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.

Lockdown Life Stories

This year, our students are working on a number of important local history projects covering the hidden lives of prominent women, exploring the experiences of lockdown, and uncovering links with slavery. All the projects will be exhibited in September as part of the ‘City Voices’ programme of the Gloucester History Festival. This post is one of five projects exploring the much more contemporary experiences of life under lockdown, and sees students applying some knowledge of oral history as a research method. The students involved are Mike Brazier and Tom Thickbroom.

The aim of our Lockdown Life Stories is to find out the impact the series of lockdowns have had on workers employed in some of the country’s key public services, such as the NHS and teaching, and the ways in which these people have overcome the issues that may have arisen during lockdown. We decided to interview four NHS workers and four teachers because these occupations could provide us with different experiences of the lockdowns. Each group has been affected by the pandemic, with NHS workers having to take on new roles due to Covid and teachers being forced to use online resources to present their classes because of school closures.

We agreed to conduct the interviews together via online calls on Microsoft Teams so that we could record the meetings and write up a transcript for future reference when we come to produce the final presentation of our project. For the interviews, we decided to ask a set of standardised questions with both professions, the only difference being that each group would be asked four ‘profession specific’ questions alongside a further four ‘general’ questions. We agreed to use a standardised set of questions for the interviews as opposed to sets of randomised questions so that every person we interview receives the same overall experience, making the interviews more straightforward to conduct, and because the answers then allow for more direct comparison when it comes to producing the final project.

We designed a consent form that all participants complete and sign before the interviews commence. The form includes the opportunity for participants to withdraw any information they don’t wish to be recorded. If they don’t feel comfortable with how their answers may be used in the future, they also have the option to withdraw completely from the project. This was done to ensure that all participants felt comfortable with all of the questions we may ask during the interview.

So far, we’ve completed four interviews. We’ve been able to complete all the interviews for those working in the NHS, so we’ve now got the recordings and the transcripts of these interviews for future use when we come to produce our final project. We still need to complete the last four interviews involving the teachers, but we’ve found it difficult to identify teachers who are able to participate in the interviews because schools reopened at the beginning of March and since then teachers have been too busy to participate in our project.

As this is the case, we’ve discussed the idea of changing our focus from teachers to shop / supermarket workers because, like NHS workers, they’ve continued to work throughout the lockdowns and they’ve been greatly affected by the pandemic. It’s likely that we’ll switch our focus to these workers if we can’t get any teachers to agree to be interviewed before the Easter Break.

New publications from CC4HH research

We’re very proud to announce that we have our first academic publications on our community research projects. Two of these relate to the Cheltenham Lower High Street project, and the latest concerns Cheltenham: Diaspora.

Christian O’Connell’s paper entitled ‘”Poor, Proud and Pretty:” Community History and the Challenge of Heritage in “Darkest” Cheltenham’ was published in International Journal of Regional and Local History. The article discusses a collaborative local history project in Cheltenham Spa’s Lower High Street, an area that has suffered from “symbolic annihilation” through a long history of stigmatisation at the expense the town’s Regency-era heritage. Residents’ testimonies give voice to marginalised experiences that help to establish the area’s distinctive “sense of place,” which is rooted in shared experiences of exclusion, hardship and community cohesion. Through nostalgic recollections, they also reveal a significant grassroots willingness to challenge the exclusionary practices of Cheltenham’s dominant and exclusionary Regency narrative. However, present concerns about ethnic diversity and urban decay also exposed contemporary anxieties that are indicative of the broader context of Britain in the EU referendum era. While offering a “history from below,” the paper also considers how universities operating as “anchor” institutions can help to address contemporary issues of social alienation and spatial inequality by fostering a greater appreciation of the past.

Visitors react to the Cheltenham Lower High Street: Past, Present and Future exhibition at Chapel Arts in Cheltenham, June 2017.

Matthew Kidd who also contributed to the Lower High Street project, published his paper ‘”Us and Them:” exploring social difference in an English Spa town’ in the autumn edition of Oral History. This article draws on interviews with former residents of Cheltenham’s Lower High Street area to explore how ordinary Cheltonians understood their place in the town’s social hierarchy in the post-war period. While the initial findings of the Cheltenham Lower High Street: Past, Present, Future project suggested that residents articulated a working-class identity, this article contends that such an interpretation does not do justice to the ambiguity that characterised their views on social difference. Most struggled to express their feelings about the issue; when they did so, they tended to articulate a populist rather than class-based model of society. By exploring social difference in an atypical English town, this article seeks to contribute to ongoing debates about class in post-war Britain.

Finally, David Howell’s paper ‘Expanding Heritage Horizons through the Cheltenham: A Diaspora Project‘ has just been published in the journal Present Pasts, and can be read free online. This article considers the Cheltenham: Diaspora project, an exploration and promotion of migration heritage narratives in Cheltenham (UK). Cheltenham has a diverse history, but heritage provision in the locality has been consistently concentrated on 18th and 19th century Regency architecture. This has led to a marginalisation of non-elite heritage narratives, with no permanent platform for culturally diverse heritage themes in the region. In addition, informal, online history themed social media groups have, rather than expand heritage narratives, ultimately further narrowed heritage discussions. The Diaspora project looked to challenge the lack of diversity in the authorised heritage discourse, and informal online discourses of Cheltenham’s heritage, while enhancing the democratic nature of research projects coming out of the University of Gloucestershire. This paper considers the difficulties encountered in attempting to democratise heritage research, in a cultural climate that is rigid in its perception of what counts as ‘heritage’ and what is deemed as relevant by more ‘vocal’ local stakeholder groups. Ultimately the project reveals that while social media provides a useful avenue through which diverse heritage narratives can be pursued and promoted, ingrained attitudes regarding authorised forms of heritage are robust and resistant to the introduction of the unfamiliar.

From India to Cheltenham

This post comes for second year undergraduate student Lydia Munn, who has been working as a research assistant on the Cheltenham: Diaspora project.

When I first joined the Cheltenham: Diaspora project I was unsure where my research would lead me. After exploring some of the project’s initial findings, I decided that I wanted to focus on women’s stories as I feel their voices are often overlooked. I noticed one narrative the project had already started looking at was the Ayah’s, who were Indian women brought over to England during the 19th century by British colonial officers in order to look after their children on the long ship journey’s. The officers were supposed to pay for these women’s journey home, but many ended up abandoned and were sent to the Ayahs’ home in London.

Ayahs Home
The Ayahs’ Home in Hackney, 1904. Photo courtesy of the British Library.

Most of these women’s stories have not been written down and are lost to history, but one Cheltenham related name that kept appearing was ‘Ruth’. She was an Ayah in the service of Colonel Rowlandson, and she became the first person from India to be baptised in Cheltenham along with one of the Colonel’s children. What is even more interesting is she was baptised by a different priest to the child, one who could speak her native language: Tamil. Very few records surrounding these women have been saved. With some determination though, I found the record of her baptism on Ancestry. This record revealed her last name, or at least the name she had been given while in England, as Adnitt, a piece of information I had not been able to previously find. I wondered if she had kept the name, so I searched for it on shipping records but found nothing. It was so frustrating as there was so much information about the English family she lived with, but so little about her.

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Ruth’s Baptism certificate obtained from Ancestry.

I have not given up on Ruth and hope to one day find out more about her but I wanted to be of more use to the project. A few weeks before I had helped the Diaspora team set up a pop-up exhibition at the Cheltenham Community Rescource Centre. During this Bernice Thomson, who runs the centre, had mentioned that she ran a group on Monday’s called Sahara Saheli, for women had had emigrated to Cheltenham from other parts of the world. I contacted her and asked if any of the women would like to be interviewed for the project, she suggested I come along to one of the Monday sessions, in order to introduce myself and explain the project. I thought I could be of use to the Diaspora project as many of these women come from traditional cultural backgrounds and would feel more comfortable being interviewed by another woman.

Munn 2
The Cheltenham: Diaspora exhibition being installed at the Community Resource Centre on Grove Street.

The Sahara Saheli group was really welcoming and some of them seemed genuinely interested in the project. I conducted my first interview in March and heard the powerful story of a woman who came to Cheltenham from India in 1967. Over the next fifty years she watched a town change dramatically whilst dealing with immense loss and the need to support her family back in India. Sadly, due to the current Coronavirus pandemic it is unlikely I will be able to conduct anymore interviews this year, but I am so grateful that I have been able to have even the tiniest glimpse into some of these women’s amazing stories.