In spring 1948, more than 230 children aged five to eleven 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. All these ‘war babies’ had the lung and chest problems common to many children who grew up in working-class districts in the 1930s and 1940s. They went from Manchester and Salford, chosen from local authority health lists of ‘delicate’ children, whose ailments included asthma, bronchitis and tuberculosis. ‘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 was part of an international child relief programme by the Swiss Red Cross Society, 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.
This programme of three month visits to Switzerland continued after the war for displaced and refugee children across Europe, although 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. The British children were eventually included on the grounds of ill-health, owing to poor living conditions in the industrial districts of cities like Manchester and Salford.
The three-month limit for all these programmes was due to restrictions on immigration to Switzerland and strict Swiss refugee policies. The Swiss Red Cross organised transport, publicised the programme and raised money for it. 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 describes illustrate a less familiar movement of children carefully selected and scrutinised; sent away not out of fear, but hope for a healthier future.
The three-month limit for these trips was due to restrictions on immigration to Switzerland. Yet if the children’s stay was short-lived, this 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.
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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
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