Month: April 2021

The sad death of Shirley Williams, Baroness Crosby who wrote the foreword for Escaping Hitler

Another sad death. This is so close to my heart. Shirley Williams was generous and kind when she agreed to write the foreword for Escaping Hitler back in 2015. And today the world learns of her death aged 90. I was fortunate to meet her on a number of occasions, and once she even stayed the night in our guest bedroom after we’d hosted a Liberal Democrat gathering to celebrate her autobiography. She and Joe went way back and my proudest moment was when I brought the two of them together, after an absence of over 60 years, at a Lib Dem event during a General Election campaign. Shirley was a very special lady, may she rest in peace.

Reunited after 61 years

Here is the foreword from the book:

‘Phyllida Scrivens’ enchanting book Escaping Hitler, rang so many bells for me. Joe Stirling’s life, from his childhood escape to Britain to life as a refugee in a strange country with a kindly family he had never met before; his education in unfamiliar schools and his ability to adapt to working as a professional in the politics of his adopted country; all have echoes with my own experience. But the sensitivity of Mrs Scrivens’ account, her remarkable capacity to convey the significance of each small detail, make this biography of an outstanding British local politician, volunteer and businessman special. The early extracts from Joe Stirling’s interviews with his biographer Phyllida Scrivens, with which every chapter starts, convey a chilling reminder of Germany’s descent over four years from a reasonably tolerant respectable decentralised society into the intense nationalism, brutality and fascism of the Third Reich. 

The young Jewish boy, Günter Stern, was well treated by his teachers, his parents inviting his school friends to play with him. A few years later, the teenage Günter, isolated and excluded, set out on his own to walk from Koblenz to England, with little money and only a creased official letter from the English Jewish Committee telling him when the next Kindertransport would leave Cologne, in July 1939. It was his last chance. 

My brother John and I were evacuated to the US to live in Minnesota for three years with a family we had never met. We were not fleeing the Luftwaffe’s Blitz in British cities, but primarily the likely prospect of a Nazi invasion of Britain. My parents, though not Jewish, were both on the Gestapo Black List of people to be killed immediately in the event of a successful invasion. They felt this was a risk they should take, but could not impose on their children. 

The story of Joe Stirling’s successful integration into British life says a great deal for his determination, his resilience and his courage; the openness of his mind. He worked as a Labour party official and organiser after his service in the British Army, in one of the most rural regions of England, East Anglia, at the grass roots, often in partnership with the Agricultural Workers Union, battling to end tied cottages and to challenge traditional, sometimes near feudal employment practices. He was one of my agents in the 1953 Harwich Parliamentary by-election. 

A twenty-three year old candidate, I recall the excitement of convening with Joe two or three meetings a night, hurtling down muddy lanes in the dark, looking for small halls, each with its audience of a dozen or so. Joe mobilised a handful of supporters from a score of villages to come. The boy from the Rhineland had become a Norfolk man.

 Joe Stirling has made this his own country and the country has properly honoured him. Secretary and Agent for Norwich Labour Party, councillor and Sheriff of Norwich. 

Joe Stirling has contributed to our public life for over sixty years.’ 

Shirley Williams, 2015

Joe Stirling meets Prince Philip in 1975

On the sad occasion of the death of The Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip, I would love to share this story about his visit to Norwich in July 1975 as it appears in my first book Escaping Hitler (published by Pen and Sword Books in 2016).

The crowds lined the streets of Norwich early on the morning of Tuesday,

1 July. Joe had recovered from the worst of the jet lag and looked forward to

wearing the Sheriff’s chain again, this time in the presence of Prince Philip,

Duke of Edinburgh. The Duke was visiting Norwich to inspect an awardwinning

conservation scheme dubbed ‘Heritage-Over-The-Wensum’. At

Thorpe Road Railway Station, Joyce in her Mayoral chain was part of the

welcome committee, on this occasion obliged to defer to the Lord Lieutenant

of Norfolk, Sir Edmund Bacon as first citizen of the City. This pushed the

Sheriff into third place in the hierarchy that day. The Duke’s first engagement

was to climb aboard a steam launch, moored at the Norwich Yacht Station, aptly

named The Princess Margaret. As the Royal party reached Fishergate, a specially

commissioned fanfare sounded from musicians on Fye Bridge. Cheering

schoolchildren, factory and office workers vied for a glimpse of the special visitor.

The landlord of the Woolpack pub in Muspole Street welcomed the Duke

to his recently redecorated establishment, serving him with a tomato juice,

presumably without the vodka. As he passed along St George’s Street, students

from Norwich Art School showered the party with ticker tape, worrying the

Special Branch bodyguards. As the Duke prepared to enter Blackfriars for a

sherry and buffet lunch, it was Joe and Jean’s turn to shake his hand. Once the

feasting was over, the Duke presented the city with the conservation award. He

had spent the previous night aboard the Royal Train in sidings outside Norwich

Station. During his speech he was less than complimentary about the view of

the city’s industrial area, visible from his carriage. A number of assembled

dignitaries and guests squirmed a little at what appeared to be unwelcome

criticism. At precisely two o’clock the Duke climbed into the pilot’s seat of a

helicopter of The Queen’s Flight and flew to King’s Lynn in the north of the

county for further engagements. Joe had fulfilled his second official task as