Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens: a Suffolk mystery

ashbocking

On 2 March 1901, William Tricker, a man who described himself as “a gentleman of independent means,” but who actually worked as a gamekeeper for the local Suffolk gentry, was walking through his home village of Ashbocking (or Ash Bocking, if you like, the name derived from the ash trees that flourished there and an ancient family of landowners called the Bockings). He decided to take a look at the edge of some land he was renting, which was opposite the pub, the Lord Nelson. He’d spotted some watercress growing at the edge of his pond, he said. The pond was tiny, about twelve feet in width but it was also deep and several of the villagers used it for their fresh water supply. As Tricker looked at the watercress, his eye caught something else, a sight that he would never be able to forget. About eighteen inches below the surface of the water were two pale faces, staring up at him like phantoms, white and bloated, floating there like twin moons.

Something glimpsed on the periphery of his vision, as if it were an incident in an M. R. James ghost story. William Tricker might have been forgiven for not believing his own eyes, but it would have only taken him moments to realise that both of those faces were familiar. They belonged to eighteen-year-old Edgar Hardwick and twenty-three-year-old Robert Richer, who had been missing since the previous Wednesday. The two young men had spent most of their short lives in the village, the Richer family were near neighbours of Tricker, who lived at the White House at Ashbocking Green. The Richer family’s cottage was almost next door.

It’s possible that M. R. James may have, consciously or subconsciously, used a few details from the strange events at Ashbocking in A School Story, published in 1911, ten years later. This typically subtle and chilling tale ends with the discovery of two bodies found tied together in a well in Ireland. A coin on a chain was found “amongst the rags of the clothes that were on one of the bodies. A bad business, whatever the story of it may have been. One body had the arms tight around the other.”

Compare that to this report of the inquest into the deaths of Richer and Hardwick that appeared in the Ipswich local newspaper, The Evening Star, on 4 March 1901: “Standing one in front of the other, the two, after having connected their belts, seem to have wound them around their waists, and afterwards entered the water. Another curious circumstance in the case is, that on Thursday, the morning after the deceased were last seen, a carter named Wood, in the employ of Mr Turner, of Witnesham, saw a watch and chain on the railings by the side of the pond. Seeing it had not been taken when he passed the spot again in the afternoon, he took charge of the watch and chain, intending to give it to Mr Tricker, to whom he believed it belonged. However, on hearing of the tragedy, he handed the watch and chain to the parents of one of the deceased, who identified them easily.”

It is quite likely that Montague Rhodes James read the newspaper coverage of the story, whether he was in the Cambridge University study where he told his students ghost stories on Christmas Eve, or back home in his rectory at Great Livermere in Suffolk, neither were very far from Ashbocking. The two male bodies tied together has an obvious pre-Freudian subtext – obvious to us in these post-Freudian days anyway. The writer, Anthony Powell, a pupil of James at Eton said that “I myself have heard it suggested that James’s (of course platonic) love affairs were in fact fascinating to watch.” James may have been hinting at something in his story that was never made explicit in any of the newspaper coverage of the true events of 1901. In his story, an exotic inscribed Byzantine coin on a chain replaces the more prosaic discovery of a watch and chain, but the echoes are clear.

But this was no ghost story and the corpses at Ashbocking Green were all too real. Tricker quickly realised that he did not have the strength to pull the two men out of the pond without help, and he ran across to the Nelson, returning minutes later with several helpers. They hauled the bodies out and carried them to the nearby Toll-gate house. It would have taken a very short time to identify Richer and Hardwick. They had left the pub the week before and people in the village said that everyone assumed they’d gone off to join the army. It was the time of the second Boer War and Robert had a bit of form as far as going off without telling his family was concerned. Once he’d disappeared to London for several weeks without “acquainting his parents of his whereabouts.”

Both lads had jobs locally. Robert worked as a labourer, along with his father, also Robert, for the Stanford family who farmed at Ash Hall, and Hardwick worked as a labourer employed by someone called Simper. Edgar’s father David Hardwick was a horseman on another farm. Few people in Ashbocking were not involved with agriculture in some way. Their families would not have been wealthy, but were described as “comfortable” and appear to have been respected by the other villagers. The discovery of the bodies, and in particular the way that they were found, sent shock waves through this remote community. The local press certainly made a great deal of the story, as a “village mystery” and a tragedy, but the inquest, which was held very quickly, appears to the modern reader to be full of contradictory evidence and hastily concluded. Very hastily indeed.

Ashbocking is one of those Suffolk parishes that you pass through on the way to somewhere else. Nowadays the old clay cottages, barns and timbered farmhouses have been converted and there is an air of second or holiday homes about it. There are swimming pools in some gardens. It has a peaceful beauty, if only in the sense of the Talking Heads’ song: “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens.” It is only eight miles north of Ipswich, but it is quiet and it has always been quiet. The only event that appears to have occurred here, if it can be called an event, was the expulsion of its vicar, Rev. Theodore Beale, by the notorious Committee for Scandalous Ministers in 1644. They were turbulent times. Suffolk’s own William Dowsing was on a mission to smash up idolatrous images in East Anglian churches and in the same year, Matthew Hopkins, of Manningtree, appointed himself Witchfinder-General and started his persecutions, many of them in East Anglia. You could be burnt to death for stepping out of line in 1644. It was a time to keep your head down and keep quiet, even in Ashbocking, but Beale was an outspoken clergyman and had preached sermons that said more than enough to cause the Puritan government to order the sequestration of his living and property. He was thrown out of Ashbocking and some people said that he died in prison.

Ashbocking returned to peaceful ways for several more centuries. Nothing ever happened. The land, owned by the Tollemache family, was cultivated to grow crops: barley, oats, peas and beans. That was all there was in Ashbocking by the beginning of the twentieth century, plus a public house called the Nelson, now closed, and demolished. It was a small parish of 289 residents who lived in 66 dwellings, mostly cottages. Everyone in this isolated parish would have known almost everything about everybody else in the village.

The inquest was not held at the Nelson. It was quite usual to use a nearby public house for an inquest but perhaps the Ashbocking Nelson was too involved, too close. It was very quickly decided to have the inquest in a neighbouring village and it opened a few days later at Pigstye Farm, Witnesham. (Pigstye Farm is called something else now, perhaps it was not an ideal name for a holiday home.) The coroner was Mr. Walter Brooke and a jury was hastily assembled, presumably made up of local people. Were feelings running too high in Ashbocking for a jury to be trusted there? There is nothing to tell us. We do know, however, that Superintendent Hubbard of Woodbridge represented the Suffolk police. The Cambridgeshire Advertiser reported the inquest in full. Could this have been where Montague James saw the story? It’s likely, and perhaps a few of the details stuck in his mind, to be brought out ten years later in A School Story. It’s interesting to try and spot the differences and omissions between the detailed report in this newspaper and those published elsewhere, and so I will give it in full, except where it repeats things that we already know:

“DOUBLE DROWNING MYSTERY AT ASHBOCKING: TWO LABOURERS DIE STRAPPED TOGETHER
Robert Richer, labourer, Ashbocking, identified the deceased, Robert Richer, as his son. Witness last saw him alive on the previous Wednesday morning, about 6.30, when leaving for work. As the morning was wet deceased did not go to work – he was employed at the same farm as witness – and seemed more inclined to stay in bed. Deceased expressed the intention of attending a pigeon match at Otley, and deponent believed he came home about ten o’clock, after writing a letter to his sister, who is in service at Henley.
The Coroner: Have you seen the contents of that letter? – No, Sir.

A Juror: The letter is important.

Witness added that his son did not return home on Wednesday, but he made no report to the police, as deceased on a previous occasion left home and did not return for several weeks. He did not think his son and Hardwick “palled” together much. Deceased had been in good spirits.

The Coroner: You never heard him express a wish that he was out of the world, or anything of that sort? – No, Sir.

You do not know of anybody about here who owed him a grudge? – No, Sir; he always appeared happy and comfortable.

At the conclusion of the witness’s evidence the Foreman (Mr. Fred. Miller) expressed the opinion that it would be best to have the letter written to deceased sister produced.

The Coroner agreed.

George Hardwick, labourer, Ashbocking, said the deceased, Edgar Hardwick, was his brother, and he last saw him alive at the White Hart, Otley, on the previous Wednesday, between 8 and 8.30 p.m. Deceased, who appeared in his usual health and spirits, was drinking hot rum and water. Deceased remained in the house four or five hours. Witness had been with him to the pigeon match, and deceased was in Richer’s company throughout the day. The two deceased men left the White Hart about 8:30 p.m. His brother had been in very good spirits, and, as far as deponent’s knowledge went, he had had nothing to worry him.

The Coroner: Has he ever made use of any expression in regard to his life? – No, Sir.

Was he a drinking man at all? – No, Sir.

The Foreman: Did the deceased man Hardwick lose any money at the pigeon match? – I can’t say, Sir.

Did they shoot somebody? – No, Sir.

Witness, continuing, said he lived with his brother, who got up about nine or ten o’clock on Wednesday, taking his meals as usual. Witness notice nothing peculiar in his manner that morning, although during breakfast they had no conversation upon any subject.

The Coroner: Had you and he had any row of any sort? – No, Sir.

Did you often have your meal together without talking? – Yes, Sir.

That is rather unusual proceeding? – Yes, Sir.

A Juror: Did he have much drink during the day? – I can’t say.

The Coroner: Had there been any friction at home? – No, Sir.

Was he a genial and good-tempered fellow? – Yes, Sir.

Mr Geo. F. Meadows, surgeon, Otley, who had made an external examination of the bodies, said he could detect no marks of violence. The cause of death in each case was asphyxia by drowning.

Richard Tack, postman, Coddenham, deposed that he had just finished his delivery in Ashbocking, and was in the Nelson Inn, when informed of the previous witness’s [Tricker’s] discovery. Witness assisted in the removal of the bodies, and during the operation the two belts with which the bodies were strapped together gave way.

Alfred Hatcher, labourer, Otley, said he had known the deceased for four or five years, and met them at the White Hart on the Wednesday evening. They were both drinking ‘mild’ beer at the time, but just before they left the house they had some rum and water.

The Coroner: Were they quite sober? – Well, they seem to have had a little beer, but they could walk and talk all right.

Were they much accustomed to taking too much drink? – I can’t say, Sir.

Did they seem in good spirits? – Yes; they were laughing and talking.

How many glasses of beer did they have in the house? – About two apiece.

Frances Diggens, daughter of the landlord of Ashbocking Nelson Inn, said she occasionally served in the bar, and knew the deceased, who frequently visited the house. On the previous Wednesday they came into the bar at 9.30 p.m. and she served them with a bottle of gingerbeer each. The men remained until closing-time, and appeared sober and very quiet. The deceased had nothing to drink beyond the gingerbeer.

Supt. Hubbard: Was it unusual for them to have ginger beer? – They usually drink beer.

Mrs Emma Daniels, married woman, of Swilland, gave evidence to the effect that both men, while in the Nelson Inn, seemed quite sober; their conversation mainly referred to a bracelet worn by Miss Diggens. On leaving witness noticed that the men did not turn in the direction of their homes, and remarked, ‘That is not your way home.’ Richer turned round and exclaimed, ‘I am going to leave this _____ country.’

The Foreman: Did Hardwick make any remark? – No.

In reply to a juror, witness said she was rather timid at the time, as she thought the deceased men were going to have a ‘skit’ with her; consequently she hurried home with her daughter. Witness and others had thought Richer was not exactly right; he seemed to have had some ‘funny schemes’ recently. On one occasion recently he fired off a gun in front of the Nelson Inn, and slightly injured his hands. Richer then remarked that he would just as soon sink as swim, or die as live; he would shoot anybody who stood in front of him.

The Coroner: Was he drunk at the time? – No, Sir. I have never seen him drunk in his life; he was not even ‘freshy.’

What sort of man was Hardwick? – He was a nice quiet boy.

A Juror: Had there been a row in the Nelson when Richer threatened to shoot anybody? – No.

The Coroner here observed that he thought it would be advisable that Miss Richer, who had received a letter from her brother, should attend the inquiry, together with David Hardwick, the father of the other deceased man.

The Foreman: I should like to see the letter. It is a most extraordinary case.

Some discussion ensued among the Jury as to the advisability of an adjournment until March 18th, and it was pointed out by the Coroner that in the event of this course being pursued it would be possible for the police to make further enquiries. Eventually, however, after a consultation, the Foreman announced that the Jury had decided that the enquiry should proceed as they had already practically made up their minds in the matter.”

Richer had a letter from a Miss Ethel Furnish in his pocket. The Coroner told the Jury that he had seen it and it contained nothing important. They were also told that both Richard and Hardwick had money in their pockets.

“The Coroner, summing up, observed that a person, by the law of England, was considered to be sane unless the contrary was proved, and in this case there seems to be little or no evidence – with the exception of that given by Mrs Daniels – as to the state of mind of either of the deceased men. Mrs Daniels evidence seemed scarcely sufficient to show there was really any unhinging of the mind which would make the men unaccountable for their actions at the time. Unless there was evidence of that kind it was the usual course, by the law of England, to return a verdict of felo-de-se.” [A felo-de-se is an arcane legal term for suicide.]

The jury, after a brief consultation, returned an open verdict of “found drowned.”

Apart from the excessive interest in the drinking habits of the dead men, reminiscent of Hillsborough enquiries in our own time, what’s most interesting are the things that, like the dog that barked in the night, were not heard. Richer’s father claimed that his son was not paricularly friendly with Hardwick, although it seems unlikely in a tiny village that two young men of a similar age were not close, unless they had reason to dislike one another, which was obviously not the case. In fact, when Edgar Hardwick’s brother George was asked if the two young men were “very intimate,” he answered quite unequivocally: “Yes.”

Even if the jurors accepted the Coroner’s opinion that the letter from Miss Furnish found on Robert’s body was irrelevant, it seems astonishing that they weren’t interested enough to wait the short time it would have taken to retrieve the letter he had sent to his sister from Henley, a village just outside Ipswich. It might have explained everything. Even if the members of the jury were desperate to go home, it’s surprising they didn’t have enough interest in the case to wait for this letter.

The story was taken up by newspapers around Britain, as far away as Dundee, and, as these things are, it was altered and embroidered in the telling. The words – only witnessed, allegedly, by people in the Nelson – reportedly spoken by Robert Richer to the effect that he wanted to die and “would be better on the morrow” were soon ascribed to both young men. The jury was instructed to find a verdict of suicide, but it didn’t. You don’t have to be a devotee of Line of Duty to know that the police and court officials would have been destroyed by a Edwardian equivalent of Superintendent Ted Hastings. The most basic enquiries were never made. The rush to a verdict was unseemly to say the least – and there the story ended.

It seems obvious that the deaths of Robert and Edgar were probably suicide. The reason that dared not speak its name being the most likely explanation as to why two young, healthy men, who were described as being happy, enjoying life, and taking a holiday to have some fun, suddenly disappeared to be found dead in this bizarre manner, but I think there may be another explanation. Certainly, if Robert and Edgar were lovers their lives would have been difficult. At the Old Bailey in 1901, consenting adult men were sentenced to periods of between six months’ and ten years’ hard labour for “sodomy.” It was the era of Oscar Wilde, but I doubt somehow that Richer and Hardwick were going about mid-Suffolk wearing green carnations – although it’s clear that Richer (“I’m going to leave this _____ country.”) was unhappy in some way. In backwaters like early twentieth century Ashbocking though, it would have been possible to conduct some kind of illicit love affair in secrecy. There were plenty of hidden places for clandestine trysts. It’s interesting that, unlike the London courts, the Suffolk criminal registers don’t have any records of such offences at this time. In the eighteenth century, homosexual men from Suffolk were forced to stand in the pillory on Ipswich Cornhill, or were even hanged, but by the twentieth century, all had gone quiet. It seems that people did not even want to recognise the existence of same sex love – but that doesn’t mean the hostility and hatred had abated.

The only noise in this case was the babbling of the people at the Nelson, who seemed very anxious to brand Robert Richer as a bit of an oddity. The inquest only had the word of the witnesses in the Lord Nelson about what really happened when the pair left that night. It was from those people that the inquest heard that the boys went in the wrong direction on leaving the bar. But what if they weren’t telling the truth, what if everyone in that bar knew what happened but they just weren’t saying?

The police and the Coroner rejected any idea of “foul play” out of hand. It would have been too difficult, they decided, for even a large group of men, to strap the lads together in this way. Would it have been? And what happened to Robert and Edgar between the time they left the Nelson on Wednesday night and when William Tricker discovered their bodies on Saturday morning? We have no scene of crime officers or forensic scientists to help us, but it’s unlikely that the bodies had been lying in a clear pond used for public drinking water unnoticed for more than two days.

There is no way of knowing what happened, because no one, not even Robert and Edgar’s families, would have wanted us to know. Ashbocking Green returned to its usual state of rural sleepiness, undisturbed by the presence of violent death in its midst.

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“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

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

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

A Constable portrait & a neglected cemetery in Ipswich

In about 1807, the Suffolk painter John Constable, renowned for his landscapes, painted a rare portrait. It was a painting of a very old lady, who lived in the parish of St Peter’s, Ipswich. The woman was called Sarah Lyon and she had been born in 1703.

Sarah Lyon

Sarah Lyon died in 1808 at the age of 105. It is believed that she was buried in the Jewish cemetery, close to Fore Street. A transcription published in the Proceedings of the Suffolk Institute of Archaeology & History, vol. XL, part 2 (2002), of the few remaining tombstones, mostly faded to illegibility and all written in Hebrew, includes one to “The woman… 5565 or 5568 [= 1805 and 1808]” which might be hers.

Yesterday, because I’m researching the history of Judaism in East Anglia, I visited the Jewish cemetery. It took me some time to find it and I’m not going to give exact details of its location, because – although it’s hard to believe – there are still people anti-Semitic enough to want to vandalise it.

It was a beautiful spring day in Ipswich and when we eventually found the little patch of ground with a small number of headstones that remain, we took the following photographs through a padlocked, wrought-iron gate. It is a peaceful place, despite being surrounded by extremely busy roads.  A robin was singing within the brick walls that surround the graves. Some of the Hebrew inscriptions are still legible.

There was a synagogue serving the Ipswich Jewish community in Rope Walk, not far from the cemetery. The Jewish population dispersed (probably to larger cities) and by 1877 the synagogue had become so neglected that it was demolished. Ipswich Jews nowadays must go to Colchester to worship.

An Education

Yesterday I visited the House of Commons for the first time in my life. It was wonderful to see the site of so many important historical events, such as Westminster Hall, where state trials used to take place, including those of Guido Fawkes and Warren Hastings.

I was there to watch an awards ceremony that had been made as a tribute to a family member who had spent many years pioneering Access to Higher Education courses. After the ceremony, we were taken on a short tour of the building by Nick Dakin, Labour MP for Scunthorpe, who had presented the awards. He was extremely kind and we even managed to get into the amazing and highly-decorated Chapel of St. Mary Undercroft http://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/building/palace/estatehistory/the-middle-ages/chapel-st-mary-undercroft-/

We’d been promised a cream tea in Portcullis House, so were slightly puzzled when Nick Dakin stopped outside a cupboard which seemed to contain electrical or computer equipment and asked us to step inside. We could only go in pairs and I went in first with another woman. On the inside of the door was a rectangular plaque which had been secretly put up by Tony Benn MP to commemorate the fact that on Census night, 1911, a suffragette called Emily Wilding Davison hid in the cupboard – then a broom cupboard – as a simple act of protest at not having the right to vote. She was able to register as being resident at the House of Commons and here is the evidence:

http://dreammail.edgesuite.net/FindMyPast/1911Census-RG14-EmilyDavison.jpeg

Emily Wilding Davison was born in 1872 and brought up in Blackheath, Surrey. She achieved First Class honours at Oxford University in 1895. Although women could by then study for degrees, they were not allowed to graduate so she left without a degree. She began a career teaching in girls’ schools and later became involved in the militant wing of the Woman Suffrage movement, the Women’s Social & Political Union (WSPU). She went to prison several times for fairly minor offences, such as attempting to give the Liberal Prime Minister, Asquith, a petition. During a later prison term, she went on hunger strike and was force fed. I don’t know if any research has been done on the psychological effects of force-feeding, but it certainly proved to harden the suffragettes’ campaign.

Emily Davison is, of course, more famous for her final act of protest when she threw herself under the King’s horse at the Derby in 1913. She was badly injured and died in hospital four days later. No-one knows if she intended to die. She had a ticket to a dance for that evening so it’s possible she only wanted to make a protest.

Tony Benn had tried to have a memorial put up to record Emily Davison’s protest for some time. In the end, he took a hammer and put the plaque up himself. He said: “It is a modest reminder of a great woman with a great cause who never lived to see it prosper but played a significant part in making it possible.”

Women over 30 were given the vote in 1918 and in 1928, this was extended to women over 21, making them equal with men for the first time.

It was a privilege to be able to see it.

Homes for Heroes: ex-servicemen & the squatting movement in 1946

There is legislation going through Parliament at the moment which will make squatting in unoccupied properties an imprisonable offence.

Squatting – as a form of non-violent protest and an act of desperation by the homeless – has been around a long time. In The World Turned Upside Down, Christopher Hill describes how 17th century cottagers (people who made a subsistence living on common land), squatted on land after it had been enclosed. In the 1650s, there was a concerted campaign against squatters by magistrates and cottages were destroyed in Hertfordshire, Middlesex and Warwickshire. One commentator wrote: “The poor increase like flies and lice, and these vermin will eat us up unless we enclose.”

The enclosure of common land certainly played a large part in the creation of a dispossessed class who were then forced to seek food and shelter in this way, but some of these squatters would have been people displaced by the recent civil wars, including ex-soldiers. The history of public unrest in Britain can often be linked with periods following war, when large numbers of soldiers and sailors would return home, many without shelter or work.

We have never treated our ex-servicemen well. The Napoleonic Wars “ended amidst riots… Thousands of disbanded soldiers and sailors returned to find unemployment in their villages.” (E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class). Following the First World War, having been promised “homes fit for heroes,” but given unemployment, economic depression and poverty, ex-servicemen were attracted in large numbers to the political extremes on the left and the right. Many of Mosley’s Blackshirts were people who had fought in the trenches.

The impression is often given that things were different following the Second World War, but towards the end of the war and in its immediate aftermath, there was a great deal of social unrest. There were strikes by members of the armed forces and in 1946, homeless ex-servicemen and their families took to squatting in disused military camps.

On 17th August 1946, the Times reported: “More huts formerly used by the services in various parts of the country were occupied by homeless families yesterday. After commandeering huts at the rocket battery site at Cowley Marsh, Oxford, “squatters” extended their activities to the ex-Admiralty huts on Balliol College ground at Jowett’s Walk.”

Other squatters were reported at Crayford in Kent, Cricklewood in North West London, plus at various locations in Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Somerset, Wiltshire, Essex and Shropshire. In Gravesend, a sports club was occupied by a homeless family who refused to allow club members in to attend a meeting.

There are hints in contemporary newspaper reports of an unsavoury side to the squatting movement caused by the resentment of “Poles” (presumably those Polish servicemen who had fought for the British during the war) and Prisoners of War who were yet to return to their native countries. Most of the squatters were simply desperate, however:

“A demobilized soldier, accompanied by his wife and son, has taken possession of Wellingborough Grange, near Lincoln, a seven-bedroomed house which has been empty for nearly two years, and eight families have occupied Litley Court, a large house taken over by Herefordshire Agricultural Committee for use as offices.” (Times, 23rd August 1946.)

The Prime Minister and several other members of the Cabinet decided that matters should not prevent them from taking a short holiday, but by September the squatting movement had taken off. Private houses, not just military properties, were being occupied and the squatters were moving closer to the home of the government itself:

“The organized invasion of private property in Kensington and elsewhere in London… has confronted the Government with a situation which they regard far more seriously than the recent seizure of military camps.” (Times, 10th September 1946). The final straw appears to have been the occupation of the Duchess of Bedford House, a block of luxury flats in Campden Hill Road, Kensington. The Minister of Works took legal advice. The Times began to sound panicky, describing it as “… [an] invasion to a point where no private house would be safe.”

The tone of the Times’ coverage, initially sympathetic, changed. It began to point out that there were thousands on the council’s waiting list for housing and the squatters, in its opinion, were trying to “jump the queue”  and it quoted “some Kensington women:” “There are no Kensington people here. … It is just for Communists.” Although its editorials were critical of the squatters, however, it acknowledged that there were 250,000 families on local authority waiting lists and that there was, indeed, a desperate need for more housing to be made available.

The Labour government, represented by Aneurin Bevan, refused to support the squatters, despite having recently passed laws that would have enabled the use of military camps for emergency housing. Newport (Montgomeryshire) Housing Committee used those laws to convert a military camp, putting in water and other facilities, and housing people from their own waiting list, but most authorities did nothing.

University of London students took over the Ivanhoe Hotel in Bloomsbury in mid-September. They hung a large placard from a window: “600 rooms vacant; why be homeless?” The local authority took no action to evict them – they were waiting for a decision on another case in the High Court – but massive numbers of policemen were posted around other empty buildings in the area.

The government’s response continued to be hostile to the squatters and they resorted to classic tactics: picking out the politically active (Communist Party members) and prosecuting them and “divide and rule” – by continually describing the squatters as “jumping the housing queue” they hoped to encourage resentment towards them by other people in need of homes.  The withdrawal of basic facilities like water and sanitation was also sanctioned. On 17th September, the Times reported that a deputation of squatters had visited 10 Downing Street with a 2,000 signature petition but Mr. Attlee declined to receive them.

Soon afterwards, the High Court granted the Minister of Works an injunction “restraining the defendants [named members of the squatters’ committee] … from entering, remaining or otherwise trespassing on the premises” at Duchess of Bedford House.

What may have initially appeared to be a defeat for the squatting campaign, however, resulted in an immediate change of heart from the Labour government. The disused military camps, plus other former hostels and hotels that had been requisitioned during the war, were released as temporary accommodation (with full facilities) for homeless families and as soon as 23rd September 1946 a massive programme of building 100,000 temporary and 100,000 permanent dwellings was announced, to be completed by the end of the year. The next few years saw a huge increase in house building resulting in many of the council estates that provided good homes for the less well off until the Thatcher government sold them off under the “right to buy” in the 1980s.

More recently, soldiers returning from duty in Iraq and Afghanistan have had problems obtaining the accommodation and health care they need:

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/home-for-heroes-help-war-veterans-370418

The issues surrounding how we treat our veterans may have changed since the Napoleonic wars but our society still doesn’t appear to show them very much gratitude for what they have done in our name.