On the 22nd March 1948, 238 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. Accompanied by an escort party of teachers, nurses, and a doctor, 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 with plenty of fresh air and good food after years of rationing and poor living conditions, as the Manchester Evening Chronicle put it, living ‘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.
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.
Returning Home community engagement project
The Returning Home community engagement project at Manchester Metropolitan University has been exploring the stories of these health holidays with people from Manchester and Salford, now in their seventies and eighties. The project was inspired by archive film called ‘Returning Home’, deposited in the North West Film Archive in 1978 by Manchester Education Committee, made by Manchester City Council in 1948 as a thank-you gift to Switzerland and the Swiss Red Cross Society. Salford City Council was similarly grateful and sent a symbolic gift of English rose trees to Switzerland.
The film recorded the children’s return from Switzerland to Manchester and Salford on the 24th June 1948. They were filmed from their arrival off the ferry in Folkestone to journey’s end at Manchester’s Mayfield Station, to the south of Manchester’s London Road Station, which closed in 1960 when London Road Station became Piccadilly Station.
The children’s homecoming featured widely in the local press partly, perhaps, because it coincided with the establishment of the National Health Service (NHS): the first NHS hospital opened in Davyhulme, Manchester a few days later, on the 5th July. The children’s arrival by train in Manchester was a civic event attended by the Lord and Lady Mayoress of Salford, the Swiss Vice-Consul, and the first woman Lord Mayor of Manchester, Mary Latchford Kingsmill Jones. The film itself was carefully choreographed, with parents asked to help the ‘gentlemen’ who were making it ‘by behaving as naturally as possible and BY NOT [in capital letters] STARING AT THE CAMERA’. All the children and their parents subsequently had an opportunity to see the film when it was shown in several local cinemas.
THE 7OTH ANNIVERSARY
June 2018 was 70th anniversary of the children’s return to the UK and extracts from the film were shown on regional television and publicised it in the local press, asking for people who had gone on the visit to get in touch with the NWFA.
Dozens of individuals and family members sent in mementos, photos, letters and postcards between Swiss foster families and the children’s parents, and written descriptions of these relationships, some of which continued long after the children’s return home. They were subsequently invited to a 70th anniversary screening of the entire archive film, where an audience of about 80 shared their stories and experiences.
The Returning Home team has been working with some of these ‘children’, now in their 70s and 80s, to tell their stories and help curate what became an online project during lockdown, using archive film, interviews, biographical accounts and family histories.
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.
The three-month limit for all these trips was due to restrictions on immigration to Switzerland and strict Swiss refugee policies. But 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 encounter with ‘abroad’; a life-changing event which has evoked a deep emotional response among many who have recalled it as adults.
We are immensely grateful to the returners and their families who have taken part in this project, and their willingness to contribute, despite the difficulties of developing it during the Covid-19 pandemic. Their generous support enabled us to finish a documentary based on their memories and reflections of their Swiss adventure, which featured on NW Tonight on the 2nd September 2020.
Here’s the clip:
Here’s our documentary, Returners’ Stories.
We hope you enjoy it. We’d love to hear what you think. Please do leave a reply at the bottom of this page.
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.
From left to right: Barbara Eckersley (now Barbara Bould), Vincent Harold Gorman, Barbara Gore (now Barbara Whitlow), Barbara Fowler (now Barbara Lewis), Ann Fox (now Ann Burnside), Doreen Beckett (now Doreen Pratt), Robert Burke, Judith Sie (now Judith Lea), Richard Larkin, Kenneth Kirkbride.
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