A gift from the Polish people to Ipswich

Writing what had to be a rather short book about “secret” or Unknown Ipswich l knew that there were always going to be omissions, so I hope to rectify that here.


One of the things that I had to miss out was this lovely Polish icon, which is in St Pancras church in Orwell Place. It was given to the church by the Polish armoured train unit that was stationed in Ipswich during the Second World War. There were twelve armoured train units in Britain at that time and, looking back, they seem very much part of that amateur Heath Robinsonish approach to defence during that war that now seems both comical and admirable. The trains, basic wagons filled with armed Polish troops, patrolled the country from Cornwall to the north of Scotland.

Having discovered the existence of the icon in Ipswich, I was interested in finding out more about St Pancras’ church which is the kind of unprepossessing, neo-Gothic construction that English Catholics were forced to build as their own churches were taken by the established Protestant Church of England following the Reformation. Unlike Victorian era C of E churches, there were few Catholic aristocrats willing to fund beautiful buildings (an exception being the Earl of Shrewsbury who financed, among others, Pugin’s over-decorated St Giles at Cheadle in Staffordshire, where half my family were baptised, married and buried) and the neo-Gothic brickwork does not look so pretty to our 21st-century eyes, but this jewel of an icon is hardly known about and it must be significant to one of Ipswich’s new communities, the Poles who have immigrated to work in the town over the last few years.

Like many such holy images, the icon has lots of stories attached to it, for example that it was painted by St Luke the Evangelist. It appears to have been kept in the monastery of Czestochowa, and one of the stories alleges that Czech soldiers attempted to steal it but were thwarted by heavenly intervention. It was so highly valued that in 1904 the Pope presented a crown set with precious stones to be placed above the image. It was brought to England when the Germans invaded Poland in 1939 and it is a measure of the gratitude and esteem of those Polish troops that they left such a significant symbol behind in Ipswich.

Researching one thing always leads to another and a reference to “anti-Catholic riots” at St Pancras’ church in 1863 could not be ignored, although in fact the reports in the Ipswich Journal of that year tell a story that is so comical it probably belongs in the pages of a Dickens’ story. On 7 November 1863 the newspaper reported that a lecture at the Temperance Hall by someone “styling himself as André Massenn, Baron de Camin” was full of anti-Catholic sentiment. Things were not going too badly until the “Baron” announced that the women in the hall should be sent home. He then regaled the remaining male audience with racy stories about the goings on in monasteries and convents. Although it was obvious even to the reporter of the Ipswich Journal that Camin was bogus and a scurrilous rogue, he was wildly applauded by some of his audience, including some Protestant clergymen. The “Baron’s” great mistake was that he went on to impugn the character of the priest at St Pancras, Father Kemp, not perhaps realising that the 18th Hussars who were then at Ipswich Barracks were made up of Irish soldiers.

To avoid further trouble the Mayor decided to ban the lecture the following evening but this only served to stir up trouble. It has to be said that it seems that the “young men and lads” referred to as causing the disturbances did not need much provocation and they were soon persuaded by the “Baron” to go out and smash up the houses of the Mayor and other local dignitaries. A policeman was stabbed, although not seriously.

On the third evening the “Baron” once again spoke. This time the Ipswich Journal described it as a “rather dreary historical lecture on Popery,” so presumably he diplomatically missed out the bits about the naughty nuns. According to the report, “a noisy rabble of two or three thousand boys and lads” waited outside, unwilling to pay the 3d admission price. Afterwards they went to St Pancras’ church and smashed the windows and gas lamps.

It makes you wonder whether the Polish troops who left their treasured icon in Ipswich would have done so if they had known a little more about the history of the town.

Tithes and treason: some background to fascism in East Anglia before and during the Second World War

For those with an interest in the history of British fascism, the news story that appeared the other day about the treacherous wartime activities of Ronald and Rita Creasy of Eye in Suffolk, did not come as a huge surprise. Papers that have been released by the National Archives reveal the extent of their willingness to give assistance to Germany during the war, help that would have been regarded as treason. Creasy, a farmer and land owner – he owned more than 80 farms in East Anglia, had been elected as a councillor for Eye as a representative of the British Union of Fascists and was, to all appearances, unrepentant until his death in 2004. Whilst it’s simplistic to judge all those who were attracted to fascism during the Depression – after all, Aneurin Bevan was briefly a member of Oswald Mosley’s New Party – it’s hard to have any time for the right wingers who remained committed to the cause when the truth about Nazism and the Holocaust was revealed at the end of the Second World War. Like the people who remained in the Communist Party after 1956, a defence of naïveté was no longer credible.

There’s no real evidence that fascism, or Mosley’s version of it, was ever very popular among the working people of East Anglia. In fact, at this time, the area from which a great deal of left wing radicalism had originated – the agricultural workers’ union began in Marsham in Norfolk – was not a very fertile ground for Mosley supporters. Despite some vestiges of support – fascist “lightning flash” symbols as graffiti at Aylsham and Stiffkey in Norfolk, and, anecdotally, at Wortham in Suffolk – it seems that support for the British Union of Fascists was confined to some farmers and landowners, and some of Mosley’s supporters appear to have come into the area hoping to use the grievances of the rural population as a means of recruitment.

Henry Williamson's home at Stiffkey, Norfolk

Henry Williamson’s home at Stiffkey, Norfolk

The graffiti at Stiffkey was on the back of cottages owned by the writer (author of Tarka the Otter, among other books) Henry Williamson, who farmed there. Williamson, was a member of the BUF, but his politics had been strongly influenced by his harrowing experiences in the trenches during the First World War and, like Bevan, he had been appalled at the treatment of ex-servicemen after the war was over, combined with his inability to succeed as a farmer during the Depression. It is arguable that Williamson’s fragile mental state was exploited by Mosley and his friends. He was recruited by Viscountess Downe of Hillington Hall, near Kings Lynn, a long-standing fascist, later described in government files as “a most enthusiastic admirer of Hitler.” The existence of the graffiti at Aylsham may be connected with Williamson’s circle, although it is interesting that Oswald Mosley’s mother, Maud, an enthusiastic supporter of her son, was living in the town during the 1930s.

Williamson was one of several landowners who was drawn to fascism. In part, this was the result of a dispute at that time between farmers and the Church of England (and hence, presumably, “the Establishment”). It is a curious aspect of East Anglian history from this period, which has become known as the “Tithe War” after the novelist, Doreen Wallace’s book about it. Wallace had married a farmer, Rowland Rash, and their farm at Wortham in Suffolk was at the centre of the dispute. The Church of England was entitled under an obscure law, which was only repealed in the 1970s, known as Queen Anne’s Bounty, to impose a tax on any farmer’s income regardless of the religious faith of the farmer. The act had originally been meant to provide for impoverished clergy but by the time of the Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, many farmers resented it to the point that there was an organised campaign to refuse to pay it. The Ecclesiastical Commissioners ruthlessly pursued those who refused, and in some cases, including at the Rash farm in Wortham, bailiffs were sent in to distrain agricultural produce and household goods. tithe war

This was where the BUF came in. It is still a common tactic of the political right to home in on local issues – as they have done more recently in the North West of England and Rotherham – appearing to take the side of powerless against the government or other authorities. Black-shirted Mosley supporters suddenly appeared in East Anglia to back up the aggrieved farmers and the farm labourers who had been laid off work because of the dispute. Never averse to a punch-up the fascists took the dispute to a new level of violence and acrimony.

The dispute paled into insignificance with the onset of another world war, but it remains something of an anomaly in the history of the British right. It may be that the very limited electoral success of the BUF in East Anglia, that enabled Ronald Creasy to become a councillor, for example, was part of a protest vote, similar to the recent rise of UKIP, by people who feel let down by the mainstream political parties. The overwhelming rejection of right wing politics in the 1945 General Election is probably a better reflection of the views of the East Anglian electorate. North Norfolk, for example, elected Labour MPs, Edwin Gooch and Bert Hazell, from 1945 until 1970. The main support for fascism in England appears to have come -with the possible exception of some urban areas, like the East End of London – from the upper classes. Anti-Semitism and pro-German sentiment was common among the aristocracy, particularly those with military connections. It is among these upper class landowners that the majority of support for Mosley’s fascists came in East Anglia.

Ronald and Rita Creasy were interned during the Second World War, along with Mosley and many other fascists under Defence Regulation 18B. Seeing the new evidence of the lengths that they were prepared to go to in their support for the Nazi regime in Germany, they were probably lucky  to have escaped the death penalty suffered by fellow fascists William Joyce and John Amery, who were both convicted of treason at the end of the Second World War.

The naming of the dead

The recent events to commemorate the beginning of the First World War in 1914 have been very moving, despite the fact that – given the nature of the society we live in – they have been exploited by not only a wide range of political groups, but also by corporations that appear to be able to commodify everything and sell it back to us. I think that the Tesco commemorative pizza probably takes the prize for the most tasteless of all, perhaps literally.

Given the emotion, much of it sentimental but often genuine and heartfelt, that people have expressed about grandfathers and great-grandfathers who died or were injured or traumatised forever by the events of 1914-1918, it strikes me that we find it easier to mourn people who are long gone than to recognise the suffering that is going on around the world right now. That’s true of all kinds of suffering, from people dying in Palestine and Syria to those lives destroyed by poverty, disease, or slavery. We may not share a common culture with many of those people – although I think we’d be surprised how little we have in common with those early twentieth-century war dead too – but what we do share is a common humanity. Sometimes, with all the terrible things that are going on in the world, it’s hard to hold on to that.

One thing in particular has struck me today with all the discussion about alleged corruption at FIFA connected with the next two World Cup final tournaments, particularly in Qatar. Many people who are better qualified and more knowledgeable than I am will be able to discuss the machinations at high levels in football administration, so I’d like to put a word in for the people who really matter. They have not been completely forgotten, and they are often mentioned in reports or newspaper articles about what’s wrong with football at a global level but they mainly feature as statistics, nameless and about as recognisable as a pile of spent matches. Not, as they should be, as individuals, as human beings, as real people, with real lives and families who loved them and grieve for them.

These are the people who have been killed in Qatar, building the infrastructure necessary for the World Cup tournament in 2022. Dozens of articles and blogs have been written about the inhuman treatment these workers receive, the appalling conditions they have to endure, and the rape and sexual abuse of women that resulted in the Nepal government banning women under 30 from even travelling to work in Doha. I think what disturbs me the most is that many of these articles and reports include the information that “an estimated 4,000 workers will die” on the Qatari World Cup project. So we can predict their deaths and still we do nothing.

FIFA has investigated itself and pronounced that it’s all ethical. Some vague promises have been made by the Qatari government that conditions will improve. No-one believes either of those things, probably not even the people who have written them. There has been, and there will continue to be, a great deal of hand-wringing, but people will continue to suffer and die. Perhaps it’s easier to think of these deaths, and all the other concomitant suffering, in terms of figures. It’s easy, for example, to say how good it is that only eight workers died building the stadia for this year’s World Cup in Brazil. Eight certainly sounds better than 4,000. Only eight bereaved families. Good on us.

It is simply easier to turn our faces away. After all, how are we responsible? How can we change things? It’s not in our power, is it? What have we to do with the 1,200 odd labourers who have died already, or the 4,000 plus who will lose their lives making those fantastical arenas in which football matches will be played to thrill and entertain people the world over?

In 2000/2001, I was privileged to work on a project that put photographs of all Norfolk’s dead from the First World War online. I read the brief biographical notes on the back of each photograph and looked into the eyes of the young soldiers, their open, honest gaze so much more compelling than the ubiquitous, vacuous-but-knowing, selfies of today. Learning about those young men, looking at their faces, reading about their parents, their brothers and sisters, their children, made more of an impression on me than all the statistics, documentaries and history books that I’ve ever read, and it has stayed with me. I wonder if, perhaps, we could humanise the suffering that is going on in Doha in the same way, if we knew about the people who are dying, knew their names, how old they were, where they were from, what they looked like. If we could do that, would we be more inclined to try to do something to stop it going on? The death toll, and the suffering is not on the scale of the First World War, of course, but across the world the same iniquities mean that we can multiply the Qatar statistics many times over.

The naming of the dead, after all, is fundamental to our acts of remembrance from those recorded on the Menin Gate to the names of those who died at Hillsbrough in 1989 or at the World Trade Centre in 2001. I thought it might be a good and even a useful idea to try to include the names of those who had died working on the 2022 World Cup here. The Pravasi Nepali Coordination Commmittee (PNCC) has published a list of all the 138 Nepali workers who have died in Qatar, but unfortunately I haven’t been able to find it anywhere, and there are so few newspaper articles that include any information about the people involved – this piece in the Daily Record is an exception – that I can only offer this one example, from an article in the Guardian,  – about Ganesh Bishwakarma, who died at the age of 16, of cardiac arrest while working in Qatar – as a kind of symbolic representative, like an unknown soldier in the battle against global, corporate greed, of loss, and a reminder of our indifference.

I don’t think what I have written, or the fact that a few more people will know that Ganesh Bishwakarma lived on this planet for 16 years, will make any difference or change anyone’s mind. Ultimately, we want to be entertained more than anything else, and like debauched Romans watching slave gladiators fighting to the death, we will inevitably give Ganesh’s successors the thumbs down.





“The best British football manager ever” – Alf Ramsey

Photograph copyright David Kindred www.kindredspirit.comAlf Ramsey celebrating winning the Championship in 1962. Photograph copyright David Kindred kindred-spirit.co.uk

The World Cup finals are always accompanied by a glut of retrospectives, and it seems inevitable that there will be references to the only man who ever guided England to win that trophy, Sir Alf Ramsey. Unfortunately it’s equally certain that those references will for the most part be clichéd and predictable: Ramsey’s accent, the elocution lessons, his reputation as a private, uncommunicative man with little sense of fun and no ability to relate to others. Worse still, though, it appears that many writers consider his achievements on the football field to be insignificant or that they’ve been overrated in some way. Somehow, it seems, golden boy Bobby Moore won the World Cup all by himself or England won the World Cup despite Alf Ramsey rather than because of him. His achievements in club football  are often overlooked too but I suspect that, for many reasons, he will forever remain the only manager of Ipswich Town ever to achieve the highest award in English football.

Sadly the first two mentions of Sir Alf that I’ve seen in the run-up to Brazil 2014, both by writers I admire very much – Barney Ronay of The Guardian and the incomparable Danny Baker, in Brushing Up on the World Cup, a comedy clips show – resorted to this lazy stereotype. Ronay even failed to mention that Ramsey had won the trophy in 1966, as if it’s some minor detail, while praising Alf’s predecessor as England manager, Walter Winterbottom, who – not to put too fine a point on it – won, appropriately enough, sweet FA.

Researching for a chapter on Sir Alf Ramsey for my book about the history of Ipswich Town FC, I read everything that I could find about the man and also spoke to a number of people who had met or knew him: someone who as a small boy knocked on the door of Alf’s house in Ipswich to ask for his autograph, the woman who was his secretary for his entire time at Ipswich Town, ex-footballers who played for him. Every one spoke of his kindness, courtesy and love of the game.

The contrast between the Alf that they spoke of and the cold, detached and rather unknowable figure depicted in the books and newspaper articles that were written during his lifetime is remarkable. Yet frequently, as well as invariably talking about Ramsey’s shyness, his detachment, the regret that they could never quite get to know him, people also spoke warmly of the respect and love they felt for him – and in several cases they actually used the word love. These were (mostly) men of my father’s generation, men who would rarely, if ever, speak openly about their feelings especially towards other men. One example – and it’s quite typical – is Alan Ball, who was in Ramsey’s England squad for many years, and said: “I loved him to death. He was very, very special in my life.”

Most biographies and articles about Ramsey, however, portray a quite different individual. One in particular, by Max Marquis, is a clear and obvious attempt to destroy the man’s reputation and it was published while Ramsey was still alive. I enjoy a good hatchet job as much as the next woman (see Taylor Parkes on Tim Lovejoy in When Saturday Comes for one of the best) but Marquis seemed to have an agenda to bring Ramsey down. Perhaps it’s just that thing foreigners notice about the British, that we have a need to destroy anyone who is successful, to point out that they have feet of clay. Perhaps it was more personal than that. Whatever, his motivation, it makes painful reading.

Alf Ramsey was born in Dagenham, then a small village, in 1920. When interviewed he said that his family “were not exactly wealthy.” This was a characteristic understatement on Ramsey’s part, and like his much-quoted reply to a question about where his parents lived (“I believe they live in Dagenham.”) is often used as evidence of an almost eccentric desire to hide his origins. I don’t believe that this was an attempt on his part to cover up the poverty of his background or some kind of snobbish dismissal of his folks by a self-made man. Ramsey was a diffident person who disliked speaking to the press, and some of the things that he said may simply have resulted from a desire to protect his family from unwanted intrusion.

There may be more to it, however. Ramsey’s grandparents came from Suffolk and Essex and were agricultural labourers. His father had a smallholding and sold straw and hay. Like many farmworkers, they moved around quite frequently. People had to go where the work was. This may be the reason that as a young man, including when he was a professional footballer, Alf had been given the nickname of Darkie, which apparently referred to the fact that many people thought that he was from a Romani (or gypsy) family. There is no evidence that the Ramseys, or his mother’s family, the Bixbys, were Romani, but nevertheless this may have caused him to be a little more reticent about his background than he might have been. Let’s not pretend that attitudes towards travellers were particularly liberal in the 1950s and 1960s.

There is another reason, however, why Alf Ramsey may have wanted to be a little bit discreet about his family background. He had three brothers, Len, Cyril and Albert. Alf learned to play football with his brothers as a schoolboy in Dagenham. Albert, was a little older than Alf, according to the Leo McKinstry in his biography, was usually known by his nickname “Bruno,” and was a heavy drinker and gambler, who kept greyhounds. “Bruno’s disreputable life would cause Alf some embarrassment,” according to McKinstry.

There’s a further possible reason for Alf’s growing detachment, and this is speculation on my part, but like many professional footballers in the days when they played with those leaden old footballs, he would eventually suffer from Alzheimer’s disease. His mother, Florence had the same illness. Although Alf was only formally diagnosed with the disease in the 1990s, who knows what effect it might have had upon his personality and behaviour?

How the Alf Ramsey of the media stereotype managed to get along with the notoriously bibulous Cobbold family when he went to manage Ipswich Town at Portman Road is uncertain. He was never an unsociable man during his time in football though, and was often photographed at parties. One of Alf’s former players at Ipswich told me that Ramsey always wanted his players to have fun, even though he didn’t want to join them himself. He felt that encouraging his players to go out and have a good time was an important part of building team spirit. Latterly, Ramsey has been criticised for coming down hard on his England players for over-indulging, but it has since transpired that some of them had serious problems with alcohol. It would have been odd if he had turned a blind eye to that as the manager of a national football team.

What’s clear is that Ramsey always wished to ensure that his players were protected from the attentions of the media but also given all the credit for any success that they might have. When Ipswich Town won the Championship in 1962, the football correspondent of The Times wrote: “The players, called from their humble dressing room, did a lap of honour almost embarrassed by all the attention; and an incessant chant rose for the man who had quietly planned this remarkable feat in the background.”

One of Ramsey’s best players at Ipswich Town, Jimmy Leadbetter, said: “He did not want any praise. When people congratulated him, he gave all the credit to the players.”

A story that has often been told but is still endearing is that when all the celebrations of that great Championship victory for Ipswich were over and everyone had gone home, Alf’s chairman John Cobbold found him sitting alone in a completely deserted, dark Portman Road, staring out over the pitch. Without a word, Ramsey handed Cobbold his jacket, walked down onto the pitch and ran a silent lap of honour, alone.

When researching my book almost all the photographs that I could find of Alf showed him smiling. He seems to have been particularly happy when coaching, or with his players. He mistrusted the media and this may not have helped him, particularly after he fell foul of the Football Association and the ridiculous Harold Thompson who appeared to have had a vendetta against him following an incident when Ramsey – once again trying to protect his players – asked him not to smoke a cigar in front of the England team.

To this day, the media continue to use a stereotypical – and I think innacurate – portrayal of Alf Ramsey and that makes it difficult for many people to see beyond the suit and the clipped, artificial accent. He should be judged as a man of his time, the era of National Service, of post-war austerity, of overt and often cruel class distinction. It’s unhelpful to impose the attitudes of our own time. A quiet man from a working-class background, in a society where there was a great deal of snobbery and deference, might be forgiven for taking elocution lessons, or for being a little bit reticent about his origins. The men in blazers at the FA were very powerful people and, indeed, they never quite accepted Alf Ramsey – partly because of his background but also because he did something that someone from his class was not supposed to do. He stood up to them.

In the end, Thompson had his revenge. Ramsey was treated so shabbily by the Football Association that when he died there was no FA representation at his private funeral at St. Mary-le-Tower in Ipswich. According to The Guardian, his widow had “in effect told the Football Association… to go jump in the Thames.” It did not add that Lady Vicki’s  instruction – had it actually been uttered – would have been accompanied by the loud cheers of every Ipswich Town fan in the country. Typically, the BBC – part of the same Establishment as those officials at Lancaster Gate – reported this as Sir Alf’s “last snub” to the FA.

The prevailing view in the 21st century appears to be that Ramsey’s achievements were not so remarkable, that perhaps after all he was only building on the work of his predecessors at Ipswich (Scott Duncan) and England (Walter Winterbottom) but as any Ipswich Town fan will tell any Norwich City supporter: it’s what’s in the trophy cabinet that counts in the end. Bobby Robson who also achieved great things for both Ipswich Town and England, declared that Sir Alf Ramsey was the “greatest British football manager ever.” Who are we to demur?


Poor, murdered woman – a refugee’s story

Ruth  Towards the end of the Second World War, a murder hunt took place in north Staffordshire. Mrs. Annie Lovatt was blackberrying with her 12-year-old daughter, Pamela, in a quiet, rural spot called Counslow when she found a young woman’s body in a gravel pit. According to her post mortem, the woman, Ruth Schmerler, a Polish refugee, aged 20, had died from “shock and internal haemorrhage due to stab wounds in chest. Murder by person or persons unknown.” Her clothing was torn and dishevelled and one of her stockings was missing. Police did not think that robbery was the motive for her murder. They had recovered one of her shoes and her necklace, a gold cross which perhaps indicated that she had converted to Christianity – who knows? –  and her black leather suitcase was missing.

I know about this story because my mother grew up in a small market town nearby and her family knew the people who had found the body. My mum would tell me about it, and – as she often did with the family stories she would tell  – she gave it an air of mystery as if she knew that there was something more to the tale (she didn’t). My mother had a big heart and – even though she only knew the story second hand – many years afterwards she would still feel emotional and have such empathy for a young woman who had come to this country as a refugee and died, abused and alone, miles away from home that her eyes would fill with tears.

I researched the background of the story a while ago and couldn’t discover any evidence to support any kind of cover-up or conspiracy about Ruth Schmerler’s death as some writers have alleged. It seems to me that it is simply the old, old story of the “poor murdered woman laid on the cold ground” as the folk song has it. This is as much of Ruth’s story as I can manage to find out.

Ruth Schmerler was born in Poland in around 1924, probably in Galicia. Her family were Jewish, the Schmerlers seem to have been a religious, even Rabbinical family. It seems that most of Ruth’s family were wiped out in the Holocaust. She and her younger brother Kurt, came to England in 1939 as part of the Manchester Children’s Refugee Movement. At some point she worked as an assistant in a pharmacy in Manchester but  – according to some reports – she left her job,  joined the Women’s Land Army and was working in Worcestershire in 1944. Others say that she was taking an “agricultural holiday” with a Jewish group in Bromsgrove. Whichever it was, Ruth decided to travel back to see Kurt, who was by then an apprentice optician in Manchester. He may well be the same Kurt Schmerler who had an optician’s practice in Harley Street after the war, in which case he died in 1999.

During the Second World War, it was common to hitch hike and presumably, this was how Ruth planned to travel to Manchester. She was last seen accepting a lift from a soldier: the Nottingham Post reported on 3rd October 1944 that she was picked up by an “Army touring model motor car” in the outskirts of Birmingham at 1pm on the 21st of September. The police were looking for the driver, a soldier “about 30 years of age, rather tall and of slim build.” Another report described him as “aged 30, height 5ft 10ins, slim build, rough complexon with a full moustache.” When he came forward, he told the police that Ruth had got out of his vehicle and into another that was heading north.

Ruth’s suitcase and her missing stocking were found near Shap Fell in Cumbria where they were probably thrown from a vehicle. A soldier was interviewed at Thornhill, Dumfries in Scotland but no charges were ever brought.

The police made strenuous efforts to find Ruth’s killer. They sent squads of police officers to interview soldiers in barracks around the country, used mine detectors in the quarry at Counslow and even grafted a photograph of Ruth’s head on to a picture of a policewoman dressed in her clothes and carrying a similar suitcase in an attempt to create what they called “a walking picture” of the victim and jog people’s memories.

At a time when there was all kinds of movement around the country and tremendous upheaval, when people of all kinds of backgrounds and characters had been conscripted into the British, US and other military forces, burglaries, rapes and murders were all committed during the war by soldiers away from their home areas who were almost impossible to trace and identify. Ruth Schmerler was one of the victims. It is all the more poignant somehow that this woman, who had fled such persecution and survived the Nazis when most of her family had not, should die in such a lonely, violent and unnecessary way.

I think my mother wanted me to write about Ruth Schmerler, so that she would not be forgotten.

 Schmerler 1

Toby Gill: this is not a ghost story

Slander, Blythburgh church

Slander – a bench end in Blythburgh parish church

One of the highlights of television for me this Christmas was Mark Gatiss’ adaptation of M. R. James’ chilling ghost story, The Tractate Middoth as A Ghost Story for Christmas. James was brought up in Great Livermere in Suffolk. Many of his best stories are set in the county, particularly in east Suffolk and that area – with its mists, marshes, innumerable medieval churches and ruined priories – seems the perfect setting. The young Montague James may well have heard about some of the apparitions that populate the darker corners of East Anglian folklore, including a well-known story set in the village of Blythburgh, about the ghost of “Black Toby,” a drummer boy hanged in chains for the murder of an innocent young woman. This story, however, isn’t a ghost story at all but a true one, which gives us a brief, fascinating glimpse into history.

At Blythburgh, a small village near Southwold that’s surrounded by marshes, heathland and ancient sheep walks, there’s an area known as Toby’s Walks where the ghost is supposed to appear. I don’t believe in ghosts, but I have been intrigued by the identification of a black soldier in east Suffolk in the middle of the eighteenth century. Toby Gill, aka “Black Tob,” existed. He was a drummer in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment of Dragoons, and as the following report in the Derby Mercury of 14th September 1750, shows, he was no ghost but a man accused of the rape and murder of a local girl who was executed in a most brutal way, by being hanged in chains:

“Our Paper has taken some Notice of the Condemnation of one Toby Gill, a Black, at the last Assizes [at Bury St. Edmunds] … but the Enormity of his Crime which was Murder, has not been sufficiently made known; He was a Drummer in Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment, and a very drunken profligate Fellow. He met, or overtook, the poor Woman he murdered on the Road, and on refusing to comply with his lewd Proposal, strangled her with her own Handkerchief, and then abused her dying and dead. Overcome with Liquor, he was found asleep by the Body, and immediately sent to Prison. He was convicted on clear Evidence, and ordered to be hung in Chains. The very worthy Person who tried him, expressed himself in passing Sentence thus: ‘I never before desired a Power of extending the legal Penalties, but if I had such a Power, I should exercise it in this Case.’ “

One hesitates to imagine what punishment this “worthy person” would have liked to have exercised, given Gill’s fate.

The eighteenth-century press was just as addicted to sensation as our own and – although it’s very difficult to ascertain what really happened – the known facts suggest that the Derby Mercury was reporting the prosecution case. In fact, after Gill’s execution there was a great deal of disquiet, particularly because it became known that the Coroner had not found a mark on the victim’s body.

Sir Robert Rich was a local aristocrat, whose family home was Roos Hall near Beccles. His troop of dragoons had nearly been wiped out during the battle of Dettingen in the War of the Austrian Succession and had fought against the Jacobites at Culloden, where Rich had been badly injured, according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: “his left hand being clean cut off and his right arm almost severed above the elbow.” Rich was known to be a severe disciplinarian. Exactly a year before Gill’s arrest, in August 1749, Rich became Colonel of the 4th foot, Toby’s regiment and “there appeared a satirical print, The Old Scourge Return’d to Barrels. It depicts Rich, who had a reputation as a disciplinarian, ordering the mass flogging of his men.” (Oxford DNB).

Rich’s troops, who may well have been brutalized by experience of battle and a harsh disciplinary regime, were evidently brought to the area because smuggling was rife on the Suffolk coast and they were unlikely to have been popular. It’s impossible to know if the fact that Gill was black also contributed to his fate. It appears that he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Contemporary accounts constantly refer to him as “black” and are a little stereotypical, but they mainly refer to his supposed reputation for drunkenness or “lewdness.” There’s no mention as to his age or his origins and it may well be that Gill was recruited along with many others from the sizeable number of black people in England at that time. It’s estimated that, in 1750, there were between 10 and 20 thousand black people out of a total population of around nine million.

There’s an interesting reference, though, in a contemporary newspaper account which describes Gill as “one of the Black Drummers belonging to Sir Robert Rich’s Regiment of Dragoons” which led me to the following passage in Paul Fryer’s brilliant history of black people in Britain, Staying Power (Pluto, 1984):

“The use of black musicians as military bandsmen in the British army, a tradition that reached its height towards the end of the eighteenth century, seems to have started in the second half of the seventeenth. Black drummers were first acquired by English regiments serving in the West Indies. There are several seventeenth-century records of a colonel ‘presenting the slave’ to his regiment to act as drummer. According to Sir Walter Scott, six black trumpeters were attached to the Scottish Life Guards in 1679. He describes them as wearing ‘white dresses richly laced’ and ‘massive silver colours and armlets.’ A black kettledrummer can be seen in the background of Sir Godfrey Kneller’s portrait (c.1689) of Frederick, 1st Duke of Schomberg, who served at a cavalry general in the English army. This drummer wears a scarlet coat with gold-laced seams, embroidered back and front with the royal cipher and crown, and a small white turban bound round a blue cloth cap with a hanging hood or bag.


“At least one black drummer was present at the battle of Bleinheim in 1704, serving under Marlborough in the English army that defeated the French and Bavarians. … A contemporary account of a parade of the 4th Dragoons at Stirling in 1715 said: ‘this was a show we could not pass by without looking at and to say truth I scarse think there is the most showy regiment in Europe.… The six drumers were mores with bres [i.e. brass] drums… and they roade upon gray horses.’ In 1755 [5 years after Toby Gill’s execution] the 4th dragoons inspection returns recorded that ‘the drummers are all Blacks.'”

Hanging in chains or “gibbeting” was a brutal punishment which was only recognized by law in England in 1752. It involved hanging someone, usually in a cage-like structure made of hooped iron bands, from a gibbet, often at a crossroads. Death could take a very long time and the body would remain exposed to the elements and passers-by until it deteriorated to nothing, or presumably was taken away by birds and other animals. In 1785, the Reverend Thomas Kerrich made a sketch of two men who had suffered this method of execution at Brandon Sands in Suffolk (reproduced below from Hanging in Chains by Albert Hartshorne, published by T. Fisher Unwin, 1891). In the legend that surrounds the execution of Toby Gill, it’s always said that he begged to be dragged to his death by being tied to the local mail coach in preference to the fate awaiting him, but that particular mercy was denied.

Hanging in chains, 1785

Rev. Kerrich’s sketch of two men hanging in chains.

Gill”s transformation into a ghostly legend is thought to have been found useful by the area’s smugglers. The story is still told and has become commonplace on the websites of those who love the supernatural and Tourist Information organizations. The real horror, though, may well be in the true story of Toby Gill and how cruelly human beings can behave towards one another.


Hypocrisy – also in Blythburgh church.

Between the Wars – Alf & Ada Salter of Bermondsey

When I read the broadcaster Danny Baker’s autobiography, Going to Sea in a Sieve, last year, I discovered that we had both lived in the same council-owned tower block in south east London, Maydew House, albeit not at the same time. At least, I don’t think so. I’m sure that I would have recognised him in the lift.

view from maydewThe view from my flat

I loved living in Bermondsey. The area around Rotherhithe and Surrey Docks is full of history and most of the people who live around there are lovely. After years of struggling to find an affordable home in north London, and as a young person without a family, I liked living in a tower block too. Someone came to do a survey of tenants once and went away shaking his head in disbelief as I told him how great it was to live way above the noise and dirt of the city, with the south London railway system as my own personal train set and a well-built, light, warm, airy flat about ten minutes walk from Tower Bridge and the City. Well, it was great when the lifts were working anyway.


Bermondsey slums, early 20th century

That part of London was badly bombed during the Second World War and before that had been an area of great hardship and social deprivation. People lived in unhealthy, dilapidated slum dwellings and the Dockers’ Shelter – where men stood waiting to be taken on for a day’s work – was still on the corner of Redriff Road when I lived there. It was knocked down when the area was redeveloped to be replaced by a bog-standard shopping centre with a very big Tesco, called “Surrey Quays.”

There were memorials all around the area to Dr. Alfred Salter and his wife, Ada, Christian Socialists (Quakers), who believed that they had been called to work in the Bermondsey slums. Members of the Peace Pledge Union and founders of the Socialist Medical Association – which began the campaign for a National Health Service – they worked hard to improve the lives of the families of south east London before the Second World War. Alf became involved in politics and was elected to Bermondsey Borough Council in 1903 and London County Council in 1906. The death of their 8-year-old daughter Joyce from scarlet fever only reinforced their commitment to try to help other people in the area, especially children, lead better, healthier lives. As a GP, Salter could have afforded to send Joyce to a different school but he never wavered in his commitment to equality, sending her to Keeton’s Road School where infectious diseases were rife.

lf & Joyce

After the First World War, Alf Salter was the Labour candidate for Bermondsey in the General Election but lost to the sitting MP, a Liberal. He and Ada both served on the LCC for many years and Ada was the first woman mayor of Bermondsey. Alf was eventually elected as MP for Bermondsey in 1922 and he remained in Parliament until he stood down because of poor health before the 1945 election. Their work is described in detail in a fascinating book, Bermondsey Story, written by another Christian Socialist, Fenner Brockway, whom I was privileged to see giving a speech when he was nearly 100-years-old.

Alf with Joyce

Among the things that stood out for me though were the Beautification Committee which Ada chaired for eleven years from 1923. It’s agenda was “Fresh Air and Fun.” Meanwhile Alf opened a health centre, where local children were given free “sun-ray” treatment to combat diseases such as rickets – a disease which is returning to Britain according to a news item that I read recently. From 1924 Bermondsey council reserved six places each year in a pioneering Sun Clinic at Leysin in the Swiss Alps. Five of the first six patients sent there went on to make a full recovery and many local people benefited from the treatment.

Nothing was too good for the people of Bermondsey, according to the Salters, and quite right too. All the green spaces, the beautifully planted up flower beds and pleasant parks, were down to the Salters and people like them. We live in less idealistic times where the bottom line of profit (for some) is everything and I was reminded of the work of the Salters when I read about Shelter’s campaign to help the 80,000 children who will be homeless this Christmas. Britain is one of the wealthiest nations on earth but it is also one of the most unequal.

AdaAda Salter