The extraordinary story of the Bath-Alkmaar link

The barrel organ used by the Rotary Club of Bath to raise funds for the then-starving children of Alkmaar in the Netherlands

The legendary Bath-Alkmaar barrel organ


The Dutch city of Alkmaar is one of four officially twinned with Bath.  But the link to the Netherlands is the oldest, in fact it is one of the oldest official links between two cities anywhere in the world, with a history dating to the final months of World War 2.  What many don't know is that the Rotary Club of Bath, and a small barrel organ, were the catalysts in an extraordinary and inspiring tale...

The story of how this link came to be forged began in 1940-41, when Hitler's armies had conquered Western Europe and Britain stood alone against the Nazi might.

At that time, Rotarian F.C.Wills, "Jimmie", as the popular secretary of the Rotary Club was widely known, was head warden of A Group, in the city's Civil Defence Service. One of his part-time wardens was a young Dutchman, Mr. Eli Prins, a schoolmaster and member of a well-known Alkmaar family. When the Germans overran Holland, Mr. Prins escaped across the North Sea and came to Bath where his sister, who had married an English man, lived. Mr. Prins who lives at Bathford, near Bath, married a Cornish bride and became a widely travelled lecturer and broadcaster.

During the war, Mr. Prins lectured on behalf of the Netherlands Information Bureau and the Help Holland Council, telling people here what was happening in Holland and how his fellow countrymen were resisting the Germans.

When he toured warden posts after the air raid sirens had gone, Rotarian Wills often had Mr. Prins with him. On "quiet nights" they talked ,... and Mr. Prins, naturally, told Rotarian Wills about his home town of Alkmaar, of all the suffering, privation and starvation war was bringing. He spoke of the work of the Help Holland Council, of how they were trying to persuade people in this country to make gifts of clothes and tools, of anything that could be spared, to be put in store until the day of Holland's liberation . ... for "of course", as Jimmie says, "we never thought we would lose the war". On it being put to them, the Council of the Rotary Club of Bath, agreed to help Holland in the manner suggested and to launch a local campaign. Then came the severe air raids on Bath, in April l9 The city itself was sorely stricken and could tend only to its own wounds.

But, when some months later it was possible to take up again the question of help for Holland, Rotarian Wills had the idea, "Why not adopt a town in Holland?" It would be more personal. People would respond more generously. Why not adopt Alkmaar?"

As Secretary of the Rotary Club of Bath he was sent to London to discuss the idea with the Help Holland Council representative. It was not well received by the official concerned. The idea was explained in a letter to Queen Wilhelmina's secretary. The queen approved.

So, with Queen Wilhelmina's consent and blessing, the Rotary Club of Bath adopted Alkmaar.

With the Council of the Rotary Club forming the basis, a committee known as the Bath Alkmaar Adoption Appeal Committee was set up to launch a campaign to raise money and to collect clothes, tinned food, and other articles to be sent to Alkmaar, eventually.

The Mayor, as an Honorary member of the Club, was present at the special meeting of the Council of the Rotary Club of Bath on March 26th, 1945, when the Bath-Alkmaar Adoption Appeal Committee was formed, with the President of the Rotary Club (the late Rotarian Wallis G. Carter) as Chairman, and Rotarian F Wills as Secretary. There was to be an "Alkmaar Week" from July 23rd to 28th that year. The appeal met a strong response from all sections of the city. Womens' organisations helped, sports clubs ran events to raise money. Over 15,000 articles of clothing were collected, cleaned, repaired where necessary, and packed in old tea chests. Over 7,500 pounds was collected in cash.

A barrel organ was bought from Canon Winkle, of Norwich, a collector of such musical instruments, for 25 pounds. The organ was painted in the Dutch national colours. "And on Saturday afternoons", says Jimmie, "six of us toured the streets of Bath with it. Eventually we collected 1,000 pounds. This money was allocated to the purchase of the new English section of the Alkmaar Library: the section had been destroyed by the Germans".

Part of the efforts to raise money during the Alkmaar Week in July was a Ball in the Pump Room. By that time the war against Germany was over, Alkmaar had been liberated; but no actual physical contact had as yet been made between Bath and its adopted Dutch town.

Naturally, with victory won and our Dutch allies and friends at last free, the Alkmaar Week Ball was a highlight occasion. Representatives of the Netherlands Government and Armed Forces were invited and accepted. Then came the idea . What about inviting to the Ball the Burgomaster of Alkmaar, then completely unknown to anyone in Bath? Arid how could one get in touch with him? For communications were still subject to all manner of restrictions.

During the war "Jan van Alkmaar" had broad cast to the Dutch people over the BBC. "Jan van Alkmaar" was unable to broadcast an invitation from Bath to the Burgomaster of Alkmaar but he did promise to send a letter via a British Major who would be passing through Al1 At the same time a telegram was also sent to the Burgomaster - "And", says Jimmie, "those were the days of priorities for telegrams. But the girl in the telephone exchange was sympathetic and the telegram went off. I have never met her to this day, but I have often wished I could, so that I could thank her for her kind action."

The English Major delivered the letter of invitation to the Burgomaster of Alkmaar. At that time Alkmaar was under the military jurisdiction of the liberating Allied Armies. The Burgomaster showed the letter to the British Town Major in charge of Alkmaar, who said unfortunately he could do nothing in the matter. The telegram arrived. It had taken three days. General Mark Clark, then commanding the Allied North Holland Forces, happened to be calling on the Burgomaster. He was shown the telegram and letter, and at once said to the Burgomaster, "You must go". The General arranged for the Burgomaster to be flown to London in an American Air Force plane. So there he was, Jonkheer F.H. van Kinschot, Burgomaster of Alkmaar, on his way with a suitcase of borrowed clothes, an American travel warrant and 1pound to spend, to meet his unknown English hosts.

And at Bath nothing was then known of these events. The day of the Ball it rained all day. Says Jimmie, "I had a sign "Alkmaar" on my wind screen and secretly I met every train from London, but not a sign of a Dutchman. We had arranged an austerity supper (those were the days of rationing) in the Rotary Room of the Old Red House for our distinguished guests, among them the Mayor, before going to the Ball at the Pump Room. "We were just about to take soup when a waitress told me a gentleman outside wanted to see me. I thought it was someone seeking a ticket to the Ball. I went to see. Standing there was a very tall man with a fine presence. He bowed and said, "Mr. Wills?" I said, "Yes". He replied "van Kinschot" So I went in, claimed the attention of the company and said, "May I introduce to you the Burgomaster of Alkmaar?"There was a silence. Then in walked the Burgomaster, and what a magnificent reception he got! He then joined us  in the first meal he had had since five that morning. He had come to Bath by a late train. A taxi driver had taken him first to my house and then to the Red House. All he knew to say was: "Mr. Wills  Alkmaar".

And that was how the first physical contact was made between Alkmaar and Bath on July 26th, 192i5".

During his short stay the Burgomaster, on behalf of its Town Council, presented the Honorary Freedom of Alkmaar to the Mayor of Bath (the late Alderman Edgar Clements) the late Rotarian Wallis

G. Carter (President of the Rotary Club and Chair man of the Alkmaar Appeal Committee) and Rotarian F.C, Wills (Secretary of the Committee). It was the first time in its long history that the Honorary Freedom of Alkmaar had been presented to any foreigner.

On his return the Burgomaster invited the Mayor of Bath, the President of the Rotary Club and Rotarian Wills to Alkmaar to join in the town's liberation festivities. The Mayor was unable to go, so Rotarian Basil Hall, who had done much to help in the Alkmaar appeal work, was invited to be the third member of the party. The trio, who became known as the "Three Musketeers", flew to Holland in a Netherlands military air transport, a Dakota. They landed at Walsenburg Airport on August 30th 1945, and were taken by car to Alkmaar, forty miles away.

Alkmaar was festive with flowers and decorations, everywhere the national colours were flying, in celebration of Queen Wilhelmina's birthday, for the liberation festivities, and for the visit of the "Friends from Bath", Signs were up saying: "Alkmaar Thanks Bath". At the house of the Burgomaster, the Bath party received a great welcome from the Alkmaar Bath Committee.

It was a memorable experience for the Bath party and a diary they kept gives a fascinating account of their eight day visit.

They were given an official welcome at the Town Hall; they shared in the liberation celebrations at the Town Hall, afterwards joining in the dancing in the streets until the small hours. They visited Lamar's famous cheese market  and on the spot where five Dutchmen of the underground resistance had been shot, they placed a wreath on behalf of Bath. At the invitation of the Town Council they renamed the chief bridge of Alkmaar, the Bath Bridge; on one side of it is Bath's coat of arms.

They saw a procession of the town's 5,000 children. It was their Queen birthday  "and", says Jimmie, "as they passed by wearing their pitiful bits of clothing, it was then that we fully realised that Bath's effort had indeed been necessary. The need for the cases of clothing we had sent was plain. No child had a decent pair of shoes, some were barefoot. Girls were wearing their mother's dresses, boys were wearing men's trousers. Some families had to share clothes".

The party were taken to the battlefields and to the areas that had been deliberately flooded by the Germans in the last weeks and days of the war. What they saw made an unforgettable impression  behind all the Dutch joy of being free was the terrible destruction and desolation, privation and starvation.

Burgomaster Jonkheer van Kinschot had been dismissed by the Nazis for non-collaboration and went into hiding for three years as did two of his three sons. The Bath party visited the farm where the Burgomaster wife delivered messages for the underground newspapers which were hidden in an organ and never found by the Germans. The underground paper was printed in Rotterdam, t0 miles away. Although she had Germans stationed in her home and they said to her frequently We have captured your husband", never once was the Burgomaster's wife deceived or trapped into betraying her husband's whereabouts.

Meanwhile, in Bath itself, arrangements were going ahead for the reception from Alkmaar of 50 children who were suffering from malnutrition. Owing to the hardships they had suffered, the children were in a heartrending state when they arrived in October, 1945, under the care of Dutch leaders. They stayed with Bath families for three months, and this was the first of exchange visits of various kinds, of children and of sports clubs' members, that grew with the passing of years.

It was in 1946, from April 24th May 1st, that the first big visit was made to Bath from Alkmaar of civic dignitaries, members of the Alkmaar Rotary Club, and their ladies. Heading the guests was Jonkheer van Kinschot who subsequently became Burgomaster of Leyden. He was succeeded as Burgomaster of Alkmaar by Professor Koelma, who, as Alkmaar's Town Clerk, had been arrested by the Germans and taken to a concen traction camp during the war. When Holland was on the point of being liberated he was rescued by the English, later he resumed his duties as Town Clerk and then became Burgomaster. But his sufferings had been too much for Professor Koelma and he died, being succeeded as Burgomaster of Alkmaar by Dr. H.J.Wytema., who headed the official Alkmaar visit to Bath in 1948.

In the autumn of 1946, a party of members of the Rotary Club of Bath and their ladies went as guests to Alkmaar. So began the regular exchange of visits, including sporting fixtures, between Bath and Alkmaar, graced on a number of occasions by the presence of the Mayor of Bath.

At the meeting in Alkmaar in 1946 it was announced that Alkmaar, as one token of its deep gratitude and feelings of kinship, was presenting to Bath a fine copper gong, used to summon the City Council to order. This gift was one of many exchanged between the two cities  among them the barrel organ which raised over 1,000 at Bath for the Alkmaar appeal, and which is now in the Alkmaar Museum.

The link between the two communities was first established, on Bath's side, by the Rotary Club and was given support by the citizens of Bath. In Alkmaar, where the Rotary Club had been proscribed by the Germans, the main support from the outset had naturally come from the official civic side. In addition to all this, there have been the inter change of visits between the Rotarians of Bath and Alkmaar,

At Bath the work done by the Bath Alkmaar Adoption Appeal Committee was later taken over by the Council of the Rotary Club. It was continued by the Bath Exchange Committee, consisting of members of the Council of the Rotary Club of Bath, and the co-option of representatives of various sporting organisations.

In 1964 it was decided that henceforth the exchange of visits between Bath and Alkmaar should be, on Bath's part, a civic responsibility, and that there should be quinquennial exchanges between the Burgomaster of Alkmaar and the Mayor of Bath, beginning with a visit by the Mayor to Alkmaar in 1965, followed by the first return visit by the Burgomaster in April 1966.

The Rotary Club of Bath has now handed over the task of maintaining the Bath Alkmaar link to the care of the civic authority. But, the Bath Club, in the words of Jimmie, can "feel proud of being the first club to have adopted a foreign town in 1945 and can take some credit for being the founder of the "twinning" of cities which is now common throughout the world".

A tale of two cities that began in the dark days of 1940 has, not a happy ending, but a happy continuing, now more than 70 years on.

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