Kenneth Kirkbride’s Story

Kenneth Kirkbride

Kenneth Kirkbride, born in June 1940, was a war baby whose earliest memories are of the war, being ill, and staying in Switzerland. 

Ken’s family lived near the Salford docks, a major target for German bombers. In the ‘Christmas blitz’ of the 22nd-23rd and 23rd-24th  December 1940, Salford was devastated by night-time raids which left 197 dead, 800 injured and 8,000 houses and 15 schools damaged or destroyed. Wartime neighbourhoods were filled with physical reminders of the terrible onslaught, pockmarked with bomb sites or ‘crofts’, which became a familiar playground for many children. Ken recalls:

First memories, it’s a little bit blurred, sometimes I wonder if I was dreaming this, but my first memory is my mother taking me out of my bed or my cot during an air raid, cos we used to live near Salford docks and she carried me to the air raid shelter across the road with the rest of her family. And that’s stuck in my mind for over 70 years.

Blitz, Salford Royal Infirmary, Manchester Evening Chronicle, May 1941
Courtesy Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives

Ken later developed TB (tuberculosis), a bacterial infection mainly affecting the lungs which was endemic in many working-class districts. In 1948, the Annual Report of the Medical Officer of Health for Salford observed that its prevalence among local children should ‘receive greater attention’, pointing to the unhealthy conditions in many schools,  which included sanitary defects and overcrowding.

Ken was on the cusp of better new treatments for TB. The antibiotic streptomycin was discovered in 1943 and by 1948 was being used to treat tuberculosis. It helped usher in an era of new drug treatments, although take-up was uneven and even after antibiotics were introduced, surgical procedures continued.  The traditional emphasis on fresh air, bed rest, wholesome food were now complemented by newer therapies such as ultra-violet rays, used to kill the TB bacillus.  Ken experienced all of these, some more invasive than others. When he was six or seven, he had to go into hospital for an operation to remove a tubercular lump from his neck and his mother was so upset at the thought of what might happen that she asked a relative to take him in:

she didn’t like the idea of watching me being anaesthetised or whatever. I remember being put on the trolley and then flaking out and then the next thing I remember is being brought back from the operating theatre, being put in a bed and going to sleep I suppose. After that it’s just bits and pieces….going to school, not being able to read, having all this hospital treatment and the next memory I can remember is going to the clinics in Salford for this treatment, what I called green lights going round in circles, sitting there stripped to the waist with these goggles on. 

Sunray therapy using ultra-violet lamps to treat skin, throat and chest infections was commonly used until the 1960s, when light treatment gave way to the much wider use of antibiotics, and it’s likely that the ‘green lights’ Ken remembers were at the Artificial Sunlight Clinic in Salford.

Having TB meant that when Ken went to Switzerland he didn’t stay with a Swiss family, but was sent to what seems to have been a farm hostel with 20 or 30 other boys. Being chosen for the trip was as a surprise:

I don’t know how I was selected, I don’t know how my mother got involved in it, regards me being selected to go to Switzerland. I only remember that one day, I was given a case with me clothes in, dressed and marched off to the bus and taken to the railway station.

On arriving in Switzerland, he and the other boys were as bemused as when they’d left Manchester:

getting off the bus and all looking round wondering where we were and the farmer, his wife and, I think there was a daughter, the daughter came out to meet us. They took us all to our bedrooms, one by one, some of the lads were in large rooms, you know 5 or 6 of them, but I was lucky enough to have my own room. I don’t know if that was because of the operation, I don’t know, but yes, it sounds, how can I put it, big headed, but it seems like I was picked out. Because I seem to remember getting more attention, on one occasion it led to me having a fight with one of the other lads (laughs) 

He was jealous?

He must have been yes, but I beat him…(laughs).

At first he wanted to go home: I was like the rest of them I suppose, we were a bit nervous, some of the lads used to cry, wanted to go home etc’, but he eventually settled in and came to enjoy his stay, helped by being picked out to become the mail boy, which involved a long walk and more reminders of the war:

there was another lad older than me, that use to come with me when we went to the post office and collect the mail for everybody, we walk down the country lanes … I never remember it raining in the 3 months I was there, never, it must have done at some point, but I can’t remember it raining. I can remember walking down the country lanes and seeing men, wounded soldiers, and some of them used to chat to us, they got to know us and that was 3-4 years, 3 years after the war had ended but they were there and they were from England, Some of them had legs missing, arms missing, bandages around their heads …

I never knew where they came from or where they were based, just that they use to sit on the side of the road on these benches, chatting to each other and when they saw us, they say come and have a chat to us, where are you from? That kind of thing, the only ones who spoke to us was English, whether there were others amongst them I don’t know.

The Swiss Red Cross had asked for the Manchester and Salford visit to Switzerland to take place over Easter, so that the children enjoy Swiss Easter customs and a highlight of Ken’s stay was an egg hunt and chocolate Easter egg:

At Easter time, where this big hole in the ground was, the helpers on the farm had gone round and buried boiled eggs that they had painted and buried in sand, and we had a hunt for these eggs, on one of the Easter days and after that we had a sandwich or something then we all had to line up and each one of us was given a chocolate Easter egg by the farmer’s wife and the daughter.

Ken’s stay in Switzerland not only introduced him to the rough and tumble off staying with the other boys on the farm but also to new sporting interests which stayed with him long after he’d come home. One of the boys who received parcels from home was sent a copy of the Manchester Evening News with photos of Manchester United beating Blackpool 4:2 in the FA cup final. Ken was only seven but the excitement stayed, leaving him a life-long Manchester United supporter.

Arriving home on the Folkestone ferry

The journey back from Switzerland was filled with the anticipation of returning home, especially as he and the other boys each received a box containing presents for them and their parents. He was looking forward to sharing it with his mum and has never forgotten how someone broke the box open while he was being seasick and stole the contents: there should have been a bit of chocolate sweets and a present for my mum, but the present had disappeared, I don’t know what it was and some of the sweets and chocolate … it spoilt the home coming really’.

Ken, like other delicate children, is aware of how the effects that poor health and medical treatment had had in his education. Sending letters home was frustrating because his reading and writing were poor: ‘I had to express myself in just simple words – “Hiya mum, I’m here!” Just simple words.’ This wasn’t helped by his three months in Switzerland, where he received no schooling. By the time he returned to Salford, ‘I’d forgotten how to read, I could read little bits but couldn’t read properly.’ 

Nonetheless, his Swiss stay had improved his health to such an extent that on his return he was able to transfer from Open Air School to West Liverpool Street Boys’ School, where he eventually caught up, although without much understanding from his teacher: ‘because I couldn’t read or anything, all the other lads were ahead of me, I’d had all this time away from school, she use to rap me on the knuckles with her ruler, “you silly boy”’.

Ken’s mother

Ken’s mother, protective of her only child, not surprisingly still fretted about his health. She didn’t like him playing sports in case he hurt himself, but he made up his own mind and by the time he was 11 was playing rugby league and football. She eventually found out, although not until he’d already been playing for a season without her knowing. She went to the doctor to get his advice: 

He’s playing sport, I’m worried about him, I don’t want him having any bangs or bumps, what have you’, and the doctor examined me and said, ‘You’ve been wrong, let him play.’ … and the doctor said, let him carry on it’s helping him, especially his breathing because the TB left me with asthma and we won many trophies at West Liverpool Street boys school at rugby and football.’

It wasn’t until Ken was in his early thirties that she let her son know what else the doctor had told her.

I don’t know why she said it, but she said it’s hard to believe the doctors said let him play his football, it’s doing him a world of good because he might not be around by the time he’s 30! And here I’ll be 80 in June!

Ken has had ‘quite a lot of health problems’ in recent years, but looking back, is very aware of the significance of growing up when he did. This was ‘the time the Labour government introduced the National Health and I was one of the beneficiaries of that, and I have always said that, at the time, helped me to where I am now’.

He’s also adamant about the impact that going to Switzerland had on his journey to better health: ‘It saved my life, I’d argue with anybody’. 

Ken being welcomed at the ‘Returning Home’ commemorative event in 2018

The details of where Ken stayed in Switzerland are vague, because he never knew the name of the district to which he was taken. If anyone reading this has any clues, please do get in touch with us, as Ken would love find out about the farm to which he was sent. 

Contact Melanie Tebbutt

Email: m.tebbutt@mmu.ac.uk