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.

image

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.

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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.

Kneller

“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

Hypocrisy – also in Blythburgh church.

One hundred per cent Anglo-Saxon with perhaps just a dash of Viking…

Hearing that a small group of far-right racists are planning a march in Ipswich this weekend, I thought I’d remind myself of Suffolk’s history of incoming migrants. We exported a lot of people over the years too, of course, via convict ships, voluntary emigration and the “overpaid, oversexed and over here” USAAF who were stationed all over the county during the Second World War and took a lot of Suffolk women back to the United States as “GI Brides.”

Ipswich has had a thriving port since medieval times and as a consequence has always been a place of entry and settlement for migrants. It was known as a welcoming place for incomers, many of whom settled in the town. As an example, from a brief look through the records of the 1901 census of Ipswich, there were more than 20 Italians, 13 people described as French subjects, 64 people who had been born in Ireland and one Russian. Many people in Ipswich will be descendants of these and other immigrants. Since then, there have been significant arrivals of people from the West Indies, the Indian sub-continent and most recently from Eastern Europe, all adding to the vibrant and cosmopolitan nature of the town and enhancing its culture.

Without immigration, there would have been no Jason Dozzell or Keiron Dyer playing for Ipswich Town Football Club, no Emeric Pressburger (who is buried at Saxtead near Woodbridge), the Hungarian refugee who, with Michael Powell, made brilliant films such as A Matter of Life and Death, One of our Aircraft is Missing and The Red Shoes, no Aspall cider (the Chevallier family were originally from the Channel Islands), no Ickworth House (designed by Italian architect, Mario Asprucci, and two Italian craftsmen, Casimiro & Donato Carabelli, were brought over to live in Little Saxham and create the frieze that runs around the dome, no Peter’s ice cream (produced by Ipswich’s Zagni family). Perhaps the Aldeburgh Festival would not have survived as its success was very much the result of the work of its artistic director from 1956 to 1977, Imogen Holst, daughter of the composer Gustav Holst and of Swedish, Latvian and German descent. There are, of course, countless other examples. I have chosen just three more, all eminent people whose families came here from other countries and either settled in Suffolk or lived there for for some time.

Edward Ardizzone, the artist, was born in French Indo-China in 1900, and was the son of Auguste Ardizzone, an Algerian-born, naturalized Frenchman of Italian origin, and his wife, Margaret. Ardizzone spent his childhood in East Anglia, including an idyllic period at his grandmother’s house in East Bergholt from 1905, which he described in his autobiography. Unfortunately he was sent to be educated at Ipswich School where he was bullied so badly that his memories of the town were tainted for the rest of his life. He’s best remembered for his illustrations in children’s books, including The Otterbury Incident and Stig of the Dump, but he also drew a great deal that was inspired by his boyhood memories of the rougher part of Ipswich, including a famous sketch of two women fighting one another outside an Ipswich pub in about 1912.

Ardizzone

Cor Visser    The Ipswich Society placed a blue plaque on the front of 44 Fore Street, Ipswich in memory of Cor Visser, a Dutch artist who spent much of his life living in Suffolk. Attracted by his love for sailing and, presumably – like many painters who settle in East Anglia – because of the landscape and the light, he arrived in 1937. Many of his watercolours are of the River Orwell. He was the official war artist to the Dutch Royal Family during the Second World War and his works are in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam as well as in various British galleries, including in Ipswich. He died in 1982.

Sophia Duleep Singh (full name: Princess Sophia Alexandra Duleep Singh) was born at Elveden Hall in 1876, the daughter of a Maharaja and his first wife Bamba Müller, who was of German and Ethiopian descent. Sophia and her sister Catherine were suffragettes and she was a member of the Pankhurst’s militant suffragette organization, the Women’s Social and Political Union. She spent most of her life fighting for minority rights, including as a leading member of the Women’s Tax Resistance Campaign which argued that women should withhold paying taxes until they were given the vote. You can find more information about her by visiting the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography website (and most public libraries will offer you free access).

Sophia Duleep-Singh

The whole agricultural economy of East Anglia has been based on using the toil of travelling people (many of whom would have had Romani or Irish ancestors) and migrant labourers such as the Eastern Europeans who are still working on the land to this day.  It’s worth reminding ourselves sometimes that none of us are – to use the gloriously funny words that Galton and Simpson put into Tony Hancock’s mouth in The Blood Donor, in which he indignantly answers June Whitfield’s question about his British nationality with the assertion that he’s “one hundred per cent Anglo-Saxon with perhaps just a dash of Viking… .”

I doubt that it’s possible to find someone in East Anglia who has a family tree that is exclusively made up of indigenous Britons and many of us, thankfully, have people in our family from all over of the world. It’s good for our health both in terms of genetics and in the huge number of migrants who have come here, temporarily or permanently to work in the NHS, for example – and as the OECD  [links to the Daily Telegraph] has reported recently it’s good for our economy too.

The Norwich Strangers: 16th century refugees

This is World Refugee Week and so I am going to write about some refugees who came to Norwich (and elsewhere) in the 16th & 17th centuries from the Netherlands, fleeing persecution.

Norwich Castle

Norwich Castle

Norwich has always been multi-cultural. In the early mediaeval period, for example, it had a large French quarter, known as the “French Borough.” Following the Norman invasion, the new rulers had tried successive measures to quell the local populace, including building the hugely dominant castle – it looms over the city centre now and must have been an extremely strong symbol of power when it was first built in the late 11th century. Even so, the Normans still had problems suppressing the locals and so they decided to bring in an influx of French settlers (a policy that was similar, albeit on a smaller scale, to the plantation of Ulster in Ireland at a later date). The French Borough was situated where the Forum is now and, up to the 13th century, when its prosperity declined, it was one of the wealthiest parts of the city.

 The arrival of the “Strangers” from the Low Countries (roughly Holland and Belgium) in the 16th century was the result of the persecution of Dutch Calvinists by the Catholic Spanish rulers of that region of Europe. The Duke of Alva ruthlessly pursued them as heretics and many of them were raped, murdered or burnt at the stake. There were two main reasons why these refugees were broadly welcomed: under Elizabeth I, England was a Protestant country and it had not long been the case that Mary I had persecuted “heretics” in a similar manner. There are several monuments to this in East Anglia, for example at Bury St Edmunds.

Memorial to Protestant martyrs in Bury St. Edmunds

The Martyrs' Memorial, Bury St. Edmunds

 The second reason was that, with their skills in weaving, the new immigrants were of immense economic value. The asylum seekers had first settled in Sandwich, Kent, in 1565, and the City of Norwich elders invited them to the city because of their renowned skills in textile weaving. Much of the prosperity of Norfolk after this period can be traced to this influx of refugees.

 The arrival of the Strangers was described by W. Moens in his book The Walloons & their Church at Norwich (1888):

 Invited by the Duke of Norfolk and the Corporation of Norwich, the strangers on obtaining letters patent from the Crown, came to Norwich in 1665 from Sandwich, where they first settled, and soon increasing in numbers restored to the city, by the manufacture of their various fabrics, that prosperity which had been lost by the ravages caused by the mortality from the black death at the close of the 14th century.

 In 1566 an accord was made by the Duchess of Parma with those of the reformed religion in the Netherlands, who, on attaching their signatures to the terms before the magistrates of the various towns, were allowed to attend the Services of their own ministers. Many returned from England to the Low Countries on this concession, but in the following year faith was broken with them, and the unscrupulous severity of the Duke of Alva’s rule caused a flight of all who could escape the vigilance of the authorities. … The details of the conditions under which foreigners were formerly allowed to settle in this country and to follow their trades are interesting and very different from the custom of the present day, when they are on the same footing as natives, but from their frugal habits are able to (and do) work at rates, which in many eases bring misery and ruin to whole districts…. The old custom of hostage, revived by the grant of 1576 to William Tipper, compelled to reside with appointed hosts who received payment for their entertainment and who supervised and received a percentage on their purchases and sales. The Corporation of Norwich purchased this right in 1578 for the sum of £70 13s. 4d., but did not exercise it against the strangers. The strangers paid double subsidies or taxes on the value of their personal property; they paid their own ministers, by whom they had to be furnished with a voucher before permission to reside in the city was granted to them, all their names being registered; they had to pay all the expenses of their churches and the entire support of their poor besides twenty pence in the pound on their rentals, towards the pay of the parish clergy. … As in the present time in London, where the old jealousy against foreigners seems to be reviving, there was always a party in the Corporation of Norwich opposed to the strangers, but the manifest benefits derived by the city from their manufactures and trade always induced a large majority of the Council to watch over and protect them.

 The strangers at Norwich from the first were placed under a strict and special rule; a book of orders was drawn up by the Corporation and settled by a committee of the Privy Council, From time to time these articles were varied, but it was not long before they were allowed in a measure to fall into abeyance, on account of the prosperity brought to the city by the successful trade of the strangers.

 Norwich was not free from xenophobia. As early as 1144, the death of a boy had led to accusations made towards local Jews of ritual murder and sparked anti-Semitic rioting. Despite the undoubted benefits that immigration had brought to the city – many of its finest buildings, for example – there was still some resentment. In 1567 the mayor of Norwich, Thomas Whall, made inflammatory statements, which sound all too familiar today, that the Walloons had “sucked the living away from the English” and greater restrictions were placed upon them. Interestingly, though, when the 16th century equivalent of the BNP tried to foment attacks on the refugees in 1570, it was the ring-leaders of the anti-Stranger faction who were executed.

 In 1578, Queen Elizabeth I made a state visit to Norwich, which appears to have been a specific attempt to demonstrate her support for the Strangers. The Dutch community presented her with a pageant and a silver-gilt cup worth £50. Although there were further difficulties and conflicts between their community and the established population of Norwich, it was probably the beginning of their assimilation and, as with most influxes of immigrants and refugees, they gradually disappeared as a separate entity. In 1633-4, the Norwich rate book listed many names which were probably Dutch or Flemish in origin, such as Vanrockenham, Vartingoose, Verbeake, Vertegans, Vinke, Dehem, Dehage. By 1830, the Norwich poll book includes very few: possibly only Adrian Decleve (goldsmith) and  John De Vear (draper).

 To this day, the people of Norfolk have profited from the labour of migrants and, even fairly recently, there have been nasty incidents such as the attacks on Portuguese people in Thetford following England’s defeat by Portugal in the 2004 European football tournament. Other foreign workers have been exploited and abused by gangmasters. Overall, however, the story of the Strangers in Norwich was a very successful one and indeed there are many historical examples of refugees, not only helping the economy but also of adding to the cultural variety and vibrancy of the communities in which they settled.

The Dutch Church, formerly AUstin Friars in Norwich

Austin Friars, which became the Dutch Church in Norwich