Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Escaped German Lehmann POW 1917

It reminded me of the scene in the film “ Whistle down the wind” when the escaped prisoner is found by the children in a remote barn in lonely countryside. The event that reminded me of the 1960 film happened 43 years before in February 1917 during the depths of winter in the remote Moorland village of Upper Elkstone. It certainly caused a commotion in Leek where crowds turned out to see the prisoner appeared at the local court. It even made newspapers the other side of the world. Some months later the Wairarapa Daily Times in New Zealand reported that a German Naval Sub Lieutenant Emil Lehmann was arrested following his escape from Manchester and charged with sacrilege. It was alleged that he broke into a Methodist chapel and used bibles to make a fire. The account made it out to be a typical “Hunnish” trick

 The chapel in question was a Primitive Methodist chapel at Upper Elkstones where Lehmann must have stayed some time before being discovered by a group of children who saw smoke coming out of the building. The leader of the children Sarah Ann Bricklebank of Royal Farm ,Upper Elkstones was a chapel member and had keys to the building. The German officer was 24 and described in court as having dark hair and was wearing an overcoat with naval waistcoat and a grey soft cap. He had escaped from an escort at Central Railway station in Manchester while being transferred from Knockaloo Internment camp on Isle of Man to Kegworth in the East Midlands. He had somehow had made his way on to the hills above Leek. The Imperial German Navy officer was courteous to the children, one of whom had the presence of mind to run to a local policeman. A chase ensued involving a number of police and locals who pursued Lehmann. He was caught and in a very British way was taken to Onecote Police Station and given a mug of tea and toast.

 Lehmann was taken to Leek and charged with the unusual charge of sacrilege for burning bibles in the Primitive Methodist chapel stove ( understandably as it was February). In court he spoke through an interpreter he said that he did not know that the building was a chapel and that he had previously served on a battleship. The report tried to suggest that he attempted to entice the young girl which Lehmann denied. One gets the impression with Lehmann that he was someone who did not give in and some months later he and a number of other German Prisoners of War attempted a mass breakout from Sutton Bonington Prisoner of War camp in Nottinghamshire. He seems to have been a repeat offender as he also attempted another escape from Chelmsford prison.

Lehmann’s story is just of the hidden stories of the First World War in Leek as is the stories of the Belgian refugees in Bath Street, the raids on the Hippodrome for deserters, the parrot that helped the war effort, the young sailor who went down on the Hampshire with Lord Kitchener and the party for returned prisoners in the Red Lion in February 1919.

The Medieval Forest

Today only fragments of the great forests that surrounded the Staffordshire Moorlands during the Middle Ages remain.  The Peak Forest exists in name only. Delamere is a meagre fragment of what it once was, and Macclesfield was altered massively by the introduction of commercial timber unknown to the medieval verderer. Cannock and Needwood survive but much shrunken by cultivation and encroachment by man. Sherwood, of Robin Hood fame used to cover huge swathes of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire. It is much reduced now.

Local place names mark the importance of woods in the landscape with Ashbourne, Oakamoor, Birchall and Westwood marked on modern maps.

In the years after the Conqueror the forests of the King would have stretched as far as the eyes could see. They were protected so that the monarch could indulge their great passion of hunting, and they were determined to protect their interest with punitive laws. King John was famously forced to sign the Magna Carta but alongside the Great Charter he was required to agree to the Forest Charter which enshrined the rights of dwellers in the woods. Both documents were the foundations on which the social structure of England was founded. (The existence of the Forest Charter was used in 2010 by people campaigning against the privatisation of the Forestry Commission)

The forests of the 13th century were the relicts of the primeval woods of oak, beech, ask and hornbeam, etc that covered the country. By that time game that lived in the forest was protected and harsh punishments were meted out to any peasant who succumbed to temptation. As time progressed the King and the aristocracy became more desperate to protect a vanishing heritage when the woods were alive with much game for the enjoyment of the monarch and his supporters.

There were growing pressures on the landscape as people who lived at the fringes of the forest sought to take advantage of it. Extra meat could be had if you were not caught by the King’s representative, honey was for the taking, acorns could be collected to feed the pigs and wood collected for burning on peasant fires. The needs of the common people could often conflict with the law and the person responsible for maintaining the estate, the Chief Forester.

The records of forest proceedings are full of poaching stories such as the occasion when a group killed 3 deer in the Rockingham Forest in 1255.

“They cut off the head of the deer and placed it with a spindle in its mouth that made it gape towards the Sun in contempt of the King and the foresters”.

And sometimes more locally the friction could lead to violence when in Christmas 1325 the Chief Forester of Cannock William Le Wolf was murdered at Hopwas carrying out his duty by Roger de Swynerton.

By the arrival of the Tudors much of the forest had been surrended to the plough. Even today the woods of Anglo Norman England shorn of their dense vegetation and turned into pasture, still speak to the historian of ancient times, the isolated farms, the clumps of trees here or there and the coppice surviving mid field proclaim the primordial forest

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Saving the Countryside

I came across a report from 1933 of the opening of the gateway at Hawksmoor nature reserve( near Cheadle) by the Poet Laureate to a kinsman John Richard Beech Masefield, a naturalist of Cheadle who had died the year before and who had created the area.

Masefield had become Poet Laureate 3 years before, he used his speech to attack modernity and its conflict with the countryside. He turned his fire initially on egg collectors- “a multitude of distorted mind”- and the destruction of species among the bird population. He then extended his attack to question the poor layout of zoos and their management of birds in captivity. “We see great and beautiful birds shut in forever, unable to use their wings, and damned never again to lift a 1,000 feet in the air”. He favoured a protection of birds’ legislation as several species were under attack and the main culprits, he believed, were the city dwellers who did not understand rural ways.  Actually, some of the perpetrators of the decline in wild bird numbers may have been in the audience in October 1933.

The 19th century with its managed upland estates and changes to agricultural practices in lowland areas did much damage to the wild bird population. Moorland estate holders- the preserve for aristocratic shooting parties- sought to eliminate any threat to the game birds. Game keepers were often under instruction to destroy nests and the result was a near or actual extinction of some of the raptors such as Harriers, Red Kites, Goshawks and in Scotland, Golden and White Tailed Eagles. The Red Kite, a large hawk, often seen scavenging among rubbish tips in the 17th century, suffered sustained persecution into the 20th century by land owners until its recovery in the last 50 years. Less fortunate was one of the largest British birds the Great Bustard a dweller of the fenland which was hunted to extinction by the 1840s.

Masefield’s desire to see that the wildlife of Britain receive statutory protection was realised after the Second World War when Governments passed laws such as the Protection of Wild Birds in 1954, as well as one of the jewels in the crown of the Attlee Government, and the creation of National Parks, of which the Peak National Park was the first.

Years before Masefield posted a warning to the countryside believing the arrival of the motorcar, and urban day trippers would cause the destruction of the countryside.

It is an argument that is made now by the Countryside Alliance that the city dweller does not understand the countryman. The proportion of urban residents far out numbers the rural community, in fact 1851 census revealed, for the first time more British people living in cities than in the country. It should be said that urban dwellers willingly pay their taxes to help maintain areas of outstanding beauty as well as joining organisations such as the National Trust.

To conclude on a controversial note the Countryside Alliance’s single minded obsession that fox hunting should be restored is not shared by most of the people who live in the country whose major concerns such as jobs, housing and living standards are shared by the rest of the country. In my view, as a former member of the Peak National Park Authority, the preoccupations of the people of Longnor differ little from those of the people of Longton.