Many children who returned from Switzerland maintained contact with their Swiss host families into the 1950s, exchanging postcards, letters visits, parcels and gifts. Some of the most extensive correspondence we’ve been lent is from the family of Joe Littler. Sadly, Joe had died by the time the commemorative event took place in 2018, but his wife Sue and family attended and lent us some lovely postcards that he’d been sent from Switzerland and his memoir called The Murmurings and Meanderings of a Mancunion. Sue Littler reads extracts from Joe’s unpublished memoir in the project’s film, Returners’ Stories.
Joe loved his time in Switzerland, so different from his life in the ‘very smoky atmosphere of Manchester’ where he been in out of hospital for much of the time between the ages of five and seven with suspected TB. Having spent six ‘lonely and unhappy months’ at a residential Open Air School he found himself spoilt and cherished in Switzerland where he was taken under the wing of Margrit Debrunner, the daughter of his host family, a young woman of about thirty. Joe described being chosen to go to Switzerland as one of the best things that ever happened to him. Sue has kindly allowed us to reproduce a chapter from his memoir, in which he describes the great impact that staying in Switzerland had upon him as a child.
Joe Littler: The Murmurings and Meanderings of a Mancunian
Extract from Chapter One, Moss Side 1940-1950
Largely because the ‘health authorities’ were becoming concerned about the health of children both during and after the war, Lydia [Joe’s mum] used to take us to St Mary’s hospital for ‘sunlamp treatment’. This entailed stripping down to your shorts, donning a pair of goggles and sitting in a darkened room which was then flooded with the light from the sunlamp.
This particular treatment was, I understand, to counteract the lack of sunshine in our daily lives. Another favourite home treatment was ‘Vic Rub’. This came in a small blue bottle and was rubbed onto the chest, particularly at night, so that the vapours would treat the ailment. It had a particularly pungent smell.
There was also, I recall, the poultice. This came in a small light brown coloured tin with the name of Kaolin. The tin was placed in saucepan with water which was kept below the edge of the tin athe contents were warmed up. When ready this grey matter was smeared onto a suitable piece of cloth which was then put on the appropriate part of the body which it had been diagnosed would treat the ailment. The diagnosis was, of course, carried out byLydia. More often than not this was placed onto the chest as a means of dealing with a chest infection such as bronchitis which was endemic in those days. No wonder with living conditions as they were, with shortages of food and fuel and the smogs.
There was also another reason for chest complaints the vast majority of people smoked cigarettes; Woodbines, Park Drive and Turf cigarettes were in heavy demand mainly due to the fact that obtaining better cigarettes such as ‘Seniors’ or ‘Players’ was very difficult. These small and lethal cigarettes were often referred to as ‘coffin nails’. I do not think that people then realised the extent to which cigarettes injured health. Many of these brands also gave what became known as ‘cigarette cards’. Prior to the war many of the better brands such as Players etc produced coloured cards; many featuring sportsmen, cars, trains, etc. During and after the war these cards were painted in black, grey and blue and were in many respects a poor relation to those which had been available before the war. However, we still collected them and use to scour the terraces after the football match at Maine Road looking for empty packets so that we could add to our collections.
For more about collecting these cards, see Children and Hobbies in 1930s Britain: Cigarette Cards: https://passionsofyouth.org/latest-news-updates/hobbies-and-passions/
Between the ages five to seven I had a series of illnesses and I was regarded by the medical profession as a ‘delicate child’. Firstly I was a suspected TB case and I spent some time in North Wales at the Abergele Sanatorium undergoing investigative surgery.
I still remember the surgery particularly the mask for the chloroform which they then used. I did not enjoy my stay there and Lydia could only visit perhaps once a fortnight. The journey from Manchester to North Wales using public transport must have been a nightmare. The diagnosis was that I did not have TB and I was discharged. I was still regarded as ‘delicate’ and it was recommended that I be sent to an Open Air School at Styal. I stayed there for six lonely and unhappy months and I pleaded with Lydia at every visiting time to take me home. Finally she plucked up enough courage to insist that I came home. It always seemed to me that the medical profession in those days had almost complete control of your destiny. The ‘matron’ who ran our ‘ward’ must have been trained by the Gestapo she was a dreadful person. You, perhaps, can understand what that place was like since I think that it became a women’s prison some years later. Pictures of the prison look very like the place I stayed in and I have driven along the road where the prison is and it does look like it.
I also suffered a lot from throat infections and this was diagnosed to be due to my tonsils. I was then packed off to Pendlebury Children’s Hospital for what should have been a simple operation needing two to three days hospitalisation. I stayed for nearly two weeks due to complications. The wound would not heal. Again Lydia would visit and I use to wave to her from the hospital window as she went back home. The stay here was much better and the staff looked after us very well. There was also an abundance of toys; the likes of which I had little experience of in my life. Apart from the operation and the post-operative problems I enjoyed my stay there.
During my three incarcerations I do not recall my Father ever visiting me, whether this was due to him having to look after my two brothers, or he could not be bothered I do not know. I do not recall being terribly unhappy about this situation for reasons which I will explain later. By this time my education was almost non existent and whilst I was nominally on the school roll for Claremont Road Infants School I rarely ever went. When I was not ‘hospitalised’ I had all the childhood ailments e.g. mumps, measles, etc. so I ended up at the age of seven and a half being barely able to read or write. Then one of the best things happened to me; I had been chosen to go to Switzerland for a three month visit commencing March 1948. David, my brother, had also been selected. James Robert, my other brother was not selected due to his illnesses. I suspect that the Head of Claremont Road School, a Miss Warburton, had a lot to do with our selection. She was a small lady, a little on the plump side with hair scraped flat against her head and tied in a neat bun and she wore very small spectacles. She wore no makeup and always seemed to have a floral dress on. She was kindness personified not that she couldn’t or wouldn’t shout when the situation demanded it.
And so I was taken to Manchester’s London Road Railway Station (now Piccadilly Station) with a luggage label tied to the lapel on my coat telling all and sundry who I was and wear I was going. I also had to wear a coloured tag which identified the group to which I was to be attached during the journey to Switzerland. The first part of our journey took us from Manchester to London where we stayed overnight in the air-raid shelters which had been part of the tube system. We slept in bunks which had been fitted along the side of the tunnels. Not a good start having already experienced sleeping in an air-raid shelter. However, we then made a train journey down to Dover and a ferry took us across to Calais. There we boarded a train bound for St Gallen in Switzerland, a town in North East of the country, and Margrit Debrunner, the daughter of Doctor Debrunner of 25 Notkerstrasse. St Gallen was in the German speaking region of Switzerland. Margrit was, I think, about 30 years old, honey blond hair and very good looking. She was also single.
We corresponded for sometime after I returned to Manchester but gradually my letters to her grew more and more infrequent until I stopped writing. In retrospect I’ve regretted this since her kindness to me was nothing short of incredible. I do not think that this fact really entered my head when I was in my early teens. Teenage kids can be somewhat uncaring and far from thoughtful. One of my regrets.
However, the Debrunner house was only a short distance from the town centre and its size was for me overwhelming. It was a detached house of about three stories it also had cellars and a very large loft and roof garden. It was surrounded on all sides by the garden which, I would say, would have been at least the size of a football pitch which is around an acre in size. Margrit employed a full time gardener, a Mr Muller, who was a very jovial man and during my stay there I was allowed to help him in the garden and Margrit bought me a set of bib and brace overalls.
Mr Muller had a very, very limited command of English (about the same level of mine in relation to the German language). Much of the produce from the garden would, I think, have made the house self-supporting in terms of vegetables and fruit. Mr Muller and I got on pretty well, much of his instruction being relayed in hand and arm signals. Margrit also employed a cook called Mary. I never did learn her second name. She was a very nice woman who again did not speak English but her food was unquestionably superior to anything I had eaten so far in my life. No disrespect is intended to Lydia, but Mary had two advantages, firstly, the quality of the meat, vegetables and fruit and secondly, she was a professional cook. The food was great! Although I was thin as a lath I could eat like a horse so being in this household, where rationing was something quite foreign, was heaven sent.
Margrit also employed a Housekeeper, a Miss Hess; an older lady who also spoke very good English in addition to German.
Dr Debrunner lived upstairs and rarely came down. I saw him on very few occasions whilst I was there. The house was, by my standards, more like a small mansion and seemed to me to have the qualities of a palace. The house was just enormous. There was a double fronted front door and a very wide staircase to the upper floors. My bedroom was as big as the downstairs area of 159 Upper Lloyd Street. Margrit clearly had substantial financial means since she did not have any employment that I was aware of. She also spoke, besides German, impeccable English, Romance, French, Spanish and Italian. What Margrit and Miss Hess would have made of my Mancunian accent I do not know. But they were kind enough not to remind me of my obvious shortcomings even though I would not have, perhaps, been so aware of them myself. This was particularly borne out when Margrit suggested that I send a post card to my parents. My educational shortcomings were now clearly in focus. One way or another I managed to write something mainly due to the continuous promptings of Margrit. She must have thought that I was ‘as thick as two short planks’. To illustrate my shortcomings there is a copy of this post card in the memoir. Don’t laugh too much; I have very delicate sensibilities!
What she must have thought of my very basic and essentially war time utility clothes I cannot say, however, within days of arriving I was kitted out with a complete set of new clothes and shoes.
During my three month stay there Margrit took me on many, many journeys visiting various places in Switzerland. A visit to Mount Santis, which is around 8200 feet high, was a particularly memorable visit. We went to the top riding on the funicular, a very exciting journey in itself. I wonder if this is where I got my yen for hills and mountains.
We also visited Lake Constance, where on the other side lay Germany; Zurich; Bern; a horse race meeting; a motor racing meeting; a cycle racing meeting. We visited other places as well but I cannot remember them all. Margrit also arranged for me to go and see David whilst we were there and he visited me at 25 Notkerstrasse. He had been placed with a family clearly not as well off as the one I had but they were very nice people and David enjoyed his stay just as much as I did.
So there I was living on the fat of the land, bedroom of my own, no school, good clothes, an acre of land to work and play in, wonderful fresh food and visits to interesting places. No wonder I did not want to go home to cheerless Britain, with its limited food availability, a small under heated house at 159 and I would have to start school again. When the time came to return home I did not want to leave. I wept bloody buckets. I can even remember being on the train at St Gallen station waving goodbye to Margrit Debrunner, with tears running down my face.
Margrit clearly missed the young Mancunion once he’d returned home, as was clear in the letter she wrote to Joe’s mother on his return.
Dear Mrs Littler,
I was very pleased to get your card saying that Joe had arrived safely. I do hope he brought home safely all the things he had in his luggage. I still think of him a lot and do miss him very much! It was heart breaking to see him going away for good and it did seem quite strange especially that he would have like to stay on. I hope, however, that he will be able to come another time. I got very fond of him as he is such a good child…
Margrit and Joe corresponded for quite a time after he returned to Manchester, but his letters to her gradually grew more and more infrequent, until he stopped writing.
In retrospect I’ve regretted this since her kindness to me was nothing short of incredible. I do not think that this fact really entered my head when I was in my early teens. Teenage kids can be somewhat uncaring and far from thoughtful. One of my regrets.
family memories of joe
Joe’s memories of Switzerland never left him and influenced many of his interests and passions as an adult.
The impact of his visit to Switzerland had such an effect on him. He loved his garden, and he’d experienced that in Switzerland. He also loved hiking and climbing and his visits to many of the places and Mount Santis, I think, encouraged him to see what was out there. (Sue Littler)
Taking early retirement from Manchester City Council at the age of 50 enabled Joe to eventually embark on a personal journey into Higher Education. In 1997 he graduated from MMU with a 2:1 in Information Technology in Society at the age of 57. Not bad for someone whose education had been severely curtailed as the result of illness – he couldn’t read or write properly at the age of 7!
This should be encouraging for our present day children who have had their education somewhat hindered because of the current Lockdown. He recalled having to write home to his mother from Switzerland and Margrit gently prompting him to get the words right! (Sue Littler)
Dad loved growing things..
If it wasn’t the bright blooms of the Roses, Dahlia, Gladioli and Sweet Peas in our back garden at Kensington Avenue it was the vegetables down at Oakbank allotments behind Mills Hill School.
Rows of potatoes and wooden canes tied up like tepees waiting for the beans to rise up them.
Eating peas straight out of the pod down on the allotment was a summer treat along with excitement of getting ready for the annual allotment show. Choosing the best blooms that would bag him a first prize certificate. (Helen Dixon, Joe’s daughter)
© Sue Littler