Sunday, 26 January 2014

National Holocaust Memorial Day- the fate of Ruth Schmerler

The theme of Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27th year will be “Journeys”. The Memorial Day originated in 2001 with the aim of remembering the crimes, racism and victimisation committed during the Holocaust are neither forgotten nor repeated, whether in Europe or elsewhere in the world. It has been commemorated every year since.

The young woman whose picture that looks out at the reader is Ruth Schmerler whose journey began when she left her home in Poland as a 14 year old in 1939 moved to a home in Manchester for Jewish Refugee Children with her brother Klaus. Her family had lived for generations in Galicia in Poland. Ruth worked as a Land Girl picking fruit in Worcestershire. She was found murdered her body found at Counslow in late September 1944 on the Alton-Cheadle road. She was 20 years of age, her journey had ended.

She was last seen receiving a lift from an Army vehicle at Selly Oak in Birmingham on 21st September. She was intending to see her brother in Manchester who was working as an optician’s assistant. When her body was discovered she had been stabbed as well as an attempt made to strangle her. Her clothes were disarranged and a stocking was missing. Robbery was not thought to be a motive. Ruth’s suitcase and other belongings were found 150 miles away at Shap Fell in Cumbria. Her murder was unsolved despite the best efforts of the Cheadle police. It was the first case that mine detectors were used in a vain attempt to find the weapon that killed Ruth.

Ruth’s story is a poignant one. She escaped the persecution of the Nazis who had killed all her relatives in Poland, for her to die brutally and her body to be thrown into a Staffordshire ditch. Her story is just one of the many millions of people who were forced from homelands where communities had lived for hundreds of years to be either killed or resettled distances away from their birthplace. The Jewish community of Eastern Europe ceased to exist and cities which had sizable minorities such as Prague, Warsaw and Lvov were entirely purged. Only 150,000 Polish Jews survived out of a population of over 3 million by 1945. After the war vast movements of populations occurred. Tony Judt in his seminal book on Europe “ Postwar” estimated that over 30 million people were dispossessed from 1939 to 1950 including 11 million Germans, millions in the Soviet Union such as the Crimea Tartars thought to be enemies of the state, Poles, Hungarians, Italians and many other groups in a massive attempt at “homogenising” vast swathes of the continent. Many Jews moved to the new state of Israel, but also to unbelievably escape further persecution in Eastern Europe . Some of the displaced people of Europe found homes in England as the Polish community at Blackshaw Moor testifies.

Writing about a massacre of Jews that took place in Stryl in Galicia in the summer of 1943 Schaje Schmerler concluded with this prayer. “Their extinguished souls that ascended to heaven and were transformed into stars shine now together will the souls of all those unlucky Jews martyred-- al kiddush hashem --they shine down on us lest we forget what was done to our people”.

Ruth Schmerler lies in a Jewish cemetery in Manchester. Perhaps some passer-by can say Kaddish for her and her people?

Battle of the Nile

The sad  news that the closure of the Portsmouth Dockyards will end 500 years of naval ship building coincides as  a major exhibition on Admiral Lord Nelson opens at the Royal Maritime Museum at Greenwich. The exhibition presents the legendary deeds of  Britain’s greatest and most charismatic  military leader.

Horatio Nelson achieved national prominence firstly with his daring exploits during the Battle of St Vincent in 1797 when the Royal Navy squadron was under the command of Admiral John Jervis of Meaford near Stone(  Given that the county is land locked, Staffordshire has produced great naval officers of the stature of Jervis, Anson and Gardner). But Nelson’s international fame was firmly cemented at the Battle of the Nile of August 1798 when he led the fleet against a larger French force supporting Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt. Showing audacious leadership his fleet annihilated the French culminating in the flagship, L’Orient   exploding killing the French commander Brueys and all but one hundred of the ship’s crew.

The immediate result of the battle was the collapse of Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt and the lifting of any threat to Britain’s control of India. Napoleon abandoned his army to its fate and returned to France.

 The battle cost Nelson 218 killed and 677 wounded, while the French suffered around 1,700 killed, 600 wounded, and 3,000 captured. During the battle, Nelson was wounded in the forehead, exposing his skull. Despite bleeding profusely, he refused preferential treatment and insisted on waiting his turn while other wounded sailors were treated before him.

News of the victory reached Staffordshire in November where the news was greeted euphorically in Cheadle.

The Staffordshire Advertiser reported of “the rising spirit and the glowing ardour of this little but loyal town, a procession of many hundreds of the inhabitants carrying lighted torches and emblematic devices of victory marched through Cheadle escorting the post”. The crowd enjoyed a roasted sheep washed down by large amounts of “stout old October” finishing the hilarity of this festive evening”.

Elsewhere the crushing victory was celebrated on the highest hills of the district. On top of Thorpe Cloud on the 29th November 1798 a sheep was roasted and a large bonfire lit, “a considerable quantity of ale was given by Hugh Bateman of Ilam to above 100 persons assembled there from neighbouring villages terminating the thanksgiving of the day on the summit by repeated toasts to the health of Lord Nelson and to the continued success of His Majesty’s arms”.

Wonderfully, the “Advertiser” ended its report with the words “it is the transcendent glory of this island alone, to shine with the lustre of a superior planet amidst the dim horizon of political darkness”

Now, as then, the Royal Navy has a special place in the hearts of this island nation. 

Fairies of Cauldon Lowe

Belief in Fairies was common enough for people in the  past although in more recent times such opinions are considered idiosyncratic. In country areas however belief in them and in other fey entities such as elves, goblins and boggarts persisted well into the 19th century.

Some months ago I was having a chat with an elderly former quarry worker from Cauldon Lowe who was telling me entertaining stories about his childhood including encounters with gypsies he called “ roadsters”. I touched on a legend I had heard of the area “The Fairies of Caldon Lowe”  well enough known story to have a 19th century writer Mary Howitt produce a poem on the subject in the 1840s. (She was the first English translator of the children stories of Hans Christian Andersen) The old man told me that he had heard accounts of fairy’s dancing on an ancient burial mound on certain nights of the year.

The Leek priest and folklorist of the 1950s WP Wincutt researched a number of other places in the Moorlands that fairy traditions attached to them including Long Low close to Castern Hill where pixies danced inside a hill on Christmas Eve. Wincutt believed that a common denominator in most of these local stories was that incidents happened at sites of great antiquity.

 In another account a writer in 1901 described at Longnor a flickering light “seen moving as one moves . . . it has given rise to many tales of belated travellers having been beguiled by it and led into the swamp, where their bodies remain, and from whence their “boggarts” arise at night to caper and dance all over the countryside, to the terror of the inhabitants.”

Fairy lore has a tradition of thousands of years going back to before pre Christian times. Mischievous fairies have been said to abduct human babies and substituting them with their own children or “changelings”. They are accused of inflicting amnesia on their victims, drugging their victims and taking them to other worldly places filled with light. Medieval tales are full of encounters between humans and fairies where people when wandering back home find that life has radically changed.

One example from the Welsh border refers to a King called Herla who is invited by an Elf King to attend a feast. He and his entourage are let into a magnificent hall under a cliff where they are wined and dined until the meal ends and they fall asleep. On returning to the surface find that they have been gone 300 years and all has changed.

If we could remove the mythological aspect from fairy abductions and dress them a little differently, these folklore reports would be virtually indistinguishable from present UFO abduction reports which is an interesting conclusion to arrive at. 

The ability of fairies to cause mischief even into the 20th century is illustrated by the fooling of the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle who was taken in by two young girls in 1920s Yorkshire photographed posing with fairies. Many years later Elsie and Frances confessed that they had faked the pictures with paper cut outs.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

First World War and connections

The Imperial War Museum is asking people to contribute family memories of the First World War. Next August sees the 100th anniversary of Britain declaring war on Germany leading to this country’s participation in a struggle that would kill over 800,000 Britons. The “Great War” continues to exert a powerful hold on our collective imagination and anyone like me in their 50s will also most have known one who had direct experience of the war. I met several people who were involved. Horace Barks from Ipstones who I knew at the end of his life of public service as an Alderman on Stoke Council when I was a young Councillor. Horace who died in 1984 left a vivid memoir of his time on the Western Front which is currently in the archive of Hanley Library. He was wounded at Loos in 1915. An old man I had a conversation with on a bus in York in 1977 was in the “ Sheffield Pals” and luckily avoided the First Day of the Somme by catching pneumonia “ the best days work I ever did” he told me. The ancient I talked to in Cromer church in the late 80s who achieved absurdly early promotion to the Deputy Town of the town at 16 because all the men were at the front. He recalled looking out of his office window one day in 1917 to see the harbour crammed with ships of all size during the height of the war. Mr Stafford born in 1900 had the misfortune to have been involved in both World Wars as a young officer in the Australian forces in 1918 and then as a Colonel captured by the Japanese at the fall of Singapore. One should also not forget the contribution that women made; my Great Aunt Betsy who worked in Hanley at a factory cleaning out the toxic substances from gas shells, the effect of this war work had a catastrophic impact on her health for the rest of her life. My grandmother Cawley witnessed a Zeppelin raid over Shelton in 1916.

And then there were the people who did not come back. Five relatives were killed between 1914-18 in the Sherwin family- my mother’s side.  Sgt Harry Cartwright, Pt Hamlet Nixon, Pt George Mitchell, Sgt Albert Reece and Sgt James Sherwin.

The picture is of my grandfather Bill Sherwin who is seated. His brother Jim Sherwin standing was a Sergeant in the East Yorkshire Regiment and was killed in July 1915 in Belgium. One thing I know about him was that was he was an excellent guitarist, note his big hands, who earned extra money from his day job as a telephone engineer by playing in the pubs of Hanley and Shelton. His brother Bill was in the Middle East in what is modern day Iraq. He claimed to have seen Lawrence of Arabia and gave a cigarette to a dying Turk. He was later badly wounded and caught Malaria which shortened is life. He died in 1958 when I was three.

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

Moscow Dynamo and the Leek connection

At the end of November 1945 during the middle of an English tour given by Moscow Dynamo Football Club an interesting link between the then giants of Soviet Football and Leek was unearthed in a comment given by WC Charnock a highly successful local businessman.

He wrote that in 1913 the first Russian Football team to play in an international against Norway included two Leek men, himself and a well known Leek sportsman Mr Parker. Mr Charnock captained and the team won 3-0

The story of this unlikely partnership began several years before when he and a number of Leek engineers went out to the Orechovo textile factory near Moscow which was run by Charnock’s brother Clement. The team had won the league for a number of years consecutive before the First World War. The team was a mixture of British and Russian workers and included a Foreign Office employee Bruce Lockhart                (Lockhart later produced an account of his time in Russia where he later became heavily engaged in espionage work especially after the Russian Revolution). His spell in the football team bought Lockhart to the conclusion that sport was needed as a necessary antidote to turn the workers away from drinking vodka and political agitation. The attempts to introduce football were initially not successful. At an early training session a ball was kicked and landed with a heavy thud resulting in the workers running away, according to Lockhart

In the early days of the football club a local conservative sect of the Orthodox Church, decided that football played in shorts however baggy was decadent.

Clement Charnock appealed to the Governor of the local provincial capital, for permission to form a club. The functionary asked him to explain the rules of football which the businessman did. The response of the Governor was dusty. Then Charnock had the brilliant idea of showing him a picture of the German Crown Prince Wilhelm playing a game with fellow officers in Berlin. He then pointed out the close family ties that the Kaiser had with the Tsar and how the Russians were keen to maintain good links with the House of Hohenzollern. And so the Orekhovo Football Club got official approval and a league established.
After the Russian Revolution the club eventually found itself under the authority of the Interior Ministry and its fearsome head Felix Dzerzhinsky later chief of the Soviet Union's first secret police force, the notorious Cheka. The club was renamed Moscow Dynamo in 1923 and developed a reputation for its sinister association with the Interior Ministry. It is referred to as Garbage, a Russian criminal slang term for police, by the supporters of other clubs.

Its most famous player was Lev Yashin, the only goal keeper to win the European Footballer of the Year and a player I saw at Stanley Matthew’s Testimonial match in 1965. Yashin and the Hungarian Puskas carried the Stoke player off the field.

Frank Randle

Barney Smith, the landlord of the Black Swan in Leek, produced a series of articles reminiscing about his time as a theatrical agent in Manchester in the years immediately after the Second World War. The articles appeared in the Post and Times in early 1975 and are a roll call of post war entertainers that Barney knew. I was interested in his relationship with the legendary North Country comedian Frank Randle. In the late 40s Barney was managing  the Plaza Ballroom in Manchester and got to knew him through some of the people involved in the revue “Randle's Scandals and through this link found himself one day in 1949 on the set of Randle’s latest film “Somewhere in Politics”. Randle used the studios of Mancunian Films based in an old chapel in Rusholme- it was later used by the BBC for “Top of the Pops”, Mancunian Films were an independent film company which made very popular comic films which for a time ranked in popularity with Hollywood. Stars like Frank Randle, Jimmy James and Norman Evans worked there and it was a world into which Barney was drawn.

But first a word about Frank Randle who in 1949 was at the top of his game and easily the most popular comedian in the north. He knew his audience and rightly thought that his act would not fit well with London audiences. By the same token the Brighton based Comedian Max Miller did not do well north of Watford. Randle was difficult man. Born in 1901 in Wigan Randle in many ways was the antithesis of fellow Wiganer George Formby whilst Formby was cuddly and innocuous, Randle was abrasive and rude, but still his audience loved him and he sold out his summer shows in Blackpool.

 A combination of paranoid personality, alcohol misuse and possession of a Luger pistol made him a dangerous person to fall out with. Following a conviction for obscenity he hired a light aircraft to bomb Blackpool with toilet rolls after falling out with the puritanical Chief Constable of the town.  And if heckled, would hurl his false teeth at the offending miscreant. He would often not turn up for a venue usually being drunk and incapable. My Mother tried to see Randle who should have been appearing in Southport in 1940, but didn’t as he was sleeping it off somewhere. She did get her money back.

Barney Smith was present at a script reading at the studio while “Somewhere in Politics” was being made. One of the cast members  Tessie O’Shea encouraged him to try his luck in the film and he appeared in a minor role as a hotel manager. Also present was the Irish singer and Randle’s drinking partner Joseph Locke.

 Barney Smith’s other brush with British comedy history is that he was present when Jimmy Jewell received a letter from his long term partner straight man Ben Warris in a Manchester hotel in 1966 informing Jewell of the end of their 40 year partnership.

The Names of Moorlands Rivers

There was a documentary on BBC4 the other week on the River Trent. Writer Tom Fort took his punt down the river as far as he could before the Trent flowed into the Humber estuary. The river is 180 miles in length, is the third longest river in Britain and cuts through several Midland counties beginning, of course, as a “pathetic trickle” on Biddulph Moor. Fort also spent a little time at Knypersley before a section on how brutalised the Trent had become forced through debris strewn concrete culverts in Stoke  before emerging at Trentham as a proper waterway again.  

It is believed that the name Trent is formed from two Celtic words – ʻtrosʼ (over) and ʻhyntʼ (way) producing ʻtroshyntʼ (over-way). This is because of the river’s propensity to flood and alter its course, this has been interpreted as meaning ʻstrong floodingʼ or more directly the trespasser or wanderer.

Another possible meaning is ʻa river that is easily fordedʼ. The name ʻTrisantona Fu (Trisantona River) for the Trent first appears in ʻThe Annals’ of the Roman writer Tacitus. It has also been suggested the name is derived from the Celtic— ʻTrisantanoʼ which has been given the interpretation of ʻgreat feminine thoroughfareʼ. It might be named for a Celtic River Goddess. It was a big enough barrier to delay the Roman Legions .

 River names are among the oldest names in Britain. The first settlements in Britain were on the banks of rivers, which were easy of access by land and by water and provided drinking water and, in times of emergency, fish to eat There is a predominance of names of Celtic origins in the Moorlands although they might follow even earlier names given to rivers by Palaeolithic hunters. Locally the rivers have strong associations with these early names. The Churnet that flows through Leek origins are unknown although it is first called that in the 13th century. The Hamps is close to a Welsh word Hamphest which translates as “summer dry” and is an accurate description of a river that disappears into the limestone during those months.

The Dane has nothing to do with Vikings, but is related, it is thought, to the Welsh “dafnu” to trickle or flow. It first appears as Daan in documents from the 15th century. Incidentally the Danube comes from the same root.

 The Dove is derived from the Celtic word “Dubo” meaning black or dark which incidentally where the origins of the place name “Dublin” or black pool stems. It has also been suggested that it might be linked to an early word for “deer” The Dove has been traced back under this name to the Saxon period. A tributary of the Dove the Tean which rises near Dilhorne is called after the Brythonic word “taen” a sprinkling

Turning to the Manifold this is unusual as it simply means a river with many folds or bends and is derived from the Middle English. Perhaps the most charming is the Blithe which is so named after the Saxon word for “gentle” or “merry” a word still used in everyday language.