Eyewitnesses to History

Nothing brings history to life more than meeting and talking with an eyewitness. This was brought home to me in the late 1970s when I was talking with Duncan Lee, a senior colleague at John Marlay School. In April 1945, as a 23-year-old member of the Intelligence Corps, Duncan had been one of first into the hell on earth that was Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. That much, he would say, but as to what he’d seen there, Duncan was much more reticent – it was far too painful. But he didn’t need to say anything, his eyes and his facial expression told the whole story.

So when I read of Ann Frank dying in that abominable place, I think of Duncan’s face. And, much more recently, since DNA testing and other research has revealed my own Jewish and German/Polish/Russian ancestry, I wonder how many of my relatives were there or in similar places too* – and my heart sinks as I remember Duncan’s face.

Duncan was not the only eyewitness to history I’ve known. Many other men of Duncan’s generation had taken part in the famous battles of World War Two, and I never missed an opportunity to ask about such experiences. Few raised the subject themselves so I would generally be told about their experiences by a third party and broach the subject myself. I learnt a lot, but the main lesson I learnt was that even for the victors, war is far from the glamorous adventure often portrayed in films.

Bill Axford (1894-1938)Because of many such conversations, World War Two seems very real to me, even though I was born three months after it ended. World War One, however, was another matter. I’ve seen many films and read many books, but I’ve never actually talked with men who fought in World War One about their experiences. The nearest, I suppose, was a second hand-account from my “Aunt May” – actually my dad’s cousin – who told me of seeing her Uncle Bill – William Henry Axford – return from war in 1919. Three years earlier he’d been a happy-go-lucky, physically-fit 21 year-old, now he was an old man, broken physically and mentally. He was never able to work again or form any kind of relationship. He’d survived the battlefields of Europe with barely a scratch, but he genuinely envied those who’d died. Bill promised he’d shoot himself if there was another war, but he died of pancreatic cancer in November 1938, a year before the madman Hitler plunged the world into war again.

That was the extent of my eyewitness evidence relating to World War One. Or was it? A few months ago I was chatting to a young Irish PhD student at the Bridge Hotel in Newcastle, and somehow the conversation turned to a visit I’d made in 1989 to see an old lady, Miss Staddon, in a Low Fell care home. Try as I might, I can’t for the life of me recall how the subject arose, but it did, and I remember telling that student the tale that Miss Staddon told me that afternoon. Not a story of battles in far off lands, but rather of one much closer to home.

The offending cap.Miss Staddon had been my Infants School headmistress at Highfield School, Rowlands Gill from 1950 to 1953. She was loved by all her pupils, but she could be strict too. I well remember being caned by her after I threw my cap across a classroom Frisbee-style and inadvertently caught a fellow-pupil right across his eyes. At the time I thought the punishment rather unfair as the lad was completely unhurt, though he did get a bit of a shock and promptly threw a tantrum.

HeadmistressActually – and this is a bit of an aside – even before my chat with her in 1989, the thought of Miss Staddon always brought to mind another historic event, one of my earliest clear memories. I was in Mrs Berkeley’s class at Highfield Infants’ School and my classmates and I were in the assembly hall prancing around to a radio programme called “Music and Movement”. Suddenly the music stopped and a very solemn voice said “This is London. It is with the greatest sorrow that we make the following announcement. It was announced from Sandringham at 10.45 today, February 6th 1952, that the king, who retired to rest last night in his usual health, passed away peacefully in his sleep earlier this morning.”

George VI was dead. Our teacher, Mrs Berkeley, burst into tears and hurried into Mrs Gardner’s room and then sought Miss Staddon. Soon all the teachers were in tears – the first adults I’d ever seen cry! Seeing adults so upset, especially the normally calm and unruffable Miss Staddon, was terribly upsetting for us kids and soon most of us were in tears too. We were all sent home immediately, and it seemed that everyone we saw on our way home that day was crying too. Truly an unforgettable day.

Miss StaddonAfter I left the infants school and moved on to other schools, to university and to work, I still saw Miss Staddon from time to time in the village, often in the garden of her home in Norman Road, and she always greeted me by name. Then, in 1980, I left the village and moved ten miles away to Low Fell, and didn’t see or hear any more of the kindly old lady until around 1989 when I heard that Miss Staddon was a resident in Craigielea, a nursing home just a short distance from my home in Low Fell. I knew I just had to pay her a visit.

So I walked along to Craigielea and rang the door bell. I explained to the nurse who answered the door that I’d come to see Miss Staddon if that was possible. “Oh, yes”, she replied, “come on in, Miss Staddon is expecting you!” I said that was impossible as nobody knew I was coming, but the nurse didn’t reply and just told me to follow her. She led the way to the first floor and along a corridor, then she knocked on a door and opened it. “This gentleman’s come to see you”, she said through the open door and a gentle voice from inside said “Please come in”. I entered. And there was Miss Staddon, looking frail, but little changed from how I remembered her. She looked at me and seemed very confused. After a few seconds she said, “It’s Brian, isn’t it?”

Then the reason for the confusion became clear. Miss Staddon explained that she was expecting a visit from an academic based at Teesside University who’d arranged to interview her about an horrific event she’d witnessed as a teenager, the bombardment of Hartlepool by German warships in 1914. I said I’d come back another time, but she told me to stay for a cup of tea at least. I asked if she’d mind telling me a little about what she’d seen in Hartlepool as I was very interested in the home front in the two wars, and she kindly outlined the story, which she’d obviously prepared in her mind in readiness for her interview.

Miss Staddon – Agnes May Staddon – was born on July 28th 1898 in South Shields where her father, Henry, worked at Harton Cemetery. Later her father was appointed Cemetery Superintendent at Wheatley Hill, and by 1914 he was based at Seaton Carew. Sixteen-year-old Agnes attended a high school in Hartlepool, and she travelled the short distance between Seaton Carew and Hartlepool every day by train.

At first, December 16th 1914 seemed like any other day, but as her train approached Hartlepool at about 8:10 am, there was a tremendous explosion close by and the train screeched to a halt. Looking out to sea from her carriage, Agnes could clearly see flashes and quite some time afterwards more explosions could be heard not far away from the train, followed by more distant booms. Gradually, as the darkness turned to light and the early-morning mist cleared, the shape of ships could be made out, and Agnes and the other frightened passengers realized what was happening – three German ships were bombarding the town.

Courtesy of Hartlepool Cultural ServicesThe firing went on for a terrifying 45 minutes with the ships moving closer inshore all the time. Altogether the heavy cruisers Blucher, Seydlitz and Moltke fired 1,150 shells at the town, killing almost 100 people and wreaking destruction on a scale not witnessed on mainland Britain before. The massive shells demolished houses, whole terraces in some cases, and many churches and public buildings.

Agnes and her fellow passengers had to leave the train where it had stopped and find their way as best they could. Agnes walked to her school along roads and streets strewn with debris, past walls that seemed on the point of collapse and past scenes of horror that no youngster should witness. Although she knew the small town well, everything seemed totally different and the journey was almost surreal.

When she arrived at her school things got worse. Although the school buildings had largely escaped damage, the pupils and staff hadn’t faired so well. Stories of the death and injury of their friends and teachers soon reached the school and proved the final straw for many of the already traumatized girls. Some would never recover from the terrible psychological blows. Agnes was made of sterner stuff, but nonetheless it was a day permanently etched in her mind, a day like no other before or since.

Unfortunately Miss Staddon’s expected guest turned up before I had a chance to ask any questions, so I never had an opportunity to clarify and expand on many of the points she’d quickly skipped over. Nonetheless I felt really privileged to have heard this first-hand account of events which had taken place almost 75 years earlier, events which I’d read about but had previously seemed incredibly remote. Here, in front of me, was a lady who had actually seen the cruisers, seen and heard the gunfire and the explosions, smelt the explosive and witnessed the terrible aftermath. It became much more real to me then.

I kept promising myself that I’d visit Miss Staddon again, but I wasn’t sure it was the right thing to do and I wasn’t really sure she’d welcome another visit, so I kept putting it off. I waited too long. In 1991 I heard she’d died, and I felt very guilty at not having visited her again. I do hope that academic recorded her memories in more detail than I had, and has preserved them for posterity – stories like hers bring history to life.

The Hartlepool bombardment image courtesy of Hartlepool Cultural Services.

The colour image of Miss Staddon was taken by her neighbour, Mr Tom Waters.

* I now know for sure – one of my very close autosomal DNA matches is to a lady who was born at Lipovenki near Odessa on April 4th 1938, and in the winter of 1941/42 lost both parents when they fell victim to what is variously known as the Odessa Massacre or the Odessa Holocaust in which more than 130,000 Jews died. When found wandering, all she had was a piece of paper with her name, and her date and place of birth written on it. She was taken in by an orphanage which was forced to move several times by the exigencies of war, ending up, ironically, in Schlesien, Germany. She was then fostered by a couple in Breslau and moved with them to Bavaria where she still lives.

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