I entered the University of Sheffield in the fall of 1936, and began a new phase of my life. I had attended East Retford Grammar School for seven years, from 1929 to 1936. That and home had been my whole life. Up at 6:30, get the bus at 7:30, arrive at Worksop station at about 8:10, take the train and arrive at Retford station about 8:35, and then walk the mile to school. Out of school at 4 o’clock, walk briskly or run to the station, to catch the #16 back to Worksop, and there catch the school bus laid on by Imperial or the Flower of Blyth. If you were kept in for a few minutes after school, you missed the 4:16, had to wait for the 4:45 and get a later bus at Worksop. Langold was another world, the real world of making a living.
Now that seven years was over, and I entered a very different world, one of privilege in a vibrant, exciting environment. Crewe Hall was at the heart of it for that is where we lived. It was our base. The Hall was the residence of a hundred male students. It got its name from the Chancellor of the University, the Marquess of Crewe. We were the first students to live in it. It was an elegant residence, a building of stone built on to a classical Georgian house which had formerly been the residence of the Bishop of Sheffield. It consisted of two wings of rooms enclosing a quadrangle, a dining room, a common room, a library and music room, and a mail room. Most of the rooms were singles, but there were a few doubles. Rooms were sparsely furnished with a bed, desk and chair, and gas fireplace. At the end of the corridor of each wing and on each of the three floors was a kitchen, where one could make hot drinks, and share the cakes and goodies that came from home. It became customary for a group to gather at tea-time or later in the day for a cup of cheer and a piece of cake or parkin and, of course, always discussions and arguments.
We were treated like scholars and gentlemen. The day started with breakfast in the dining hall. One could come in for a buffet breakfast any time between seven and nine o’clock. Lots of choice and lots of everything. Later, for those returning from morning lectures, lunch was available, more formal than breakfast. One was waited on by staff. If, for any reason, you could not be in hall for lunch, you could get a chit, which would provide you with a meal in the dining room of the Students’ Union at Leavygreave, near the university. Dinner was a formal meal, presided over by the warden, Dr. Chapman, or, in his absence, one of the university lecturers in residence. He sat at high table, flanked on either side by lecturers, and immediately on his right, a student, one of us that is. Academic gowns were mandatory. The meal started with the head of table saying grace – “Benedictus sit deus in domis suis, per Jesum, Christum Donumium Nostrum” – and then came the servers entered from the kitchen, carrying the meal, the high table always being served first. Conversation now began, and the poor student whose turn it was to sit by the warden began to try to keep up a conversation with him. After dinner, some adjourned to the Common Room to relax or perhaps to play table tennis, while others retired to their rooms perhaps to read or to work on an essay: others still might have occasion to go out; these were expected to have returned by midnight when the porter locked the main gates; and mostly they did that.
Crewe Hall was set in extensive grounds. There were three roads meeting at its entrance at 88 Clarkehouse Road: Westbourne Road, Brocco Bank, and of course, Clarkehouse Road itself, which ended at the entrance to the Hall. As one entered, Brocco Bank went off to the left, and Westbourne Road to the right. At the entrance was a gatehouse in which lived the porter’s assistant, he who kept the gate. The road to the hall rose uphill turning gently to the left until one came across the Warden’s house on the left, the library on the right, and the Common Room right ahead. Here was the main entrance. The grounds were extensive, with tennis and five courts. In the summer time, the quad, between the blocks was used as a gathering place. We had some fencers who would entertain us by showing their skills with the epee.
Perhaps, at this moment, I should digress to explain how I came to be in University, for it is not as though I was to the manner born. It was not the expected thing for boys and girls of my social background to go to university. In fact, I was the first person in Langold to do so. I received no encouragement from school; in fact, only two from our graduating sixth form entered university. The school assumed no responsibility for helping graduates in the choice of a career. On the contrary, the policy of the school seemed to be to make no effort, as some schools did, to get it’s students good marks, and scholarships to university. The best that seemed possible was entrance to a Teacher Training College – there were many excellent ones – and to graduate as an elementary school teacher at the end of a two year course. Some of our old boys had followed that route. I knew that university entrance was a possibility. Dora had preceded me. She had secured a place at the University of Liverpool, taken an honours history degree, and secured a Diploma in Education. I decided to try to do the same. I applied to Liverpool, Leeds, and Sheffield. I got an interview at Liverpool but was unsuccessful. I had no experience in interviews. Had I done so, and been better prepared, I would have fared better. However, without interviews, and on the basis of my application alone, I received offers from Sheffield and Leeds. I chose Sheffield. So I became a privileged person, having secured entrance to a small, elite group. Dora was the first in our family to go to university. I was the second, and had the distinction of being the first from Langold. I opted for the same, four-year course as Dora – three years for a B.A. degree, and one year in Education for a Diploma in Education and teaching certificate. Everything was free including all tuition and lodging expenses. I chose to read history for an honours degree, so in the first year I took French, Latin and courses in Ancient and Modern History. At the end of that first year. I would gain my Intermediate – B.A. – and shed the French and Latin to proceed to more history courses. One may wonder why I took Latin. The reason was that it was a pre-requisite for an honours history program as Latin was necessary for the study of medieval documents.
We soon fell into routine. Nearly all lectures took place in the morning, so, after breakfast, we could be seen walking along Clarkehouse Road to the university. We always walked. In all weathers. Along Clarkehouse Road to Western Bank, then turn left at the pub there, and up the hill to the university. The main building was a round tower, made of red brick. Alongside it was a quadrangle, around which were ranged a cluster of buildings. The Arts faculty was in the big tower. On the main floor was the porter’s lodge, the vice-chancellor’s office, the bursar’s office, The Common Room, lecture rooms and the library. We used the Common Room a lot. It was a large room, with a big fireplace at one end, chairs scattered around, and a table on which were the day’s newspapers. Between lecturers, we would sit here, read the paper or, perhaps, a book, try the Times crossword, or just relax.
It was always a matter of some surprise to me that the University, apart from the Faculty of Engineering, had only eight hundred students and yet there were Faculties of Arts, Science, Medicine, and Glass Technology. The only one in the country. That is an indication of how few university places were available. Universities were relatively small, compared to the institutions of today, and there were far fewer of them. There were the old universities, Oxford and Cambridge, still catering in large measure to the products of the public schools, then Durham, and London, with its satellite colleges, and finally, the most-recently created places – the “red-brick” universities of Birmingham, Liverpool, Leeds and Sheffield, serving the great cities that had sprung up in the industrial revolution. The break-through to the creation of more universities and greater opportunities for advanced education was not to come until well after the end of World War Two. Meanwhile, large numbers of people who could have benefitted from a university education were denied that opportunity.
The history department was small, ridiculously so by today’s standards. There were four faculty members, consisting of one professor and three lecturers. The head was George Potter, a well-recognized medieval scholar, with a book on Swiss history to his credit, and published articles including a chapter in the prestigious Cambridge Medieval History. Professor Potter was a Cambridge graduate who, after a spell at the University of Belfast, had come to Sheffield as head of history at just over the age of 30. He was a spell-binding lecturer. He came into the lecture room like a tornado, and gave his lecture, an hour to the minute, without notes or aids of any kind, and then swept out.
Unfortunately, the same could not be said for his colleagues, Mr. Woodward, Mr. Lewis, and Mr. Tyler.
Mr. Woodward was getting old. He had spent time as the head of the British School in Greece, and was a scholar of some repute. He seemed to live in a world of his own, completely oblivious, it seemed, to the responses of his listeners. His white head drooped over his notes, which he addressed in a low, barely audible voice.
N.B. Lewis was not so old as Mr. Woodward, and he was much more aware of his listeners. Small, compact, self-contained and white-haired, he seemed always to carry under his arm scrolls of medieval constitutional documents. He had been studying the Middle Ages for so long that he seemed to be medieval himself. He marked essays very carefully making notes and comments in the margins in a tiny, neat hand.
The third member of the group was Mr. Tyler. He was much younger than the other two, and taught modern imperial history. He seemed to have a secret sorrow. I never in three years saw him smile. He was a tall, thin fellow; he had a dyspeptic look about him, and lectured in a monotone.
Looking back, I have to say that the teaching style was not very imaginative or productive. It was all lecture. We were the recipients of knowledge; there was no question period, no discussion, no give and take of argument. Our job was to attend lectures, do the directed reading, and the assigned essays. What our classes lacked, we provided ourselves. Get-togethers became a regular thing, and these sessions provided lots of discussions and argument. We were mostly left-wing in our political views, not surprisingly, since most of us came from working-class backgrounds, and had personal and direct experience of the hardships brought on by the Depression. Stanley Pinder was very left wing. He came from a poor family in Batley, a small Yorkshire woolen town, George Atcheson came from a mining village in Northumberland. He and G.T.L. Chapman, who hailed from York, were both doing honours geography. Hugh Murray came from Hartlepool, a small port in Durham on the north-east coast. Pamplin was from London; he was a communist, studying economics.
But we had our conservatives. One in particular argued the conservative line, often in a minority of one. Neville Winterbottom was in the room next to me. He had a somewhat different background from most of us. He was the only child of an older couple in Nelson, Lancashire. His father was an official of some kind in that town’s educational administration. Good old Neville. He gave as good as he got, and he had everyone’s respect. He was taking a general B.A. degree. Very conventional, always well groomed and well turned out, and a creature of habit. Every Sunday, without fail, most of us were lounging about, perhaps recovering from a pub crawl the previous night, Neville visited his aunt. You could set your clock by him, as he walked down the drive, gloves in hand, umbrella if necessary, on his weekly visit. We argued with Neville, we disagreed with him, but we respected him. The last I saw of him was in 1939 when he appeared at Crewe Hall in the uniform of a private in the Green Howards, a Yorkshire regiment, caught in the first wave of conscription. We chatted and chaffed him. Later in the war, I learned that he had been killed in the fighting for Turku in 1942. Nev’s visit reminded us that we had been granted a breathing space, but that it would not be long before we, too, would receive the call.
In our team sessions and other meetings, we had lots to discuss. The collapse of the American economy brought down economies world-wide. International trade slowed to a trickle, unemployment shot up to unheard of heights. Britain, pretty well bankrupted by the Great War, and recovering only slowly was devastated. Every industry was affected; in the industrial cities, long lines of unemployed formed up outside the Labour Exchanges, looking for work, or to collect unemployment assistance Sheffield was no exception.
The government seemed paralysed by events. A coalition government was formed in 1931, the so-called National Government consisting of M.P.’s from all parties – Labour, Liberal and Conservative. It proved to be unimaginative, providing no new bold initiatives to deal with the crisis. Things got steadily worse. Jarrow, a shipbuilding community on the Tyne, epitomized the problem. It had an unemployment rate of over 90 percent. In an effort to get some action from the government, a hunger march was begun. From Jarrow, the marchers, depending on the charity of the people whose communities they passed through, took the road to the capital. As they progressed, their numbers grew as people joined, and, by the time they reached London, their members had grown by thousands. The march was peaceful. The marchers presented their petition, with its thousands of signatures, the government received it, the marchers dispersed, and the upshot was that the government took no action. .
1936 saw the death of George V. He was succeeded to the throne by his eldest son as Edward VIII, and soon the country was plunged into a constitutional crisis. Edward had never married; he had had mistresses, and, reportedly, many liaisons. For a long time, his mistress had been a Mrs. Freda Dudley-Ward. Now, suddenly, he took up with a Mrs. Wallis Simpson, a divorced American. He became infatuated with her, and dropped Freda Dudley-Ward in cruel fashion. All of a sudden, he visits her no more, and access to him by phone is peremptorily cut off. All would have been manageable had Edward kept his affair as an affair. Unfortunately, he now determined to marry Mrs. Simpson, once divorced, and with a husband still alive and living in England. Such an arrangement was not permissible. That the monarch should marry a woman with her history, an American at that, with no prospect of her having children, and her to become Queen, was absolutely unacceptable to the British establishment and to the great majority of the British people. Edward was so advised by the Prime Minister, Stanley Baldwin. The King did not understand the situation. He had centered his life on the Fort, surrounding himself among a small clique of superficial, fun-loving friends. He began to get bad press. In a visit to the coal-mining towns of the Welsh valleys, he had been appalled at the distressing living conditions of the miners and their families, and had promised that something should be done. Nothing was done. Shortly afterwards, pictures began to leak out of him and Mrs. Simpson and friends on a luxury yacht having fun on the Dalmatian coast. He was obviously not giving much attention to his regal duties.
As Edward’s determination to marry Mrs. Simpson hardened, so did the resistance of the cabinet and the Church of England establishment. Whether he married Wallis was his decision, but it was made clear to him that she would never be recognized as his consort. In that case, he determined to marry her, anyway, and suffer the consequences, even if he would have to abdicate the throne. Finally he went on radio to renounce his throne; this thin high-pitched voice, with a slight speech impediment, explaining his action. He was unable, he said, to carry out the heavy duty of monarch, “without the help and support of the woman I love”. His younger brother, Albert, Duke of York, was now called to take on the duty of Kingship. Lacking in confidence, and with a very bad stammer, he came unwillingly to the throne in 1937 as George VI and Edward left as the Duke of Windsor.
If the government had problems at home, it had even greater problems in foreign affairs, for the Treaty of Versailles, which followed World War I, had left a legacy of chaos. It imposed penalties on Germany, meant to make it pay for the enormous damage it had done, but these were so severe that Germany could not pay them. In 1923, the German currency collapsed, inflation sky-rocketed out of control, the mark had no value, causing widespread distress within Germany.
World order seemed to be collapsing. President Wilson had dreamed of an international body which would maintain peace, and prevent the repetition of the World War. The League of Nation’s came into being, but it’s effectiveness was nullified by the fact that, through the European powers and Japan joined it, the United States, in a fit of post-war isolationism, did not, and withdrew from involvement in European affairs.
The inevitable breakdown soon began as nation’s pursued their own best self-interest, and from the wreckage of the First World War, dictatorship began to emerge. In 1924, Lenin died, and power in the Soviet Union passed into the hands of Josef Stalin. In 1923, Benito Mussolini had marched on Rome, and he and his fascist now controlled Italy. Worse was to follow. In Germany, Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, and immediately set about the liquidation of trade unionists, communists, Jews, gypsies and anybody who was regarded, for one reason or another, as an enemy or an undesirable. He quickly established a police state. The Japanese, also, had walked out of the League of Nations in 1931, when they invaded China. Then, in 1936, General Francisco Franco, led an army into Spain from North Africa, against the Spanish Republic, a democratically-eiected government. Hitler, rapidly rearming Germany, despite the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, took this opportunity to send his Condor Squadrons to test their planes and practice their bombing by attacks on undefended Spanish cities. The world was shocked by the bombing of Guernica, and Pablo Picasso was moved to paint the famous pictures of that time.
Faced with a dangerous situation growing more dangerous all the time, the British government’s policy was to take little action and so avoid giving offence to international law-breakers. When German troops marched into and occupied the Rhineland in open defiance of the Versailles Treaty, no action was taken by either Britain or France, when
Mussolini invaded Abyssinia, again no action was taken; similarly with Japanese actions in China. The policy taken with regard to Franco’s attack on the Spanish republic was the same – non-intervention.
In Parliament one voice was heard warning of the danger from this new world order, that of Winston Churchill. During the 1930’s, he was in the political wilderness, shunned by his conservative colleagues. In his speeches he warned, in particularly, of Hitler’s rapid rearmament, and the threat that it posed for British security. With information secretly provided to him by government officials and knowledgeable people in industry, he was able to provide figures to show how far Britain was falling behind Germany, particularly in the production of military aircraft and the training of pilots.
The British public was split. Although there was much dissatisfaction with the policy of appeasement, there was little agreement about what should be done. On the extreme right was a small, but influential, group who favoured co-operation with Germany. In addition, Oswald Mosley, a one-time Labour M.P. formed the British Union of Fascists, or Blackshirts, an imitation of Hitler’s Brownshirts. He held rallies in major cities, in which he advocated the overthrow of democratic government, and the vesting of power in himself as Leader. At these meetings, burly men in uniform were stationed in the audience. Anyone hackling Mosley or expressing disagreement was bundled outside by these thugs. When this circus came to Sheffield City Hall, I attended and saw first-hand these rough tactics. The B.U.F. also held rallies in predominantly Jewish neighbourhoods where Mosley spouted his anti-Semitic diatribe in a planned effort to provoke a response which led to fighting in the streets.
At the other end of the spectrum where those who looked to the Soviet Union as an ally which could act as a counter-balance to the growing threat from the dictators. At that time, just a few years after the Revolution, it was widely believed that the Soviet Union represented the wave of the future, a society dedicated to a better life for all its citizens. The atrocious things that Stalin was doing were not yet known, although some had misgivings about the show trials that were being conducted.
As students, we argued endlessly about what the government should do. When Sir Samuel Hoare betrayed Spain in the Hoare-Laval Pact, by adopting a policy of non-intervention leaving Franco with a free hand to attack the democratically-elected government of Spain, and Hitler and Mussolini to send their air squadrons to refine their bombing techniques by practicing on Republican troops and undefended Spanish cities. There was not even a token protest against these breaches of international law to the League of Nations, powerless as it was. Similarly, when Mussolini saw that there was no penalty for aggression, he invaded Abyssinia.
After 1936, the collapse of international order gathered momentum. Hitler occupied first, the Saar, and then the Rhineland, in breach of the Treaty of Versailles. Neither France nor Britain did anything. Meanwhile, Hitler, again in defiance of the Versailles Treaty, embarked on a massive re-militarization of his army, navy and airforce. Emboldened by the apparent lack of will in France and Britain to oppose him, Hitler now set about his attack on Czechoslovakia, claiming mistreatment of ethnic Germans in the Sudetenland. Goebbels, his Propaganda Minister filled the German newspapers and airwaves with stories, mostly untrue or exaggerations, about atrocities being suffered by the Sudeten Germans in Czechoslovakia.
By 1938, we all knew that war was coming, and that we would be involved in it. In the fall of that year, with Hitler uttering threats against Czechoslovakia, Prime Minister Chamberlain flew to Germany to meet with Hitler and Mussolini. He returned, flourishing a piece of paper, and claiming that he had won “peace in our time”. It was at the cost of the Czechs. Chamberlain and Daladier had sold them out.
Meantime, the Germans had infiltrated Austrian politics, eliminated opposition to Nazism, and in 1938, marched in and incorporated it into the German Reich. It became obvious that treaties entered into by Hitler were worthless. Finally, the British government began devoting more funds to the production of aircraft and to the strengthening of the fleet. Too little, according to Churchill, and too late, but better than nothing. Chamberlain entered into a treaty with Poland, guaranteeing it support in the event of aggression, a treaty , which would result in Britain and France declaring war on Germany in September of 1939, when it invaded Poland.
It was against this background of events that we carried on our routines. We attended lectures, did our reading, wrote our papers, went to listen to distinguished visiting speakers at the Students’ Union buildings, argued the point with one another over a hundred different topics, attended meetings of our Crewe Hall membership to discuss our needs, wants and complaints, took walks through Endcliffe and Whitely Woods, went pub crawling on Saturday nights and then crashed the weekly hop at the Students’ Union, took the Sunday morning hikers’ train to Bamford or Castleton and then walked back home through the beautiful Derbyshire countryside, listened to the brass band concerts in the Botanical Gardens, affected a pipe to appear suitably manly, lounged on the quadrangle grass to watch our championship fencers practicing their moves and counters, climbed all over the residence and hung out flags with mottoes and chamberpots, just to be silly, and a hundred other things, some serious, some just nonsensical.
For me, it was a great adventure. Home was twenty miles and a world away. I was free to do as I pleased, but, in the last analysis I had to keep up with my studies. I had a little spending money; not much, but enough to afford a little fun. Best bitter was then only sixpence a pint.
And the company was interesting. I have mentioned Neville Winterbottom, always the conservative – in dress, thought and attitude. At the other extreme was Pamplin, a Londoner, small, intense, always smoking a cigarette, studying economics, and a communist. George Atcheson was from Chappington, a small mining village in Northumberland, and a graduate of Morpeth Grammar School. George was always borrowing something from somebody, and was somewhat forgetful in returning it. He borrowed a pair of shoes from me once. After several months, I got them back, but by then they were worn out. George was an excellent tennis player, and a very smooth mover on the dance floor. He shared a double with G.T.L. Chapman; both were geography majors. Chapman was a quiet, conscientious type, anxious to do well. When it came to the first school practicum in our fourth year, he and I were assigned to Maltby Grammar School, during which we stayed at our house and biked the five miles to the school. He was later in life to become the Headmaster of George’s old school. Neither of these two were political. In contrast, Stanley Pinder was very pro-Labour and very anti-Conservative, and very stubborn in argument. He came from a poor home in Batley, a small Yorkshire town in the wool trade. Murray lived at the end of the corridor. Pale, blue-eyed, and slightly built, I remember him mainly for the recorder he played at all hours, and which brought down on his head all sorts of dire threats from neighbours trying to concentrate on their reading or writing. Kenneth Stapleton was from Bradford. Slightly built and bespectacled, he could go quickly to the main point of any arguments. He was taking an honours degree in German, one requirement of which was that he spend half a year at a German university. He fulfilled this requirement in 1938, and when he returned, he told us that, had he stayed any longer in Germany, he would have succumbed to the propaganda, so intense was it, and so slanted. Another friend was Jacob Rubinsteinas, a Lithuanian citizen and a Jew. He was at Sheffield because the university had the only Department of Glass Technology in Britain. His father was the manager of the only glass factory in Lithuania at Kaunas and Jascha had been sent to be ready to go into the business. More of him and of Lithuania anon.
One important aspect of our social life was hiking in the Peak district. Sometimes we would take the tram from Hunter’s Bar which, for three half-pence would take us to the outskirts of the city. From there we could walk out into the lovely Derbyshire countryside. At other times we would take the Sunday morning hikers’ train, which would take us farther afield. Then we would spend the day walking back home. Before the time of the universal motor-car, the roads were virtually free of traffic, and we were free to enjoy the serenity of the countryside, and its beauty, from the lush beauty of the Derwent Valley to the bleak severity of the moors. In this way, we became familiar with lovely villages and small towns – Hathersage, Bamford, Breaston, Bakewell, Castleton, Eyam to name but a few – and places of great natural beauty such as Mam Tor, Froggatt Edge, Tissington Spires, and Dovedale. Most of us just walked. A few were more ambitious and went in for caving, which required a great deal of dangling on the end of a rope somewhere in the bowels of the earth.
We had long holidays in the summer, from June to the end of September. During this long period, one was supposed to do reading in preparation for the next year’s work. In fact we did a variety of things, but reading was not one of them. One summer, I remember going with Pamplin and a couple of others on a camping trip in Kent. We were sadly under-equipped with everything but enthusiasm. The cooking equipment was minimal, a little spirit stove and a saucepan, and so was our sleeping equipment, which consisted of a small tent and a couple of blankets. We camped in a field. The damp from the grass percolated through our blankets and chilled us, despite this being summer time. I slept fully clothed, and with my shoes on, after the first night. I was never warm the whole time . We tried cooking beef stews, but somehow, through the magic of our cooking, it turned out to be burned and undercooked at the same time. Our greatest success in our culinary ventures was a dish of boiled rice on which we spread jam.
There didn’t seem a lot to do. We visited the local villages – Culverstone and Meppam. They offered little of interest. The highlight of our stay was on a Sunday evening. We had walked to a place called Wrotham (pronounced (Rootum), which was on a busy road that ran from London to the coast. Half way up a long hill was a pub which was being patronized by London day trippers, the passengers of a number of buses parked in the courtyard. The festivities were well under way when we arrived, and we joined in. By the end of the evening we were very drunk. Three men were holding us down – Mann, Crossman, and Paulin (the names of the brewers) as we staggered back to our encampment. I don’t recall what the world looked like the next morning, but I’m sure it looked pretty bleak. Shortly afterwards we returned to Pamplin’s home in South-East London and spent a few days in recovery.
We got around by hitch-hiking. Hitch-hikers were few and far between in those days. A little patience was needed because cars were few and far between, too. But I found people very kind. Often they would go out of their way to help; sometimes they offered money when they learned that we were students.
Part of our summer I spent with George Atcheson and G.T.L. Chapman. As part of their work in geography, they were doing a study of the Till valley, a beautiful area in the Cheviot Hills. I had hitch-hiked to York, joined up with G.T.L. who lived there, and together we thumbed our way to George’s place in Choppington. From there we went further north in Northumberland, and into the Till valley. We spent our time walking through the country during the day, and returning to a pub in Long Fremlington where we had digs. Quiet days when the only people we met were the shepherds who tended their flocks out in the Cheviot Hills, and occasionally came into the small town.
The other summers were spent in work camps. These were run by the I.V.S.P. (International Voluntary Service for Peace). an organization formed by a Swiss, Pierre Ceresole, after World War I, to help house people in France whose homes had been destroyed during the war. Later, in 1923, the organization had done similar humanitarian work in Quetta, India (New Pakistan) after a devastating earthquake. Its members were
mostly students, and these came from a number of countries. I worked with Britons, Swedes, Americans, Norwegians, Czechs, and a German. I met the German in a camp at Oakengates in Shropshire. His name was Willy Begert, and his story was an interesting one. He had been a member of a trades union when Hitler came to Power, was rounded up and sent to a concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. He managed to escape and found his way to England. He told us chilling stories of concentration camp life, and showed me the scars on his elbows from being suspended on a wire.
The first camp I worked at was at Bensham Grove, Gateshead, right on the River Tyne, on the southern bank opposite to Newcastle. The arrangement was that we did pick and shovel work in return for which we received meals and a bed. The work was hard, the life was Spartan, but we revelled in the challenge. The project was to clear a site to make way for a medical centre for the community. It was not all work, of course. There was a good deal of practical joking and such tomfoolery once we got to know one another. On Saturday nights, we sometimes took the train into Newcastle for a pub crawl. Returning home, after closing time, in a tramcar loaded with boisterous Tynesiders was quite an experience.
The work at Oakengates, the following year, was very similar. We worked on an old pit tip in the centre of the town, leveling it out in preparation, again, for a health centre. We worked with pick and shovel, loosening the earth, and then loading it into a horse-drawn cart to be taken away. There was not much to do in the town; not that we had much time on our hands. We did find a swimming hole, where we gratefully bathed and refreshed ourselves after the day’s work. We also found a little pub, which brewed its own beer. The town is situated in a beautiful countryside, a pleasure to walk in; and I did get out to the Wrekin, a mass of rock that rises sheer out of the Shropshire plain.
Needless to say, when I returned to university at the end of September, I was extremely fit, toughened up by this Spartan living.
So then, it was back to lectures and to the books, and to essay-writing; and before we knew it, our final year was upon us. We would face the dreaded final exams in June, the results of which would determine whether we graduated or not. Failure was out of the question, even though our prospects after graduating and qualifying as teachers did not seem very rosy. One was continually hearing stories of people who had preceded us being out of work, or selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door, or doing similar dead-end jobs.
Despite all this, we managed to enjoy ourselves. We had our contacts with some of the girls, especially those who lived at the women’s hostel which was quite near Crewe Hall. We sometimes picked up girls in Endcliffe Woods. We could entertain them in our rooms, and the girls in residence used to invite us to their rooms for tea with buttered pikelets. We would go to political meetings to encourage or heckle the speakers. I remember R.A. Butler coming to the Students’ Union to deliver a speech on behalf of the Conservative Party. R.A.B. was later to become a contender for the leadership of his party, and was beaten by MacMillan who later became Prime Minister. We asked him a lot of difficult questions, and his replies proved a good deal of heckling. One could not always question and heckle.
I remember going to a public meeting at Sheffield City Hall put on by the British Union of Fascists. The main feature was a speech by their leader, Oswald Mosley. He stepped up to the podium, a commandanding presence in a black uniform and jackboots, and launched into an address in which he laid out his ideas for a better Britain, which would have made the country into an initiation of Hitler’s Germany, with himself holding the reins of power. There was the usual attack on the Jews, of course, and the need to do away with Trade Unions. As he spoke, he was highlighted to make him the centre of attention, and he was indeed a commanding presence. Below him and in a line facing the audience were members of his party, dressed in the same black uniform. When the heckling began, these blackshirt bully boys quickly converged on the heckler and escorted him out of the auditorium. If there was any resistance, the offender was quickly beaten into submission. That was one meeting where we elected not to voice any opposition to the speaker’s views, however much we were repelled by them.
I graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in July, 1936, and returned to university in autumn for the year of educational studies which would qualify me for a Diploma in Education and a teaching certificate. I should have returned in September, but things happened which prevented me from returning until October. One of my fellow residents in Crewe Hall was a Lithuanian, Jacob Rubinstein. He was a congenial fellow, and we struck up a friendship. He was in Sheffield to study glass technology, his father being the manager or part-owner of the only glass factory in Lithuania, and Jascha was sent to prepare himself to enter the business. He invited me to visit him and to stay with his family who lived in Kaunas, the capital of the country. Kaunas was, in fact, the temporary capital because Vilna, the ancient capital, had been seized by Poland at the end of the first World War. Anyway, as they say, it seemed a good idea at the time, so, on August 24th, I embarked on the packet that sailed between Harwich and Hamburg, and on August 26th found myself in Berlin waiting for the train to Kaunas. The station was crowded with soldiers in their field-grey uniforms, no doubt en route to their staging-points for the imminent invasion of Poland. The journey to Kaunas was uneventful and I arrived the next day.
The Rubinstein family was welcoming. These were the mother and the father, and a boy called Moshe, aged about eighteen, and, of course, Jacob. They were a prosperous, orthodox Jewish family. They had a daughter, who was a Zionist. She was marked, and she and her husband had emigrated to Palestine. The family reflected the history of the country. Before the Great War Lithuania and its neighbours Latvia and Estonia had been part of the Russian empire. As a result of the defeat of Russia in the war the Baltic states had gained their independence. The parents had grown up during the earlier time. They often spoke Russian to each other. The children, on the other hand, who had grown up during the time of Lithuanian independence, spoke Lithuanian. All of them spoke Yiddish which is a form of German, and I was able to communicate with them by means of my basic German.
It was not long before the folly of my decision to holiday in Lithuania was revealed. Within a week, the Germans had launched massive air and ground assaults on Poland, and it soon became obvious that Poland was being overrun by the enemy’s superior forces. At the same time Britain had declared war on Germany, so not only was I cut off from home, I was also an enemy alien to the Germans should they choose to follow up their defeat of Poland with an attack on Lithuania.
There was not much I could do for the moment about getting home. I did seek information at the British consulate, but received no help there. I settled down with a view of an extended stay. The Rubenstein’s were very kind, and if they were dismayed at the prospect of having an unwanted visitor with them for an indefinite time, they did not show it. Kaunas was a pleasant town, with a population I would guess at 120,000 or so. Within that number was a substantial Jewish population, which had its own schools, stores, cafÈ’s, and so on. So when Jascha and I went into cafÈ’s it was taken for granted that I was a Jew.
There were a lot of English speakers and people were interested in things British. Part of the time we enjoyed the life of the town. September was a pleasant time for walking in the evening along the tree-lined Prospekt along with hundreds of others. Part of the time the family retired to the country where there were communities of dachas or cottages.
But, underlying this feeling of normality was the realization that danger was not far away. I was constantly hearing rumours of ways to get away, all of which came to nothing. For quite a time return to England seemed out of the question. For the family, things were much more serious. I used to talk to the father about possible developments. He was well-informed, regularly tuning in to the news from the B.B.C. He seemed equally afraid of the Germans and the Russians. Both offered a threat. His worst fears were to be realized in 1941 when the German army over-ran the country. As in all the other countries that the Germans occupied, the army was followed by the Einsatz Kommando, that is Special Units, whose job was to round up the Jews. Lithuanian Jews were concentrated in a camp in Kaunas, from which most were sent to the extermination camps. I have never been able to find out what happened to this family, but judging from what occurred in the holocaust, I fear that they were most probably murdered, must likely after dreadful suffering.
The weeks passed by with no news of a way back home. Then, suddenly, good news came. I could get out by taking the train to Tallinn in Estonia, there take a ship across the Baltic to Stockholm, thence by rail to Oslo, and from Oslo to Bergen. In Bergen I would get a steamer to Newcastle. Of course, I had no money to buy a fare. The little that I had started out with was long gone. That is where Mr. & Mrs. Rubinstein came in. The currency restrictions in Lithuania prevented them from sending money to their daughter and son-in-law in Palestine. Here was an opportunity for them. They would pay for my travel, and when I got home, I would send that same amount to Romat Gan, where their daughter and her husband lived.
So, in mid-October, I said goodbye to my hosts, and boarded the train for Tallinn. There I found a scene of turmoil as all sorts of people, retreating before the war in Poland, looked for a way to safety; travelers, business people, reporters, Polish army officers. I remember talking to some English people. They had been in Lodz. I asked them if they had seen any fighting, “Seen it?”, they said, “we were bloody nearly doing it.”
I found my ship, and went aboard. There was a party going on, a group of people, celebrating their imminent departure by sharing bottles of vodka. I joined the party. The crossing to Stockholm proved extremely rough. Most of us were seasick. Below decks, the smell was nauseating; I took my station on deck. It was bitterly cold, but that helped to minimize the effects of the sea-sickness. It was a great relief to enter the fjord that led to the Swedish capital.
Stockholm is a beautiful city, built on a group of islands. After Kaunas, everything looked so clean and prosperous. I had the address of the Petersen’s, brother and sister, with whom I had worked at Oakengates, and I looked them up, and stayed with them briefly while I got over the voyage, and prepared for the railway journey to Oslo. In Oslo, I stayed briefly with Halldor Helldal who I met in Oakengates, and then it was a short rail trip to Bergen, where I boarded a freighter bound for Newcastle-On-Tyne. A couple of days later, we were there, and I thankfully set foot on British soil. I hitched a ride on a furniture van, and within hours I was at home. What a relief for everyone there!
Meanwhile, university classes had begun in September. I was weeks behind, but the university authorities were very understanding that I had missed a month’s classes through no fault of my own, I was permitted to join in the classes I should have attended for the previous month. I was now in my fourth and last year, qualifying for a teaching certificate and a Diploma in Education. Part of this course was lectures, and part was practical teaching experience. Half-way through the term we were allocated to schools, where, under the supervision of teachers, we would do some teaching. Our faculty adviser would visit from time to time to observe our work. My first school, in the fall of 1939, was Maltby Grammar School. George Chapman was also sent there, so he stayed at our house, and together, we cycled the five miles or so to the school each day.
In the spring, I worked at Barnsley Grammar School. All this time, of course, we were under the shadow of the war. We knew that we would soon be called up for service, which gave an air of unreality to what we were doing. I volunteered for service in the navy, and, in early 1940, I received notice to report for duty at the naval depot at Gosport, near Portsmouth on April 1st.
The academic year did not finish until June, but in view of the fact that I had completed my practicums to the satisfaction of my tutors and my sponsor teachers, I was granted the Dip Ed. and the teaching certificate. I became a sailor.