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From Jeely Piece to Jane Haining

From Jeely Piece to Jane Haining

Wednesday June 26

Jackie Macadam meets Mary Miller, author of a new book on Jane Haining.


“It’s about community. It’s always about community.”

Mary Miller, mother, minister’s wife, professional and now author of a new book about the life of Jane Haining, lives what she believes. Born into a well-to-do Edinburgh family, Mary spent most of her adult life living in housing schemes in some of the poorest parts of Scotland with husband, the Very Rev Dr John Miller and family.

“I was born and brought up in central Edinburgh where my father was an advocate,” she said.

 “I studied modern languages at Oxford study and then did a postgraduate degree in medical social work at Edinburgh and Glasgow universities.

“Round about that time my sister was engaged and wanted to marry at the Canongate Church. Of course some attendance was required, so she asked me to come along with her to the services so that she wouldn’t feel so out of place.

“The first time we went I met a student assistant minister who I fell in love with at first sight.

“I was 18 and he was 23. Luckily he liked me as well and we quickly began going out together.

 “We got engaged when I graduated and we married the year before I qualified with my social work degree.

“Our first home was in Craigmillar in Edinburgh, a housing ‘scheme’ where John was an assistant minister. We had a council flat in Niddrie.

“We developed a ‘taste’ for housing schemes. We liked the people and the sense of community. Our work was mainly with young people there, and frankly, it was a great laugh.”

After a year in the USA, where Mary worked in a stenographer’s office while John completed a Masters degree in New York, John was called to Castlemilk East Church in Glasgow.

“We were initially given a manse in a leafy area outside the parish but we weren’t happy with the gulf between the people John served and the life we led, so we put in for a council house in the scheme and after two years we moved in.

“Castlemilk had been built quickly to accommodate overflow and had no amenities. A lot of people were crammed into a small space. There were problems of overcrowding, sectarianism, gang territories and the all the struggles of poverty. But they were good people and they looked out for us.

“The church community there was terrific. On one occasion, we had new turf laid over a large hole where a tree had come down in the church grounds, to make it look its best for a wedding that Saturday. During the night it was stolen. We had new turf laid. Again it was stolen. The third time we laid it, members of the congregation volunteered and actually slept on the turf outside the church overnight so that it would be safe.

“I helped set up ‘The Jeely Piece Club’ when I was there, a project giving local children something to do during the holidays. We started with maybe a dozen families. When it was full, and children arrived wanting to come in, we told the parents the children could come but they’d need a parent with them. That way more people got involved, so more kids could be catered for.

“We were able to persuade the council to let us use buses that were unused during the holidays, so we were able to take the kids on a trip at least once a week.

“We were very much guided by the ‘by the people, for the people’ ethos. It was important that the people in the area were at the heart and guiding the projects.

“To begin with there were hundreds of children in the area, but with the closures of the heavy industries, people began to move away and schools began to be closed. One of the schools had been in a block of flats and we put in a successful application to take over the building, so were able to set up a permanent base.

“We learned to move – and change – with the times.

“In the 90s there was a gradual increase in the gang-related violence in the area and as a reaction to that, we set up the ‘Play It Safe’ team. Every day, after school, we would go out and engage with children where they were, including the local ‘bridge’ where some of the gangs would meet and taunt each other.

“John retired from Castlemilk after 36 years. We knew we’d miss the people, but we were taken aback at just how much they cared about us. It was incredibly touching.”

I ask Mary where her attraction to writing about Jane Haining came in.

She laughs. “It was her love of children.

“When I was asked to write the book, I did a lot of research. One thing really stuck with me. It was her refusal to leave the children. I have often asked myself if I’d have had the courage to stay the way she did, when the others from the Church were called home. I would love to say that I would have done the same – but I don’t know if I could have.

“We all know the generalised story of Jane Haining. The woman who refused the Church’s order to come back home and stayed with her charges when Hungary was invaded. Perhaps she thought, being a foreigner, and a non-Jew, she might be safer, but we know it didn’t turn out that way.

“Jane was denounced by a relative of an ex-employee who was upset at being sacked, even though Jane had had no option but to let the woman go.

“She was taken to the city jail and then transferred to Auschwitz, where she was murdered.

“There’s a heartrending story told by one of her pupils who was given a class photograph to look at. She went through each girl, each face, and pointed out the ones who had died. Out of the class, only two girls survived.

“I don’t know if Jane knew what happened to her children,” Mary said. “She was very sharp, so it’s likely she had an idea. But I like to think that to the end, she cared for those around her. That’s who she was.” 

Jane Haining, A Life of Love and Courage by Mary Miller is published by Birlinn and is available in hardback priced £14.99.


This is an abridged version of a feature from June's Life and Work. Subscribe