On the Trail of the Quaker Aunts

A small woman in heavy boots is striding across the Swiss Alps in a thick, woolen skirt suit. Children scramble to keep up. It’s 1938. The Quaker Youth Club has come from sooty Manchester for an invigorating hiking holiday, under the stern watch of my great-great Aunty Benia. They climb up close to the German border. By the time they’ve scrambled back down into the valley, their group has grown — and now, not all of the children speak English, nor will all of them be returning home to their parents. Nevertheless, Benia shepherds them all to Manchester, to safety.

Maybe. Or maybe not. This story surfaced abruptly, and all at once the family eccentric, the butt of so many jokes, subject of so many funny stories, shone forth heroic. It seemed impossible. It possibly was.

It was a cold summer day in Yorkshire when I first heard the startling tale of Benia rescuing the refugee children from Nazi Germany. My parents and brother had come from South Carolina for a visit. I was 22 and tired, with a day off from my job in the hospital, where I passed nurses swabs during open heart surgery. We were gathered in my aunt Christine’s warm yellow kitchen, high in the Yorkshire moors. The coal fire was lit, as it always was. Rain pelted the windows.

Christine was my dad’s oldest, favorite sister, and although she had by then retreated into a solitary and sadly anxious widowhood, she could summon the cheer to serve us lunch. She laid out a table of cheese, crackers and cold ham, just as she’d always done, and afterwards she plied my brother and me with Kit-Kats and ice cream, just as she’d always done. She told us the story — she’d recently heard it from Linda, the second sister, teased by the others for her genealogical pursuits. Yet now, somehow, she’d unearthed this marvelous tale of covert adventure. Could it really be true? Christine nodded and shrugged, and wasn’t it a funny world, and wouldn’t you like another Kit-Kat?

It seemed scarcely credible, and yet we absorbed it into the mass of my dad’s family legends. There were many nearly as strange. His father had fought in Burma and kept ducks in his truck. He went to make his friend a cup of tea, and while he was away, a bomb fell on the friend. Christine’s piano teacher was secretly their great-uncle, and so was the one-armed park-keeper. That whole lot of seven siblings had fallen out, and they wouldn’t acknowledge each other anymore. They grew up in a Manchester blown apart by bombs and prone to blindingly thick industrial fogs, and those yellow fogs were thrilling as snow. None of it made any sense to me.

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The Quaker Aunts were keen walkers and hikers, devoted to the sheer, dizzy peaks south of Manchester and to the gorgeous, rumpled wilderness of the Lake District. The family always laughed about the time the Aunts got lost on a walk around Lake Buttermere and had to have the Mountain Rescue called on them. The story made it into the papers, much to their annoyance. Benia, apparently, always insisted that they weren’t lost, they just didn’t know where they were.

The tale puzzled me — I live in the Lakes now, moved up from Manchester, and I’ve been round Buttermere a few times. It’s a sweet, small lake with a softly melting loveliness to match its name. It’s also extremely easy to walk around, with a clear shoreline path that I couldn’t imagine being confusing even back in Benia’s day. How on earth had they managed to get so lost?

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Even with all the other strange stories, the epic of Benia and the refugee children in the Alps bothered me every time I retold it. When I decided to pursue it for this article, I wrote to Linda for details. “Oh, I haven’t heard that story,” she replied, “How exciting.”

But — wasn’t she the one who told it in the first place? “Have you heard about the time Benia went to Cairo when she was 90?” Hadn’t she told this story to Christine? “And the time she travelled across Canada by train? She scared us all by making an unplanned stop in Alberta. She ended up being driven ’round Banff in a fire engine.”

I was baffled. Linda didn’t seem to recognise anything about the story, even though she was meant to have discovered it. Was it possible that Christine had made it all up? I’d heard stories about her love of tricks and pranks, about a mischievous spirit so out of keeping with her later sadness. I couldn’t ask her, though. She’d died not long before. I’d gone to her funeral, turning up an hour late, weeping with frustration at a snarl of cancelled trains, and rushed to catch them at the graveside. It overlooked a wide, wild sweep of moorland and low-browed mountains. Was it possible she’d just been teasing?

“People didn’t speak of such things,” Linda wrote suddenly. “The rescue of all those refugees had to be secret for many years. Grandma West just happened to mention it one day while talking of other things and said no more.”

It wasn’t a joke, then. Still, why was Linda being so cryptic? What was this secret rescue? Why did it have to be secret? It’s no use — we’ve spun away again, whirling away into the beloved tale of how Benia gave away two houses to refugees, to the vast annoyance of her rich brother Isaac, whom she kept asking for more houses.

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Aunty Benia has been the stuff of legend all my life. She was always spoken of as the head of a hoard known as ‘the Quaker Aunts.’ These were fearsome women, sternly silent, difficult and uncompromising. They tromped through family stories in their sensible shoes, wreaking havoc on the ordinary and conventional. I’ve slowly come to realize that, in reality, this fearsome troop only ever consisted of three women: Benia, my great-grandmother Lucy West, and my great-aunt Margaret. Just three women, and yet they were legion.

I knew Margaret, who was old my whole life. I’d visited her my first Easter in England, a nervous 18 year-old university fresher. She served me cake, proudly announcing that it was over a year old. Looking back now, I can see that for her, conversations were like Quaker meetings: one sat in silence until moved by the spirit to speak. At the time, I was just making panicked small talk all by myself. I pelted her with observations, anecdotes and questions. They all vanished without a splash into the deep well of her silence, as my awkwardness spiralled towards desperation. I never dared visit her alone again.

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On the off chance, I asked Linda if she happened to have any details about that walk around Buttermere, whether she knew roughly when it happened. I imagined myself in a local library, hunched over the microfilm, hunting through the years for the little notice of their rescue, the sort you find almost every week in our local paper. To my astonished delight, she sent me scanned clippings of the story — from every national newspaper — complete with Benia’s testy handwritten annotations and corrections. Someone had even taken it upon himself to commemorate the event with a long and dreadful poem about “the little lost ladies of sweet Buttermere.” He depicts them as lost for days rather than a few hours and scolds them for being “foolish” and “naughty.”

Reading the stories, it’s easy to see why it spread. Little old ladies — never mind that Margaret was 35 — become lost on an Easter walk in the hills ’round Buttermere. Night falls, and the worried guest house manager calls out the brand new Cockermouth Mountain Rescue. It was their first ever mission. Meanwhile, the women spot a light in the distance. They follow it for miles through the dark valley, and it leads them, with allegorical rightness, to the home of a country vicar, sat up late reading his Bible. He drives them home, and the Mountain Rescue team return to the Fish Inn for tea and sandwiches.

In the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, it’s a simple Easter miracle, the sort which must have offended Benia’s Quaker sensibilities. The local papers really come through, though, offering so much detail that I want to recreate the walk. My partner and I decide to try it on his only day off that week, even though it’s forecast to be chilly and wet.

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It turns out it was Margaret who started it all, the Quakerism. Her father had been a strict Baptist who wore a tall hat and marched them miles to chapel twice every Sunday. When they turned sixteen, they were free to choose their church. My grandmother chose the Methodists because they were right across the street and had an organ she could play. Margaret chose the Quakers, who were still very far away, and in the strength of her conviction, she brought her mother and her aunt along with her.

They were close, those three. When Margaret was still a teenager, they’d go on weekend camping trips, dragging my grandmother along as well. She’d always tell her boyfriend, George, my grandfather, where they were headed, so that by the time they’d set up camp, George would turn up on his bicycle, to the vast annoyance of the others. He and Benia never did get on.

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I finally get my hands on the Ordinance Survey map the night before our hike around Buttermere. While my partner makes vegan fettuccini alfredo, I sit with the map and my 1953 West Cumberland Times clipping, plotting the route. It’s — oh gosh, it’s long.

It starts skirting along Buttermere, then flings itself up and over a precipitous mountain pass. On the other side of these looming fells — ‘fell’ is the local word for mountain — it follows a river through miles of forest, then takes in the whole stretched length of Ennerdale Water. At the top of the lake, it leaps up again into the fells, taking in a little mountain lake (a ‘tarn’) and a waterfall (a ‘force’) before scrabbling its way down to Conniston Water, Buttermere’s brother, and then finally back full circle.

Thanks to the spectacular specificity of the article, I’m even able to pinpoint the fork in the path where they went wrong. The two paths run parallel at first, but then one branch takes a long, sharp turn round into another valley.

They tried to turn back, Benia explained, but they’d crossed to the wrong side of a river and couldn’t find the bridge again in the dark. They had no choice but to carry on. At the top of the valley, the vicar’s house. The papers claimed they followed his light through the darkness for four miles. Rubbish, said Benia. They just followed the path, came to a road and followed the signs to Loweswater. “We only saw his light right at the end.”

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My grandmother was glad to escape those adolescent camping trips, and my grandfather didn’t want to sleep outside ever again after the war. When my dad was little, they’d pile the family in to the car and drive them the hundred miles north to the Lake District. They’d park by a lake and sit in the car, eating sandwiches and drinking tea from a thermos while the windows fogged up. Then they’d turn around and drive home.

Why would you walk, my grandfather asked, if you could drive? He disapproved of walking — as he disapproved of many things, including chewing gum, cement squirrel statues, and all fiction apart from Robinson Crusoe. He definitely disapproved of Quakers.

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After dinner, Rob and I finger-walk the wide circle of The Quaker Aunts’ walk, counting the map’s kilometer-squares. It’s somewhere between nine and twelve miles. I quail a little. I’ve never actually walked that far.

I’m not outdoorsy. I grew up in the swampy South Carolina lowlands, hating the buggy heat and scared of rattlesnakes and cottonmouths, black widows and brown recluses. I always wanted to be a tomboy but decided, sadly, I was too soft to qualify.

Ridiculously, I took my first ever hike at 20, while protesting the G8 in Scotland: we snuck through woods in an attempt to blockade a road to Gleneagles at dawn. We got hopelessly lost, ended up sleeping on a bridge in the pouring rain, and I managed to get hypothermia in July. My ruggedness quotient is low.

Rob is a mountain goat who grew up in this landscape, and although I pride myself in out-butching him on almost all accounts, he skitters nimbly up fellsides while I struggle and plot out every step, all red-faced determination.

Looking at the penciled route on our map, I realise that by going on the trail of the Quaker Aunts, I’d be setting myself the greatest outdoors challenge of my life.

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What reality, if any, could there be in the story of Benia and the Alps and the children?

Benia certainly did found the Quaker Youth Club and started a summer school, which she staffed from the 1920s to the 1960s. In Manchester, I lived with two queer women who met at Quaker summer school, where one also met her girlfriend. It was wild, they tell me. My uncle Alan went once, a long time before of course, under duress. Another kid pointed out Benia as the scary, awful woman in charge of it all. Alan shamefacedly admitted she was his great aunt, but that she absolutely was awful.

We have the Youth Club she had supposedly used as cover for her rescue mission. Linda also confirmed that she travelled to Germany many times before the war. The center of Quaker operations in post-war Germany was British teacher Bertha Bracey, who worked to feed the hungry and to undo the hatred and suspicion that had arisen between the two countries because of the First World War.

Bracey sounded the alarm as soon as the Nazis came to power, opening a school in Britain for German refugees and urging others to help sponsor refugees through the coils of British immigration procedures.

Benia was, in fact, one of the few in Manchester to take these warnings seriously before Kristallnacht. I know this because there she is in a sleek, heavy history book, Jews and Other Foreigners, by Bill Williams. Already active in Spanish Civil War relief work, she took in a German refugee student in 1937. Williams finds her again, a founding member of the Manchester Quaker Refugee Committee, “Manchester’s most impressive non-Jewish effort on behalf of all manner of victims of the Nazi regime.” It’s thrillingly strange to find her indexed, her external reality confirmed.

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It’s cool when we set out along Buttermere, with clouds hanging so low they snag on the tops of the fells. We’re both oddly nervous and excited, like we’re setting out on a quest. By the time we begin the first ascent, a little hole has ripped in the clouds, and sunlight spills onto distant crags.

The first climb is startlingly steep. I have a bad habit of skim reading maps, and I’d failed to register the dense, close hatching of red contour lines on this slope. We climb past a haze of bluebells. My thighs burn and my vision swims. I stop again and again, gasping. At the top, my fitbit tells me we’ve climbed 100 flights of stairs.

We pick our way down the other side, and with Buttermere behind us, we walk silent miles through the uncanny darkness of a fir plantation, then sunny miles of open woodland, seeing no one. People appear again when we reach the lake — an elderly couple with their border collie, Bramble; a noisy pack of kids and shouting dads rank with weed — but there are no bathers, no boats. Ennerdale keeps its distance, holds its silence and smells strangely of the sea.
The climb away from the water is slower and gentler this time, though almost as high, and by now my feet are insistently sore. We’ve already walked 12 miles. Dismayed, we stare at the map. There’s still a terribly long way to go.

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I follow Williams’ footnotes, and I find his source for the information about Benia: an interview with Margaret. Again, that shock of seeing a homey name in print. I imagine Bill in her musty living room, overlooking her glorious garden, with its rows of bright currant bushes and tangles of sweet peas. Does he notice the battered Karma Sutra on her shelves? Does she serve him that same historic cake? Did she tell him about Benia giving away her two houses?

She definitely does tell him that the Refugee Committee was full of lesbians and feminists, including women who lived openly with their partners in relationships that were fully accepted by fellow Quakers. Two of them, she mentions, were especially fond of hiking — with backpacks — “before this was usual.”

Benia also lived with a woman for many years, in her third and final house, the one she wasn’t allowed to give away. It was right around the corner, in fact, from where I lived with my own wild, queer Quakers. I found it once — a big, handsome Edwardian pile, a house it would be impossible to heat. I imagine her there, with Miss Moon, in decades-long intimacy: midcentury gal pals.

One of the hiking lesbians, May Elliot, was also among the first in Manchester to report on the seriousness of Nazi persecutions. She’d come back from a two month trip round Europe, including a visit to a Dutch school for Jewish refugees. Benia would have heard and listened. Perhaps they talked about it on a hike through the Lake District, packs on their backs.

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The land levels out, up past where gorse grows, a high peaty pass between ridges and peaks. Sheep eye us from boulders and stands of bracken. Their wool is gray and faces white, matching the stones they stand amongst. We’re tired, talking longingly of pints. Rest is a trap now because our legs and feet shout in protest when we start again. It’s been years since I had plantar fasciitis, but it comes searing back now, a stabbing pain with every step.

The ground finally starts to fall away before us: the long, last descent. The drama of the Buttermere Fells unfurls before us, lit up in a flash of sunlit glory. The land swoops and plunges, rears up and soars. On our fellside, the faint path is becoming vanishingly vague. We’re coming to the crucial point, the circled fork in the way, the famous wrong turn.

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Quakers, many of them women, were key in pressuring the British government to implement the Kindertransport program, one of the very few concessions it made to the urgencies of the Nazi persecution. This scheme allowed Jewish children into the country — on the condition that they came alone.

Campaigning to for this, British Quakers visited Jewish communities across Germany, guided of course by Bertha Bracey. They gathered testimony from Jewish parents willing to send their children to safety without them. This evidence was crucial in persuading the government to accede to the proposed plan. Eventually, Kindertransport saved the lives of 10,000 Jewish children.

Apart from this one very particular loosening of immigration restrictions, the British government did almost nothing to help refugees from Nazi Germany. Everything else was left to volunteers and to refugees themselves. Without training or funding, volunteers like the Quaker Refugee Committee did their best to navigate the torturous complexities of immigration law, to secure the necessary guarantees of employment and accommodation, and to accelerate the deathly slowness of bureaucratic churnings.

After work, on the weekends, they plowed through piles of paperwork, trying to bring refugees to safety and to mitigate the problems of refugees already in the city. Benia worked full time as a teacher for deaf and epileptic boys, in the improbably named Soss Moss School for Maladjusted Boys. One stabbed her in the foot with a screwdriver. It was a stupidly long commute, by train and bike. Then she helped to tackle these forms, to mediate disputes at impromptu refugee hostels — these residents are upset about the awful food, and these are annoyed by the house’s self-appointed leader and his nosy micro-management. Through all this grinding grit of detail, Benia and volunteers like her helped to settle 8,000 refugees in Manchester.

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Suddenly, there it is: the split in the trail, two stripes of subtly darkened grass, diverging ever so slightly. The difference in direction seems trivial — two options through a peaty bog, no hint of how sharply they will peel away from each other in time.

The summer sun is still high, but in early April, when the light can fail long before the sun sets, you might not see the fork at all. Off you’d troop, into the gloaming, path winking in and out of sight before you, no idea you’d gone wrong. Indeed, we barely know we’ve gone right. The map and the land don’t quite match, and we’re so sore, so stunned with fatigue we can hardly keep our thoughts straight. My feet are weak and screaming, and I have to calculate each step, skidding on scree. Did any of them have bad feet? Bad hips or knees or backs?

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I find no record of Benia’s heroic Alpine rescue trip. There’s no evidence it happened. It could have. It’s certainly possible. She had the right experiences and connections, and it would have fit with her demonstrated principles and actions. Yet, as much as I want the story to be true — as much as I love the cinematic coolness of it — I’ve gradually come to realise that, even if it were true, it would scarcely have been the most important thing she did. How many children could she have smuggled down from a mountain? Maybe a dozen? Set this against the many more she will have helped by doing paperwork, and it’s clear which would have mattered more.

Ultimately, I think the tale of Benia guiding children across the Alps is a misunderstanding, a simplification. It’s a fabulation formed out of several truths about her life: her travels, her hikes, her commitment to refugees. It condenses these themes into one intensely satisfying story. It’s a story that fits our heroic models: we have a lone figure on a secret mission, one which conveniently requires adventurous exertions in a glorious landscape.

In this instance, the heroic narrative stands in for — and obscures — other forms of heroism, which are far less romantic. It’s a heroism that looks like people going to committee meetings after work. The best way for Benia to help refugees was not to spirit them through the Alps but to do the necessary, tedious paperwork. Instead of thrilling escapades, we have diligence and patience. Instead of lone glory, we have steady cooperation. The closest Benia comes to heroic theatrics is giving away those two houses — an act which didn’t require her to dodge Nazi border guards, just to irritate her brother.

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My partner and I stagger back to flat ground an eternity later, dazed with gratitude to find a clear, level trail. It’s another infinite mile before we drag ourselves into the Fish Inn, where the Mountain Rescue gathered — for pints, not tea — after their curtailed first ever call-out. The damned walk was 20 miles, more than half again as long as we’d estimated. Everything hurts. As we sip our pints and gobble our fries too hot, we think in horror and awe of the Aunts, still walking, for miles and hours more. “Can you imagine?” we ask each other, again and again. “In those boots? On rations? At 70?”

The specter of Benia scoffs and sets off again into the fells, climbing through the gnarled, wind-twisted hawthorns, snowy bright with blossom, stepping lightly through the bluebells that hang on the hillsides like purple smoke, off up into the gold and rosy light.🌲


edited by Heather.


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Elinor is a writer and illustrator who, having fled the swamps of South Carolina, now lives in a vine-smothered tower in the UK. She shares a zodiac profile with Emily Brontë (Leo sun, Cancer moon, Scorpio rising), and that probably explains a lot. You can find her comics by following JollyLadyShark on Facebook and Instagram.

Elinor has written 2 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. I absolutely love this! “Benia, apparently, always insisted that they weren’t lost, they just didn’t know where they were.” I’m going to think of this next time I don’t know where I am when I’m out walking and badly following a map. That must’ve been amazing to recreate their walk!

  2. Seriously splendid atmospheric story. So well written! Look forward to your articles to come; surely there will be more :)!
    Oh and thanks! I learnt what a Fell is 😀

    • I can picture that too! I don’t actually know—it’s one of a few follow-up questions I’m going to grill poor Linda with. I really hope she was. Bill Williams mentions the Mass Transport in his book, saying that there were quite a few Jewish socialist and communist participants, and that these folk were a very different group from the main Manchester Jewish community establishment, which was really focussed on assimilation and respectability (to the extent that it delayed its response to the plight of German Jews for years, to avoid contradicting the British government’s appeasement policy, even though the community leaders were terrified and anguished by what they knew and by their inaction). Not actually related to the Quakers at all, but an interesting scrap of history…

  3. Love this! Especially love this paragraph: “The best way for Benia to help refugees was not to spirit them through the Alps but to do the necessary, tedious paperwork. Instead of thrilling escapades, we have diligence and patience. Instead of lone glory, we have steady cooperation.”

    • It’s a lesson I’ve always struggled with in activism. Romance, glory and excitement are such massive draws for me. But then I really do love a well-run meeting. Paperwork is my achilles heel.

      Also, this conclusion was inspired by the really good podcast “You’re Wrong About…”, which often makes very similar points about the way that we use simple story formats as substitutes for the more complicated and less glamorous, sound-bitey realities.

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