Maureen was one of the children who were highlighted in the ‘Returning Home’ film. She and her husband, Terry, emigrated to Australia in the 1960s and raised their family there. Maureen was one of only two people who had enquired about the archive film until the commemorative event in 2018. In this account, written in 1999, she describes revisiting her childhood memories of Switzerland.
When Terry and I started courting, around 1956, I used to kid him by saying that I had been a film star as a little girl in a film made about a bunch of children going from Manchester to Switzerland in 1948. Life got busy and I more or less forgot about it until in 1987 a chance meeting brought it all back again.
We were camping in the Warrumbungle National Park near Coonabarabran, when, one afternoon after being all alone for a few days really enjoying the peace and solitude, we found we had neighbours, a young couple who had arrived in a VW Kombi.
As we cooked the evening meal on our campfire we noticed our new neighbours had no means of chopping up the hardwood logs for their campfire and upon offering to lend our axe I heard a familiar accent. “Are you from Switzerland?” “Yes,” came the reply. “Oh, I love Switzerland. I was there as a little girl staying at a little village called Teufen,” “I am from the town of St.Gallen, next to Teufen,” said Thomas and then began a long night around the campfire talking about my time in Switzerland, drinking wine and eating Swiss chocolate. Thomas and Gisi, our new Swiss friends, not only knew the Teufen district really well, but knew the family I was billeted with way back in 1948 and promised they would contact them when they returned home.
It was then I resolved to look them up when we visited the UK and Europe and to search for a film I remembered being made and to write a story about it all. We found the film and went to Switzerland to meet Mr and Mrs Tishhauser in Teufen in 1993 when they were 77 and 78. They still remembered me and we had a wonderful afternoon together at their beautiful home on a mountainside near Teufen.
Here is my story…
I was my parents’ third child, preceded by an elder sister and brother and followed by a younger brother. As my elder brother and I had what was termed then a weak chest, we both spent long periods in open air schools for sickly children. The one I went to, Crumpsall Open Air School, was a lovely place – long low buildings, with floor to ceiling windows, nearly always open, looking out onto beautiful gardens. We were taken by a special bus each day from home and the morning was spent on a couple of lessons, gardening, followed by lunch, then bed with the wind blowing through the windows. Being in the child health care system when the Red Cross, along with the Corporations of the City of Manchester and Salford, decided to send a group of disadvantaged and sickly children on a three month’s convalescence in Switzerland, I was one of 240 children chosen to go.
Along with the travel instructions my mother was sent a letter stating that all children must have three sets of good clothes. Although my mother was so hard up she used to wash and dry my clothes every night, as I had only one of most things, she managed to get everything together except a third set of pyjamas. However, on the eve of my departure she patched up an old pair of my brother’s and sewed a pink bow on them. (They were to cause me problems later.)
We also had to have a medical examination to make sure we did not carry any infectious diseases abroad and unfortunately the nit nurse found nits in my long dark hair. So I had to wash my hair nightly with ‘squashy chips’ (1). Finally, with my third pair of pyjamas and a clean head of hair, I was ready to go.
We travelled on the train to London, sleeping overnight on triple decker bunks in the long narrow tunnels of an underground air raid shelter. Our supper – hot cocoa and rolls. Then on to Dover and the ferry. We were all very excited, frightened and seasick. It was the first ship we had seen and we were crossing a choppy sea to France. We disembarked in Calais and travelled on by train to Basle where we were taken to a place where, much to my disgust and embarrassment, after taking off all our clothes in front of everybody, boys from our school too, we were hosed down. (I found out later these things were called showers). Following a thorough check up by a team of doctors, we changed into clean clothes, ready to travel on to our host families although some of the children went to hostels. (You were most fortunate if you had been chosen to stay in a Swiss family home as I was).
From Basle another girl and I, with our Red Cross escort, travelled on to St.Gallen where we changed to a quaint little train that still runs down the middle of the road to Teufen where the escort handed us over to our respective families. I was allowed to visit the other English girl once a week for morning tea.
My host family, the Tishhausers had a daughter, nine years old, Vreny, and two sons, seven and three years, Tony and Ursle. When I saw their beautiful home, set on a mountainside, overlooking snow capped mountains I was overcome by its luxury. I had seen Shirley Temple movies before but I did not know that people really lived in such beautiful homes.
The Tishhausers had a housekeeper, Anna, who was Austrian and a woman who came in to do the washing and ironing in the huge cellars under the house. I slept in one of the attic bedrooms, next door to Anna and was a little frightened of her. The family often had spaghetti. I thought they were making me eat worms and I used to vomit. In the end they had to get Anna to make me chips, which she hated having to do, whenever they had spaghetti. My mother was a lovely cook and at one time had worked as an assistant to a French chef in Manchester. She worked miracles in our kitchen on a frugal budget, but spaghetti… Ugh!
As soon as I arrived all my clothes had to be washed again and I was soon called to the laundry where my third set of pyjamas had fallen to pieces and Anna was trying to explain it was not her fault. What with the spaghetti and the pyjamas, she was not keen on me. She was spotlessly clean and a lovely cook but I never once saw her smile. She always had a cold and was forever wiping her nose. Once when I had a cold she invited me in to her room and gave me a dozen beautiful lawn handkerchiefs.
Mrs Tishhauser had some lovely clothes made for me, including a beautiful cream handknitted long jacket made by a lady who lived in the nearby town of St.Gallen. We children all played well together in the garden where there were lots of fruit trees including cherries that I had not seen before. The Tishhausers were a wealthy family and one day we went for a ride in a lovely old sleigh with bells, pulled by two horses, to a very beautiful home in the mountains. I think it was one of the grandparents’ homes as I recall some older people who offered me cakes, a little boyish doll and a book.
Another memory was when walking Vreny back home from school one day some soldiers were marching through the village and I was terrified thinking they were German soldiers. I hid behind a hedge and waited until they had gone before I could move. Later Mrs Tishhauser comforted me explaining they were only young Swiss cadets on a training march.
When the time came for me to go home I was sad to leave my foster family but was really looking forward to seeing my mother who I used to cry for in my first few weeks and the rest of the family. I returned home showered with gifts including a pair of nylon stockings for my eighteen year old sister who was over the moon with them.
The filming of our return journey began in Dover with my family and I, together with two other families, being chosen to feature prominently. We were met at the London Road railway station in Manchester by a large group of the local notables, including the Lord Mayor and the Lady Mayoress of Manchester and Salford together with a large contingent of reporters and photographers and had to wait fretting in the train whilst the speeches were made and the others gone, so that we, the three chosen, could be filmed meeting our families separately. The film was later shown at the Gaumont cinema in Manchester but, unfortunately, due to our moving to a new address we missed the invitation to the one and only special viewing.
When Terry and I made our first visit to the UK in 1993, since emigrating to Australia in 1965, we made inquiries at Manchester Central Library where we were able to get copies of press cuttings and photographs about the trip from the Manchester Evening News and the Wythenshawe Recorder. The library advised us to inquire about the film at the Northwest Film Archives, located at the Metropolitan University, where I told the story to the head of the unit. Three weeks later she telephoned me to say that she thought she had found the film and would we come in to view it as she was not able to give us a copy until she was satisfied I was in the film. We sat down in front of a small screen and she ran this black and white film. The title came up ‘Returning Home 1948’ and there I was on screen a little girl again. I remembered the clothes I was wearing, everything.
There was my dear Mum now deceased. I went to pieces and cried. Then my sisters and my brothers were on the screen leaving our home to come and meet me at the station all those years ago. Not my Dad though – he could not get the time off work to join them. I was overwhelmed by it all. After talking about it for so long here I was actually seeing it on a film made forty-five years before. The lady agreed that there was no doubt it was me in the film and promised to get me a video copy; adding that only one other person, a man from North Wales, had ever asked about it. As there was no background as to why it was made she asked would I write its history. Six years later here is that story.
(1) ‘Squashy chips’, or quassia chips’: an infusion made of quassia bark chips and water which was strained and used to treat head lice and nits.
© Maureen Hales, 2020