The first years

In December 1950, Portsmouth's Youth Organiser, Fred Nicholson, visited Duisburg at their invitation to assess the possibilities for youth exchanges. This visit made an unforgettable impression on Fred and indeed proved to be for him the beginning of a lifelong commitment as he was still the Honorary Secretary of the Duisburg Committee at the time of his death in 1988.


In his report to Portsmouth City Council he wrote: "On the German side of the frontier, there were many shattered buildings and one fell acutely the severance of Germany from the rest of the world and the need for the stretching of hands across the frontier in fellowship..."


He was very impressed by the young people of Duisburg who were constructing their own clubs, and by the whole population, many of whom were working voluntarily in the evenings to restore homes and churches.


He received great kindness and hospitality from August Seeling, the Burgermeister, Herr Klimpel, Town Clerk, Major General von Ravenstein, Herr Dittrich, Education officer, and Herr Abel, Youth Officer, all names of those who were to go on through the years playing a vital role in the link of friendship.


The report concluded: "I have experienced great difficulty in making an unemotional assessment of the quality of the Youth Service in Duisburg after seeing the vast material damage and the general economic and social conditions under which the young people have to live. I should, however, like to say how impressed I was by the sincerity and enthusiasm shown both by the Youth Officers and others associated with youth work whom I met during my visit".


Decades later Fred recalled. "Snow lay freezing over the dismal ruins around the main station and along the now elegant Königstrasse. People crawled beneath the rubble lo reach their basement homes. Yet the warmth of my reception and the enthusiasm of the people for reconeilalion dispelled any doubts".


Seven months later in July 1951 the first group of young people from Duisburg visited Portsmouth. There were 67 in the group between 14 and 27 years old. As can be imagined, great preparations had been going on in both cities and during their 12 day stay the group visited no less than 16 youth organisations, 6 factories, a school, were entertained to lunch by the Lord Mayor, Albert Johnson, travelled to Portchester, Hayling Island, Winchester, Salisbury, Stonehcnge and London, and still found time to take part in a most successful Anglo-German Youth Revue on South Parade Pier and attend a farewell social and dance where they were hosted by 300 members of various youth organisations in the City. They certainly had stamina in those days.


It is interesting today to read the official report of this visit. The Germans, it seems, "commented on the high standard of ballroom dancing seen in the clubs visited", "were surprised that Portsmouth had no Municipal Orchestra", "approved of the high standard of driving and consideration shown", and "were struck particularly by the kindness and approachability of the police".


The Portsmouth young people found their new German friends "courteous, well mannered and not shy", and were surprised "by the frequency with which the young Germans burst into song.".


This visit, well covered by the local press, made quite an impact in Portsmouth, and opened the door to the many youth exchanges which were to follow, the first Portsmouth youth party visiting Duisburg under Fred Nicholson's leadership in 1952, where 50 young people were overwhelmed by the warmth of their reception in Duisburg.

First Youth Visit to Duisburg, 1952 by Edna Harwood-Cahill

We first met as a total group in Portsmouth Guildhall Square, about fifty of us, thirty plus youth club members and eight or so seniors (aged 20-25), ten leaders and one interpreter, a young woman from Berlin who was nursing at St. Mary's Hospital, Pat Phillips (a young reporter from the Evening News) and her colleague, Fred Nicholson, (Youth Service Organiser) and myself, Edna Harwood, his assistant. (See enclosed list).


We had already met in small groups to prepare for the visit, partly to get to know each other and partly to learn some basic German and money values, and also to organise ways of entertaining our hosts with some songs and folk dances


We boarded the two coaches that were to take us to Harwich, to take the ferry for the Hook of Holland, and sang a few songs on the way, to build up the party spirit. We boarded the ship without difficulty and found our cabins, settling down for a good night's sleep, we hoped, all the better to avoid sea sickness, and it was a fairly stable crossing. For many of us, it was our first trip abroad and we were apprehensive, not knowing what to expect.


We found our train to München Gladbach and watched the countryside slide past as we moved from Holland into Germany. After a few difficulties finding all our youngsters for the passport controls and a very long journey we were glad to have a break at München Gladbach before getting the train to Duisburg and, when we reached Duisburg, we were overcome by the size and strength of our welcome and were glad to board the coaches that were to take us to the Worringer Reitweg, where we were introduced to Frau Doktor von Loeper (head of department), Herr Theodor Abel (Youth Organiser) and Fräulein Maria Vehreschild, his assistant, plus the couple who ran the hostel. ...Then we were very glad to get to bed!


Despite the unusual beds (bunks with duvets) we all slept very well. Duvets were new to us; some of us were accustomed to decorative eiderdowns, but duvets were something different, and we were fascinated to see them hung over balcony rails to air, when we took our trips into town.


In the morning we were greeted by the wardens and had a superb breakfast of warm rolls, butter and marmalade, both orange and apricot - Aprikosenmarmalade was new to us all, and very popular - and the coffee was Prima! Then Herr Abel joined us with daily details.


We were given a programme of visits, some where we went as a total group (places like the steelworks and trips to Essen and Düsseldorf) and others where we were divided into smaller groups to go to different places such as youth clubs, apprentices' hostels, kindergartens and afterschool clubs, and we tried to attach our few people with a working knowledge of German to individual groups. (See enclosed list).


We had nothing to compare with the big steel production centre in Duisburg. Portsmouth was not an area with heavy industry, so it was difficult for us to imagine anything like Mannesman and Küpferhütte, so the steelworks was something outside our experience, because we had no 'heavy industry' in Portsmouth apart from the Dockyard and few of us had any acquaintance with that; apart from which, it could not in any way compare with big steel works like Mannesman. We were told that the employers had accommodation for their workers, but I did not encounter one of these until another visit, some years later, when my friend and her parents lived in a flat provided by and rented from Küpferhütte.


The factories were also of considerable interest, especially where they had child care facilities and a shopping area, something quite revolutionary, we thought. The child care facilities were not only for pre-school age children, but for care after school, if the mother was working longer hours.


There were also local authority centres for child care. I had encountered Day Nurseries in Portsmouth, with learning and developmental activities for children, but the Duisburg centres that I visited seemed to have better staffing ratios, and appeared to be much livelier. The After-School provision was totally new to us, we knew of no such provision in Portsmouth, providing a light meal, fun time and help with homework if necessary.


The city orphanage was large and we were surprised to discover the size of the problem, arising partly from the numbers of allied troops / fathers, who were not to be found after babies were born. The children were organised in family groups, so older children could help younger children, when the tinies were able to move out of the nursery join in the family groups.


The youth clubs were many and various, some attached to hostels for young apprentices. Some, like ours, were established by churches, but we were surprised by the type of activities. At one I visited, an evangelical girls' club, we were asked to complete Bible quotations (mine was: Behold him, behold the Lamb of God:  who taketh away the sins of the world); not a problem for me, being a high church anglican, but a bit difficult for some of our group, coming from non-church based clubs, or clubs with professional youth leaders. We could not imagine such an activity in Portsmouth Youth clubs.


Many of the clubs promoting us to go on this trip were church based, but in a fairly free way; clubs I remember were the Wesley Central (Frances Franklin); Tangier Road Baptist (Trevor Martin and Beryl ?); St. Peter and St. Paul, Wymering (Thelma Firth); St. Cuthbert's, Copnor, (Joan ?Elliott); St. John the Baptist, Stamshaw (Len Ringrose, Janet Smith, Dorothy Padfield and myself,), but we had non-church based clubs like Portsea Rotary Youth Club, Judean Boys (Tom Hubbard), and Buckland Congregational, despite their names. After all this time, it is difficult to remember names, both of clubs and members, although some names live on in my memory, especially John Pearce (whose friend was Uve), and Tom Hubbard, whose friend was Paul Schmitz of Obermeiderich. But our club activities were very secular.


We were able to field a scratch football team, which was well beaten by our Duisburg opponents! Out of this came a rather comic event. One of our boys had bruised his knee and did not ask for help because the first-aiders were Beryl and myself, and he didn't want 'the boys' to see him being helped by 'the girls', so he and his friend strapped up his knee with yards of elastoplast.

The following day we went to Cologne, to visit the Nordwestdeutscherundfunk (the regional radio station), where we encountered a Paternoster, a sort of lift between floors which was slow enough for people to step in or out as it passed. We could see Cologne Cathedral from the upper floors of the building and several of the boys decided to tackle the challenge of the climb up the tower, including 'wounded knee'. When they got back, he was limping, his upper leg was swollen and his lower leg was white, so Beryl took out her surgical scissors and cut through the layers of elastoplast; we then had to clean off the sticky residue of the elastoplast (using Eau de Cologne 4711! - no surgical spirit to hand!) and we massaged the knee with cosmetic Cleansing Milk (lacking any other emollient!) to get the circulation going!


One very impressive visit was to an Apprentices' Hostel. The accommodation was good and the boys had lots of organised activities, including table tennis. Len Ringrose was a keen table tennis player and I knew he was good (we came from the same Youth Club), I didn't know he played for Portsmouth Technical College, as it was then, where he was studying architecture. The boys challenged us and beat our boys from Judean and Buckland, but could not beat Len; one of their older boys tried, but could not beat him and finally one of the assistant leaders from the hostel played him and Len still won! We felt vindicated after our whipping at football!


We also spent a day at Essen, which was very enjoyable, but one of our most popular days was the boat journey around the Binnenhaven, looking at all the activity in the harbour area. On the way back they played us some dance music and many of us danced. We also danced most evenings in the Worringer Reitweg, when Beryl played the piano for us, or else we gathered around the piano and sang. We used these opportunities to practise our songs for our entertainment evening. We danced our folk dances from time to time and were very amused when there was a sudden flood of people and flashlights; we understood why when we saw the local paper, with a photo of our group dancing - and Father Gilroy, from Wymering church, taking part, in clerical collar and shirtsleeves! Mind, we did not have the presentation of the German group of folk dancers, from Die Falken Socialist Youth Group, trained by Herbert Knapp, who took part in the return visit to Portsmouth the following year.


During the first week we were introduced to our host families, because we were due to spend the weekend in normal family homes. My host was Ursula Bours, who was a secretary and lived with her parents in a flat in an old converted house, while waiting for Küpferhütte, her father's employer, to provide a modern flat for them to rent. Her brother and his fiancée visited on Saturday evening; he was a warden of an apprentices' hostel.


My friend Len stayed with Mechtild and Waltraut Westen; Waltraut had a degree in History of Art and worked in a Duisburg bookshop; Barbara (Post Office Youth Club) stayed with Gert Epha and his brother Rolf. Rolf was training to be a professional photographer, and Barbara was very photogenic! They were all friends, with similar interests. On the Sunday we went out on the train to Kalkar and Xanten, where we went to Mass and then took a walk in the wind and rain to get to a church where Rolf wanted to take some photographs - I think Barbara felt a bit left out! We had lunch at a place called 'Der Grosse Kürfürst'.


I was surprised that our little group included catholics and protestants; we had seen job advertisements in the local paper, with requirement for religious affiliation, and nearly all the youth groups were either catholic or protestant, except for the political party clubs and the apprentices' clubs.


We did make a tour of Duisburg and, apart from seeing the bunkers and, as a contrast, the new and developing shopping centre, we also heard about Käthe Kollwitz the artist and Mercator the geographer, although I cannot, at this distance in time, put them into the Duisburg context, apart from memorials. We were astonished to see the trams; Portsmouth had replaced its trams with trolley buses before the war and some of us could remember the old trams, but the Duisburg trams were such as we had never seen before, more like the trains on the London Underground.


One unusual and very interesting visit for us was the margarine factory. We in Britain were used to rectangular oblong slabs, wrapped in greaseproof foldings; to our surprise, here we found square slabs, wrapped in paper and foil. The women were immaculate in their hats and overalls, and the factory itself was spotless. The only comparisons we had were the Portsmouth corset factories, and the hat and cap badge production unit, and not many of us had seen them to make a comparison.


Perhaps the most lasting memory for most of us was the Campfire Farewell, with (I am sure) about 200 people, including ourselves, our family hosts, people from numerous groups and clubs, and from the Duisburg administrative offices. In the best campfire tradition we sang to each other. During our evenings with German friends, we had been impressed by one particular song, and Fraülein Vehreschild carbon copied the words for us. We learned the pronunciation from our German friends and sang with them and I am sure that this particular song will live in our memories for ever:-



Kein schöner Land in dieser Zeit
Als hier das uns're weit und breit
Wo wir uns finden
Wohl unter Linden
Zur Abendszeit



At this time there is no countryside more beautiful
Than here, in our wide landscape,
Where we now find ourselves,
Under the linden trees,
In the evening twilight.


I can hear it now, in my memory, and the shivers run up my spine.

For many of us, this was a turning point in our lives, encouraging us to look wider than our own futures, our families and neighbourhoods, to consider other people's lives and conditions and I think it encouraged some of us to think more deeply about our careers.


Edna Harwood-Cahill