Gloucester Kindertransport: local support for refugees, yesterday and today

This is the fourth and final project which is part of our partnership with the City Voices programme of the Gloucester History Festival. Undergraduate students in History at the University of Gloucestershire are undertaking a number of local history projects for 2022, and in this case they examine Gloucester’s role in the organized rescue of children from Nazi occupied territories in the Second World War. The project group is made up by students Yasmine Brigdale, Megan Brown, Emily Langdale, Ellie Speck, and Isabella Watkins.

Our group project focuses on the Kindertransport system in Gloucester and, more specifically, the lives of ten Jewish boys who found refuge in a hostel near the Kingsholm area during the Second World War. We chose to study this topic not only because of a key interest in our city’s historic role in aiding refugees, but also because it feels very relevant to what is going on in the world at present with the current refugee crises in places such as Syria, Afghanistan and Ukraine. One of the goals of our research is to present a study of the experiences of the ten boys during their time as refugees in Gloucester. We also aim to reflect on what legacy this may have left for Gloucestershire today.

We have been visiting the Gloucestershire Archives and Heritage Hub (GA) at least once a week to study the Kindertransport materials. The archival sources will form the focus of our first display panel, which will outline the start of the Kindertransport programme in Gloucester and the founding of relevant charities and committees, such as the Gloucester Association for Aiding Refugees (GAAR). It was organisations such as GAAR that were responsible for finding suitable accommodation, education and training for refugee children in Gloucester, until they were old enough to move on. We have also become familiar with some of the significant figures who played a very active role in running these organisations, including Mrs Hall. We hope to explore how these developments led to the establishment of the hostel in Alexandra Road, and what role these organisations continued to play in supporting the ten boys.

Appeal for British women to provide homes for the rescued children.

Alongside this, we have been working with staff at GA, who have helped us to access information relating to an upcoming film about the hostel. We have been put in contact with relatives of the Jewish boys and the Arnsteins. Interviews conducted with Michael Zorek, Jenney Valley and Angela Willis have provided us with a real insight into what life in the hostel was like, from leisure activities, including their attendance at a youth group in Gloucester, to how their basic necessities were met and financed. We have also learnt that their religious education and practice was still very much encouraged: a Rabbi from Birmingham came to meet with the boys. Our goal is to continue making connections with the families. Not only has this been extremely informative, but we also believe this to be a valuable element of our research. This will help to shape the middle section of our project, where we hope to build a profile of the boys during their time in Gloucester, as well as their lives after the hostel’s closure in 1942.

The final part of our project will discuss the legacy of the Kindertransport programme and what existing charities in the local area are doing today. In this part, we hope to track the importance of refugee aid for the ten boys, as well as for the many other young people in Gloucester during the Second World War, and how this is still extremely relevant to current global issues. We have been in contact with two local organisations: Cheltenham Welcomes Refugees (https://www.cheltenhamwelcomesrefugees.org.uk/) and Gloucestershire Action for Refugees and Asylum Seekers (GARAS: https://www.garas.org.uk/). These have been really helpful in offering insights into the workings of the charities both historically and at present.

We are also planning to help fundraising efforts for a blue plaque to be placed outside the address on Alexandra Road in June. Any surplus money will be donated to GARAS.

From Department Store to City Campus: the story of the Debenham’s building in Gloucester

As part of our partnership with the City Voices programme of the Gloucester History Festival, undergraduate students in History at the University of Gloucestershire are undertaking a number of local history projects for 2022. In this first of four projects, students examine how the changing function of an important building can give an interesting insight into the city’s change over more than a century. The project group is made up by students Jack Eccles, Nathan Gathercole, Kacper Kwiecinski, and Sophie Phillips.

Our project focuses on the links between the Gloucester community and the Debenham’s building as a retail commercial centre. The Debenham’s building is a testament to the growth of the retail economy in Gloucester and to its links with the local community.

Engraved on the Debenham’s building are the dates 1909 and 1914, which indicate the expansion of the building and also the growth of retail shopping in Gloucester. After the First World War, Gloucester city centre was seen as an area where the growth of the local economy could be further developed. In the 1920s, what is now Kings Square used to be King’s Street and St Aldridge Street. King’s Street is now Kings Walk. The city’s first department store, Bon Marche, owned by Drapery Trust, was opened on Northgate Street in 1889 by John Rowe Pope. In the late 1920s, a new building was constructed near to the site of the original shop.

After the Second World War, large retail businesses opened in Gloucester, and these began to displace some of the existing local businesses. Kings Square became a retail centre to rival the city of Bristol. In 1971, the Bon Marche department store was sold to Debenham’s.

We’ve looked over a number of news articles, interviews, reports and business documents relating to the original building to establish the growth and success of the companies that were located inside it, from the original Bon Marche department store through to the renamed Debenham’s. The building is a perfect case study of the economic growth of Gloucester as a whole. Its rise signalled the coming of a commercial boom in the city, much like its later decline came to reflect the downturn of city centre retail in the early 21st century.

The impact of the building can be seen beyond its economic function. It became a true hotspot for the community by offering a space, being proactive and, more importantly, creative in its engagement with the local population. Minute books show how the employees and management were committed to the idea that the building should serve as more than just a department store. It was also a communal space that hosted events, participated in parades, and did so by engaging the entire staff. This community outlook proved to be incredibly successful. Many people fondly recall their time spent at Debenham’s. In many ways, the picture we are drawing from our research can be compared to that of mall culture in North America during the 1980s.

It is both of these factors put together that give our project a critical understanding of how the Debenham’s building was truly a crucial and important part of the city. Its evolution is closely tied to the development of Gloucester as a whole. This gives profound meaning to its legacy as the building is currently being remodelled as the University of Gloucestershire City Campus.

Planned design for the new City Campus on King’s Square.

Our project aims to uncover and show these developments to a wider audience so that this building’s unique history can be shared and understood as we move into the next phase of Gloucester’s life.