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A Shout From The Attic: The May Rushworth Story

Ronnie Bray tells of a wartime court case, at the heart of which was a big lie.

To read more of Ronnie’s absorbing life story please click on A Shout From The Attic in the menu on this page.

If May Rushworth is still alive she will be more than a hundred years old. For that reason I feel comfortable in telling her story. I also feel comfortable about telling it because almost every word of it is true because newspapers do not lie, courts do not lie, and I try hard not to render verdicts not supported by the evidence.

Nineteen-forty-three was the year plonked down almost in the middle of the Second World War, which was the “War that Could Never Be,” because the previous World War was declared by wise men to be “The War to End All War.”

I had celebrated my seventh birthday with cake made from tea leaves and bran and thought myself well done to, especially when they brought out the Shaw’s Dandelion and Burdock fizzy pop, the drink destined to replace nectar as the favourite quaff of the gods. Chiefly, I should say, on my personal recommendation.

But my celebration had been over by three months no weeks and three days when an unusual case unfolded at Hull Police Court. On the docket that day, the unforgettable fourteenth day of April nineteen-forty-three, the nation – well, those who lived in or nearby Kingston-upon-Hull – was shocked to its core to discover that one of our number had not been pulling her weight in the War Effort.

For newbies who have no inkling what the War Effort is, it is the Effort put forth by every man woman and child in the British Isles who was not a traitor seeking the destruction of the oldest and best democracy in the world. That one who did not pull her weight was the eponymous May Rushworth.

Now, dear reader, to be fair I do not know whether May suffered from the “Toothache To End All Toothaches” that prevented her from pitching into the Effort, or whether she was possessed of a demonic spirit that commanded her not to participate in the Effort, or even if she had undergone a transformation into a spiritual Hun, but it is evident from the evidence that she did not do as she was needed to do.

Had she done so, then, who knows, the war might have ended a half hour sooner than it did and saved an hundred or so lives, half a hundred limbs, or a score or so mental breakdowns as the War wound down two years later. That is, I admit, pure speculation, but it is not without foundation because it has been scientifically and anecdotally determined that the longer any war goes on, the more casualties it accrues to its ultimate total. This is why May’s dereliction, whatever the circumstances leading to it, was held to be as serious as it was.

Had she been required to parachute into occupied France and blow up the Vichy French, be catapulted into Germany to strip the skin of Herr Hitler, or have been ordered to swim ashore at some deserted Norwegian fjord to decapitate Vidkun Quisling thus rendering his condition ‘acceptable,’ then we would have understood her reluctance to play her part in the War Effort, because such activities could be dangerous, and there would have been a strong likelihood of her not returning to her lodgings, her teapot, her knitting, and her ginger cat. But, she was not asked to do such things, jointly or severally.

Her role, although an essential part of the War Effort, did not involve her in any more danger than she was in crossing the street, or staying at home drinking ersatz tea and stroking her cat. Volunteering in the War for the War Effort was something that everyone did without prompting, and the establishment of a Compulsory Enrolment Order guaranteed that such volunteers would always be available to keep up the War Effort for the duration of the War of their own free will and choice.

Miss Rushworth had been compulsorily elected to be a volunteer whose duty was to take her turn as per roster to watch in the streets around her home for those nasty little inflammatory objects known as incendiary bombs. These were so common that there was hardly a house in the country that didn’t have at least one stood by the side of the clock on the parlour mantelpiece as a spill holder.

It was noted that the place where May was to keep lookout for luminous objects falling from the sky on parachutes the size of large handkerchiefs to set fire to the homes of the besieged British was unfilled, unoccupied, uninhabited, deserted, vacant. One who was vigilant noted the absence of the missing invigilator. The neighbourhood was, therefore, in danger of catching fire without alarm being raised whereby those at risk could get out of their homes before they were engulfed in a deadly conflagration. That, under wartime conditions, was not only a serious matter, but was also illegal, close to treasonable in the eyes of the people, most of whom wished to survive.

May Rushworth was aged thirty-four at the time, and so old age could not be raised in her defence. When she revealed her defence to the Stipendiary Magistrate he began to be sympathetic to her. It seemed that the poor girl was not at her place of duty on the night in question because she could not understand whatever orders had been told her because she was stone deaf!

When she entered the dock she told the magistrate’s clerk that she was ‘stone deaf’ and from her behaviour it seemed to be verified. Even though ignorance of the law is not considered a legitimate defence, in these circumstances that bench was prepared to take a lenient view and give her a second chance, trusting that the relevant authorities would ensure that she received her instructions to attend for duty as a fire-watcher in written form, since she seemed capable of reading, and also of speaking clearly.

However, the court was considering dropping that course of action when a man who lived at the same address as Rushworth, namely at Whitedale Avenue, off Gloucester street, in Hull, testified that he had known her since she was a child, and that she had always been very deaf and mentally slow. Case closed?

Making manly attempts to have her understand the court proceedings, the clerk to the Court, the prosecuting solicitor, and witnesses went up to the defendant and shouted loudly directly into her shell-likes, but she made no reaction, and stared into space, acting as though she did not hear them.

However, the case could not be dismissed until all the evidence had been given. The first witness for the prosecution was the policeman who had questioned her after a complaint had been made against her, and the second was the constable who has served her with the court summons. His testimony was that he had found her normal in hearing, speech, and understanding.

The court looked surprised. He further testified that when he questioned her she had a defiant attitude and was awkward. He told the court that he had to wait a whole morning before she would see him, but that she had answered his questions put to her in his normal voice, until the man who had spoken as her witness interrupted his questioning and directed her not to say another word.

The constable who had served Miss Rushworth with the summons supported the first constable’s statement, saying that he found Rushworth quite normal. At this, the Stipendiary lost all the sympathy he had been amassing for the ‘unfortunate’ woman, and let her have it! “I do not like people who waste the Police time with humbug!” he roared, judiciously.

He fined missing Miss May Rushworth £2 00d with 39/- costs, including 1½ guineas solicitor's fee on one summons to be paid within fourteen days, or ten days imprisonment, and £2 00 on the second summons to be paid within twenty-eight days or thirty days imprisonment in default.

May does not often fall in April, but it did in 1943 – in Whitedale Avenue – off Gloucester street – Hull, when a volunteer to the War Effort failed to be where she was legally obliged to be and told an un-British lie in an attempt to avoid punishment. We are not told the fate of the man who perjured himself in an effort to save her.

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