Who was Alan Overton, the unsung hero who saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish children

Alan Overton was a shopkeeper in Rugby and Christadelphian who believed in not calling attention to one’s own good deeds


Left: Alan Overton with the boys of Little Thorn hostel in Rugby, with house mother Mrs Sperber, Right: Alan Overton

On the eve of Yom HaShoah, thousands of descendants of Kindertransport refugees are likely unaware that they owe their lives to a little known shopkeeper from the market town of Rugby.

While the story of Sir Nicholas Winton is widely known, that of Alan Overton has rarely made headlines. Yet, the latter worked tirelessly in the late 1930s to find homes and sponsors across Britain for over 250 Jewish children, saving them from almost certain death at the hands of the Nazis.

His granddaughter, Jane Mackenzie, 68, daughter of the eldest of Overton’s four children, has, for years, been tracing the details of this incredible story.

The reason it has never been fully told before was due, Mackenzie says, to the strict Christian sect of which Overton was a “devoted” member. Christadelphians are brought up to neither broadcast their good deeds nor to engage politically, only the latter of which Overton evidently flouted.

They also believe that the Jewish people are God’s chosen people, and the way in which they have “suffered throughout history and their fate as refugees was to [Overton] evidence of the truth of scripture, as was the growing Zionist movement,” Mackenzie said.

Born at the turn of the century, Overton believed he was living through the exciting days when, in fulfilment of Biblical prophecy, Jewish people were returning to their ancient homeland.

According to his granddaughter, he had a keen interest in the state of Israel from the beginning of the twentieth century, and, as an observer, he attended every debate in the House of Commons about the subject up until Britain ended its mandate and the State of Israel was declared in 1948. This included being present for the critical debate that occurred following Kristallnacht, for which Overton was able to watch from the Commons floor instead of the gallery thanks to his friendship with the MP for Rugby.

“Throughout the 1930s, whenever he learned there was to be a debate about Mandatory Palestine, the persecution of Jews, or the rise of Hitler’s Germany, he would get straight into his car and drive down to parliament to be abreast of the situation,” Mackenzie said. “He had many contacts and knew politicians, and exerted his influence as much as he could.”

Overton began to volunteer for the Movement for the Care of Children from Germany and became one of its most active members.

After Kristallnacht, he received hundreds of letters written by distraught Jewish parents in mainland Europe.

Mackenzie herself has seen some of these “heartrending” letters, written by “desperate parents, pleading with every fibre of themselves for my grandfather to save their little children, often with photos of their sons and daughters paper-clipped to the letters”.

Overton became “absolutely driven” in a pursuit to find homes in Britain for Jewish children, mostly from Germany and Austria, fleeing Nazi persecution. As well as homes, Overton found over 250 sponsors to agree to cover the £50 bond demanded for each child by the German government, the equivalent of over £3,000 today.

“He travelled up and down the country, organising public meetings in town halls, speaking with people, pleading and persuading them to become foster families,” Mackenzie said.

“My auntie Sylvia (Overton’s youngest child) said she never saw him around that time as he was out morning, noon, and night doing this. He was constantly organising and speaking at meetings, gathering addresses and money and corresponding. He knew that with every address and £50, a child would be able to come out of danger.”

He was a “riveting and wonderfully charismatic” public speaker, whose magnetism sometimes drew hundreds of people to come and hear him speak. “People had shivers up their spines when he spoke; they were mesmerised,” Mackenzie said. “At one talk, over 400 people came to listen to him asking them to show compassion and make their homes available.”

Overton’s own home became a transit house for children on their way to foster families, and his own children were made to make way as he regularly arrived home late at night, having driven the more than 80 miles from his home in Rugby to Liverpool Street Station and back, his car packed with frightened children who had arrived on the Kindertransport.

Mackenzie said her mother used to recall that she would “hear the crunch of gravel on the driveway late at night, and they would be ushered out of their beds and told to sleep in the living room. They would hear children they didn’t know softly sobbing as they went upstairs [...] and hear them crying during the night, saying ‘Mutti, Mutti’”.

As it was much more difficult to place boys than girls, many teenage boys found themselves with no home to go to and would be, Overton feared, more likely to be seen as enemy aliens and sent to internment camps. For this reason, Overton established and ran a hostel close to his home in Bilton, Rugby, called Little Thorn.

Mackenzie’s mother kept a diary in which she recounted going to visit the boys in Little Thorn. She described it as a “a happy place, full of warmth”.

For the 12 to 15 boys staying there at any one time, Overton arranged for films to be shown, swimming, hiking trips and table tennis competitions.

“He enjoyed being with the boys and had a great sense of fun, often playing practical jokes, but he was also determined that they should keep their own culture and history,” Mackenzie said. “He was firm that they must keep to their traditions, and he even got a rabbi to come in to teach them about Judaism and the Torah.”

When Mackenzie spoke with one of the boys, Hans Schnabl, over 50 years later, he was “overcome with emotion and moved to tears”, describing Overton as a “friend and father to them all. They loved him.”

Esther Worboys, a granddaughter of another one of the boys, Eric Muller, who went to live in Little Thorn aged 16, around the time most of his family were killed in Auschwitz, said: “It was an incredibly difficult time for my grandfather. He was quite a reserved boy, didn’t join in the conversations the children had on the train, and he described the first few days spent in a temporary transit camp in Dovercourt in Essex as cold and bleak, where the children were treated like outcasts.

“But when he was moved to Rugby to be in Little Thorn, he became much happier. He enjoyed the busy and kind atmosphere, people always coming and going.

“He had a huge amount of respect for Alan Overton, whose name he always revered, and talked about him often, even many years later. He said he was selfless, energetic, caring and a towering father figure.”

Muller, who died in 2001 at the age of 80, for a time returned to Rugby every year for a reunion with some of the other Little Thorn boys.

To honour her grandfather’s work, in 2006, Mackenzie was invited to London by Sir Nicholas Winton for the unveiling of the statue dedicated to the Kindertransport in the forecourt of Liverpool Street Station.

Mackenzie says that at one point, Winton took her hand in his and told her that her grandfather, whom he had known, “’did so much more than I did and saved so many more. I happened to be there and did what I could for a time, but your grandfather carried on throughout the war and never once stopped, saving the lives of hundreds.’”

Overton died in 1975, having witnessed the creation of Israel, which for him “was the fulfilment of prophecy”.

He also watched the hundreds of children he knew by name and for whom he had advocated so relentlessly, go on to create families of their own.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive