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


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:


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.

How to sell your wife

Anyone who has read, or seen a TV adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge will remember the early scene where the main protagonist, Michael Henchard, sells his wife to a stranger after he gets drunk at a fair.

It is a powerful scene and enabled Hardy to construct a great story in his usual style, based on implausible coincidences and drawing on the folk traditions of the agricultural labouring class of the time. Like the later scenes in the novel depicting the “skimmity ride” where effigies of Henchard and his mistress are drawn through the streets in an act of ritual humiliation and moral indignation, the wife-selling incident was based on real events. The problem for a historian is that, being part of folk culture which by definition is not recorded officially, it’s quite difficult to find evidence to back up stories about such behaviour.

In his book Wives For Sale (1981), Samuel Menefee makes a compelling case for the historical reality of wife sales with plenty of actual and anecdotal evidence. I agree with his conclusion that the ritualistic nature of wife sales probably means that it was a labouring class form of divorce. Stories of such sales virtually disappeared as soon as the divorce laws were reformed to make them accessible to other people than the very wealthy. Its happier counterpart was “jumping over the broom” which was an unofficial form of marriage. Despite what I had been taught to believe about the Victorian era, I discovered by researching in documents like parish registers and census returns that unmarried couples frequently lived together in nineteenth-century England and illegitimacy was common.  Of course, many of these relationships were hidden in official documents where a woman would be described as a “housekeeper” – even carpenters and agricultural labourers had “housekeepers” if the census is to be taken on face value. I did find one example of honesty in the 1851 census of Northamptonshire, where a woman’s occupation was entered as “fancy woman,” however!

The “ritual” of wife-selling consisted of an unwanted wife being taken into the market square of a town with a halter around her neck. Although it would appear that most of the sales had a pre-arranged conclusion (in that the buyer was often already the lover of the woman concerned), she was then auctioned off. A payment was made, usually cash, but it sometimes involved goods, or livestock. The husband would then hand the woman over to her new man. As Menefee writes: “The ritual was important: location in a public place, often a market; a formal announcement or advertisement; the use of a halter; the presence of an ‘auctioneer’; the transfer of money, and sometimes the exchange of pledges. The symbolism was derived from the market sale of goods and chattels, with which the participants were familiar, and intended to make ‘lawful’ what was essentially a form of divorce and remarriage.”

In Menefee’s view, wife-sales took place in a society in which women occupied an inferior position, but he thought that it would probably be wrong to assume that they were being represented as chattels. “The need to observe a ‘lawful’ procedure was the real significance of the ritual. In fact, the women may rarely have been victims. They knew their value and their rights in their society, and their consent was generally a necessary condition of sale.”

I’m not sure that I either agree with this or feel that it makes the custom and practice of wife-selling any less objectionable.

Wife-selling was less common in East Anglia than in other parts of the country, but here are a few examples of incidents in Suffolk:

Parham, 1764. Ipswich Journal, September 29th 1764: “Last week a man and his wife falling into discourse with a grazier at Parham Fair, the husband offered his wife in exchange for an ox provided he would let him choose one out of his drove, the grazier accepted the proposal and the wife readily agreed, accordingly they met the next day and she was delivered with a new halter round her neck and the husband received the bullock which he sold for 6 guineas, it is said the wife has since returned to her husband, they had been married about 10 years.”

Newmarket, 1770. Menefee cites a case of wife-selling that took place in Newmarket, Suffolk on Tuesday, 6 March 1770. However, it was not reported in the local press and it’s possible that, if it happened, it occurred in one of the several other Newmarkets in Britain and Ireland.

Baylham, 1783. Ipswich Journal, 21st June 1783: “Not long since a man at Baylham in Suffolk having had a disagreement with his wife sold her to a farmer, the fee was 1s and he delivered her with a halter about her.”

Stowupland, 1787. Enid Porter in Folk-lore of East Anglia (1974) writes that a wife-sale “took place in Stowupland in Suffolk in 1787 when a local farmer’s wife was bought by his neighbour for 5 guineas, wherewith to buy a new dress and then went over to Stowmarket and ordered the bells to be rung in celebration of his having parted with her for so handsome a sum.”

Blythburgh, 1789. The Ipswich Journal, 29th October 1789 reported the following story:  “Samuel Balls sold his wife to Abraham Rade in the parish of Blythburgh in this county for 1s. A halter was put round her, and she was resigned up to this Abraham Rade. ‘No person or persons to intrust her with my name, Samuel Balls, for she is no longer my right.’ ” Then followed the names of 4 witnesses: Samuel Balls, M. Bullock (village constable), George Whincop and Robert Sherington (landlord of the White Hart).

A Samuel Balls, a single man of Holton, married Mary Bedingfield of Blythburgh by license on 6 August 1782, in the presence of Samuel Thrower and William Blowers. This may be the unhappy couple seven years before.

Other examples, for which I can find no evidence in the local press supposedly took place in Wrentham (1802),  Sudbury, (1821), Bungay, (ca. 1877), the latter was mentioned in The Rabbit-skin Cap, the autobiography of a gamekeeper called George Baldry and it may well be apocryphal.

“Ipswich for the Cup, but first a word about the ladies…”

I am never one to refuse the chance of making a gratuitous reference to my beloved Ipswich Town, but this is about the history of women’s football in England generally, so the Ipswich bit – having occurred in the 1950s – will have to wait until the end.

Like most people, I don’t know much about women’s football, although I watch some international matches and Arsenal Ladies beating whoever-it-is in the FA Cup Final every year. In 2007, however, I saw a fascinating BBC documentary about  the history of women’s football. Focusing on the famous Dick Kerr’s Ladies team, it showed rare, flickering black-and-white images of women’s football in the early part of the 20th century. I had known nothing about this: proper football matches played between proper teams. Some of the matches had been watched by massive crowds. On Boxing Day 1920, Dick Kerr’s Ladies beat St. Helen’s Ladies 4-0. The attendance was 53,000.

That date, 1920, is significant. Only a year later the FA decided to ban women from playing football on Football League grounds. “The game,” they pronounced was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” The decline in the women’s game was dramatic and it never fully recovered, although it has been revived in the 21st century, thanks to interest in the United States and other parts of the world.

In Britain, people still talk of women’s football as something that is novel and a little bit odd. However, references to women playing football appear to go back a long way. Sir Philip Sidney mentions women playing footie in one of his poems, A Dialogue Between Two Shepherds (c.1580), and, yes, girls, it looks as if they tucked their skirts into their knickers back in Tudor times too:

“A tyme there is for all, my mother often sayes,

When she, with skirts tuckt very hy, with girles at football playes.”

In 1894, the Hampshire Telegraph & Sussex Chronicle heralded the developments in the women’s  game: “Female football teams will shortly contest in public. Women played football in this country centuries ago. Mr. Pepys complains of the nuisance in the Strand, when milkmaids kicked the ball about on May-day, as was their immemorial privilege [my italics].” Sadly the newspaper ruins everything by adding the inevitable comment: “It was not an edifying practice even then.”

The 1880s and 1890s saw some interest in women’s football, but newspaper reports were generally negative describing matches between teams made up of the “softer sex” and indulging in the usual rhetoric about scratching and unnatural aggression. Even attendance at football matches played by men was under scrutiny, for example, this writer in the Derby Mercury, 15th March 1893, believed: “”Women undoubtedly lose their influence over and attraction for men when they dispossess themselves of their womanly attributes; and girls who constantly attend football matches, and think nothing of seeing their own and other people’s brothers and cousins maimed, most assuredly do so.”

Women’s football, despite being popular as a spectator sport, came in for criticism in the press right from the start. The organised women’s game began in 1895 with a North vs. South match. The North, predictably, won 7-1. The usually liberal Ipswich Journal writing about the match stated that “it seems as if we have reached the climax of fin de siècle enormities when we read of the formation of a British Ladies’ Football Club…” and it was patronisingly described in the Times (25th March 1895):

“A match, under Association rules, between teams of ladies was played at Nightingale-lane, Hornsey,  on Saturday… Great curiosity was aroused and the ground was thronged by 7,000 people. The football was of a very harmless nature, and its novelty soon grew irksome to many of the spectators.”

The same newspaper continued in the same vein in May 1920 for its report on the England vs France women’s international, introducing (for the times, at least) a sexual frisson with a rather fanciful preamble about a boy (a young Sepp Blatter, perhaps) spying on some schoolgirls playing football in a cathedral close (!):

“The fortunate youth who penetrated these mysteries was all unconscious of attending the birth of the new woman  – he was much too intent on the spectacle. Was he not enjoying one of the few privileges of which Woman does not apparently propose to deprive his sex  – that of watching her insist on doing what a Man does better?”

The Times does go on to briefly describe the actual international match at Stamford Bridge, which France won 2-0. The writer is even good enough to admit that the players “exhibited enough skill to disappoint those who had come to laugh,” but is more enthused by the French women’s short light blue jumpers.

So why did the FA ban women in 1921? My guess it was part of a wider move to put women back in the home after the First World War. In the same year, Bath City Ladies had played in a match in Manchester to raise money for ex-servicemen, but ex-servicemen needed jobs and women were required to return to more traditional roles. It was time for society to re-invent what was considered to be appropriate behaviour for a woman. In 2008, the FA apologised for the ban and the statement that football was “unsuitable” for women.

So, to go back to the title of this piece. It’s taken from an article written by Dingle Foot, former MP for Ipswich, and published in the Times in 1978. He was writing about his memories of Sir Alf Ramsay’s great team, of course, but was also looking forward to the FA Cup Final that Ipswich Town were about to play – and win – against Arsenal. In the article, he recalled a revival of the women’s game in Suffolk when he was the local MP:

“… the rise of Ipswich did not end there. The girls began to play. They attracted immense attention. At their first match they refused to obey the referee as they played for another ladies team from rural Suffolk.” They appealed to their Member of Parliament. All he could come up with was a Kiplingesque poem:

It’s goodbye to Jacky Milburn and salute the rising sun

McGarry’s come to put the Town back in Division One

But compared with Ipswich Ladies even Portman Road must fail

For the female of the species is more deadly than the male.

The girls have sacked their manager for all the world to see

‘Twas he who sinned against the light: he backed the referee

No ode will now be written to Mr. Nightingale

For the female of the species is much rougher than the male.

So here by Orwell’s flowing tide Britannia’s flag unfurls

To show in Wolsey’s ancient town that girls will still be girls

Down with the ref, up with the chicks, oh great Minerva, hail

The Ipswich ladies footballers submit to no mere male.

Two days after this poem appeared in the local paper, Dingle Foot received a letter from the captain of the Ipswich ladies’ team assuring him of their full support in the election. He held his seat. “No doubt,” he wrote, “this was due to the Ipswich ladies. In the end the girls always win.”

The Widow’s Coffee House, Bury St. Edmunds

 On 14th January 1890, the Bury & Norwich Post published the following letter:


A correspondent writes:- “I have long been seeking a clue to the personality of Mrs. Letitia Rookes, of Bury St. Edmunds, a portrait of whom by Bunbury, if I remember aright, is preserved in the admirable collection of engravings in the Archaeological library in the Bury Athenaeum. I had already discovered that the memorial tablet affixed to the wall outside St. James’s Church, near the Norman Tower, is to her memory, but the note in the ‘Jottings from old newspapers,’ in your interesting ‘Memorials of the Past’ has afforded me considerable enlightenment as to who and what this woman was, for there is no doubt that she was the occupier or proprietress of the coffee house which stood under the shadow of the Norman Tower, and between it and St. James’s Church, and that she was probably the proprietress of the ‘Sirop de Capillaire,’ which may have been a medicine in which considerable faith was placed at the time. I may point out that the day of her death was 23rd September, 1782.”

The writer was referring to a snippet of information that had been re-published in the newspaper on 7th January 1890:

“Bury St. Edmunds, 1st of October, 1776. Mrs. Rookes begs leave to return her grateful Acknowledgements to her Friends, for their Favours received during the Time she has kept the Coffee-House; She is very sorry it is not in her power to continue it any longer, but her bad State of Health makes it requisite for her, after this Week, to retire from Business. The true genuine Sirop de Capillaire, so much esteem’d may be had of P. Deck at Post-Office, Bury.”

Sirop de Capillaire was a French liqueur made from the maidenhair fern which was supposed to have medicinal properties. Of course, Mrs. Rookes may well have had the monopoly on sales of the stuff at her coffee house, but other references to her in the Bury Post and elsewhere suggest that she provided the citizens, and particularly the clergy, of Bury St. Edmunds with other things altogether.

Bury & Norwich Post, 24th March, 1887: “There was also a coffee-house called the ‘Widow’s coffee-house’ – in what sense I cannot say… kept by one Laetitia Rookes. .. Laetitia succeeded Felicia, of the same name, and was a well-known character in St. Edmundsbury.”

And, as late as March 1951, the following item appeared in an article about the Suffolk artist, Henry Bunbury, in the East Anglian Magazine: [The Widow’s Coffee House] “was kept by the notorious Mrs. Laetitia Rookes, … who was assisted by her two daughters. It was an establishment never referred to in polite or mixed society. Warren, in his map of Bury had an engraving of this building showing Mrs. Rookes’ two beautiful but frail daughters ogling the passers-by from the upstairs window. The widow remained in business until 1776 when she retired to live in another part of the town for the remaining sixteen years of her life. The caricature is absolutely devoid of offence but the curves of the mouth and face are so cleverly drawn that anybody looking at it cannot be in dount for one moment of the old lady’s true vocation in life.”

Laetitia Rookes was supposedly also buried within the precincts of the church, so grateful were the local clergy for the services that she and her daughters had provided to them. Or at least, half of her was buried within the consecrated ground. According to this story – which may be apocryphal – the other half was buried outside the precincts of St. James’s. I will leave you, dear reader, to decide which half that was.

“I did not think that women could have used such awful words:” The ‘Fracas’ at the Women’s Liberal Association, Ipswich in 1894.

A little-known and very slim book, that was published between 1877 and 1931 by Ipswich printers, Boswell & Son was The Eastern Counties’ Chronology or Book of Dates. Despite its main title, the content is mainly about Ipswich. It contains a range of odd, but fascinating historical information such as “Deaths of Prominent Personages,”  “Storms, Gales & Shipwrecks,” and  “Executions.” From the 1906 edition, it’s possible to learn that the last bull-baiting in Ipswich took place in Fleece Yard in 1805, that in 1828 Mr. Benjamin Catt “attempted to fly” and on 29th March 1905, Daisy Banyard fell through a skylight in the Co-operative stores.

I’ve been fascinated for a while by the brief reference in this book to a “fracas at [the] Women’s Liberal Association at Christchurch Park, July 10… 1894.” Imagining something excitingly political, I did a bit of research. It actually took place in Christchurch Mansion which was about to be sold to the town by its owner, Felix T. Cobbold. Reports of the event in local newpapers, like the Ipswich Journal were quite comprehensive for something that was about… cake!

I have transcribed just one (of several) lengthy contemporary accounts of the events.

Ipswich Journal, 14 July 2011




 The Ipswich Women’s Liberal Association held its annual gathering in Christchurch Park on Tuesday. Our daily contemporary, we find, had no reporter present and so could only briefly allude to the meeting. From what we have since heard it seems a most fortunate coincidence that our daily contemporary had not a reporter present, as he might have found it extremely difficult to give a true yet pleasing account of this sociable (?) gathering. We learn from various sources  (of course we were not ourselves admitted into the charmed circle) that the proceedings were dull in the extreme. A large number, chiefly


at the call of their leaders. The “few remarks” made by Messrs.Goddard and Soames not being reported, we cannot say whether they were edifying or not, but they do not seem to have had a good effect upon the moral tone of some of their hearers, for it seems that the only incident that relieved the dullness of the day was one more befitting Whitechapel than Christchurch park. One of the dames demanding cake was told she had had her share, whereupon, in choice language, she attempted to vindicate her character for truth. Search, however, was made in that useful receptacle for so many and varied possessions, the perambulator which she had with her, and there a store of cake was found. Instead of owning herself in the wrong, this worthy member of the W.L.A. discharged her cup of tea in the face of the lady who had  detected her, and it is said that the uproar that ensued necessitated the interference of the police.


writes a long letter to us on the matter, from which we extract the following:- “There were between two and three hundred people present at the gathering, and while the gentlemen were present they conducted themselves in a proper manner.  It was only when they withdrew that I had an illustration of a tea-fight in its literal sense. It was a most disgraceful and disgusting scene. The tea was served in the Hall, and there was a very large number of women present. Tables were not provided, and those that did not secure seats had to stand. The tea was served by three or four ladies, and I expect that the treatment they received will effectually prevent them studying the comfort of any body of people – particularly the Ipswich’s Women Liberal Association – for a considerable time to come. These ladies had to pass through the entrance hall from the room where the refreshments were laid out to reach a series of rooms where the guests were originally intended to partake of the provisions. Now these rooms were uncomfortably crowded, and some of the women preferred to stand in the entrance hall. The self-constituted waitresses told these persons that they must return to the rooms, but they refuse to return, and as the number increased every minute it was decided to stretch a point, and allow those who cared to do so to take tea in the hall. This was the fatal move, as will be seen in the light of subsequent events. of course those in the hall clamoured to be served first.They were given precedence, but unfortunately there were a number of


amongst them, who, as soon as the waitresses came out of the room containing the provisions, snatched at them, and the consequence was that those in the rooms beyond were not served. The greedy rapacious mortals in the hall snapped up the cake and tea rapidly that it seemed impossible to satisfy them. When one of the waitresses did attempt to carry something to the people who were sitting patiently in the rooms originally intended to be used for refreshment purposes, one of the women in the hall demanded the plate of cake. The waitress told her to wait. This she refused to do, and actually she jumped up and endeavoured to take possession of the tray. The waitress lifted it high into the air, but the women raised her umbrella and scattered the contents. I believe that the perpetrator of this wanton act received a  smack on the face, but this I heard she replied to by giving the waitress such a violent blow in the eye that it has since become very much discoloured. This act was like putting a match to a gunpowder train.

Many of those who had been sitting quietly and content to watch the wholesale pocketing of the cake, &c., until this outrage, boiled over, and demanded the provisions that some of the women had put into their baskets and pockets. One gave answer by throwing a cup of tea in the face of the questioner.


and the tea and cake that had been provided was trampled under feet. The language that was used was horrible. I did not think that women could have used such awful words.

At last the police were sent for, so serious did the outlook become, and they at length quelled the disturbance. It was simply disgusting. Many of the rioters were rolled about on the floor, and their dresses were marked in many places with a mixture of tea. cake and butter. Some had their hair pulled down and bonnets crushed. The filth that was made in the place was indescribable, and I believe that the floor – which is composed of marble tiles – is very badly stained.”

So why was a trivial punch-up over cake recorded in such loving detail and continued to be included in the Eastern Counties Chronology until the 1930s? In 1894 the Local Government Act allowed propertied women to vote for local parish councils. The Women’s Suffrage movement was at the height of its campaigning. In 1893, Emmeline Pankhurst had begun to organize members of the Women’s Liberal Federation to hold mass meetings:

“This marked the beginning of a campaign of propaganda among working people, an object which I had long desired to bring about. … Our leaders in the Liberal Party had advised the women to prove their fitness for the Parliamentary franchise by serving in  municipal offices.”

Suffolk had its share of campaigners for woman suffrage. The Garrett sisters of Leiston, daughters of the well-know family of agricultural machinery manufacturers, were both leading lights of the non-militant suffragist movement. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson was the first woman to gain a medical qualification in Britain and the first female mayor in England (in Aldeburgh). Her sister, Millicent Garrett Fawcett was president of the moderate National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies from 1890 to 1919. Later she would lead a government commission of inquiry into the concentration camps set up by the British to hold civilian prisoners after the Boer War.

More militant suffrage campaigners (probably) set fire to the Pier Pavilion in Great Yarmouth and burnt down the Bath Hotel in Felixstowe in April 1914.

So I think the articles about the “fracas” at Christchurch Mansion, although they are funny, were probably a way of undermining the suffrage campaigners. As late as the 1950s, the East Anglian Magazine accompanied an old photograph of Votes for Women campaigners in Suffolk with the heading: “The Ladies, God Bless ‘Em.”

Just another Saturday, Sunday, Tuesday, Wednesday… night in Glasgow

Last night’s Scottish Cup match between Celtic and Rangers was the fifth Old Firm derby of the 2010-2011 season, but it sometimes feels like Glasgow football supporters have asked the perennial question, Can we play you every week? and the Scottish F.A. has answered in the affirmative.

With the unlikely figure of El Haj Diouf apparently at the centre of tensions on (and off) the pitch, the match erupted into a predictable mixture of childish abuse and real violence. On Twitter, fans and non-fans seemed to be enjoying the fisticuffs more than the football. That seems a shame – or maybe the football wasn’t very entertaining. I don’t know because I won’t watch Old Firm derbies.

I was reminded of a Radio 5 Live phone-in a few years back when Alan Green received a call from a worse-for-wear fan of Celtic/Rangers (I neither know nor care) who was only interested in making some unpleasant sectarian remarks. Although I often find Belfast-born Green irritating, I had to applaud him for his reaction. He said (and I paraphrase): “Where I come from, son, that sort of thing leads to people being killed.”

I support a club, Ipswich Town,  which has an intense local rivalry. It has been dubbed the “Old Farm” derby, but that’s a media creation, as is the term “Tractor Boys.” No-one should underestimate the feeling between supporters of the two East Anglian clubs. There is occasional trouble, but it’s relatively minor and the rivalry usually stops with the football. I’m sure that applies in Sheffield, Manchester, even in Liverpool, but things are very different in Glasgow.

Have no doubt about it, the Old Firm rivalry is sectarian. I won’t rehearse the background to it here. There are lots of reasons why the Irish Sea ferries are full of Rangers and Celtic fans when these matches take place and many of them are nothing to do with sport. It’s hard to imagine any other such hatred being tolerated, let alone celebrated. Kick It Out, the campaign against racism in football, which also campaigns against sectarianism and homophobia, is reporting this morning on racist abuse suffered by Diouf at last night’s game [http://www.kickitout.org/news.php/news_id/5038] but Celtic supporters were posting photographs on the internet last night of Rangers’ fans giving Nazi salutes before the game had even started.

It’s easy to bandy statistics about but they are shocking. Violence in Glasgow increases dramatically on days when the Old Firm matches take place and although in 2010 the BBC stated there had been a 24% decrease in (reported) domestic violence incidents on match days [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/glasgow_and_west/8557504.stm], it’s a decrease on the 88% increase in domestic violence on derby days that was reported in 2009. The figures are still appalling and  match-related violence in general is on the increase. And let no-one forget that domestic violence often involves the abuse of children as well as women.

For anyone who thinks that sectarianism in Glasgow is a kind of “fun” version of that in Northern Ireland (Troubles Lite, perhaps), I can recommend the 1975 film on the subject Just Another Saturday (with a cameo by Billy Connolly). There is too much history – well, not history exactly, it’s based on prejudice, not historical research. Why on earth are Rangers supporters still singing about a famine that took place in the 1840s? OK, so some English fans sing songs about the Munich disaster, but that doesn’t make it all right. That’s all wrong too.

The saddest thing for me about the resurgence of sectarianism yesterday was that it was on the same day that the Ireland cricket team performed so brilliantly in the Cricket World Cup in Bengaluru, India. Like the Ireland Rugby Union team, it represents the entire island of Ireland and does not seem to attract the same hostilities and rivalries. I look forward to the day when there is an All-Ireland football team. Think how much better the football team would be for one thing.

And, while we’re thinking along those lines, Glasgow United, anyone? No. Thought not.