Journeying from Manchester and Salford

‘War children’ in 1945. Children’s  street party, Rosamund Street West, Chorlton-on-Medlock, Manchester, 1945. VE Day (Victory in Europe) at the end of World War II. 
Courtesy Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives

The children who went to Switzerland in 1948 were war babies aged 5 to 11 who were chosen from Manchester and Salford’s lists of ‘delicate’ children. All had the lung and chest problems common to many who grew up in the 1930s and 1940s – asthma, bronchitis, and other respiratory diseases.Nurses and health visitors visited the homes of ‘delicate’ children on their lists, to obtain parental consent but also to observe and record an ‘opinion of the type of parent and the care given to the home’; a familiar distinction between the deserving and undeserving recipients of philanthropy. The children chosen as ‘suitable’ for the trip had to be free from ‘skin disease, ear disease and tuberculosis’, bad asthma or ‘profound anaemia’. They had a chest x-ray and skin test, to check for latent tuberculosis, were immunised against diphtheria and examined, again, for signs of infectious diseases, nits or vermin. A Swiss Red Cross doctor and the Chief Assistant School Medical Officer inspected those identified as suitable, to make a final selection’; the Swiss authorities refused bed-wetters, a frequent complaint of wartime evacuees, and so-called ‘problem’ children. 

Dr Hedi Walder, of the Swiss Red Cross Children’s Aid,  examining Manchester schoolchildren to select those who would go to Switzerland for three months’ ‘building up’.

Anticipation and anxiety

The opportunity for the children to go on what the local press described  as a ‘health holiday’ was presented as an adventure for many who had never had a holiday let alone been abroad.  Adult memories, however, often convey a child’s sense of feeling lost at what was going on; of not understanding how far they were going or  how long they were going to stay. Confusion was probably most acute among the youngest, such as Patricia Bull, ‘the baby of the party’, who was only five.

Switzerland’s reputation for sanatoria and the treatment of respiratory diseases helped reassure many parents of the benefits of sending their children abroad for three months to breath in its clear mountain air. Unsurprisingly, the children were full of nervous anticipation, their heads filled with the novel experiences that awaited them.

Beryl Hatton, aged 10, of Farrington Avenue, Withington, had had ‘a good cry early on’ but her mother told the Manchester Evening Chronicle that she seemed to have adjusted and was now ‘hoping to ski and climb the Alps’. ‘And learn to yodel!’, chipped in Beryl. Harry Cooke, also aged 10, of Kirkmanshulme Lane, Longsight, who was just getting over pneumonia was more worried about what he might miss and hoped that the Swiss knew something about football. Alan Smith, another ten-year-old of 10 Belgrave Street, Newton Heath, was more full-on about the possibilities and proclaimed how he would  toboggan his way to health. Two children nearly missed the trip altogether. Jean Hopkins was hurried on to the platform having almost missed the train because she’d become  ‘so excited about the journey that she had developed a bilious attack!’ Anthony Winstanley, ‘the second missing child’, was also almost left behind because he’d stopped off to buy a brand-new haversack on his way to the station.

Crossing the Channel

Officials accompanying the children recorded no cases of seasickness sailing across the Channel and only one case of home sickness. Their records fail, of course,  to capture the feelings and apprehensions of the children themselves, the ‘sights, sounds, smells and feel’ of different places which often remained fixed in adult memories. 

Robert Burke, who sent in a two-page description of his experiences,  recalled the shared excitement of travelling, which was much more boisterous than the adults described:  ‘the noise and smell of the steam trains, all the children chattering, giggling, laughing, running down the corridors on the train’; the delight of receiving cardboard boxes to carry with them, crammed with sandwiches, sweets, and other strange items which we were told by the matrons was called FRUIT’.

Maureen Fishwick, eight when she travelled, had more mixed emotions of not only delight but fright, feeling seasick because she’d never been on a ship before, and memories of the younger children crying. Maureen recalled how she had often cried for her mum during the first few weeks of her stay, a reminder of the homesickness that officials missed or played down.

Open Air Schools and childhood illness

Claremont Open Air School, Park Lane, Salford, 1951: Digital Salford: Salford Museum and Art Gallery

Note the wide, open windows to let in plenty of fresh air. The children were picked up and taken to the school by special buses. After dinner, they took a blanket and went to lie down for an hour on canvas beds under a large glass roof that was open to all sides.

Many of the ‘delicate’ children who went to Switzerland attended open air schools, rather than main-stream ones, some residentially, others as day pupils. Illness had often interrupted their schooling. Much of the day at open air schools was spent bundled up outdoors, whatever the weather, for classes, meals and regular rest periods. Plenty of fresh air was believed to be key to their recovery and the routine could really hold back the education of some who went there.

Swinton and Pendlebury Open Air School, 1934
Digital Salford: Salford Museum and Art Gallery

Joe Littler, suspected of having TB, missed much of his schooling between the ages of five and seven because he was in and out of hospital so often. Sadly, Joe had died by the time of the Returning Home film’s anniversary, but his family got in touch after the extracts from the ‘Returning Home’ were shown on television and lent the project postcards and a memoir, in which he described spending six ‘lonely and unhappy’ months at a residential open air school, where family visits were discouraged, because they were thought to be too unsettling. Joe described being ‘barely able to read or write’ by the time he went to Switzerland, because he had missed so much schooling. 

This was Joe’s first postcard to his parents during his stay in Switzerland. He later wrote in his memoir:
‘Don’t laugh, I was seven years of age at the time and had hardly been at school for the previous two and half years due to illness’

Others had more positive experiences of open air schools and  enjoyed their time there but others felt isolated and had a ‘strong feeling’ of missing out, especially if they had to stay residentially. Familiar with feeling different or ‘being out of place’, some of these children consequently experienced an unusual sensation of privilege on being selected to go to Switzerland. Their experiences of illness may have contributed to the self-containment that observers remarked on as the children set out on the journey. An aunt who waved her nephew off had expected ‘all kind of weeping and fuss’, but was surprised to see ‘absolutely none at all.’ Senior teachers and nurses who accompanied the children to and from  Switzerland also commented on the very high standard of conduct the children maintained throughout the journey. 

This was the public side of the journey, which was, after all,  a showcase initiative, a medium through which helped promote Switzerland’s reputation for humanitarianism and highlight Manchester and Salford’s commitment to their children’s future. The children, representing their city and country, were expected to be on their best behaviour.

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