The Essex Riviera is not all sun, sea and glamour. Alongside the nail salons, fake tans and white Range Rovers, sits the depressing shabbiness of coastal towns that have seen better days. The district of Tendring is home to Clacton and Jaywick, both of which were once the preserve of cockney holidayers eager to experience such local delicacies as oysters and jellied eels. Cheap flights and package holidays resulted in the steady decline of such towns. Forlorn shops are boarded up, hotels with faded facades lie empty and fragile people with fractured lives shuffle along the streets struggling to make ends meet.
Harwich’s fate has little to do with the tourism industry and everything to do with the inexorable rise of the container port across the estuary. Felixstowe is one of the biggest ports in Europe and handles more than four million containers a year. The giant cranes of Felixstowe dwarf the historic buildings of Harwich and the once vibrant port at Parkeston Quay has the feeling of an apocalyptic wasteland. The ferries to the Continent have all but left and the grandiloquent station facade is testament to an age that has long since passed. Faded signs exhort non-existent drivers emerging from the bowels of long departed car ferries to ‘drive on the left’. On Saturday morning, I parked the car in the station car park and wandered down to the sea wall. All was deserted and the silence was only broken by the sound of containers being unloaded across the water in Suffolk. Every clang reminds one that international commerce has migrated from Essex to Suffolk – no wonder local rivalries run deep.
It was not always like this, Harwich had once been a bustling port. Home to a naval dockyard in the late seventeenth century, the town has a fascinating heritage. Much of the town sits in a preservation area and a gentle meander through its narrow streets reveals many hidden treasures. Stroll down King’s Street and you will chance upon a sailmaker’s house that was built in 1600. The Electric Palace Cinema was opened in 1911 and is one of the oldest purpose-built cinemas in the world. It features in ‘Downton Abbey: A New Era’. The Napoleonic redoubt at Dovercourt and the gothic splendour of the parish church of St Nicholas are all worth exploring. Harwich was the likely launching point of the famous ‘Mayflower’ that set out for the New World in 1620. Daniel Defoe visited in the 1700s and described Harwich as being:
‘a town of hurry and business, not much of gaiety and pleasure; yet the inhabitants seem warm in their nests and some of them are very wealthy’.
The famous diarist Sameul Pepys was the town’s MP and famous seafarers such as Hawkins, Frobisher and Drake all sailed from Harwich In 1918, the German U-boat fleet surrendered at Harwich. Indeed, the port remained reasonably vibrant in my childhood. Travelling to school from Ipswich to Colchester on the train, I became friends with a number of boys who joined us from the branchline at Manningtree. All of their dads worked at the port. Some held administrative roles whilst others helped load the container ships which must have seemed like a never ending game of Tetris.
The town’s proudest hour came on the eve of the Second World War and it was for this reason that I made a fleeting visit on Saturday morning.
For the ten thousand (predominantly Jewish) children who were rescued from Nazi occupied territories between November 1938 and September 1939, Harwich served as the port of entry. The now deserted quayside through which I wandered once played host to one of the greatest humanitarian rescue efforts of the twentieth century. Exhausted children, separated from their families, alighted from the crowded ships that had brought them from immediate danger to a life of uncertainty, displacement and hope. The majority of these children were never to see their parents again and it is difficult to imagine the misery and suffering of those who had left everything behind. Upon arrival, the children were taken to a holiday camp a few miles down the road in Dovercourt where they were temporarily billeted in chalets, whilst various charitable organisations tried to work out what to do with them.
Fifty miles away in Cambridge, the mathematical genius, Alan Turing (him of Enigma fame) and his friend Fred Clayton, described in his obituary as, ‘a ferociously talented scholar’, decided to offer some assistance. They had heard of a public school in Lancashire that was prepared to offer a number of scholarships to those fleeing persecution in Europe. The name of this school was Rossall and it should come as no surprise that our School responded to the plight of these children with a compassion that is the enduring hallmark of a community founded upon strong Christian values.
Rossall accepted at least three boys from the Kindertransport. Gerd Haag, Robert Augenfeld and Karl Schneider all joined the School in 1939. Karl and Robert were sponsored by Alan Turing and Fred Clayton and they are pictured below on holiday in Sussex. Karl’s mother died in Auschwitz-Birkenau whilst he was a pupil here in School. Here on the Fylde Coast, we can sometimes feel a little remote from events in world history but the trauma of the Holocaust was felt right here in the Square.
The story of the Rossall Kindertransport children is one that deserves to be told and we will do so when we have thoroughly researched it. It is a story that starts in Dresden and Vienna and is inextricably bound with the rise of Nazism and events such as Kristallnacht.
Until recently, there was little in Harwich to commemorate this momentous event in the town’s history. Shortly before he died at the age of 106, Nicholas Winton visited the town. He is the unsung hero of the Kindertransport, the modest civil servant who kept his role hidden – that is until Ester Rantzen managed to trick him into participating in an episode of ‘That’s Life’. There are few more moving pieces of television than watching Winton, by this stage well into his eighties, weep as he looks around him and contemplates the lives that he had saved. Anthony Hopkins is currently playing Winton in a soon to be released BBC film. He is the English Schindler and proof that ordinary people can and do achieve extraordinary things.
Here at Rossall, we should commemorate our role in these extraordinary events. Turing’s association with the School has been obscured by the passage of time but it is extraordinary to contemplate the fact that one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century partnered with Rossall to address a humanitarian crisis. A few weeks ago, a sculpture was unveiled in Harwich to commemorate the events of 1938-39. You will find similar sculptures in Berlin, Prague, the Hague and Liverpool Street Station in London.
Viewed from the front, one sees a confident girl clutching her suitcase and striding down the gangplank. Viewed from behind, one sees an anxious boy glancing out to sea – his gaze wistfully focused towards the Continent and all that he had left behind. A few yards from the sculpture is an explanation board that tells the story of Harwich’s role in the Kindertransport. It is a powerful evocation of loss and trauma but it also pays homage to the kindness that exists in this island nation of ours. We should be proud of our long tradition of providing a safe haven for those fleeing conflict. Many of the Kindertransport children went on to build successful lives and their descendants provide the most fitting tribute to their resilience and courage. Moreover, the fact that there are so many descendants of Kindertransport children in the UK should remind us all that good really does triumph over evil.
Once again, Europe faces an ongoing humanitarian crisis and, once again, like the townsfolk of Harwich some eighty five years ago, Rossallians are playing their part.
Headmaster of Rossall School