Memories of Switzerland

Maureen Fishwick from Wythenshawe, Manchester, stayed with a family in the picturesque municipality of Teufen, a German speaking area in the canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden. Her foster parents’ house is circled in this postcard memento.

Memories of material culture often feature in adult stories of their childhood encounter with Switzerland. For Maureen Fishwick, emotions connected with feelings of embarrassment which stemmed from each child who went to Switzerland having to take with them ‘three sets of good clothes’. Many parents struggled to comply, as clothing had been rationed since 1941 and  Maureen’s mother had to resort to patching up an old pair of her brothers pyjamas, personalised with a pink bow. Maureen was mortified when they fell to pieces after being laundered by her host family in Switzerland. Nonetheless, as was the case with other children, her Swiss family had some ‘lovely clothes’ made up for her, including a beautiful ‘cream hand-knitted long jacket’, which she still recalled fondly in her late-seventies. The jacket’s impracticality for a working-class girl from a war-weary city like Manchester perhaps helped it stand out from ‘a lifetime’ of other ‘clothing memories’, a memento of Switzerland’s clean and wholesome environment, which contrasted with Maureen’s other strong memories of Manchester as ‘dirty’, ‘slummy’ and ‘horrible’.

The Wetterhorn mountain, above the village of  Grindelwald in the Swiss Alps. Image from a letter sent to Joe Littler’s family from his Swiss foster family in 1948, after his return to Manchester.

Switzerland was encountered through the senses: the visual (landscape described as being like out of a picture-book), material comfort, and food.

To children used to rationing and a bland, dull diet,  their Swiss food experiences had a powerful emotional dimension:  a sense of being spoilt by opportunities to eat foodstuffs which were a luxury in postwar cities like Manchester and Salford, where fruit, if not rationed was in short supply and sweets didn’t come off ration until 1953. Barbara Eckersley, always ill and pecking at her food before she went, vividly described the ‘ice-cream cake with strawberries’ that her host family gave her on her 11th birthday, which revolutionised her appetite.

Switzerland was evoked through eggs, cream, cheese and, above all, chocolate. Barbara Lewis described how:

At Easter we made hard boiled eggs and we painted them with our own design and sat round the table and we hit the persons egg to the right of us. This went right round the table and the person with the less damaged egg won. We also had beautiful chocolate eggs. They were beautiful. Things bring back reminders at times, like baskets full of brightly coloured footballs which I first saw at the Swiss lakes. 

Bomb damage in the Manchester blitz

From ‘Manchester Took It Too’, produced by the  C.W.S. Publicity Department Film Unit in 1940/41. Preserved at the North West Film Archive, Manchester Metropolitan University
Thanks to the Co-operative Wholesale Society Ltd. 
Miller Street, Manchester, 23rd December, 1940 Courtesy Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives

These children had grown up with the  smog-ridden, bomb-scarred landscapes of working-class Manchester and Salford, which Robert Burke conjured when he described how they had all breathed brick dust for eight years before their visit to Switzerland. Robert, born in the central Manchester district of All Saints, described himself as being in a fairly bad state, ‘even though I lived within walking distance to the world famous eye hospital in Newton St, Hulme, I still suffered from Powks, styes, cysts on the face, boils anaemia, weight loss. I wasn’t alone either, hundreds of other children from M/cr and Salford suffered‘.

Christmas card to Joe Littler from his Swiss foster family.

Switzerland stayed all the more vivid in memory because of such stark material contrasts, an ‘enchanted encounter’ with new physical sensations and a short-lived taste of an imagined perfect childhood. The journey through the mountainous countryside, which Maureen described as ‘awe inspiring’, encouraged allusions to Hollywood and intimated a sense of monochrome transforming into technicolor.  Maureen stayed with a very wealthy family and was overcome by the luxury of their home, which overlooked snow-capped mountains. She had ‘seen Shirley Temple movies’ before but didn’t know that people really lived in such beautiful homes’. The house where Joe Littler stayed seemed to him ‘to have ‘the qualities of a palace’, with a garden ‘at least the size of a football pitch’, his bedroom as big as the downstairs area of his own home in Manchester.

For others, however, memories were more of feeling safe. Robert Burke described how ‘despite being only 8 years old I still remember the feeling of security, warmth and well-being that I had never felt before’.

Swiss host families

The compassion of the personal relationships between many Swiss host families and their British foster children which often features  in these memories was not lost on the war-weary teachers who accompanied them on their journey, one of whom observed how  ‘the kindness of the Swiss people has been most touching’, having ‘restored a somewhat flagging faith in the essential goodness of human nature’

Adult returners have described how understanding foster families often were of parents left behind and how they might be feeling without their children, writing to reassure them of their safe arrival, letting them know how they were settling in and asking them not to be too anxious: ‘try not to worry about John we shall do everything in our power to make him fit and happy’. Many made sure  the children wrote back to their parents, albeit with sometimes basic messages:

Dear mum and dad, I am sending a post card of the house im  (sic) staying at and thank you for your letters. Please will you send me some comics and transfers. Well mum that’s all my Love Maurice (sic) xxxxxxxx 

Families often saved these postcards for decades, mementos of a unique opportunity whose effects on some children lasted long into adulthood.

Dear Mother and Father and Bobbie
I might go to the country.
I have been to a car race
I did go to heare ‘yodling’
I am well.
With Love from Joe.

4 thoughts on “Memories of Switzerland

  1. What an interesting slice of history. The images of Switzerland are in such contrast to those of Manchester. I loved seeing the photographs and postcards that the children were sent or sent home to their families. Such visual impact! It seems to have been a really positive experience for them. Projects like this are really useful to those of us doing further study in all aspects of history. I’m so glad I came across the website.

  2. Liverpool had a similar scheme. In 1947 my aunt, who was a teacher, travelled to st Galen near Zurich with a group of children, many of who had lost a parent in the war. When I was 9 in 1956 she returned on a visit to some friends she had made there, taking me with her. I’ve still got the letter she received from Liverpool’s director of education thanking her for her part in the project.

    1. Hi Becca, Thank you for getting in touch. It’s lovely to hear about another account from a different city.

      We’ve been very lucky in having archive film from 1948 because it has encouraged people who went to Switzerland as children to come forward. The Manchester and Salford scheme came about as a result of invitations to local councils throughout the UK to send poorly or displaced children to Switzerland for three month holidays. Children also went from Birmingham, London and Bristol, but yours is the first comment we’ve had about Liverpool.

      We would love to hear more about you and your aunt!

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