The Old Lady by the River.

In homage to a special lady’s 120th birthday, I’ve shared my article which first appeared in Issue Three of the wonderful ‘Bandy & Shinty’ fanzine @ many thanks to Dave and Co. for their permission to re-publish it here.


Well, hello… it’s good to see you again. What have you got in store for me today, I wonder?

Each time I set eyes on you, as I step onto Lady Bay Bridge, my heart beats just that little bit faster. Now, that might be down to my apprehension about what is to come, but there is no doubting your beauty and majesty all the same. The sight of you under floodlights, the twinkling Trent lapping at your feet, boats dancing in your shadow – all this stirs the blood like nothing else. I can see it too in the eyes of others walking over the footbridge, their conversations tailing off as they are drawn by your magnetic pull. It can only be that lingering, tantalising, tingle-making promise of good times to come that does this. Good times? We’ve shared many of them over the years, so we know what they feel like don’t we? After all, we go back a long way, you and I?

Now, let’s see… when did we first meet? I reckon it was the summer of ‘69. I was five. You were seventy-one, but I’m happy to brush the age difference under the carpet if you are. I was perched upon my Dad’s shoulders, in your old East Stand, transfixed by the colours shimmering in the sunlight. It was a beautiful scene; your emerald green grass decorated by dots of red, white and sky-blue. Nottingham Forest versus West Ham United, world cup winning stars an’ all. It was the first of many portraits of you that are now permanently etched into the gallery in my memory. I think we won that day, or at least that is the impression I have now, meaning that ours must have been a starred relationship from the start.

It’s funny… I don’t remember the noise of the crowd back then. I say ‘It’s funny’, because no one can roar like you do. You give me goosebumps like no other and you can leave my ears ringing for hours afterwards.

The ‘old’ first division passed me by if truth be told. I was too young to know any different. Instead, you were the theatre where my first clear football memories consist of solid supporting actors like Tommy Jackson, Miah Dennehy and George Lyall, plying their trade in the old second division. To the tune of ‘Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen’, they set the stage for ‘Sammy’ Chapman, ‘Bomber’ Bowyer and the great Duncan McKenzie, who topped the bill.

That FA Cup match against Man City sealed the deal. McKenzie’s overhead kick was a masterpiece painted on your canvas, a beam of sunlight providing the spotlight for his acrobatics at the Bridgford End. I remember that moment, together with the preceding intake of breath and the subsequent release of elation, just as clearly as the moment it happened. It’s the same with the eponymous mist, as it poured in waves over your main stand in a match against Southampton, and the moment that I leaned against your low white wall in the East Stand, holding my frozen breath, as David Jones blasted in an FA Cup equaliser against Spurs in the last game BC (Before Clough). You atmospheric old thing, you.

It was largely from the wide-open spaces of your Bridgford End that I witnessed the miracle years. You were often bursting at the seams, so popular were you; both a palace and a temple to the genius of you know who. We had a stool, my Dad and I, hand-painted red and white with the Forest logo on it. It fitted snugly onto your concrete steps. At first it was me who stood upon it under the open skies, but, in time – as I grew, it became my Dad’s perch. From it we witnessed greatness together; Robbo’s stardust glittering along the wing, Barrett’s dream goal against Liverpool, the rumble in the mud against Cologne… I could go on.

We grew up together too, you and I, our lives organically entwined… family, you could say. You fed and entertained me. I brought my girlfriends to meet you. Alas, they were never as taken with your charms as I was. Once, I thought that a pulsating New Year’s Day game against Liverpool might have done the trick. Phil Starbuck’s goal equalised in dying minutes by that rotten spoilsport Ian Rush. Result aside, how could anyone not enjoy a battle royal like that? Unfortunately, I had forgotten about the impact of your roofless stand, the driving rain and wind-chilled, below-freezing, temperatures. My wife-to-be, soaked, shivering and blue to her bones, politely informed me that she didn’t want to meet you again. Nothing would keep me away from you though.

Things turned full circle, however, and, when he was five, I introduced my son to you. I bet you were as amused as I was as he held his tiny hands over his ears for the entire game, such was the tumult of noise you created. What a game to start with though – PVH in his pomp and a 5-2 thrashing of Charlton Athletic. He still comes to pay his respects to you by the way, my son. It’s in the blood you see. Three generations; my Dad, me and my son have paid homage to you and now we have a brick (well more of a tile really) with our names on it, stuck to your wall at the Trent End. We were always part of you and now that is true in the physical sense too… and I also have my very own piece of your real estate – a seat in the Trent End and a square foot of concrete to call my own.

In our forty-nine years together, we’ve shared promotions, relegations, sadness and joy, optimism and uncertainty. You’ve aged well, old girl, probably better than I have, with your sexy curvy additions and hi-tech adornments. Although, I think it’s not too impolite to say that you still probably need a lick of paint and an application of filler here and there… but don’t we all? There have been many rumours of your demise during that time, but they turned out to be greatly exaggerated and you’ve outlasted your predecessors. You are a stubborn old lady.

The fare served up on your stage now isn’t as thrilling as it once was, and the atmosphere has been a little corrupted of late, yet you keep luring me back. It has got to be more than the taste of your Balti pies that does this, even if you do still conjure up the odd, rare, spine-tingling moment. Some might say it’s habit… or simply my need to wallow in the glow of those once-in-a-lifetime golden memories. I tell myself that the good times could happen again… but I am keenly aware of what they say about ‘hope’ and what it does to you in the end. It could be that, like a marriage, we have just been together for too long now to consider divorce. Maybe, it’s all of these things.

The Old Lady, still wowing them at night.

No… I think I know what it is that keeps drawing me back into your temptress arms. It’s the knowledge that when the good things happen upon your stage, they feel so goodso euphoric, that it makes me feel good about myself too. More precisely, you … my beautiful old lady by the river… make me feel good about myself. When that happens, it transcends the all bad stuff.

I know this, because we’ve shared many of those moments over the years, so we know what they feel like don’t we? After all, we go back a long way, you and I… xxx

The Green Green Grass of Home. (Attrib: Gary MCafferty)

“7-3 to the Russians”: Exploring Poland’s wartime legacy.

I have written, a few times now, about my love of those places to which you can pin a distinct and vivid moment from the past. It doesn’t have to be a world-changing or momentous event, as long as the place where it happened still, in some way, carries evocative resonances of that moment in time. When this happens, it helps to bring that past alive. Sometimes such a response might be emotionally ambiguous, even sobering, but standing in a spot where such events took place often makes them easier to understand.

I was expecting a few moments like this during a recent trip to Poland. After all it is a country with a rich and troubled evolution, one that has been forged, shaped and tempered by its geographical position, squeezed as it is between the granite blocks of those two arch-history-making machines: Germany and Russia. I wasn’t to be disappointed. We began our trip in the Polish capital, Warsaw.

Warsaw: The National Stadium on the shore of the Vistula.

Warsaw: The National Stadium on the far shore of the Vistula.

Today Warsaw positively demands to be viewed as a modern city. You can see that in the spaceship-like National Stadium which commands the shore of the River Vistula, from where it performs an evening light-show that is visible for miles across the city. You see it too in the shimmering sky-scrapers, with futuristic shapes to rival London and New York. They rise from the financial district, at the edge of streets which once housed the ghetto. In truth, however much they try, even these 21st century marvels struggle to divert your senses from that past for long. It is a past that is cemented deep into Warsaw’s streets and buildings.

It is made visible too in the colossal fortifications which rise up along the shore of the Vistula. They tell of battles fought long before the 20th century’s great conflicts. I remark to our taxi driver that Poland seems to have spent a lot of time at war with its neighbours.

“Yes, the score is currently 7-3 to the Russians I think,” he chuckles.

The Palace of Culture and Science.

The Palace of Culture and Science.

Other streets echo with the music of Chopin, in the place where he spent his formative years. Elsewhere, the architectural power-statement that is the Palace of Culture and Science is a brazen relic of the years that Warsaw spent under the Soviet yoke. Originally dedicated to Joseph Stalin, it is still (for now) Poland’s tallest building and it seems to photo-bomb every view we see beyond the old town.

But it is the reminders of just one period of the city’s history – the years 1939 to 1945 – which dominate here, and for good reason. Whilst other cities have built over their past, Warsaw spent decades after the war reconstructing it, piece by fractured piece. The old market square, the castle and many of the palaces which line the streets of the beautiful old town, were re-assembled from the pieces of rubble that remained. The scale of the devastation wrought in those years is made clear by a 3D simulation that you can view in the Uprising Museum. Think of the scenes of decimation we see on the streets of Syria – broadcast on our TV news channels today; then imagine something worse.  Whole areas of this historic city were razed to dust.


Bullet scarred walls at the Pałac Raczyńskich.

Even despite the rebuilding, some of the physical wounds of conflict remained – like the pockmarked walls of the Pałac Raczyńskich, where 50 men were shot in a street execution in January 1944. The building was later used as a hospital during the uprising. After the battle the Germans murdered the 430 remaining patients, afterwards dousing their bodies with petrol and burning them. There are both scars and ghosts in this place.


The Old Town at night.

The Uprising Museum seems like a good place to start our first full day exploring wartime Warsaw. It is a sprawling, rambling space – spread over three floors of an old industrial building. It tells the story of the uprising of the summer of 1944 largely through the words of those who took part in it, on all sides, and it is chock full of static displays, film and video. We allotted a couple of hours, but it was so jam-packed with exhibits that I’m not sure that a couple of days would have done it justice. It was congested with visitors too (entry was free on the day we visited) and the enormous volume of detail on show was overwhelming. However, the scale of sacrifice that the Varsovians made during those weeks, both to themselves and their city, is made horrifically stark and appallingly clear. When you leave the exhibition and your eyes have adjusted to the shock of the daylight, you encounter a long granite wall spanning the whole length of one end of the museum grounds. It is full of the names of 200,000 or so men, women and children who gave their lives in what was almost certainly, in the end, a futile cause. This makes physical the scale of the sacrifice and, as much as anything else, sets the uprising – and those images and testimonies exhibited inside the building – in context.

Uprising Museum: Memorial Wall.

Uprising Museum: Memorial Wall.

Uprising memorial to the "Nalecz" 1st Storm Battalion of the 'Home' Army.

Uprising memorial to the “Nalecz” 1st Storm Battalion of the ‘Home’ Army.

Modern Poles seem to have mixed feelings about the sacrifice their forbears made. Their pride is evident in the many memorials – ranging in size from poignantly tiny to gloriously huge – dotted throughout the city. They have even commemorated a sewer manhole cover in recognition of the part the underground tunnels played in the rebellion. And yet they also recognise the folly of an enterprise that was doomed to failure from the start without Allied support. As the bloody drama unfolded, the Red Army watched from the far bank of the Vistula, grinning with satisfaction, as their current and future foes decimated each other.

Ghetto boundary marker.

Ghetto boundary marker.

After leaving the Uprising Museum, our party of four went in search of that other comprehension-defying human tragedy that played out on the streets of this great city during that war: the ghetto.

A short walk from the museum we turn into Chłodla, the street which divided the ghetto and over which a bridge was built to allow the Aryan inhabitants of the City to go about their business without contact with their Jewish neighbours. The bridge is long gone, but the cobbles and tramlines which still survive are immediately redolent of that time, running below the modern buildings which overlook them. The ghetto area itself is identified by memorial plaques and by a marker set into the pavement which traces the line of the boundary wall.

Nożyk Synagogue.

Nożyk Synagogue.

Within this boundary, and thanks to one of many helpful locals (and his dog), we find the Nożyk Synagogue, the only survivor of the 400 pre-war Jewish places of worship left in Warsaw. The man also directs us to where we can find a section of the original ghetto wall. It has been left standing as a memorial to the people who perished there.

Everywhere in Warsaw the various stages of its history intermingle. To get to the ghetto wall we must buzz one of the inhabitants of a modern apartment block.  It’s a case of closing your eyes and choosing one of the buttons on the intercom. We choose number 14. After a moment of suspense as we wonder if the person answering had understood our English, they click the front door open without complaint and we funnel through to the back yard where the wall stands. It is overlooked by modern high-rises and the ubiquitous Palace of Culture and Science. A Jewish man wearing a Kippah skullcap joins us and says a prayer. We step back to give him space, knowing that his remembrance is likely to be personal.

Ghetto wall.

Ghetto wall.

I find it difficult to categorise what our visit symbolises. Remembrance? Yes… to a degree, but not to the extent of the Jewish man standing before us. Commemoration? Perhaps… but the commemoration of what exactly? Wanting to understand the unimaginable… wanting to know? Certainly. I have wrestled with these feelings before, on a visit to Auschwitz a couple of years ago. As we leave, we discover that we can access the other side of the wall too, through a yard belonging to the business next door. This time we don’t have to go through the flats to do this.

Pawliak Prison.

Pawliak Prison.

As we move deeper into the streets of the ghetto we arrive at the site of the old Gestapo headquarters – the Pawliak Prison. This place chilled the hearts of Varsovians. Executions were daily occurrences here. The skeleton of an old tree in the courtyard is preserved as a ghostly reminder of what happened in this spot. Its trunk is thickly overlaid with plaques marking the names of those who perished here. Behind it memorial headstones line the boundary wall. As dusk begins to descend it is a grim place to be, even today.

By now it’s too late for us to tour the prison museum and, as the light ebbs away, we decide instead to walk the path of remembrance which loops around the heart of the old ghetto. From here over 300,000 of the 350,000 pre-war population of Warsaw Jews, the largest in Europe, were transported to Treblinka and other death camps. Sobering though the story is, as you cross the wide empty streets that are today lined with bland and unremarkable modern buildings, it’s hard to link this place directly with those grisly events.

Ghetto Remembrance Walk.

Ghetto Remembrance Walk.

Miła 18 Memorial

Miła 18 Memorial

The most moving place is the Miła 18 memorial. It marks the site of the bunker where the final few desperate survivors of the ghetto resistance made their futile last stand. Fifty-one of them died here and they lay here still, their names inscribed on a memorial stone. You feel it in this place… the sadness, the death, the futility. It feels haunted. Maybe that is because it is enclosed in its own space, away from the street? Maybe it is because of the eerie backdrop of a darkening purple-red sky? Maybe it is because it is a grave?

The remembrance walk ends at the brand new POLIN museum, which tells the story of the Jews in Poland and at another of the huge monuments that the Poles do so well.

Miła 18 memorial grave mound.

Miła 18 memorial grave mound.

On the second full day of our trip we leave Warsaw behind and are driven north along endless, straight, Russian-built roads. We cut through the industrial edge of the city and its remote suburbs, over the wide Vistula and into countryside which, surprisingly, resembles a British rural landscape at times. We pass pillboxes hidden in the woods and village memorials (one of them is an old tank) and arrive in East Prussia and the glinting Polish Lake District. The houses here are more rustic, some built of wood, others with thatched roofs. The names of the villages, too, betray their troubled history. Some of them are Polish, others are German, some have both Polish and German names. A few have Lithuanian names. We are two hours from the Lithuanian border and an hour from the Russian enclave of Kaliningrad Oblast. In amongst all of this we drive past a Tesco superstore.

Four hours into our journey we arrive at our destination, the town of Kętrzyn. It used to be known under the German name of Rastenburg and, according to our driver, some still choose to call it that. It hides a secret in the woods – the Wolf’s Lair.

The Wolf’s Lair is sometimes referred to as Hitler’s bunker in East Prussia. It’s actually a collection of around thirty ‘bunkers’ and other buildings which formed his eastern HQ. It lurks amongst the Görlitz forest, empty and silent apart from the rustling trees, populated only with a few tourists and the odd hooded crow or scuttling squirrel, but it teems with ghosts. Hitler spent around 800 days here during the war, more than he spent at any other single place. It was here that he oversaw his ultimately disastrous Russian campaign; it was here that the most famous attempt on his life was made.

Claus von Stauffenberg (Public Domain).

Claus von Stauffenberg (Public Domain).

The bomb planted by Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg was detonated, not in one of the large bunkers, but in a barracks buildings used for conferences. It lies close to the entrance to the complex. Today its ruined remains contain only a memorial to Stauffenberg and the 5,000 suspected conspirators who were executed in the wake of the failed plot. Standing here, even though you are familiar with the story, the hackles rise on your back with the thought of what might have been. Those questions resurface. What if the conference had been held in one of the large bunkers instead – where the thick double-layer of would have magnified the blast? What if Stauffenberg had put his case down in another place? What if it hadn’t been moved? What if he’d deployed his second bomb? What if it had succeeded? Would it have made a difference anyway?


Stauffenberg Memorial at the place were the assassination attempt took place.

Martin Bormann's bunker.

Martin Bormann’s bunker.

The whole site now contains only ruined remains. The retreating Germans blew it up in January 1945, a few days before the Russian Army rolled into the forest. Our enthusiastic guide takes us to each building. The larger bunkers have a two to four-metre thick concrete inner shell and a four to five metre outer shell. Inside Hermann Göring’s bunker or Stauffenberg co-conspirator General Erich Fellgiebel’s teleprinter exchange, the structures are, more or less, intact. We are taken through dark, narrow, tunnels into the damp and dripping blackness within. They are oppressive spaces, booby-trapped now with rusty iron rods which protrude from the shattered concrete. It’s almost impossible to believe that some form of daily life existed here, that ordinary people did ordinary things.

Hitler’s bunker, by contrast, has been literally blown apart, one wall stands upright, but the others and the roof too, lie on their side – making it even more difficult to imagine or sense the history that was made here; and yet the past does haunt this place.


Hitler’s bunker.

It also haunts the garages and the mess halls and kitchen, the smashed tea room so loved by Hitler, and the ‘house’ that Göring used adjacent to his bunker. It’s easier to imagine ‘Lilli Marlene’ or ‘The Horst Wessel Song’ echoing around these spaces, as it is to conjure up the sounds of the throbbing engines of swastika decorated armoured vehicles in the garages. There is a poignancy too in the threads of telegraph wires left rusting in the tree-tops, garrotting their hosts, causing the bark to grow like bulbous tumours around them. How many thousands of messages – maybe even orders direct from the Führer, that impacted millions of lives… that caused the deaths hundreds of thousands of people, pulsed through these same wires, I wonder?

Inside Hitler's bunker.

Inside Hitler’s bunker.

Ladder inside Goering's bunker.

Ladder inside Goering’s bunker.

That feeling of unease comes over me again. Is it right to be a tourist in a place like this? I mean, there will be visitors who come here with less benign intentions than me. The sort of people who might see this as a shrine perhaps? But then I realise that this is a castle… isn’t it? Not some crumbling medieval fortress for sure, but no different in the grand scheme of things. It is part citadel, part palace and was ruled by a mad King. Bad things happened here and evil people walked on its pathways and through its tunnels; but so did men and women with better intentions and with ideals that I hope I might have shared, if I were in their shoes. If so, then there is no difference between it and any other place where history was made, other than, perhaps, the depth of the darkness that shrouded it. Now only the shadows of that darkness remain.

Goering's bunker.

Goering’s bunker.

Shattered gun emplacement.

Shattered gun emplacement.

We can and should learn from these places. Learn, that is, of the nuanced shades of light and darkness surrounding even the worst regimes in history; of the good that can still penetrate the darkest places; of how history can be altered in any number of ways in just one split second; of how that altered history can be wrought by sheer luck or chance and of how, in the end, everything becomes shattered and overgrown.

With the sun lowering in the sky, we set off on the road for our four-hour return journey back to Warsaw. As we do so, we pass by a twisted metal post which is almost hidden by the grass at the roadside. Our driver points it out and explains that it was the post upon which once rested the security barrier, next to the guard house, at the entrance to the complex. I wonder whether this was the same barrier that Stauffenberg negotiated his way through on 20 July 1944, as the impact of his explosion was still reverberating through the camp. It makes me think about the courage it must have taken to do what he did. Our exit is quieter. Whereas Stauffenberg might have been nervously pondering his fate as he headed for his plane back to Berlin, we simply head off to the Tesco store in search of a sandwich.


The uprising memorial in Warsaw.

Additional Sources:

The Holocaust Research Project at

The Jewish Virtual Library at

The Jewish Historical Institute at

The Warsaw Uprising of 1944: The History of the Polish Resistance’s Failed Attempt to Liberate Poland’s Capital from Nazi Germany – by Charles River Editors

Wolfsschanze Tourist Guide by Czeslaw Puciato (1997)

Hidden in plain sight: The revelation of St. Nics.

OK then, I admit it, I felt sorry for you at first. That doesn’t mean I feel guilty though, because I think it shows that I care. After all, I had spent most of my lifetime not even noticing you.

I hope you don’t feel too hurt? I’d better explain: At first glance you appear to have been banished you see, exiled beyond the drab back-walls of the Broad Marsh Shopping Centre, from where you are bound to look out across Maid Marian Way. Didn’t they once call it the ‘ugliest street in Europe’? And… if that view isn’t unsightly enough, then you have that dull modern rectory and a monstrous 1970s concrete multi-storey car park for company too. It doesn’t get greyer than that, does it?


St. Nics… where are you?


St. Nics – Lost on the ‘ugly’ street.

I thought that you seemed lost in the greyness, at first, as if you had accidentally wandered out of the city centre and hadn’t yet found your way back. Your demeanour was that of a loner… coyly standing on the edge of a world that had passed you by. It must gall you, mustn’t it, that your ancient counterparts, St. Mary’s and St. Peter’s, have bagged Nottingham’s prime spots?  If the mantra ‘Location, location, location’ is important for a church, then there is no doubt that you’ve drawn the short straw. By the way, do you mind if I call you ‘St. Nics’ from now on, rather than ‘St. Nicholas’, it sounds more… well, ‘chummy’.


Of course, it wasn’t just your location that caused me to pity you; it was your bricks too. I know they mark you out as unique, but who on Earth built a church out of bricks back then? They do make you look a little unloved, like you have been hastily thrown together by cowboy church builders as an afterthought. Those builders didn’t push the boat out, did they? You’ve got no spire pointing heavenward, nor have you the haughty grandeur of your stone-built neighbours. Nobody opted for high-church ‘shock and awe’ with you, that’s for sure. I’ve even been told that, since you were built, a few of your more decorative features have… how do I put this… fallen off.


Now your garb is distinctly minimalist. It makes you seem almost diffident … shrunk into the shadows, quietly puritan perhaps? You’ve got a nice clock I’ll give you that. I love that gothic diamond-shaped face of black and gold, ornately proclaiming that ‘It is time to seek the Lord’; but it turns out that even your best feature was probably a hand-me-down from the old Nottingham Exchange building, which used to stand in slab square. You see… even your time is told by second-hand hands… it all fits the down-on-your-luck image, don’t you agree, St. Nics?

My interest in you has been kindled because I walk past you most days, now, on my way into work. You always draw my attention, even as I fight back against your magnetic pull, whilst I amble down the hill between Hounds Gate and Castle Boulevard. Your presence bugs me, to be honest. This is not for religious reasons, most decidedly not – I don’t do religion, but I do feel like I have some particular connections with you. For instance, my Grandmother was born in a Beerhouse room on Fink Hill Street back in 1922. The street is long gone, but it’s ghostly imprint is still marked out at the bottom end of Maid Marian Way. She was born on a Sunday and the bells that rang out to herald her emergence into the world would have been yours.

Do you remember Fink Hill Street? In those days it was just one of that tangled maze of streets which had stood since medieval times in the shadow of the Castle. Their evocative names were echoes of long lost history and spoke of colours and perfumes that probably hadn’t existed for years: Rosemary Lane, Walnut Tree Lane, Gilliflower Hill, Jessamine Cottages, Paddock Street, Mortimer Street and Isabella Street. You know that though, don’t you? You marshalled these unruly companions, standing tall above them in old photographs like the sensible older brother. Now you are all that’s left.


St. Nics circa 1895 – NTGM001595 (St Nicholas’ Church Walk, Nottingham) courtesy Thoroton Society of Nottinghamshire and

Going even further back in time, you played a role in the life of my more ancient ancestors too. They lived near to the wood-yards, where they also worked, within earshot of the bustling canal wharves. The area was, strictly speaking, ‘extra-parochial’ but they chose you, St. Nics, as the baptism venue of choice.  You may remember William and Betsy Wesley? They were baptised within your walls in 1838 and 1840 respectively. They were siblings of my Great Great Grandfather John Wesley. Twenty odd years later, they set sail from Gravesend on a ship called ‘Ironsides’, their spouses in tow, bound for a new life in New Zealand. A couple of years after their arrival, Betsy and her husband moved to Australia.  It all turned sour for her there, in an alcoholic and litigious downward spiral that ended with her bloody self-inflicted death at the age of 36. William, on the other hand, stayed on in Auckland, a respected foreman of works on the New Zealand railways. He lived a long and contented life, dying at the age of 82.


Above: A sketch of St. Nics Circa 1890s, viewed from St. Nicholas Street – NTGM009550 (St Nicholas’s Church, Nottingham) courtesy Nottingham City Council and

Maybe you don’t remember William and Betsy, after all they were but two of thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, of screaming infants who took their first dip in the waters of your font. I often wonder, as I walk past, what other latent life stories might have passed through your doors. I bet, if you could unravel them, you’d have some tales to tell – of joy and sorrow; of ‘derring do’ and treachery; of workhouses and palaces; and of war, and peacetime, in a garden town that became black with industry and then became a modern city.


Grave of Abel Collin.

Back in the days when the Church was everything, I bet you were the beating heart of the community around you… hatches, matches and dispatches and all that stuff. I found out that Abel Collin, the charity guy, was buried in your tiny graveyard in 1705. Like you, his charity is still looking after Nottingham folk today. Abel’s grave stands amongst the faded and timeworn stones commemorating many more of your congregation who, like the rest of us, have left less of a trace on history.

You see – you can’t fool me completely. I know that, behind that unassuming exterior, you have a colourful past too. I’ve looked you up, in J. Holland Walker’s history from the Transactions of the Thoroton Society XLIV, published in 1940. JHW tells us that people first started writing about you in the twelfth century – eleven hundred and something-or-other. You may even have been in existence before the Norman conquest. You’re cracking on a bit then! It was a bit of a false start though, they say that first building was probably demolished in the rebellion against Henry II in 1177. I don’t know what brought that on, but I notice that you have a habit of upsetting people. Just like you did during the English Civil War, when the Castle became a ’roundhead’ stronghold under parliamentary pin-up boy and future regicide Colonel John Hutchinson.

Can you remember that day in September 1643 when a bunch of rowdy cavaliers sneaked in through your doors and began to pummel the castle with cannon from your tower. I suppose it’s understandable, when you think about it, that Hutchinson eventually set fire to you and pulled you down.

You disappeared completely from the map for nearly thirty years, can you believe that? That was until they started laying those bricks in the 1670’s. I guess that your rise from the ashes of the civil war is down to the generosity of the townspeople – you owe your existence to them wanting you back. The comeback kid!


NTGM009462 (St Nicholas’s Church) courtesy Nottingham City Council and

Walker reckons that Lawrence Collin, the father of Abel (and who is also buried in your earth), may have chipped in a few bob. That’s ironic really, because it’s said that he was also one of the gunners who fired cannonballs at you from the castle. Perhaps his guilt played a part in your resurrection? According to Walker, building a church was a big thing back then, after the Restoration. Nobody was spending money on it. I think that means that your bricks are probably a bit more special than they look.

Then, if civil war wasn’t enough, you had to watch the bulldozers run riot around you in the 1960s. That maze of streets we talked about, the one you had looked down upon for hundreds of years, was razed to the ground… just to make way for Maid Marian Way, your companion of over fifty years now. Fink Hill Street disappeared from the map, together with the Beerhouse where my grandmother was born. Those atmospheric, shady, lanes that wrapped around you, were flattened. As was Abel Collin’s almshouses on Friar Lane, described by the famous architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner in his The Buildings of England  as ‘one of the best almshouses of its date in England’. Mind you he also said that you reminded him of a church in New England, so what does he know. But you, St. Nics… you stood and you watched it all happen, in your own quiet, understated way. I bet it made you just a little bit sad though, didn’t it?


Watching as Maid Marion Way is being constructed in the late 1950s.    (NTGM005092 – Construction of Inner Ring Road-Maid Marian Way – courtesy Nottingham Evening Post).

I recently gave way to curiosity and had a peek inside your doors. I didn’t venture in too far – that’s not my place. I was expecting to see a dour and sad reflection of your outer shell, but I was wrong. Inside you are all whitewashed, bright and modern… almost glitzy (for a church). You somehow looked larger on the inside than you should, like a restoration TARDIS. Your inner space, washed with light from your many windows and dotted with red seats, was laid out like a theatre with its own stately proscenium arch. Intrigued, I flicked through your web pages. You’re a busy old thing aren’t you? It seems that you are still, in some ways, at the heart of the community around you. That community is different now, of course, a more youthful one perhaps, because part of it lies just across that ‘ugliest street’ in Central College.

So maybe I do owe you an apology then, after all. There is, no doubt, a lesson to be learned here about not judging a book by its cover… or something like that. For, despite my first impressions there is no denying the size of your brick-built heart. You are no sad under-achiever, hiding in the shadows on the edge of the City. You are a phoenix, a true survivor, riding the crashing wave of history, adapting… rebuilding… and very much still standing. In fact, you demand my respect… St. Nics. There… I’ve said it.

Incidentally, I caught a glimpse of you the other day whilst crossing St. Nicholas Street. You do look different from there, framed by trees and buildings that are closer to your age. It evoked, for a moment, those old photographs from the archives and it reminded me that, maybe, the spirit you had then still endures. Perhaps I had just been looking at you from the wrong angle all along?


St. Nics viewed from St. Nicholas Street today.


Image of St. Nicholas Church Clock courtesy Elliot Brown at and re-produced under creative commons licencing.

 St. Nicholas’ church, Nottingham by J Holland Walker, Transactions of the Thoroton Society, XLIV (1940) – available online at

 Links with old Nottingham. Historical notes by J. Holland Walker, (1928 – Edited by Percy G. Whatnall) – available online at

Article: Maid Marian Way changes history’ Nottingham Evening Post, 7th August 2013.

The Buildings of England: Nottinghamshire (Pevsner Architectural Guides) by Nikolaus Pevsner (1979 – Yale University Press).

The 19th Century World of The Daylight Thief.

My novel The Daylight Thief inhabits two distinct worlds. It dons both the t-shirt and trainers of the present day and the corseted and behatted attire of the nineteenth century. As the story unfolds though, we learn that the distance between these two worlds is much smaller than we think. So just how different is that earlier world … the world of Jack Follows?

The remainder of this blog post is available via my Goodreads author pages by clicking here.

(Lucky) Me and the chance of a lifetime…

One of the themes I wanted to build into my novel The Daylight Thief was the starring role that providence plays in our history.  Many of us could readily cite specific examples of this… maybe Alexander_FlemingAlexander Fleming’s accidental encounter with Penicillin… or even the thin dividing line that exists between a failed and a successful world-changing assassination attempt (Napoleon, Hitler or any number of American Presidents and Russian Tsars all had close shaves … whilst others weren’t so lucky). However, in my view, it is the process of evolution through natural selection, illuminated with such clarity by the likes of Darwin and Wallace, that best demonstrates the beneficent catalytic effect that chance plays in our past.

Whilst most of us might recognise this, my sense is that we still largely overlook the role chance plays in our personal evolutionary stories.  In particular we are oblivious its role in forging the relationships which connect us to the generations that came before us and that ultimately formed our DNA… and us. Husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on… relationships that we sometimes take for granted in the sense that they just happened to ‘be there’.

A_SolomonFirst_Class-_The_Meeting,_and_at_First_Meeting_Loved._Abraham_SolomonJust think about it for a second or two… each of those relationships needed a single moment when two people met each other for the very first time. It might have been a physical encounter, accidental or otherwise, or maybe just eye contact across the proverbial crowded room. Perhaps that single moment happened in an explosive coming together or maybe it simply initiated a chain of outwardly unremarkable events that ultimately forged one of those crucial links in our family tree. In my novel,  Jack and Freda’s first meeting takes place in the benign surroundings of a green meadow and they, presumably like our ancestors, have no inkling of the life-changing consequences that will flow from it.

So is there a common thread prompting these momentous events to happen? I believe that chance is the critical factor, thus demonstrating the Darwinian randomness of our personal histories. I’ll give you an example: My first encounter with my first wife was at work, in the office… whilst attending a union meeting to be precise. Now – I didn’t always attend those meetings by any means and my decision to attend on that day would have depended on a number of factors, such as how busy I was, what was on the meeting agenda – it might even have been Friday afternoon and I fancied a bit of an easy end to the week. As it happens I can’t remember the full details, but the point is that I could just as easily not have attended the meeting. So what would have happened if I had chosen not to go? Well, in blunt terms the likelihood is that we wouldn’t have eventually married and… following that thread to its logical conclusion… neither would my son have been born etc.

“Hold on!”, I hear you say, “What about fate”?

“What about fate”?

“Well fate decrees that you and your first wife would have met anyway in another situation. These things are pre-ordained after all, aren’t they”?

Sorry – but I have to tell you at this point that I do not believe in pre-destination. I do believe, however, that there is something akin to a roll of the dice at play in our genealogy (aka our evolution).

I’ve been tracing my famFamily_treeily history for about 30 years.  To date  I can trace some of my family lines back through 15 generations. Even with my horribly shaky maths I can work out that 15 generations means 65,534 individual people, all of whom must have met a partner along the way. That’s 32,737 separate meetings that had to take place to produce me… and, of course, that does not even come anywhere near scratching the surface.

Calculating the numbers after this point might get a little trickier because research shows that after a period of time the possible number of ancestors you can have tails off and actually starts to shrink. The theory goes that the populations are smaller the further back in time you go and our family lines start to be descended from a smaller pool of ancestors i.e. the same individuals. Even despite this, to work out how many generations it would take to trace my history back to, say, our early African hominid ancestors is well beyond me, let alone how many meetings or individual beings that would add up to. Suffice to say though it will be a staggering, incomprehensible, number; but if any of those first meetings had not happened, then I wouldn’t exist and neither will the generations who would have come after me.

My research, disappointingly, has furnished only sparse specific details about a paltry few of those 32,737 meetings . Where I do know the story, however, the role played by chance is clear, thus:

John_Frederick_Herring_-_The_Harvest_-_Google_Art_ProjectIn 1841 my Great Great Great Grandfather Charles Harriman was labouring on a farm in Sutton Bonington, Leicestershire. Another worker on the farm happened to be a chap called Thomas Gascoigne. Thomas had a sister called Elizabeth. At some point Thomas must have introduced Elizabeth to Charles, because the two of them were married the following year. So what if Charles had gone to work on another farm or he didn’t get on well enough with Thomas to be introduced to his sister?…

In the 1870s my Great Great Grandfather Frederick Henry Williams lived with his mother at 75 Manvers Street in Sneinton near Nottingham. At the same time, directly across the road at 80 Manvers Street, lived my Great Great Grandmother to be, Elizabeth Forbes Nevett. Elizabeth’s father was a shoemaker and Fred was a painter and decorator by trade, so they may have encountered each other from a business perspective, but Fred’s mother and Elizabeth’s father also died within 8 months of each other in 1878 and 1879. It is tempting to believe then that, in this case, a perfect storm of geographical and emotional proximity helped bring Fred and Elizabeth together. Could it have been different if their parents hadn’t died at that particular time?  Of course they may not have ended up living across the street from each other anyway. In any event they were married soon after their parents deaths, in December 1879…


Annie and John Lees

‘Annie’ Parker, my Great Great Grandmother, was born ‘illegitimately’ in the tiny village of Peatling Magna, Leicestershire in 1867. Her mother married a couple of years later and moved away from the village altogether to start a family with her new husband. Annie was left behind and lived with her Grandfather and later with an Aunt in Leicester. In the 1880s, however, and what changed is not clear, Annie moved back into the household of her mother and step-father. At this time they were resident in the Nottinghamshire village of Wilford. It proved to be a life-changing move beyond simple reconciliation with her mother. Whilst there she met John Lees,  a native of Wilford and my Great Great Grandfather, marrying him in 1888. How different it would have been if Annie had stayed in Leicestershire?…

Julia Annie Hawkes 1892

Julia Annie Buckingham aged 12 whilst living at Python Hill Farm

In the late 1890’s, after her widowed mothers second marriage, my maternal Great Grandmother Julia ‘Annie’ Buckingham became the step-daughter to one of Baron Saville of Rufford’s Farm Bailiffs. She lived at Python Hill Farm, Rainworth, Nottinghamshire and later at nearby Inkersall Grange Farm. One of the farm labourer’s working in the fields there just happened to be my Great Grandfather in-waiting, Joseph Hawkes. My imagination pictures the lowly labourer flirting with the bailiff’s step-daughter at a harvest festival dance or holding secret trysts behind the cow sheds. However romantically Hardyesque it might have actually been, Joseph and Julia Annie were married in 1901. It could have been so different though if Annie’s father hadn’t died in 1889. If he hadn’t then she would have remained a ropemaker’s daughter in a village 10 miles away…

Joseph Hawkes own father (also called Joseph), a native of Stow-on-the-Wold , Gloucestershire, only relocated to Nottinghamshire in 1874 upon leaving the army early following ill-health. Despite having never been there before, he chose to take the train to Nottingham directly from his demobilisation rather than return to Stow. It would appear that he did this because his Grandfather had already gone there to seek work in the Nottinghamshire coalfields – I presume that Joseph had the same idea in mind. Joseph senior married my Great Great Grandmother Charlotte Barker in Nottingham the following year, but what if his Grandfather had not made that move first?…

My paternal Great Grandparents, John Henry and Polly Williams, met after a football match in 1897. He played in the game and she served the after-match ham sandwiches. He ate rather more of them than he needed to. The result of the match was that they were married in 1902… but that after-match tea probably wasn’t compulsory and what if he was unable to play in the game for any reason on that particular day?

John Henry & Polly Williams 1937

John Henry and Polly Williams in 1937 with a fish… but it was ham sandwiches that brought them together.

A search for employment, an appointment made at a hiring fair, the ripple effect of decisions made by family members, the consequences of ill-health, choices made about where we live, our sporting predilections and our food preferences. In little more than a century of time, these are just some of the influences that led to forbears of mine coming together and which, in turn, manufactured my existence. These meetings were as much down to chance – or a string of chances – as the spin of a roulette wheel or the consequences that flow from the time and day that you happen to be walking down a particular street or looking in a particular direction. It’s family history equivalent of the movie ‘Sliding Doors’.  This is the essence of my fascination for genealogy and I was keen for it to be one of the backdrops to The Daylight Thief.

How lucky I am – how lucky we all are – that chance has given us a lifetime.

The Last Rope-makers: The Buckingham family and the end of an era.

This article was originally published in ‘The Nottinghamshire Historian’ in Autumn/Winter 1991. This is my revised text dating from 2008.

According to an obituary published in one local newspaper, the death on 23rd June 1952 of Alfred Henry Buckingham lost Nottinghamshire, “…one of its last remaining links with the craftsmen of old”. Eighteen years earlier an article in the Nottingham Evening News reported that he was the only man left in Nottinghamshire still engaged in making nets, rope and twine by hand. The passing of Alfred Henry Buckingham, therefore, and the demise of Nottinghamshire’s “cottage” rope-making industry were one and the same event.

The beginning of the story, however, can be traced back beyond Nottinghamshire, to within the shadows of Oxford’s dreaming spires, over a century before Alfred’s death.

Alfred’s father, my Great Great Grandfather, Henry George Buckingham, was born in Oxford on 11th October 1837. Henry was one of eight children, the son of John Buckingham, an Oxford University Policeman (the universities had set up a forerunner of modern Police forces in 1829). Neither Henry nor his four brothers followed their father’s footsteps, however. Three of them, Henry, Thomas and Alfred became rope-makers. Thomas eventually moved south to make his life in Plymouth, where the naval dockyards would have provided a thriving demand for rope. Henry and Alfred moved north to the agricultural heartlands of Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire.

On 22nd March 1863 Henry married Julia Ann Floyd in Oxford. Shortly thereafter he took his new bride to live in the village of Ollerton, a hundred and thirty miles away in North Nottinghamshire.

We don’t know what prompted Henry to move such a distance away from the bustling Oxford suburb of Jericho to a sleepy country village, but he was to establish three ‘rope-walks’ in his new home. The first was on Newark Road, followed by two larger ones situated on Wellow Road and Hopyard Lane (behind the Hop Pole Hotel). Alfred Henry, Henry and Julia’s first surviving child, was born in the village on 31st March 1869 and from an early age he helped his father in the rope-walk . Young Alfred Henry started making nets at seven years old and soon afterwards he learnt how to make finished ropes.

On 9th August 1889, however, that great ravager of pre-Twentieth Century populations, Phthisis (Pulmonary Tuberculosis) claimed the life of Henry George Buckingham. He was fifty-one years old and had evidently been suffering from the disease for over two years. Alfred Henry, aged just twenty years old, was now the head of the family business.

A rope-walk was a strip of land up to a thousand feet long where the rope-maker set up his primitive machinery and stretched and twisted sometimes vast lengths of hemp into rope and twine. The three rope-walks running simultaneously represented the peak years of business for the Buckingham’s. The Newark Road site was used for making cart ropes, plough lines, washing lines, cords and twines. The other two rope-walks, being longer, were used for making ships cables and other very long ropes. These ropes were a ‘standard coil’ measuring a hundred and twenty fathoms in length. There was also a shop, in Church Street, where the finished products were sold.

A description of the Newark Road site exists in the records of the Science Museum in London. It reads:

“It is ninety yards long and twelve feet wide, running nearly east and west with a wall of farm buildings on the southern side. Upon this wall numbers are painted marking every five yards of its length. The land to the south side is laid out as allotment gardens. At the east end is a shed which protects the winding tackle and tools from the rain. Alongside it is the chimney of the tar boiler, where Stockholm tar was heated in a copper to a temperature above that of boiling water. This is needed for certain ropes to be drawn through it, the excess of tar being pressed out of the rope by  weighted beam.

The rope-walk is open to the sky – a neat cinder path with grass verges in which at intervals of about twenty yards are ‘T’ shaped posts of hand height, called “bearers”. In the horizontal bars of these posts are wooden pins, which keep the lines of rope or yarn separate and clear of the ground”.

Alfred Henry Buckingham related in later years that, in his early days as a rope-maker, if the rope-walk wasn’t long enough, hemp was stretched out across the main street to complete the work. Such was the tranquility of the country village before the reign of the motor car began.

The rope making process was an ancient one. Rope making scenes using similar methods to the one used by the Buckingham’s were depicted on the walls of a fifth dynasty tomb in Thebes. As the centuries passed rope became a much prized commodity performing an indispensible role in shipbuilding and agriculture. Rope-walks became part of the pre-industrial landscape (proliferating especially around ship-yards) and even today you can find reminders of these bygone craftsmen in the street names of our towns and cities.

Hemp, from long experience, was discovered to be the fibre most suited to rope manufacture. Originally hemp would have been combed and spun into yarn by the rope maker, but in later years it would have been purchased pre-prepared. Various types of hemp were available and each produced a different product. Italian hemp was the most prized with other materials also used including sunn, jute, sisal and Egyptian cotton (the latter evidently the best for making clothes lines).

The spun hemp (referred to as a yarn) was ‘laid’ or twisted into strands (a strand was usually made of three yarns). They were twisted by fastening them onto hooks in a ‘tackle-board’ before being turned by a large cogwheel. As the hooks were turned the yarns twisted together to form strands. During this process the yarns were stretched to equal tension supported by the posts along the rope-walk. Finally the strands from several yarns were combined again (by twisting) to form a completed rope. The finished product was then wound on a star handled reel. Plough lines and clothes lines were formed into a ‘knot’ (clothes lines are still purchased in this form) by being looped around two pegs in a hand reel. In a rope measuring 100 yards, about 150 yards of hemp was used. About a third of the total length of hemp was taken up in the twisting process.

By far the largest user of rope was the shipping industry. This was clearly the attraction for Henry George’s elder brother Thomas when he moved from Oxford to Plymouth. Its value in these locations meant that demand outstripped the supply produced by the large dockyard rope-walks and professional rope thieves were common. Most of the Buckingham ropes from Ollerton were sent to the dock towns of Hull, Grimsby and Gainsborough.

Second to the demand from the shipping industry was the business generated from the agricultural community of North Nottinghamshire. Before mechanisation took hold rope was a staple component of the farming industry and at the zenith of production in the 1870s and 1880s the Buckingham’s employed twenty people in the rope-walks of Ollerton.

Alfred Henry Buckingham at work on the Rope-Walk c 1950.

Alfred Henry Buckingham at work on the Rope-Walk c 1950.

The boom years, however, came to an end. Since the begining of the nineteenth century a series of inventions were patented, including Cartwright’s ‘Cordelier’, Huddart’s spinning machine and Norvell’s ‘endless’ ropemaking machine which produced strands and ropes at the same time. Larger businesses grew up on the new industrialised processes to take an increasing share of the market. Overseas competition began to loom large, most notably from the United States. The demand for the finished product itself also began to wane. Sailing ships were replaced by steam ships constructed from iron and steel and agriculture became more mechanised. However, it was the advent of synthetic fibres, which escalated following hemp shortages during the Great War, which sounded the final death knell for the village rope-maker.

Henry George Buckingham’s brothers also fell victim to this slump in demand for rope. Elder brother Thomas was listed as a rope-maker on the Plymouth census until 1881. By 1891 his occupation was given as ‘labourer’. At his death in 1895 (from “exposure to the sun”) he was working in a wood yard. Younger brother Alfred also moved north, initially to Lincolnshire, his occupation was described as ‘ropemaker’ at the time of his marriage in Grantham in 1870. By 1871 Alfred and his new wife Millicent were living with his brother Henry George and family in Ollerton and assisting with the ropemaking business there. By the mid 1870s they had moved to Newmarket, Cambridgeshire, close to where his mother Elizabeth and sister Clara were now resident. He died there in 1878 (also from Phthisis) whilst working as a stableman.

In Nottinghamshire in 1881, according to Kelly’s Directory, there were twenty-nine rope and twine makers in the county. By 1936 there were twelve, mainly larger businesses. Alfred Henry himself, accredited as being the last producer of handmade ropes in Nottinghamshire, was now using only one rope-walk (Newark Road for which he paid a £1 quarterly rent to Baron Saville’s Rufford Estate until 1939, when the estate was sold off) with only a single additional employee. This was despite the widely recognised quality of Buckingham rope which was used as far afield as Africa and New Zealand.

Alfred Henry refused to compromise on the quality of the finished product, he once said, “The great trouble you know is that ropes last so long. Dealers ask if I cannot make clothes lines of worse quality, but I refuse”. During the leaner times he tried his hand at other things. For a time he collaborated with a certain Mr. Hibbs, an Ollerton Wheelwright, to make bicycles. He also supplemented his income by delivering mail in the Rufford district. However, nothing could stop the village rope-maker from joining the blacksmith, the wheelwright and the miller, only to be found in the annals of folklore.

Alfred Henry Buckingham, possibly seated on a Hibbs-Buckingham bicycle (?) c 1900.

Alfred Henry Buckingham, possibly seated on a Hibbs-Buckingham bicycle (?) c 1900.

The tiny village of Ollerton now probably goes unnoticed by most motorists travelling along the busy A614 which now bypasses it. The village retains a certain sleepiness with its cottages and a working waterwheel (now a popular tea room) that leads the visitor to conclude that little has changed over the past century or so. Listening to the gentle flow of the River Maun running through the village and even despite the hum of traffic from the busy main road nearby, one can even imagine that it is quieter now than it was then. But things have changed, of course. Alfred’s rope-maker’s cottage is still there, however, and so is the site of the Newark Road rope-walk, which is now overgrown and forgotten. There is nothing at the site to remind anyone wading through the weeds that hemp was twisted and stretched into rope, in vast quantities for nearly a century in this place.

Alfred Henry Buckingham's rope-walk: Left c 1950 and, right, in 2008.

Alfred Henry Buckingham’s rope-walk: Left c 1950 and, right, in 2008.

Alfred Henry Buckingham died, aged 83 years, at the home of his daughter in Eakring, Nottinghamshire. He is buried in the churchyard there. All traces of his trade and the Buckingham rope-making heritage were not lost, however.  A number of years before his death he bequeathed his equipment to the Science Museum in London and after his death, nearly ninety years after his father first made rope in Ollerton, the tools of his trade were removed to Kensington. They now lie in a Science Museum warehouse in the south of England alongside other relics of Britain’s forgotten past.

Rope-makers in the Buckingham family (circled).

Rope-makers in the Buckingham family (circled).


  • Rope (A History of the Hard Fibre Cordage Industry in the United Kingdom) by William Tyson – Wheatland Journals Ltd 1966.
  • Kelly’s Directory of Nottinghamshire 1881 and 1936.
  • Ollerton Parish Registers.
  • BMD Certificates obtained from the General Register Office.
  • Nottingham Evening News – article dated 24/01/1934.
  • Rufford Estate Sale Catalogue 1939 (Nottinghamshie Archives).
  • Material supplied by Mr. Charles Moore, curator of the textile and machinery collection for the Science Museum in connection with the bequest of the Buckingham ropemaking equipment in 1952.
  • Conversations with Mr. Robert Alfred Buckingham 1931-1999 (Alfred Henry’s grandson) in 1989/1990 – who also supplied the newspaper cutting containing the obituary of Alfred Henry Buckingham (which although not acknowledged was probably taken from the Mansfield Chronicle and Advertiser – now known as the ‘Chad’).
  • Conversation with Mr. Thomas Mettam, former mill owner, Ollerton.

Casualty of War: Raising Jack Oscroft from the dead 100 years on.

Jack Oscroft.

Jack Oscroft.

Exactly one hundred years ago, on 16th June 1915, Nottinghamshire lad Jack Oscroft was killed at Helles on the Gallipoli peninsula.

In the grand scheme of things his death was unremarkable. Despite the modern day hyper-focus on the admittedly significant and stirring Anzac contribution to the Gallipoli campaign, the largest numbers of allied combatants on the peninsula came from Britain. Estimates vary a little, but virtually all sources agree that the numbers of British dead of the Dardanelles alone exceeded the combined total of Australian, New Zealand, Indian, Newfoundland and French battle deaths.

The total number of British soldiers killed was around 30,000 (out of a total death toll on all sides of over 100,000). I have made the point in my previous blog about Holocaust Tourism that, in the face of such mind-bogglingly huge numbers (and the Gallipoli toll was nowhere near the scale of the Holocaust), individual stories tend to become invisible. Each casualty becomes a number lost in the dense and shocking fog of statistics… and the singular personal story behind it is left behind where it died in the bloody earth.

Jack sister - My Great Great Grandmother Emma Davis.

Jack’s sister – My Great Great Grandmother Emma Davis.

I first learned about Jack from my Grandmother (he was the brother of my Great Great Grandmother Emma Davis née Oscroft) and I can remember having my curiosity stirred as a child by the very exotic sounding word ‘Dardanelles’ … what on earth were the Dardanelles? I can clearly recall that question burning in my mind. Later on I was able to research his life and feel some connection to him but, his living relatives aside, to everyone else Jack remained just one of those sad statistics.

So now, on the centenary of his death, it feels like the right time to change all of that. It is the moment to shine a light on Jack’s life and to raise him up from the dust of Helles and from amidst the other tens of thousands of faceless dead of the Gallipoli Campaign.

When looking back at Jack’s story, it is striking, from a modern day viewpoint at least, that tragedy stalked his life from early on…

He was born on 14th November 1881 in Redhill, at the edge of the village of Arnold in Nottinghamshire. Jack’s parents William (a chimney sweep) and Louisa had already lost two children in infancy by then and a further daughter, Julia, succumbed to bronchitis when Jack was 8 years old. Even before Jack was born, in 1877, Louisa had spent a few months in the Lunatic Asylum at Sneinton on the edge of Nottingham. She was committed again the year after Julia’s death for a period lasting 7 months. However, her release was all too brief and she returned to the Asylum on 19th June 1891. This time Louisa did not come out and tuberculosis eventually ended her life in the County Lunatic Asylum at Saxondale in 1906. The following year Jack’s eldest sister, Grace, took her own life by hanging herself in the pantry of her house at the age of 36, apparently in fear that she had inherited her mother’s illness.

By then Jack had been married to Mary Agnes Bowley for a couple of years and they were living in The Meadows area of Nottingham. They too had lost a child in infancy, a boy called James, during a short-lived residency in Pogmoor, Barnsley, where Jack held a job at the brick works. The next few years were restless ones where Jack and Aggie moved home a number of times and Jack tried his hand at several different occupations. Two more children, Leonard and Eileen Blanche, also arrived. Tragedy, however, was again waiting in the wings ready to take the stage and scarlet fever took away Leonard in 1908, aged just 3 years old. Between then and the outbreak of war, another son, Wilfred, was born in 1910 and Jack’s father, William, passed away in 1912. In the years leading up to the war Jack worked as a Corn Merchant’s drayman and then a waggoner, latterly at Old Park Farm in Wollaton.

Royal Naval Division recruitment poster (Public Domain).

Royal Naval Division recruitment poster (Public Domain).

The Gallipoli campaign was to be the backdrop to the final tragic act of Jack’s life. The origins of the campaign and the folly that it became are well documented elsewhere (I would recommend L.A. Carlyon’s book as a starting point). Jack’s own journey from the fields and byways of the English Midlands to the shores of Turkey, began unwittingly, when he answered his country’s call to arms in Nottingham. On 8th September 1914 he signed up, not with the local regiment, the Sherwood Foresters, but with the Northumberland Fusiliers. If joining a Northumbrian regiment wasn’t the norm in Nottingham, then two days later he did something even more surprising, he enrolled in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve instead.

We’ll never know what methods of persuasion it took for Jack to sign up; if indeed he needed persuading. The RNVR was more usually associated with men from the great seaports on the Clyde, or the Mersey, or the Tyne… not usually farm men from Trentside. On 3rd November 1914 he was added to the muster of ‘C’ Company of the Royal Naval Division’s Anson Battalion. Jack didn’t know it at the time, but the RND was to have the misfortune of becoming part of the force assembled for the assault on the Dardenelles. In another twist of fate these men, held in reserve to serve the Royal Navy, were transformed into into soldiers to fight in a land war.

V Beach and it's cemetery.

V Beach and it’s cemetery.

And so it was that on 7th February 1915 Jack and his comrades marched out of Blandford Camp in North Dorset on their way, via Avonmouth, to Port Said in Egypt. Just two months later, on 25th April, they were aboard ships amassing on the sparkling Aegean Sea, poised for a full scale seaborne assault on the Ottoman Empire . It is likely that Jack was part of the force that landed at X-Beach on the western side of the tip of the Gallipoli Peninsula. If so, he was lucky. X-Beach was largely undefended… unlike V and W beaches to the south, where the main element of the British force landed. With Turkish gun batteries lying in wait up on the high ground above them, these beaches became a bloodbath.

W Beach today.

W Beach today.

The original plan was for a rapid advance up the peninsular and onto Constantinople, but instead the disastrous and bloody landings set the tone for what was to come. The Anson Battalion regrouped to participate in more failed assaults and skirmishes in the following weeks and months. In between they suffered from the unbearable heat, lice, dysentery (“the Gallipoli trots”) and an endless plague of flies. The insects were fat from feeding on the corpses lying unburied on the battlefield and they covered everything in sight, including the food the soldiers ate. But Jack survived all of this too.

In early June the Anson Battalion was pulled back into a rest camp at Seddulbahir, near the fort which stands at the tip of the peninsula, where the depleted force was re-organised and they took stock of kit and stores. Jack’s peacetime occupation meant that he had been allocated a role in the transport section. He was assigned the job of unloading stores and water from W and X beaches and transporting them to the camp using wagons and mules. Whilst he toiled, plans were drawn up to take the battalion off the peninsula for further rest and recuperation on the nearby island of Imbros.

Jack never made it.

© IWM (Q 13328) W Beach

Unloading stores on W Beach © IWM (Q 13328) .

The commander of the newly reorganised ‘C’ company, K. R. Dundas, wrote in his dairy on 16th June 1915:

 “Last night was quiet, but all this a.m. they have been shelling our camp… The Turks are dropping their new terror round us, the one from Asia that arrives without warning & explodes with a scream. It is a big gun, probably a 9.2 inch. One has just fallen and killed two of our transport men”.

Dundas was to lose his own life later in the campaign. The battalion war diary simply records that “2 men of Transport Section killed by shell 16/5/15”.

Jack was 33 years and 7 months old. There was nothing left of him to bury. Back home he left a 6 year old daughter and a 4 year old son who barely had chance to know him.

He is commemorated now on the memorial that stands at the tip of the Helles peninsula looking out across the Aegean Sea. In 2012 my aunt visited the spot to pay her respects and I did the same the following year. Because it was out of reach for the family he left behind, we are likely to be the only relatives to have ever made the 2000 mile trip in the century since his death.

The Helles Memorial.

The Helles Memorial.

There may seem to be a dark symmetry to the fact that a life full of tragedy and loss ended in the way it did. However, in the cold, harsh world in which he lived, Jack was just an ordinary working man striving through adversity to make a living and to do what he could to feed his young family. When his country needed him, he did his duty and stepped forward to answer the call. Like so many other casualties of the Great War, though, his reward was a glory-less and futile death. The greatest sacrifice he could have made became nothing more than a statistic of an escapade that was, ultimately, an embarrassment to the British Government.

Day 3 Gallipoli RNVR Panel 13 Helles 3

Jack’s name in the company of comrades on Panel 13 of the memorial.

Jack’s children may have been young enough to come through the enormity of his loss unscathed, but Aggie was hit hard. Despite re-marrying she carried Jack’s loss with her. She might not have known the words of Mustafa Kemal – the founding father of modern Turkey and better known now under the name Atatürk – which were addressed to the mothers of the allied soldiers who fell at Gallipoli. Had she been aware, however, then she may have taken some comfort from knowing that Jack’s sacrifice was at least acknowledged and embraced in a far away land:

“Those heroes who shed their blood and lost their loves…You are now lying in the soil of a friendly country so rest in peace.

There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours…

You the mothers who sent their sons from far away countries wipe away your tears. Your sons are now lying in our bosom and are at peace. After having lost their lives on this land they are our sons as well”.

Jack Oscroft was partly an inspiration for my novel The Man Who Found Treasure.

The excerpt from the war diary of the Hon. K. R. Dundas is taken from ‘The Jack Clegg Memorial Database of Royal Naval Division Casualties of the Great War’ compiled by Jack Marshall and available at The official war diary of the Anson Battalion for the period from 10th June  to 20th October 1915 is available at the National Archives under reference WO 95/4291 and now also at .

The words of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk are taken from an inscription at the Turkish Martyrs Memorial on Hisarlık Hill overlooking Morto Bay, Gallipoli.

Wish you were here? …The unsettling allure of the Holocaust.

Whenever it is very cold my Mum is often heard to say, “It’s perishing”!
The phrase pops into my mind now, as I stand on the so-called ‘Judenrampe’ at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It seems an apt description. It is cold. Very cold. The freezing wind is blowing icy daggers of rain into my face, and my lips and fingers are numb. I think to myself, how on earth can I complain about the cold here, of all places?

The ‘Judenrampe’.

For over a million people this place, together with its slightly older counterpart a couple of kilometres away, was just that… perishing. On this very spot, towards the climax of  the Nazi’s reign of terror, thousands of people, mainly Hungarian Jews, climbed down from their transports and were immediately sorted, sifted and processed. Those who were deemed able to work by the camp doctors were marched away into their ‘new home’. The elderly, sick and infirm, together with many women and children (including those yet to be born) were taken on a short walk to the gas chamber.

The selections were a charade organised with mechanical precision… a careful deception, which gave away nothing of their fate to the unwitting captives. As a result, there was no panic as they trudged off to meet their end alongside the railway tracks on which they arrived. The cold in those days would have been, at its worst, many times greater than it is for me now; for the detainees there were no warm coats, gloves and scarves to protect against it. It occurs to me though, in the face of hunger, disease, grotesque medical experiments, summary executions and simply losing the will to live, that the temperature was the least of worries for those who survived the selections.

A shiver runs down my spine as I think about it. It’s not a shiver caused by the chill. This place is still bleak and desolate. As I look ahead towards the rail depot control tower, to my right are the brick huts used to house the more fortunate arrivals. I hesitate to use the word ‘fortunate’. It is a cause for debate amongst those I am travelling with and my wife, friends and I find that our opinions differ about which group of arrivals would have recognised any fortune in their fate. To my left, as far as the eye can see through the surrounding barbed wire, the skeletons of wooden huts run off into the distance. Only their chimney stacks remain. Behind me are the exploded ruins of a couple of the gas chambers.

The entrance gate to Auschwitz I with its brazenly misleading motto – “Work sets you free”.

Dotted around, among the physical remains of this place are the camp’s modern inmates… tourists. We too climb down from our transports and are sorted, sifted and processed. Our selection, however, merely results in us being allocated to a tour guide. At the older camp, now known as Auschwitz I, our group snakes around the rooms containing the exhibits, up and down the worn steps, hot on the heels of the party before us. Then we too are shipped off to Birkenau.

I notice that some of the tourists may have more claim to be here than others. Gathered by one of the broken gas chambers in Birkenau, a group of Israeli schoolchildren and their teachers, all of them draped in the Star of David, are holding some sort of service. They incant prayers. Tears are flowing. Around them other people are taking photographs, seemingly oblivious to the solemn act of remembrance taking place beside them. I find myself clicking away on my camera too and I wonder why we are here?

Watchtower and huts at Auschwitz I.

I know that I wanted to come here precisely to feel the dark weight of history. At least that what I tell myself. I’m here – so goes my justification – to show solidarity with those who suffered. To add my metaphorical voice to those who say that this place… and what happened here and in other places like it… can never be forgotten. And there’s something else too. I feel passionately that we become better human beings by learning from our mistakes. That is especially true when we consider lessons from history. So I’m here too, to learn from one of the most heinous acts of recent human history. Everyone should know about this place, and to know about this place you have to experience it.

I find myself, unexpectedly, experiencing a physical reaction here too, especially standing on the ‘Judenrampe’ and looking at the exhibits at Auschwitz I. There you sense the blood drain from your body as you walk into a room to be starkly confronted by a mountain of human hair, cut from the heads of tens of thousands of the sorry souls who ended up here. We file dutifully past the shoes, luggage and prosthetic limbs taken from the dispossessed. My wife can’t face looking at a display of children’s clothes. But I can’t shake off the feeling that I am simply a tourist and that makes me feel distinctly odd.

The site of the Płaszów Concentration Camp.

The holocaust has cast a lasting pall over this part of the world. In nearby Krakow, the picturesque city where we are based, we later tour Oscar Schindler’s factory, brought to life first by Thomas Keneally’s novel ‘Schindler’s Ark’ and then by Steven Spielberg’s film. It now houses an absorbing and compelling display detailing the history of Krakow’s Nazi occupation. I stand on the stairs where Liam Neeson appeared from his office and looked down to cast an eye over a prospective secretary in Spielberg’s film, only to find out that this was a much later addition to the building. It would appear that all is not what it seems. In Schindler’s actual office, the names of the people he helped save from extermination are enshrined within an installation built of facsimiles of the enamel pots that were made in the factory.

We take a tram and then walk to the site of Płaszów concentration camp. It is a memorial park now. There’s nothing much here, except some shattered remnants of the desecrated Jewish cemetery that stood here before the camp. Up on the hill Amon Goeth’s house still exists, a haunting presence, his balcony facing out towards where we stand. Back then he took pot shots at the inmates with his rifle. I try to imagine the sound of the shots ringing out and the fear and panic that would have caused. The house is now just one of several residential homes clinging to the hill; it’s further away than I imagined and easy to miss… as we did.

Plac Zgody Square (now Plac Bohaterow Getta).

It is raining. In fact it hasn’t stopped raining since we’ve been here. At the site of Krakow’s ghetto we stand in the square, Plac Zgody, which was the focal point of its horrific liquidation. It is now full of empty chairs, a silent but poignant tribute to those who were taken away from here, never to return. In the Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, there are more monuments to see as we walk past murals on houses commemorating families who had lived here for centuries, only to be wiped out completely in 1941. I normally love treading the ground of history. I always feel the electric buzz of connection when I stand in a place where something of note happened in the past. I’ve been to countless castles and battlefields all over the world and I never fail to feel that pulse of excitement. But holocaust tourism feels very different. It feels necessary… yes, obligatory even for the reason already explained, but it feels uncomfortable too… bordering on the voyeuristic.

 That sensation grows from the knowledge that the awful things which happened here… and the ordinary people they happened to… are graphically still on show and we are witnessing them anew. It also stems from the knowledge that the ground upon which these events happened must surely still harbour some residue, however minute, of the blood, pain, tears, anguish and desperation that fell upon it. The screams and wails of a million victims too must still echo a little within the earth that remains and the bricks that continue to stand. An unimaginable millions of victims there may have been, but each one of them had an intensely personal story… some, the Franks, the Schindler Jews had a spotlight shone upon their stories. Others left no trace behind. Perhaps this is why fiction can still bring a gut-wrenching and heart-breaking reality to it all. One need only think of William Styron’s ‘Sophie’s Choice’, Tatiana de Rosnay’s ‘Sarah’s Key’, Lindsay Hawdon’s ‘Jakob’s Colours’ and even John Boyne’s ‘The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’ to emphasise the point.
I am thankful that I was born too late and too far away to be close to it. Despite the discomfort, though, I know that I am glad I came. I can perceive that both my empathy with the victims and my disgust at the crimes of the perpetrators has sharpened… I know that I could never stand by and let it happen in my world… and I also know that I will never complain about the cold again.
 Auschwitz I - Wire BW
Worth a look too… Auschwitz: A History in Photographs’ by Teresa Swiebocka, ‘Hanns and Rudolf’ by Thomas Harding, The Cracow Ghetto Pharmacy’ by Tadeusz Pankiewicz and Schindler’s Legacy’ by Elinor J. Brecher.