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
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‘.
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.