BIOGRAPHY OF JOE STIRLING by PHYLLIDA SCRIVENS published by Pen and Sword Books on 5th January 2016. The true story of a remarkable boy who walked across Europe to escape the dangers of Nazi Germany and went on to become Sheriff of Norwich. USE DROP DOWN MENU TO LEARN HOW TO ORDER YOUR COPY SIGNED BY BOTH JOE STIRLING AND AUTHOR.
Today, 18th October 2021, I visited the headstone of Joe and his wife Jean, set in the peaceful beauty of Earlham Cemetery in Norwich. It was my first visit and I had no idea how idyllic it would look with ancient trees, flowers, momuments and the odd squirrel. Joe died in February 2020, just before the pandemic lock-down, and his funeral was packed with family and friends, each wishing to pay their respects and celebrate the long and fruitful life of this wonderful man.
I was fascinated to see that Joe is next to Howard Cartwright, born in the same year as Joe and a serving soldier in WW2 with the Argyll and Southern Highlanders. I would like to think that maybe Joe and Howard trained together in Glasgow, perhaps Howard being part of the group of young soldiers in the barracks who ‘dubbed’ Günter as Joe, the name that stuck for the rest of his life. Two old friends brought together in death. Or is that too fanciful?
I wished Joe a happy birthday and left a spray of flowers. It has been a special day.
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.
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.’
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
Today, 27th January 2021, is Holocaust Memorial Day. How well I remember the many occasions when my husband and I would enter Peter Mancroft Church in Norwich, to see rows of people, many dressed in black, waiting for the special annual service to begin. Always in the front rows, amongst the dignitaries, was Joe Stirling, Norwich’s very own Kindertransport boy. Knowing Joe’s story as well as I did, I could imagine his parents, their life in the rural Rhineland village of Nickenich, their horrific experience of Kristalnacht, and the journey they took to their deaths in Sobibor Death Camp. It was always a sobering morning. But this year, of course, there will be service. Joe died last February but there will be no public recognition of his absence at the service. So today I will silently think about Joe and his parents, Alfred and Ida, just two of so many who were murdered by the Nazis.
Today, 18th October was Joe Stirling’s birthday. For eleven years I made sure to see him, taking a little gift, sharing a slice of cake. As you are aware, Joe was very special to me, not just as the subject of my first book, but as my friend and confidant. Joe died in February this year and I miss him. This photo is from his birthday in 2018, before his health deteriorated.
Last evening, 13th October 2020, I was delighted to share my presentation via Zoom with the good ladies of Youlgrave Women’s Institute. Having found myself on the recommended list of Zoom speakers for the Derbyshire Federation, I was approached just last week to see if I was available to speak at short notice. I was thrilled to accept, not only because it was an opportunity to extend the reach of Joe’s remarkable story, but particularly as Victor and I spent a wonderful week’s holiday, just two summers ago, staying in Tweedledee Cottage, in the centre of that delightful village, enjoying walks in the stunning countryside, eating at superb local pubs, visiting Bakewell, Dovedale, Heights of Abraham, Chatsworth and the Plague Village Eyam, to name but a few. We vowed to return sometime to Youlgrave, but never in a million years did I think it would be via an online conference platform in the middle of a global pandemic! Thanks again to last evening’s audience – I really enjoyed the experience. Here are some photos of the village from our time there.
Look what popped up on my facebook feed this morning – I immediately knew what it was as Joe Stirling described to me his trip on this amazing Flying Railway in the Rhineland town of Wuppertal when he was a little lad. Here is the extract from the book. It is referring to the summers of the early 1930s, before Hitler’s Nazi government took away all freedoms from the Jewish community. This piece of film is from 1902, about 30 years before young Günter rode the railway.
“On Sundays Uncle Alex drove his wife and nephew the twenty miles to the thriving town of Wuppertal, known for cotton weaving, dye making and calico printing. Günter tingled with excitement when riding the Schwebebhan, the oldest elevated electric railway in the world, its hanging cars speeding above the River Wupper. It was here that he first visited a Zoological garden, enthralled by the lions, elephants and camels. In less favourable weather, the impressionable boy spent much of his time stood behind the counter in his uncle’s shop, watching as staff advised the Düsseldorf hausfraus, shopping for buttons, blouses and bloomers. It was a lesson in customer service, to prove invaluable for his life yet to come.”
Photo taken at Liberal Democrat Conference in Bournemouth September 2015
Reunited after 61 years
Today, 27th July 2020, is the 90th birthday of Baroness Crosby, known to all as Shirley Williams. I would like to honour this fact and send my good wishes to this wonderful lady, who was kind enough to write the foreword for Escaping Hitler back in 2015. There were a number of reasons why I approached Shirley for this task – firstly her mother, celebrated writer Vera Brittain, had been a close Oxford University friend of Freda Free from Birmingham (via Russia), who ‘fostered’ young Günter Stern (aka Joe Stirling) when the 14 year old arrived in Britain on a Kindertransport from Nazi Germany, on 19th July 1939. Secondly, and most significantly, in 1954 when Joe was working for the Labour Party in Norwich, he was drafted in to help a young woman, Shirley Catlin, in her ill-fated attempt to win her first by-election, standing for the Labour Party in Harwich. Decades later, as a Liberal Democrat, I was honoured to meet Shirley more than once at Conferences and was delighted to discover that she remembered the energetic activist from those Harwich days. She readily agreed to write my foreword.
And so we arrive at 8th April, 2015. Escaping Hitler is almost complete, a General Election is imminent and Shirley Williams is due to visit Norwich to give the Lib Dem troops some much needed encouragement. I ask if I can bring Joe Stirling to Chantry Hall to meet Shirley for the first time in over 60 years. It was all arranged and the reunion happened as I’d hoped. The press were there to cover the political story, but in the event became far more intrigued with these two mature people, friends from long ago, chattering together as if they had never been apart. It was one of my proudest moments and an occasion that Joe and I often returned to in our conversations for years afterwards, until sadly he passed away in February this year.
Thank you Shirley Williams for being a constant inspiration to so many. Many Happy Returns!
Written by Norwich writer Tom Carver, this moving tribute to our very own Joe appeared yesterday, 27th March 2020, on the Guardian Online ‘Other Lives’ feature. I am grateful to Tom and to the Guardian team who put this piece together, allowing even more people to appreciate the remarkable life of this amazing man.
Joe is much missed by family, friends and former colleagues but his story remains relevant, inspiring and poignant in these difficult times.