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

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:


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.

Suffolk Summer

            When John Tate Appleby from Arkansas stumbled from a train on to the dark and rainy platform at Cockfield railway station in Suffolk one evening in March 1945, the war in Europe was all but over. During the Second World War, many Americans like him had arrived in East Anglia to serve their country. From November 1942, the US Eighth Air Force had flown 493 operational missions from East Anglia, comprising a total of 94,948 sorties and dropping 199,833 tons of bombs. Nearly seven thousand young Americans serving with the 2nd Air Division lost their lives.

             The last mission of the Eighth Air Force flew in April 1945, however, just after John Appleby’s arrival. During the seven months that he spent in Suffolk, he appears to have had plenty of spare time which he spent travelling around East Anglia, mainly by bicycle. Although he admired Cambridge, Ely and Norwich, John Appleby fell in love with Suffolk and the result was a book, Suffolk Summer, which has charmed its readers ever since. An early paperback edition of Suffolk Summer

            Born on 10th  June, 1907 in Fayetteville, Arkansas, John Tate Appleby came from a rural area himself. His family were Arkansas farmers who owned apple orchards and canning factories. By the time Appleby arrived in Suffolk, however, he had already seen a great deal of Europe. After graduating from Harvard in 1928, he had studied at the Sorbonne in Paris and then had travelled around Europe working as a reporter for the Washington Post. When America joined the Allies in the war against Germany, he enlisted in the Eighth Air Force as a trainer in celestial navigation. It was this work that eventually brought him to Suffolk. He seems to have become enamoured with the county from his very first morning. “The American eye,” he wrote, “is struck first of all by the dazzling greenness of the fields and by the beauty of the hedgerows.”

            The reader of Suffolk Summer can be forgiven for wondering whether John Appleby had very much celestial navigation training to do. He seems to have spent a great deal of time cycling around the countryside, visiting churches, or socialising at the servicemen’s canteen which was run by the Salvation Army at the Athenaeum in Bury St Edmunds. 

The Athenaeum, Bury St. Edmunds

The Athenaeum in Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk

However, in Suffolk Summer, he states quite clearly that he did not want to write a book about the war. He wanted to write a book about Suffolk. In addition to this, even as late as 1948 when his book was first published, he would not have felt able to write about the military aspects of his time in England. We can guess the location of the airfield where he was based, eight miles south of Bury, but he never reveals its precise location. Wherever it was exactly, it seems to have been the perfect place for John Appleby the medieval historian, set in the heart of the Suffolk countryside, close to Bury St. Edmunds, Lavenham and Long Melford, places that were – and still are – steeped in medieval history. One colleague who had worked with him at the American Historical Review after the war, told his obituarist that “he steadfastly maintained that his world ended in 1215” and he found much to fascinate him in Suffolk, including – at Bury Abbey – the place where the barons met in 1214 to swear to force King John to grant them the rights that were eventually written down as the Magna Carta. In Suffolk Summer, he wrote that Bury’s Norman tower was “the most beautiful and satisfying piece of architecture in East Anglia.”

Norman Tower, Bury St. Edmunds

 Appleby took up the hobby of brass rubbing with enthusiasm and cycled around Suffolk pursuing it, but his book is as much about the Suffolk countryside and the people he met as it is about history. He tells us about a sailor who cycled alongside him for a while on his way to visit the parents of a friend killed in action in the Pacific, a “grand tripe dinner” cooked by Mrs. Jarman of Bury, and his good friends, Bernard Cox and Arnold Ellis, also serving their country and idealistic about the future, when the war would finally be over, and the promised welfare state would come to be.

            In October 1945, Appleby was transferred to East Wretham in Norfolk in preparation for his return to the United States. His final departure was postponed so many times and he said goodbye to his friends so often that he began to find it embarrassing. After one such postponement, “in sheer desperation, I sat down under a hedgerow and began this account of my stay in England, and the writing of it, together with long walks in the neighbourhood, filled my days very comfortably.”

            Appleby returned to the United States on the Queen Mary in early November, where he spent some years running one of the family’s apple orchards. It was during this time that he completed Suffolk Summer and when it was published by the East Anglian Magazine in 1948, its profits went to the Appleby Rose Garden in the grounds of the Abbey in his beloved Bury St. Edmunds.

The John Appleby Rose Garden in the Abbey Gardens, Bury St. Edmunds

The John Appleby Rose Garden

During the 1950s, John Appleby returned to live and work in Washington where he wrote several other books, academic works on the English kings, John, Stephen, Henry II and Richard I. He was also, for many years, an associate editor of the American Historical Review. A private man, who was a devout Catholic and loved music, he never married and, after he died of leukaemia in Washington in 1974, he was buried alongside his parents in Fayetteville. Although he is remembered in academic circles in the United States, he is perhaps held in highest regard in the county of which he wrote:

            “The English landscape at its subtlest and loveliest is to be seen in the County of Suffolk. I can say this with dogmatic certainty because it is the only county in England that I can pretend to know. Furthermore, the people of Suffolk themselves tell me this, and I know it must be so.”