Today my Spring edition of The Ancestor, the journal of the prestigious Norfolk Family History Society, arrived on the doormat. I was thrilled to find within its fascinating pages, my submission about the Skitmore family of Attleborough, Joe Stirling’s in-laws who feature widely in Escaping Hitler.
Below is the article for your interest.
THE SKITMORES OF ATTLEBOROUGH by Phyllida Scrivens
On 21st May 1946 a young couple were married in St Mary’s Church in Attleborough, proudly wearing their British Army uniforms. Inside the sacred Norman building, both bride and groom were on unfamiliar territory; she born into a strict Brethren family, the groom a German Jew who entered England as a fourteen-year-old refugee on a Kindertransport some seven years earlier. There were no family members on his side of the church. In 1944 his superior officers had changed his name from Stern to Stirling, officially retaining his given name of ‘Günter’. The boys in the Glasgow barracks were having none of it and dubbed him ‘Joe’. Nearly thirty years later Joe Stirling would become the Sheriff of Norwich.
I met Joe quite by chance in December 2011 during a Human Library event at the University of East Anglia. He was telling the story of his early life in Nazi Germany. Within minutes I knew he would be an inspirational subject for my postgraduate studies in Biography. I began to visit his home regularly and as his stories developed I resolved to research his remarkable ninety years of life. Over four years I interviewed 35 people who had connections with Joe, studied family trees on Ancestry.com, acquired Joe’s Army records and contacted World Jewish Relief who uncovered the Kindertransport file on young Günter Stern. Most exciting of all I experienced a ‘footstepping’ research trip to Germany in 2013, finding Joe’s birthplace, the flat in Koblenz where he and his mother fled following Kristallnacht, and retracing the route of the boy’s desperate walk across Northern Europe in 1939 in his own attempt at escaping the Nazis. Pen and Sword Books accepted my proposal and have now published this biography as Escaping Hitler: A Jewish Boy’s Quest for Freedom and His Future.
‘No man is an island’ (John Donne 1624) and so it proved. The people whose lives had touched Joe’s were as fascinating as the man himself. During 2013, while researching Joe’s early marriage, I was introduced to members of his late wife’s relatives, descendants of the Skitmore family of Attleborough, two of which were keen family historians. Excited by my project, both generously gave me access to their personal research material, documents and original photographs.
Originally from Little Ellingham, Jean’s father, Ernest William Skitmore (born 29th May 1886) was conscripted into the 10th (Reserve) Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment in June 1916 and spent some time in France. Ernest stood only five foot two inches, with a girth disproportionately wide. He was not suited for combat and in September was transferred to the Agricultural Company of the Eastern Command Labour Corps, based in Norwich. This was an ideal posting for the poorly educated former gardener at Attleborough Hall, the ancient seat of the Mortimer family. On 8th May 1915, at the Chapel of the Primitive Methodists in Rockland St Peter, Ernest had married Lucy Leach, born in Great Ellingham on 5th October 1889, an assistant cook at the Hall. The couple’s first daughter Joan was born during December 1916. They would go on to have three further children, Marjorie in June 1918, Jean Mary on 23rd August 1920 and a late arrival, Gordon in November 1928.
I was honoured to meet with the irrepressible Kathleen Bidewell, spinster sister-in-law of Joan Skitmore, now well into her nineties. In her room at Quebec Hall, a retirement home for Christians, she eloquently shared her memories of life in Norwich as the daughter of a Brethren preacher during the early decades of the 20th century, as well as her recollections of the German born young man who had married into her extended family shortly after the end of World War II. It became clear that the Brethren faith held an integral role in the story of Joe Stirling’s early-married life. In October 2013 I posted an online appeal on the Norwich and Norfolk Christian Community Website, asking if anyone remembered the Attleborough Brethren. I was delighted to be invited to the home of David Jack, who introduced me to others who remembered the Skitmores worshipping together in the tin Gospel Hall in Hargham Road, Attleborough. They taught me much about the beliefs and traditions of the Brethren, enabling me to add invaluable contextual interest to my narrative.
Headstrong and determined, Jean rejected the restrictions and rules of her parents’ religion in 1934 when leaving school. Her job in the Briton Brush Company in Lady’s Lane, Wymondham exposed her to the pleasures of youth; a drink after work, music and away-days with her colleagues, all of which forbidden to her. In an effort to break away Jean first joined the Salvation Army where she could more freely engage with the community and then, in 1942, aged 21 and legally beyond the control of her parents, left Attleborough to join the British Army and train as an Ammunition Examiner in Bramley Camp near Basingstoke in Hampshire. Had the Skitmores been members of the Exclusive Brethren sect, it is likely that her family would have denounced her. But fortunately for both Jean and later for Joe, Ernest and Lucy were followers of the Open Brethren and although disappointed, did not reject their youngest daughter.
Joe’s army career led him to Bramley in February 1945. He was soon attracted to the Norfolk girl, four years older than him, her diminutive figure making her appear deceptively youthful. When comparing my research findings into each of their backgrounds I realised that Joe and Jean were remarkably similar, possibly explaining their immediate empathy for each other. Joe, the only Jewish child in the school in the rural Catholic village of Nickenich, gradually rejected and outcast by neighbours, teachers and friends; Jean a Brethren girl in her village school, ‘different’ from the others. Both the Sterns and the Skitmores were from humble rural backgrounds, both families knowing hardship and poverty. When Joe first met Jean’s parents in Attleborough, he was relieved to find that they lived modestly in two disused railway carriages in Leys Lane, without electricity or mains water, the toilet some way down the garden, keeping farm animals and growing vegetables. It was a familiar existence. His concerns the possibility of prejudice from Jean’s Brethren parents, in view of his nationality and Jewish background were unfounded. Ernest and Lucy welcomed him into their home with open arms, Lucy offering tea from her best Royal Vale bone-china pot.
Lucy Skitmore Ernest Skitmore