incident that John had to tackle involved the body of a German airman which dated back to the Second World War.

In 1942, a Luftwaffe bomber on its way to attack the Skinningrove Ironworks was shot down. Of the crew of four, three of the men were discovered at the time and buried in Thornaby Cemetery.

The fourth – who turned out to be 31-year-old Heinrich Richter – was only found by builders in December 1997 and John had to try to find out who he was, which also raised questions as to whether one of the original three men had been misidentified.

Eventually, Richter’s family was traced to what is now Poland and in October 1998, more than 300 people attended a ceremonial burial at a war cemetery on Teesside.

“It was a lot of work for me, quite satisfying and quite unusual work,” John said.

Strangely, John is not a fluent German speaker, in fact, he only has ‘a smattering’ of the language.

However, this aspect is changing too, in the same way as John was the last shipping person in the consular corps.

These days, the honorary consuls are often German nationals with a legal background.