The Sander War Legacy

The Sander War Legacy

During the mid 19th Century Otto von Bismark  was unifying the various states that made up Germany and deciding the borders.

Disputes with Denmark about the border in Schleswig Holstein caused two wars with Denmark, the second of which was in 1864.

Frederick Sander, born in Bremen and living in Schleswig Holstein where his mother ran a horticultural establishment, was affected by this aged 17 and  told his family it was the reason he emigrated to England the next year, 1865, aged 18. His father had died when he was very young and his ‘father figure’ was his uncle, Diedrich Kropp, his mother’s brother.  Kropp was a sculptor who travelled abroad and probably introduced Sander to travel with the stories of his adventures.

During Queen Victoria’s reign England fought wars to protect its empire in the Crimea and the Boer wars in South Africa but was peaceful within Europe.

Between 1865 and 1914 Sander enjoyed almost 50 years of peace, building his empire, including probably the largest horticultural establishment in the world in Bruges, Belgium. When WW1 started and Belgium was invaded, the decline of Sander’s empire began immediately, taking a further step downhill during WW11, and finally ending in 1970.

As a naturalized British subject Sander had reluctantly returned to England at the beginning of August 1914, his worst fears having been realised.  An undischarged bankrupt, still with no funds, his friend (later ‘Sir’) Alfred Gilbert, stayed on.

As requested by his friend, Sander, Gilbert reported subsequent events in his long letter of October 1914 to Frederick Sander. He writes about the invasion of Bruges , as he witnessed it from the upstairs windows of his hiding place. A transcript of this 30 page letter can be read here using the link above. The original has been donated to the Imperial War Museum in London and can be seen there by appointment.

WW1 was to lead to the death of Sander’s first born grandchild, Philip Moon, the eldest son of his only daughter and eldest child, Deidi, who had married the artist Henry Moon. Philip Moon died in 1915 in Arras some time before the main battle there in 1917. His body was never recovered but there is a memorial stone to him in the family grave in St. Albans where Sander himself was buried 6 years later. Between the outbreak of WW1 and Philip’s death Sander named a number of Paphiopedilum hybrids after the battles we think that he was involved in.

For the first year of WW1, despite his father’s pleading, his youngest son Louis had stayed in Bruges to try to save the business there. During the winter of 1914/15, which was very cold, he managed to continue paying staff wages by skating north along the canal to neutral Holland where he could get cash from the bank. Finally, despite being fluent in Flemish German and French, it became too dangerous as a British citizen to stay in occupied Belgium and he returned to England via Holland.

When he left for England he handed over the running of the nursery to Mr Melstrom, who was a citizen of neutral Sweden. The nursery grew a lot of vegetables and fruit helping sustain the population of Bruges for the duration.

On arrival in England Louis immediately joined the Sherwood Forresters and fought in the Battle of the Somme where he was badly gassed.

He returned to help run the business in Bruges in 1920 but because of his health was a shadow of his former industrious self and died young in 1936 leaving his widow Nellie with four young children.

The anti-German sentiment in England had reached fever pitch by 1917 and King George V changed his family name from Saxe-Coburg- Goethe to the current ‘Windsor’.

Sander’s eldest son, Conrad, changed his very German name to his mother’s maiden name, Fearnley.

He worked from the outset of WW1 for its duration at the Censor’s Office in London, using his multilingual skills. For the first few months of WW11 her did the same but, already in his sixties, probably did not adapt to the latest methods and technology.

Three of his sons were involved in WW11, the youngest, Peter, being killed in action in Heinsberg in January 1945.

Roger, David and Fearnley’s youngest daughter Mary all joined the RAF.

Roger and David both used their linguistic skills in the intelligence service, Roger in Coastal Command and David working with Enigma, attached to the Royal Navy on the Artic Convoys. Mary was involved in photo reconnaissance.

David and Roger ran the family firm until Fearnley’s death in 1957 when they each set up separate businesses on their own.  The legacy of War on the history of ‘Sander’s Orchids is very significant indeed.


Lt Peter Fearnley SANDER