By Professor Melanie Tebbutt, Manchester Metropolitan University
Returning Home is a community engagement project exploring the experiences of ‘delicate children’ from Manchester and Salford who, in 1948, were sent away to stay with Swiss foster families for three months to improve their health. The children were aged between 5 and 11. Most had bad respiratory problems for which there was little treatment at the time, other than good food and fresh air; antibiotics were not widely used until the mid-1950s.
The project is a collaboration with the NWFA and comprises a small team of myself, Melanie Tebbutt as academic lead, Sue Reddish, creative lead, and Jim Dalziel, community filmmaker.
These health stays in Switzerland weren’t unique. The Swiss Red Cross approached local authorities in cities across Britain after the Second World War with the offer of similar holidays in Switzerland for children. What is unusual about this project is the survival of archival film from 1948, which records the Manchester and Salford children’s return to London Road Station in Manchester. The film was made by Manchester City Council as a thank you gift to the Swiss Red Cross and later deposited in the North West Film Archive (NWFA).
2018 was the 70th anniversary of the children’s return from Switzerland. The NWFA put out an appeal on regional television, showing clips from the archive film and asked adults who had gone on the visit to Switzerland as children to come forward. Several recognised themselves from the film. Others were volunteered by family members, many of whom had grown up hearing these stories of Switzerland. Dozens expressed an interest, sharing old photos, postcards, correspondence, memoirs and written accounts. Returners and their families attended a commemorative event organised by the NWFA and ManMet’s History Research Centre, which included a showing of the complete archive film. This project has worked with about 20 of these returners and their families, exploring these ‘health holidays’ from the child’s perspective rather than the adult view of official documents.
After Covid-19 lockdown
Before the Covid-19 lockdown, we aimed to explore the personal and collective meanings of the children’s visits to Switzerland by recording interviews with returners and developing participatory groupwork and creative activities with them. We had started to record interviews with individuals, but groupwork and further interviews became impossible once Covid-19 and lockdown struck and we had to revise our plans.
The project moved online, developing a new Returning Home website of background features, memoirs and images, including photos, letters, postcards and official documentation, which many returners had kept since their visit in 1948:
During lockdown, new returners’ stories and short extracts from completed filming were added, allowing returners to get a clearer idea of what the project was about. We also started editing our documentary film about their experiences called ‘Returners’ Stories’, which was finished in August.
Lockdown and dependence on remote contact altered the project’s dynamic and slowed the engagement process. Working with individual returners, all in their late-seventies and eighties, became particularly sensitive because of the fears which accompanied social isolation. The mood of some returners changed and fluctuated over time; working with them involved becoming alert to when, and when not, a phone call might be appropriate. Some were without computer or internet access and entirely dependent on phone calls. Others who had the internet were reluctant to record an interview over Zoom or Skype, so phone calls, texting and emails became the main form of communication.
Having lost our participatory groupwork, we looked to encourage involvement by developing a complementary project called Postcards from the Past, inspired by the postcards that Swiss host families sent to the parents of the children they hosted. These made the project more tangible and helped make it more intergenerational and family orientated than originally envisaged. A postcard set was designed with questions as creative writing prompts for the returners, their children and grandchildren. Each family received a set regardless of whether they wanted to write a response.
Some accepted the set as a memento. Others used the postcard questions as memory joggers to think and write about their experiences. One family, chivvied by their mother/grandmother, wrote replies to all eleven postcards, some of which reflected on the family sadnesses of lockdown.
‘Slow’ public history
Gradually, we pieced together new stories from text messages, emails and phone calls, changed or corrected by the returners as we went along and added, with their permission, to the website. The slow working of phone calls, texts and emails perhaps helped draw out more effectively than an interview the ambivalence some felt about their childhood visit to Switzerland, giving them time to reflect on their experiences and how they wanted to share them. Returners’ memories are mixed and working in this way helped draw out memories whose disclosure might otherwise have been more difficult. It became clear, for example, that several returners had only gone to the 70th anniversary event because their children had encouraged them to go along. Stories by Barbara Fowler and Judith Sie are moving examples of these careful excavations of memory.
Over the course of phone calls, texts and emails, Barbara started to explain why she’d been uncertain about attending the anniversary. She was only 6 when sent to Switzerland because of bad bronchitis and asthma. She suffered a relapse after returning to Manchester and was invited back to Switzerland to stay with her ‘Auntie Lucie’ and ‘Uncle Roger’ for another 18 months. Gradually, she revealed how the relationship with her Swiss foster family and childhood experiences of moving between countries had left deep, confusing feelings: loved by her mother, who sent her away for good reasons, yet also loved by ‘Auntie Lucy’, who had no children of her own and who would like to have adopted her. In retrospect, Barbara found that she had come to a different understanding of her foster mother’s kindness: It is so sad really looking back and understanding her pain. When her story was published on the website, she responded:
Some returners’ memories remain painful, making a sharp contrast with the gloss of official accounts. Judy Sie’s stay in Switzerland, for example, had an enthusiastic write-up in the local Wythenshawe newspaper on her return, but the journalist’s up-beat account jars with how Judy remembers her ‘Swiss holiday’: It was all so frightening. Judy stayed with a middle-aged doctor and his wife whose children had grown up. They were very detached and although she returned to Manchester much healthier, she was ‘terrified’ for much of her stay:
Other returners, like Maureen Fishwick, were much more positive. Maureen loved her visit to Switzerland, which she described as ‘awe-inspiring’. She emigrated to Australia in the 1960s and we interviewed her on a return visit to Manchester. Over the course of the project, we’ve kept in touch with her and her family in Australia through her daughter, Jacqui, who has passed on messages to her mum. The first time Jacqui saw the website she emailed to say how she felt:
Jacqui’s comments illustrate how the project’s website has become a focal point for returners and relatives scattered across the UK and the world. So far, it has attracted over 1500 visitors and more than 4,000 views. [76% of visitors from the UK, with visitors from many other countries, including Canada, the US, Australia, other European nations (Ireland, France, Switzerland, Spain, Germany, the Netherlands), and China.
Sue Littler’s husband Joe, who died in 2017, wrote a memoir of his stay in Switzerland. He’d loved his visit and ‘wept bloody buckets’ when he had to leave. As lockdown loosened, we were able to film Sue outside, reading from his memoir. This has been incorporated into our 30 minute film, ‘Returners Stories’, the first such film to commemorate children’s experiences of this Swiss-British initiative:
Lockdown prevented us from developing Returning Home as originally envisaged. There have been disappointments, especially having to postpone a celebratory event for participants and their families because of continuing uncertainty about Covid-19.
Lockdown forced us to adapt to a different way of working. We lost our original objective of producing a joint output from groupwork and it’s been unsettling to work in greater isolation without a collective spark. We missed the human contact and personal connections of community engagement. We have, however, sustained relationships with the returners who have helped create a rich new website resource based on original oral, written material and films, a legacy of lockdown which will eventually be archived in the NWFA.
Kate Pahl conceptualises collaboration across universities and communities as ‘a kind of conversation’ – a process of active listening: fluid, provisional, often unsettling and taking unexpected directions, yet bringing engagement to life and opening up new possibilities. I think that has been the case with Returning Home during lockdown. We’ve had to be flexible and responsive (key to any form of community engagement) and had to develop different conversations as the project’s participatory nature altered. These changes led to us building relationships not only with the returners but their children, many of whom have grown up with their parent’s stories of Switzerland. Personal stories may become stale through constant re-telling but with lockdown they became a medium through which to connect the generations. Returning Home didn’t develop as originally intended but social isolation had unexpected outcomes, including perhaps heightening sensitivity to the idea of a relative being sent abroad when so young. Lockdown nuanced familiar family tales with a different appreciation of the parent as child rather than adult. It also reinforced the realisation of how far the returner had travelled since the ill-health and poor conditions of a 1940s childhood. These are moving stories which returners’ children have relived with them. As the daughter of one of the returners put it: ‘We feel so privileged to take part in dad’s journey and a little piece of Manchester/Salford’s history’. ‘We’ve really enjoyed reliving dad’s journey with him’.
If you would like to learn more about the project and the returners, see the website:
https://passionsofyouth.org/returning-home/ You’ll also find our documentary film, ‘Returners’ Stories’, about the children from Manchester and Salford who went to stay in Switzerland in 1948.