2nd September 2020. BBC North West Tonight @BBCNWT featured our film and the ‘Returning Home’ project on its evening news. Here’s the clip:
Thank you again to all our lovely interviewees!
And here’s our documentary, Returners’ Stories, made in Manchester during the Covid-19 lockdown with the generous support of the returners and their families. The film tells the stories of the three months ‘delicate children’ from Manchester and Salford spent in Switzerland to improve their health in 1948.
We hope you enjoy it. We’d love to hear what you think. Please do leave a reply at the bottom of this page.
Returning Home is a community engagement project based at Manchester Metropolitan University which is working with older people in Manchester and Salford. It was inspired by archive film in the North West Film Archive (NWFA) at Manchester Metropolitan University. Made in 1948, the film records the return to Manchester of nearly 240 children aged 5 to 11 who had spent three months in Switzerland on a holiday to improve their health.
A public showing of the archive film in 2018, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the visit, resulted in several returners coming forward after seeing themselves in the footage. The project has been working with some of the children, now in their 70s and 80s, to tell their stories.
Being sent to Switzerland when very young for three months in 1948 was a huge experience for these Manchester and Salford children and it has been very moving to hear them describe how staying on their own with a Swiss foster family affected their lives. Some had fond memories, others were much more ambivalent, although all note how their health improved as a result of better food and fresh air. The NHS, established shortly after their return, made an immense difference to the life prospects of children like these, whose stories are a reminder of the impact that poverty and pollution had on health 70 years ago, and how eager parents were to give their children a healthier future, even if it meant sending them away for several months to a foreign country.
Ten of the Returning Home ‘children’ who in June 2018 attended a 70th anniversary screening of the archive film of their return from Switzerland to Manchester.
Chosen for switzerland
In spring 1948, nearly 240 children aged five to eleven from Manchester and Salford left London Road Station in Manchester to make the long journey of Switzerland for what the local press described as a three-month health holiday. They had been chosen from local authority health lists of ‘delicate’ children, whose ailments included asthma, bronchitis and tuberculosis, lung and chest ailments common among those growing up in working-class districts. ‘Fresh air’ was commonly prescribed for TB and other respiratory diseases between the nineteenth century and the 1940s, until antibiotics became widely available in the 1950s, and many of these children had spent considerable time in open-air hospitals and schools. Their stay in Switzerland was intended as a three-month ’building up’ holiday when they would, as the Manchester Evening Chronicle put it, live ‘with Swiss Families while the Alpine air works its miracles’.
THE SWISS RED CROSS
The children’s visit to Switzerland came about as a result of an invitation to Manchester and Salford City Councils by the Swiss Red Cross Society to identify children whose health would benefit from a stay in Switzerland. The scheme was part of an international child relief programme by the Swiss Red Cross, which offered ‘sick and weak children’ from across the UK and Europe three-month health breaks ‘after the war. Similar invitations were extended to children in other British cities which had been bombed, including Edinburgh, Coventry, London, Hull, Bristol, Cardiff, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Southampton and Swansea.
The invitations were part of a long-established humanitarian programme. Similar visits involving French and Belgian children had taken place during the Second World War and continued into the late-1940s for displaced and refugee children across Europe. They continued after the war for displaced and refugee children across Europe. There was initially some discussion as to whether children from Britain should be invited to take part because they did not fall into the same displaced category. They were eventually because of the high levels of childhood illness in the working-class districts of cities like Manchester and Salford.
Manchester and Salford City Councils supported the visit, together with the Swiss Red Cross, which organised transport, publicised the programme and raised money for the children’s stay in Switzerland. Host families, who were expected to feed, accommodate and provide the children with new clothes, ‘if necessary’, were identified by means of a call put out on the radio and newspaper advertisements.
A CONTRAST WITH WARTIME EVACUATION
The ‘delicate’ children’s postwar stay in Switzerland is a footnote to the much better known story of the official wartime evacuation of between 800,000 and a million children sent from British cities to stay with families in rural areas to escape aerial bombing. Wartime evacuation was often chaotic and disorganised, and its effects on children have been extensively researched. The postwar experiences which Returning Home illustrate a less familiar movement of children carefully selected and scrutinised, whose stay abroad to improve their health was in many respects of postwar optimism in the late-1940s.
The three-month limit for all these trips was due to restrictions on immigration to Switzerland and strict Swiss refugee policies. Yet if the children’s stay was short-lived, their novel encounter with an unfamiliar, more affluent culture at a time of rationing, austerity and drabness represented for many a key childhood moment with ‘abroad’; a life-changing event which has evoked a deep emotional response among many who have recalled the experience as adults.
If you are interested in our research and creative work, or have stories to share, please do get in touch. We would love to hear from you!
Professor Melanie Tebbutt
Manchester Metropolitan University
Geoffrey Manton Building
Rosamond Street West
Off Oxford Road
Tel: +44 (0) 161 247 4491