MARGARET MCEWEN AND THE STORY OF IHC
As remembered by MM Trust trustee Angele Vidal-Hall
Although her notes were written in 2008 she says the events left such a vivid impression that any inaccuracies will only concern small matters of detail.
I first met Margaret in about 1948. I had gone to work in the Cultural Department of the French Embassy in London in February 1946 when I had been given the task of directing a unit, the Scientific Office which had been set up to maintain and expand the contacts between French and British scientists, technologists and doctors made before and during the 2nd World War. Anything remotely concerned with scientific and medical tended to be passed to me - which of course made the job especially varied and interesting. One day I was handed a despatch from the French Foreign Office, calling for the bona fides of a new and small charity - International Help for Children - to be investigated. Off I went to an address in Whitehall, 43 Parliament Street, where, after having climbed a dusty staircase, I entered a small office and was greeted by Margaret McEwen and John Barclay. They had met towards the end of the war in Europe when they were both working for a charity which was arranging holidays in Britain for the many Dutch children who had suffered much hardship during the war and occupation. The charity closed down in 1947 at which point Margaret and John decided to set up their own charity to work on similar lines. but on a smaller scale for they both disapproved of the way in which their predecessors had brought over very large numbers of children without ensuring proper care and supervision. They called it - International Help for Children - launching it by each drawing £100 from their own pockets, a tidy sum at the time. Two of their former colleagues, a book-keeper and a secretary joined them and they managed to find cheap office space in buildings due for demolition. They had, of course, the great advantage of their experience and of access to the records of the families who had previously looked after the Dutch children. But it was nonetheless a most courageous step. Interestingly Margaret had been awarded a medal by the Dutch Government for her work on the Dutch scheme.
Their first aim was to bring over children from the displaced persons' camps which had been set up on the Continent to house and sort out the unfortunate families and individuals who had been driven from their homes by the conflict, with at the same time the prospect of arranging recuperative holidays abroad for deprived British children.
At the end of the war there had been a wave of desire to renew contacts with people in other countries and often to express appreciation of their efforts. The Auvergne in France had been a lively centre of the activities of the Resistance movement, which in turn had received much support from the British. One of the leading spas in this region, La Bourboule, which specialised in the treatment of asthmatics, wanting to show their gratitude, had contacted the Save the Children Fund to offer free treatment to a small number of British children. The Save the Children Fund, while declining the offer with thanks explained they did not feel able to handle so specialised and limited a scheme but recommended IHC which had recently been established. Hence the despatch sent to the French Ambassador in London - and my mission.
One had only to meet Margaret and John and listen to their plans to realize that here were two exceptional and inspired people - she a devout Irish Roman Catholic and he a humanist, I think. Both were in their own way visionaries, he more exuberantly so and she with her feet nonetheless firmly on the ground and they were already doing their magnificent work in arranging happy recuperative holidays in British families for children from Europe. So I took a favourable report back to the Cultural Department and in due course International Help for children took charge of La Bourboule's offer.
It was said, with good reason, that all asthmatic children began to improve immediately John welcomed them in his usual warm and lively manner and began with buoyant optimism to instil the idea that they were going to get better, and enjoy the visit to La Bourboule , while Margaret's kindly and calm manner was immediately reassuring. It fell to Margaret's lot to organise the long and difficult journey by train at a time when a number of the railway bridges had not been rebuilt after their destruction as part of the Allies strategic bombing campaign. Not to mention the care and support that was needed for children who had probably never been abroad before and might not even have left home. Again, it was probably Margaret who launched the idea that the parents and the volunteer workers who accompanied the children to La Bourboule should be invited to a follow-up meeting in London on their return to discuss the venture and ask questions. Time has swept away any memory of the questions asked apart from one - asking IHC to do something about the state of the lavatories in France! It is true that at the time many of the lavatories in France in public places were evil-smelling and often of the "Turkish" variety. It was either in this same period or slightly later that Margaret and John started to invite the children who had been abroad to a party. My boss, the Cultural Counsellor, who had been following IHC's activities with interest and sympathy decided to enliven these gatherings by providing a conjuror, a task which once again was handed over to the Scientific Office!
Before long I was invited to join the Council of IHC and so got a closer view of Margaret's and John's activities. They undertook a gruelling schedule of visits to schools to talk about their work and raise funds. The work was expanding to include exchanges of parties of children with other European countries and even to obtain free treatment for Greek children injured in the fighting in that country's civil war. The medical side was later extended, after the Health Service became more restrictive , to free beds in, for instance, the London Clinic and help with air transport for children in Asia and Africa for children with severe or complicated medical problems who could not be treated in their own countries. Such activities - not to mention the early establishment of the Little Pond House convalescent home have, I think, been described elsewhere but they provided once again an illustration of Margaret's thoughtful attention to detail and organisational skills. For instance, she made provision for a member of the family to accompany the child, found suitable accommodation and arranged for a volunteer to greet them at the airport.
There were many volunteers, inspired by Margaret and John to help in this way and to work in the office in support of the skeleton paid staff. Sadly, John died in 1966. I think Margaret considered finding a new "partner" but in the end, no doubt wisely, decided to carry on alone. She had very definite ideas about what should be done and would probably have had difficulty in adjusting to another person. The Office had moved from parliament Street to 42 Maiden Lane near Covent Garden, but subsequently went to much more spacious premises in Eversholt St. next to Euston Station, a convenient central location. When the lease expired in 1990 the decision had to be taken to bring IHC,s activities to a close. It would have been impossible to afford the new rent and virtually impossible to find equally convenient premises at the old economic rent. The landlord was the St Pancras Housing Association, an organization with socialist ideals who believed in very fair rents and the lease had come about as Irene Barclay, John Barclay's widow, was a trustee of it. For a while the work was kept ticking over from Margaret's London flat at 30 Ainger Rd. while Margaret elaborated her imaginative scheme for setting up a Trust which would hand out modest sums to small and deserving charities working for the welfare of children in Britain and other countries. In 1993 The Margaret McEwen Trust was finally established and the members of the IHC Council were invited to continue as Trustees. The next change was for the Ainger Rd. flat to be sold and the proceeds to be devoted to increasing the funds of the Trust. Margaret went on running the Trust from the family home in Gerrards Cross with the help of Murray Beecroft who was continuing to fulfil the role of Trust Administrator and Roy Phillips that of Accountant. Margaret arranged for the meetings to be held at her Church, St. Josephs, which was only a short distance away. Since the Trustees and Murray all had to travel a distance, an excellent buffet lunch was provided, with the help of Margaret's friend and secretarial assistant, Mrs Therese Lawton who produced a superb trifle which always ensured maximum attendance at the trustees meetings!
Over the years some half-dozen of the members of the IHC Council and Margaret McEwen trustees tried unsuccessfully to obtain official recognition from the Crown for her achievements and devotion to her cause. The last attempt did finally win her an M.B.E. but sadly by the time it came Margaret was only partially aware of the award. The years had taken their toll and she was living in a nearby Abbeyfield Home for she no longer felt able to look after herself at home. She died in the Spring of 2007. Now attempts are being made to draw together the strands of her remarkable life and then ensure that her story is preserved in some suitable archive as an example for future generations, demonstrating once again now much good be achieved by the individual, even in to-day's materialistic and bureaucratic world.
Part of Margaret McEwen's Autobiography which she never lived to complete
Although Margaret McEwen devoted her whole life to International help for Children, and subsequently, the Margaret McEwen Trust, she rarely talked about her personal life or feelings and to provide a biography of her life has been extremely difficult, although Angele's account above goes some way to helping. However before she died she had dictated a short account of her early life. It is unfinished and ends abruptly, but provides a fascinating and unique insight into Vienna just before the 2nd World War.
We were a very devoted family. My father was from Scotland, my mother from Ireland, and we lived in London. I was the youngest of four. One brother sadly died when he was five just before I was born and the other two brothers were three years and nine years older than me respectively. Being the only girl I naturally came under the influence of my mother. However in 1935, at the age of seventeen, life began for me. I passed with sufficient credits in the school Certificate (GCSE) to be exempt from taking the matriculation (A levels). This was to the great surprise of my family and indeed to me. My school attendance had been marred by frequent absences. My mother was very affectionate and kind but over-possessive. For instance, to get to school I had a 10-minute walk to the bus stop and at the end of the journey a 15 minute walk up to the school. If it was raining, or I had a slight cold, I would not be allowed out. However, I managed, while staying at home, to study subjects that I liked which included history, literature, the classics and drawing. For the last six months before the exams I had private tuition in the remaining essential subjects.
In 1936 it was time to get a job but first I took a secretarial training. This I did not enjoy but it was useful. One day on returning to an old girls' meeting at my former school, Our Lady of Sion in London which had convents in several countries including Europe, I learnt that a vacancy existed in their house in Vienna. It was for an English student to stay for six months to learn German in exchange for an Austrian student to come to London to learn English. I thought this was a wonderful opportunity and all I had to find was the money for a return fare. An aunt produced this and so off I went within six weeks to Vienna. I had little idea of going abroad other than to France for a month near Calais in Our Lady of Sion Convent.
I set off for Vienna at the end of January 1936 and had a very pleasant journey with a girl passenger more or less my age. We had couchettes and the entire journey was organised by Thomas Cook & Son who were represented at each main station and made contact with us both. At last I arrived in Vienna and the temperature struck me in the face! It was terribly cold. Two girls who were students at the school met me - one was Swiss and the other Italian - and we went back to the Convent where I was shown my room (which I would share later on with another girl from Yugoslavia). Anyway, somehow the cold, the size of the Convent and the whole set up was not as I had imagined. The next day I went out with one of the Sisters who wanted to show me round. We could hear the traffic but we could not see it because the snow was piled high on the edge of the pavement. There were openings for pedestrians to cross the road and I found that my shoes were slipping from under me but Sister held onto my arm and showed me how to slide along. By the time we returned I couldn't feel my feet or my hands. And in the room, which fortunately wasn't very warm because then it would have been even more painful, I had to wait nearly two hours before I came back to life. So when I went home for the summer holidays six months later, I returned to Vienna prepared properly for a very cold winter. I stayed in Vienna for two years. I went as an external student at Vienna University and got a certificate there. I was all out to stay for five years and get a degree. I even planned later, because I had become so thrilled with being abroad, to go to Rome to learn Italian. It's a beautiful language to listen to, much easier than German. I had these great plans in my mind, always staying in Houses of Our Lady of Sion.
There were actually two houses in England, one in London and one in Shropshire. They were founded in 1843 by two Jewish brothers. The story (and we had to listen to this about twice a year) concerned Father Theodore and Father Alphonse. There was a very well known and well established Jewish family in Paris called the Ratisbonnes. They were very devout and two of the brothers were the most devout in practising their Jewish religion. They hated the Catholics. One day the elder of the brothers Theodore was passing a small church and had to stop. Something compelled him to go inside the church where the Virgin appeared to him and told him he must become a Catholic and found a Catholic school in London. The Jewish family were shocked at the idea. They disowned him and the younger brother, Alphonse, was Theodore's greatest persecutor. Then one day as Alphonse was passing a church he too was compelled to go in and received the same message. So the two Jewish brothers, now confirmed Catholics, founded the main Convent of Our Lady of Sion in Paris and London.
By having this
chance to go to Vienna my life was completely changed. It was an amazing
arrangement because I didn't pay anything for board and lodging. I had to share
a room with another student but that was no hardship and I met many interesting
girls. They were all former pupils of Our Lady of Sion - which also had a house
in Hungary. So there were Hungarians, Greeks, Yugoslavs, Italians but no
British. An American girl arrived with her mother once. I was quite indignant,
they could speak English. I was the only English speaking girl there prior to
that. Every day, three nuns, educated women, gave me an hour's
tuition. So I had an hour of conversation, an hour of grammar, and an hour of
composition. And there was a moment when one of my Austrian friends invited me
out, and I received a letter from the mother of one of them who was elderly and
who had very strong ideas about protocol. So although the daughter had invited
me - she herself a teacher at the convent - the mother wrote to me to issue an
official invitation for tea. When I opened this letter I couldn't read a word
of it. When Mere Adolphina came to give me my lesson I said, "Mother I can't
understand it, what does it mean? I can see from the signature that it's from
the mother of my friend but that's all". "Oh" she said, "It is schrift writing" and she laughed.
"This lady is very old fashioned and the schrift writing was used by well-to-do families who didn't want their servants
to read their correspondence". I asked, "Can you read it?" "Oh yes", she said,
"well of course, I'm old"
"And write it?"
"You couldn't teach me could you", and she laughed again and replied, "Of course I will". And so I learnt schrift writing, I found this so fascinating and the girls saw me writing it and said, "What's that?" "That's my secret writing" I answered. To my delight when I went to a big book shop I was able to buy a book with all the instructions and a key at the back. I've still got it. I thought nothing of all this at the time and I used to write all the letters I could in German (schrift), with the enthusiastic help from Mere Adolphina. Little did I know then that this knowledge of schrift handwriting would be of such importance to me when the war broke out in 1939 when I got a job in the Censorship Department of the Ministry of Information censoring German and French letters from Europe. One of the teachers at the convent wanted to come to London in the school holidays and said she would travel back with me. She said "We'll go on the student party if you like but you will have to sit up all night". I said I would find that interesting. So we went with the student party back to London and the cost was £3. Some of these young students, boys of course, took the luggage off the racks and slept up there. Never mind all the luggage along the corridor and so on. If there was a fire on the train, people would just have to climb over them. I didn't feel tired. I found the whole thing hilarious. So I was back in London for the summer holidays. In the Autumn I then went off to Vienna again and stayed over Christmas.
1938 when the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, flew to Munich to meet Hitler, I was in Vienna. He later declared "peace in our time". There had been a bit of a war scare but that died down. Later I returned from Vienna as usual for the summer holidays and I didn't expect to go back. However, the prospect of war receded so I went to France for six months instead. Before I left Vienna my parents had become very worried when the "Anschluss" took place and Hitler and his Nazis invaded Austria and especially Vienna. I remember we were all asleep in the convent when at about one o'clock in the morning there was a most unholy noise. We thought "what on earth is it". We put on our dressing gowns and rushed to look out of the window and there the road was filled with a column of motorcycles about four abreast, all leaning on their horns! And those around me said this must be because of the plebiscite. Schuschnigg the Austrian chancellor must have won and they are celebrating. Then suddenly we saw in the middle of the parade a huge swastika. I remember how we all fell back. We were so shocked. Vienna had been invaded by Hitler! As we went into the corridor we saw all the nuns who had been watching, fully dressed. The next day was complete mayhem. The Reverend Mother told me to go to the British Consulate in Vienna. She said, "I have great faith in British officialdom and I am sure that they will know what to do. Go with a couple of girls for security. I was accompanied by two friends, one Yugoslav and one Greek. In the street the people were shouting "Heil Hitler, Heil Hitler" and raising their arm in the Nazi salute. One woman put up her fat arm half in salute and half as if to hit us in the face because we were not saying "Heil Hitler". We were just foreigners obviously. She didn't actually hit us thank goodness! But we kept close together, arm in arm, and marched on. Then I saw on the corner a Chemist where I used to go when I was taking exams at the University and getting very nervous. I always asked for bromide and they used to find it very funny. I saw the young man who used to serve me standing outside with an armband with a Swastika on it and a rifle in his arms. I could not believe it. That really shook me. However, we continued to the British Consultate which was a big, extravagant building and we went up the steps and rang the bell. We were ushered into a vast hall and told to go up the stairs to the first floor. It was a very wide staircase and to our amazement there were at least three people sitting abreast on every single step, huddled together. I thought what on earth is the matter? Still they were nothing to do with us so we continued round by the landing, still more people there and the same on the next flight up. I couldn't bear it any more and I said to one woman, "What are you doing here? What's happened to you?" She said in a rather feeble voice, "We're waiting for a visa to England", "A visa to England?" I replied. "Is it so important? Can't you just go?"
"Oh, no" she said. "Not without a visa and we must get them now, or God help us". So I said, "Why?" she said, "We are all Jewish". She looked up and in her eyes I saw for the first time real fear. These people were all terrified. We carried on up the stairs to the consul's office. We rang the bell and a young man came. I explained that we had been sent by the Reverend Mother. I was rather proud that she had thought the British Consulate would give us good information. He wasn't impressed. He just looked at the three of us and then said "There's nothing to be done. All the frontiers are closed. No one can come into Austria or go out of Austria" And he said "You're students are you?" I told him that I was studying German and that my two friends were studying Law and Music respectively. He said, "I say to you, all three. Don't aggravate the authorities because neither the British Consulate nor the Consulates of these two young ladies" countries could help. Stay at your convent school and don't go out unless it is absolutely necessary". Well this was not quite what I had expected. He then turned to me. "You say you are British, well just a minute…" and he came back with a little emblem about the size of a half crown which had the Union Jack on it and he said "put that on your coat, wherever you go when you are going out". I thanked him and put it on. When we got back to the convent the Reverend Mother called me to tell me that she had received a telegram from my parents who were very worried about me. The telegram told the Reverend Mother that my parents held her responsible for my safety. Of course this would have been my mother's doing. She would have been in a terrible state thinking she would never see me again because the newspapers in Britain must have been full of the invasion of Austria and Vienna taken over. The arrival of that telegram totally devastated me. Obviously the convent could not be responsible for my safety in those uncertain times. I could not stay on any longer in Vienna and I would never get to Rome. I just had to accept the situation. Not that anyone could go anywhere as the borders were still closed. Two weeks after the telegram had arrived the authorities re-opened the borders and I had to start preparing to return to England.
Before I left
I wanted to look around to find some little presents to take home because this
might be the last time I would ever see Vienna and I noticed that going down the
Gattnerstrasse there was a little shop and it had in its window some rather
attractive novelties. Without a thought I opened the shop door and went in. It
smelled musty. As I shut the door a little woman came out of the back looking
at me anxiously. "Yes, yes, gnadige Frau" she said, which is how they always
greeted one. And something aout her appearance upset me but at first I couldn't
put my finger on what it was. I asked her if I could look at some of the little
gifts she had in the window. "Yes, yes" she said in a rather pathetic way and
she took them out of the window and put them in front of me. Then I looked at
her. She seemed ill. I thought how terrible, she's starving. Then I realised
where I was, I felt I had better get out as soon as I could, so I chose some
dolls and paid. I was remembering what the Consul had said, "Don't aggravate
the authorities". This was a Jewish shop and I had gone and committed a
terrible crime by coming in here and buying these things. The shopkeeper then
owed me some change but there was no money in the shop so she had to call her
son, who emptied his pockets. I was so concerned and upset I didn't think to
turn my bag upside down and tell them to "take all the money you can, please!"
It was only much later that I realised how unthinking it was of me to have
waited for the change.
Then I took three deep breaths to calm
myself. I saw the little brass door handle and I said to myself you have
got to grasp it and open this door, because by now I could hear voices in the
street, rather angry voices, womens' voices. And one of them was shouting
"Es ist eine Judes Geschãft. It is a Jewish shop. Ich weiss, I know it's a Jewish
shop". So I opened the door quickly and went out. I was never so grateful in
my life that I was tall and slim at that age. They were short and fat and I
towered above them. There were about eight women looking very aggressively at
me and moving towards me as they said "It's a Jewish shop isn't it, yes!" So I
said, as calmly as I could with my heart beating like mad, "Would you kindly let
me pass, please" And I moved in the direction I wanted to go. One of the women
blocked my way. I looked at her and repeated "Would you please let me pass".
She stood her ground for a fraction of a second and then suddenly noticed the
tiny little emblem on my coat. The turned to the others and whispered, "She's a
foreigner, she's a foreigner". It was like an electric shock going through the
crowd of them. I made a tremendous effort to appear calm and collected and when
this woman made enough room for me to pass I didn't rush through the gap, I just
looked at them all. They all looked sheepish. Then one of them said,
and so are you going to the such and such strasse to do some shopping?"
"Yes I am".
"May I come with you dear?"
"Of course let's go off together".
They wanted to make excuses to get away. It was extraordinary. But my knees were wobbling. I wondered how I might manage to get back to the Convent but I held myself up straight and walked on. After only a few paces I suddenly noticed on the edge of the pavement an SS officer with the skull and crossbones on his cap, all dressed in black, standing with his arms folded. He was looking in amazement. Looking back at the women. Looking at me. He had witnessed the incident. Then he walked towards me in a very aggressive way. I didn't stop. I just looked him straight in the face, saying to myself "you scum of the earth you". Then his eye fell on the British emblem. Another electric shock! He just stopped in his tracks, looked sheepish and then made his way towards the women. I continued on my journey but I'd really been shaken. How could I have known it was a Jewish shop. It was all so unreasonable. Of course I should have remembered that when the Nazis first came into Vienna these violent people used to take pails of tar with a brush and during the night would plaster the word "Jude" on each Jewish shop window. The tar would drip down and in the morning the unfortunate owners of the shops had to come out to scrape off the tar to the jeers and laughter of an aggressive crowd. I did see this happen but it was in one of the very smart streets of Vienna, not like this little side street with the tiny shops that I'd been in.
I didn't see any newspapers, but I heard somehow, that in America in New York the people there became so indignant about this practice in Vienna, that they got pails of tar and brushes and chose every German shop in New York to mark in this way with the word "German"..The persecution of the Jews in Vienna disappeared over night which is why I didn't know that my shop had been Jewish. A week previously and it might have been marked. I discovered later that this retaliation in New York had hurt the German people and I thought how marvellous it was that all those miles away it could still have such an effect. Perhaps they didn't like the Americans saying "He's German you know, probably a Nazi". And so the daubing stopped. Anyway I made my way back to the Convent and I was so relieved to get through the gates. When I told my story at lunch you could have heard a pin drop. Most of the people there were not Austrian anyway and they all wondered how they were going to get out.
I still had a little time left before I was due to return to England and I went around looking at the places I loved in Vienna. I was in one of the large squares and gardens called the Hoffborg. As I was walking round I saw a young German officer, I think he was German, he couldn't have been Austrian, he was very tall, young, very good looking with quite a noble aspect and he came towards me, smiling. So I smiled back. We were about the same age I think and he saluted me smartly and said "Excuse me Fraulein. Do you come from Britain?" I said, "Yes, I'm from London". "Ah yes", he said "may I ask you a question. Why do your Press object so much to what we are doing here in Austria?" Do you not understand how important it is that we carry out this work?" And he said it so sincerely. I told him that I was just a student in Vienna from London and that now I had to go home because of all this happening. My parents were anxious about my safety. I said, "Are you aware of what's going on, as you are in the army. Do you see what is happening?" I then told him the story about going into the shop which he listened to most politely without interruption. And then when I had told him all I could, I saw rather to my discomfort that I hadn't altered his opinion in the slightest. He just looked at me and said "I wish you could understand. I do wish you could understand. These people are not like us. They are Vermin (unternmensch? Vieleikt?). I stood back because I thought how could anyone looking as he does, with a very good accent, obviously from a very high born family, with charming manners and so sincere be saying this? And I couldn't believe it.
Suddenly, to my absolute horror, tears began to pour down my cheeks. I said, "How ridiculous, how stupid, oh excuse me, excuse me". I tried to get out a handkerchief and said, "I must go" and I walked quickly away from him. And I had to walk for at least two minutes before I could take charge of myself. I was so ashamed. I thought what on earth came over you. You made such a fool of yourself. You should have continued the discussion. I just stood there and thought, well like Shakespeare "What's done cannot be undone", but I longed to continue the discussion because he was so easy to talk to and he wanted to persuade me, that's all. He'd said, "why does your press malign us so?" I hadn't seen the British press but I could imagine what was being said. I just looked back. He was still in the same position. He'd just turned round and followed me with his eyes but he'd never moved from where he was. He really looked quite forlorn that he hadn't persuaded me in any way. And I thought isn't this extraordinary, two young people looking at each other like this with the Great Wall of China between us.
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