Tag: Attleborough

Joe’s wedding day featured in Wedding Exhibition in Attleborough

I was delighted and honoured when Attleborough Heritage Group asked me to provide photographs and text for its exhibition on 28th October showcasing nuptial memorabilia and gowns from weddings held in St Mary’s Church Attleborough during the past seven decades.  These were displayed in St Mary’s while  the church hall hosted a Wedding Fair.  During the evening there was an illustrated talk from the archive and records of AHG with a buffet supper.  Many thanks to them for including Joe and Jean’s story.  Here is the poster they produced along with the appropriate extract from Escaping Hitler.

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Wigmore Hall Visit – remembering Joe and Jean’s first date

Yesterday I had the privilege of attending a lunch-time concert at London’s Wigmore Hall, a most intimate and beautiful concert venue.  I was with my friend writer Deborah Jay and we enjoyed one hour of exquisite piano music performed by American Nicholas Angelich.  It was my first visit to this prestigious venue and I was especially excited to be there because of its connection with Joe’s life.

During WW2, whilst they were both serving in the British Army Ordnance Corps in Basingstoke, Joe took his sweetheart Jean Skitmore of Attleborough, to Wigmore Hall along with a party of other soldiers.  To sit there on Monday, imagining the young couple enjoying the music was a real delight.  I reproduce below the short section from Escaping Hitler that tells of this special day that was to lead to much more in the years to come……

“A devotee of classical music, Joe organised a visit to London for his students. Train tickets for uniformed personnel were subsidised by the Ministry of Defence, costing just one shilling each way. Discounted tickets for the concert at the Wigmore Hall were priced the same as the train. Despite the total representing a whole day’s pay, twenty-two people signed up. Jean, although knowing little about chamber music, was keen to be there, her first trip away with her new special friend. The programme was Die Winterreise, a song cycle by Franz Schubert from 1828. The twenty songs, performed in poetic German, tell the tragic story of a solitary traveller during a bleak savage winter, whose heart is frozen with grief. Joe and Jean sat close together.”

Taking Joe back to an Attleborough Birthday Party!

Last evening, Saturday 8th October 2016, found me taking signed copies of Escaping Hitler to the 10th Birthday party of Attleborough Heritage Group.  Joe was sadly indisposed and not able to join me, but the good people of Attleborough welcomed me and my books into a hall full of bunting and good cheer!  For it was the Group’s 10th anniversary and they were celebrating the success of this innovative group of local historians by updating members on the research that led to various presentations over the past ten years.  The Connaught Hall in Station Road was full of fascinating individuals, each of whom had their own specific  interest and specialities.  Victor and I enjoyed the evening immensely and were privileged to meet people who remembered the Railway Carriages where Joe lived with his new in-laws as a young married man in the late 1940s.  I was able to show them photographs and documents representing the Skitmore family which had adopted the German refugee as their own after he had fallen in love with Jean Skitmore when they were both serving in the Army.  I sold a number of copies and left feeling I knew far more about the Norfolk market town of Attleborough than I did before I arrived.  Thanks to Cliff, Jacqueline and Jenny Amos for their hospitality and kindness.






SIX MONTHS AGO today, 5th January 2016, my debut biography Escaping Hitler (foreword by Shirley Williams) was published by Pen and Sword Books.  I will never forget the incredible moment when my first 200 copies arrived in six boxes at my house! And when I first presented Joe Stirling with his personal copy!  Since that date so much has happened to me and to the book that I felt this was an appropriate moment to share the phenomonal achievements so far.

Over 30 published articles and reviews including local Archant publications, the Journal from the Association of Jewish Refugees, Lion Magazine and the Rhein Zeitung, regional newspaper for the Rhineland around Koblenz.

Grand official launch at Jarrold Department Store in Norwich on 4th February with 220 people in the audience.  We signed over 50 books that night!

Appeared in Jarrold’s National Bestsellers lists for five weeks running, including No.1 during week of February 13th 2016!

29 Public and private talks and powerpoint presentations including two in Germany (Koblenz Federal Archive and the village of Nickenich).  Seven more in the diary between now and July 2017.  More welcomed!

Escaping Hitler appears in Norfolk Libraries. Waiting lists build up to borrow copies.

403 followers on Facebook and 112 on Twitter

542 copies sold directly from me and Joe, 297 of them signed and sold at our speaking engagements.

From the initial 1300 print run Pen and Sword is now down to the final 200 in the warehouse.  Plans for a further hardback run and a little later for a softback.

In March this year New York Publisher Skyhorse bought the option to publish and distribute Escaping Hitler onto the U.S. market. Projected date for this is January 3rd 2017. I have recently received my Authors Questionnaire in order for us to work together on a marketing plan.  (This was beyond my wildest expectations!)

Escaping Hitler entered for two major Book  Awards – watch this space!

And finally, as a result of the marketing successes so far, I am now contracted to Pen and Sword for a second biographical book: My Lady Lord Mayor: The Seventeen Female Lord Mayor of Norwich 1923-2017.  Estimated publication end 2017/early 2018.

So more work ahead!!

My sincere thanks to everyone who follows this blog, my Facebook page and my Twitter feed, and especially those who have already bought and read the book!  Without your support the statistics would not look nearly as good!

Don’t forget – by clicking on the menu at the top of this page you will find full details of how to order your personally signed copy directly from me. The book makes a great gift!







Anniversary of a very special Wedding

On 21st May 1946 Joe Stirling married his sweetheart Jean Skitmore in St Mary’s Church, Attleborough.  They were both in Army uniform.  Only three years earlier the groom’s birth name of Günter Stern had been officially changed by the British Army to Günter Stirling. The young soldiers in the barracks dubbed him Joe and the Jewish Kindertransport boy from the Rhineland village of Nickenich has been called that to this day.

In Church that day in 1946,  Joe was sadly the only representative of the groom’s side but Jean’s family turned out in force from the Norfolk villages and towns around Attleborough.  Today it is 70 years since that momentous occasion, a union that would produce four children, six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren (more on the way!). The couple were happily married for nearly sixty years, but sadly Jean passed away after a long illness in 2002. Joe misses her every day.  Today I am thinking of them.

Joe and Jean on wedding day


Norfolk Family History Society Publish My Article on the Skitmore family

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.


 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


I can hardly believe it is one year exactly since the very special 90th birthday party held for Joe Stirling at the prestigious Assembly House in Norwich.  This year his celebratory party was far more modest, 18 of his close family all together in his home, sharing tea, birthday cake and champagne.  I sneaked in at the back with gifts and best wishes and was delighted to find his home alive with loving relatives from all generations.  A year on and Joe, the hero of my debut biography, Escaping Hitler: A Jewish Boy’s Quest for Freedom and His Future, is still extremely sprightly, with no loss of his intellect, enthusiasm for life and playful sense of humour.  The family were anxious to know the publication date of his book but as yet I can only say it will sometime during January 2016.  His daughter Jane confided in me that she will be delighted when the book is out, wherever she goes people ask when they will be able to get hold of a copy!  Here are some photos of Joe and his two great-grandchildren, the patriarch and the youngest of the Stirling/Skitmore union, a happy marriage begun in 1946 in Attleborough. Also a photo of Joe cutting his cake.  It was wonderful to witness the family celebrating together,  the generations from strength to strength, supported by the obvious love and respect amongst them.  The boy from Nickenich and the girl  from Attleborough did well….

The patriarch and his great-grandchildrenJoe and Jean on wedding dayJoe cuts his 91st birthday cake