Norky’s ramblings: episode 6

View of Milnsbridge looking towards Golcar, with Scapegoat hill on the horizon.
Just over 100 years ago. It was very much the same when I started work in one of the mills in the distance, near the railway viaducts, in 1962, when I was 15 years old.
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True stories from ‘Norky’ who comes from Scapegoat Hill, a small, isolated farming village, high on the Pennines in West Yorkshire. You can catch up on his ramblings so far HERE.

In 1890, my great grandparents Joseph and Eliza Senior took the whole family to Sagan in what was then Germany (now Żagań in Poland). This is where a Yorkshire mill owner called Oldroyd set up a textile factory (which is still running today, now in local Polish ownership). He took a skilled labour force with him from different areas of the north of England, including Great Granddad Joseph Senior, who was a loom tuner. Tuners were responsible for a number of looms and to an extent, the wellbeing of the associate weavers. A tuner was also responsible for ensuring good-quality materials were produced and that the looms worked to their highest capacity.

I have recently discovered that great granddad Joseph sent his wife, great grandma Eliza, back home to England to give birth to my grandma, Maggie. They re-joined the family back in Żagań sometime after their recovery from the birth. Eliza gave birth to three more children while in Germany, but sadly the youngest two babies died at birth. The second child had foetal hydrocephalus, a condition that causes the baby’s head to swell therefore making the delivery very difficult. Instruments were used during the birth and as a result, Eliza developed septicaemia and died soon after in 1897. They had nine children in total; she was 42 years old.

Żagań was in Upper Silesia, and even though it was originally Prussia and then became Germany, this area was persecuted by the German Nazis soon after they invaded Poland in 1939. It was also one of the first areas where the Jewish community was victimised. Ethnic cleansing was subsequently carried out and sympathetic German nationals were moved into that area. This was precisely what the Russians did just a few years later following the end of WW2. Stalin was able to persuade the Allied combatants to allow him to move the border, and Żagań then became part of Western Poland, controlled by the USSR (Russia).

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My brother Nick and I, along with our partners, visited Żagań in September 2008, in an attempt to find Great Grandma Senior’s grave. Unfortunately, due to Hitler then Stalin’s need to create a buffer zone of a sympathetic population, it was impossible to find what we were looking for. Even though most of the buildings survived this turmoil, most local documentation concerning Prussia and Germany was lost or destroyed. Also, under the orders of Stalin, the Russian government deported many ethnic groups including Germans, Poles and Ukrainians into that area, so Russia could move a sympathetic Russian population into the void. The new local population consequently had little interest in its history and was no doubt recovering from the nightmare of war.

The recent generation of people living in Żagań are now taking more of an interest in what has become their history and place. While my brother Nick and I were there, a local historian and council member called Marián took us to many places in an attempt to find evidence of Great Grandma’s grave. He stayed with us for three days – a fine fellow. He could speak Polish and German but not English; my brother and I could speak pigeon English and a tiny bit of German, but we got by with lots of grunting and pointing.

Staying in the hotel at the same time was a German film crew making a documentary about Zagan’s connection with the Panzer regiment stationed there during WW2. Our guide Marian had arranged that both the German and British groups have a meal together in the hotel on our final evening. We dined with both the director and his father that night. Later in the evening the father passed round photos of his parents and his home town but I noticed that he kept a couple back, I persuaded him to show us the others, they were photos of his parents (the director’s grandparents) taken during the war and he was wearing his German panzer uniform. He was reluctant to show us these photos in case it offended the English sat around the table. I was able to tell them that our parents had an almost identical photo taken at the same time.

Clifford and Mary Norcliffe early 1942 

It was quite a touching moment, and I can’t really explain why.

Two years after the death of Eliza, and following a promise made to his wife, Granddad Senior returned to Golcar with what was left of the family in approximately 1899. He had already sent the eldest son Willie on ahead, and then the eldest daughter Edith soon after. Edith had become pregnant following a romantic liaison with a German army officer. Żagań was, and still is, a garrison town, initially for infantry, but after WW1 a tank regiment was stationed there. The prisoner of war camp Stalag Luft III was also located in the town during WW2. This camp became famous for “The Great Escape”, where close to 90 allied airmen made a daring escape during the night of 24/25 March 1944. It is now garrisoned by a polish tank regiment.

Żagań tank garrison museum within the camp grounds, 2008

There is no evidence that Great Granddad Joseph was patriotic or nationalistic, but he must have had good reason to send his wife Eliza back to England to give birth to my grandma Maggie, then to send his daughter Edith back following her pregnancy. Edith’s son was named Victor and was brought up as the youngest child of Joseph and Eliza. I don’t know how convincing their story was, considering that Eliza had been buried in Germany approximately two years earlier, but due to the stigma of a child born out of wedlock this practice had been common over many hundreds of years, therefore I’m sure there were few, if any questions asked. Incidentally, John Lennon of the Beatles was another famous example: he called his mother “Aunty” for most of his childhood.

On their return to England, the family lived on Handel Street, Golcar where the eldest son Willie was already living; it is also where Edith and her new child Victor lived, otherwise she would have been living in destitution or worse. Even then it must have been very difficult to get by, as the welfare state was still more than 50 years away. Victor was clearly someone who wanted to make his mark in the world – soon after he was able to use a hammer and nail (no doubt influenced by the male brain beginning to melt at the onset of puberty) he carved his initials on the stone mullion around the front door of the house. He also carved the initials of his cousin Thelma Littlewood. Their initials are still there to this day: “VIS TL”.

Victor and Thelma’s initials carved on the stone mullion of the front door of the house on Handel St, Golcar

The younger Senior children had to withstand a certain amount of teasing at school, for they all could speak German and had German accents. Some locals actually called them “that German family”. I think I’m correct in saying that England and Germany have always had a mutual respect for each other, which is surprising really when considering the two world wars. But even then, it must have been difficult to fit in to a completely new environment. Nine family members living in one household and three or four siblings arriving in your school, possibly in the same class, must have created some local tension. 

In the photo below, my grandma is the long blonde-haired girl stood just in front of her dad. Edith is the tall figure stood at the back. Granddad Edward and Grandma Maggie were married in 1913 and by 1926 they had six children two dying within the first few days, luckily four surviving well into adulthood, including my mum, and all having children of their own. Grandma lost all her hair in 1921, soon after her third child Frank was born. Apparently it is common for mothers to experience hair loss after childbirth, but with Grandma it was permanent. She wore a woolly cap for a while. I only ever saw her wearing a wig, and growing up with that image never felt odd. It was just how grandma looked.

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