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An extraordinary life

From eating gruel to serving royalty

By Karin Aeschlimann

Parkes-Bärfuss today, at age 101 (Mara Truog)

Parkes-Bärfuss today, at age 101

(Mara Truog)

As the child of a working-class family in Switzerland, Claire Parkes-Bärfuss had a tough start in life. Later, in London, she met Princess Margaret. The long, eventful life story of this 101-year-old is now a book.

The one-room flat in Eggiwil in the Emmental is sparsely furnished with a bed, a small table and two chairs made of pale wood.

The eye is immediately drawn to the only picture on the wall. A black-and-white photograph shows a woman in a dark dress with a flock of children.

The older girls wear white collars and bows in their hair, the boy, who sits on his mother’s lap like a doll, has blond curls. The children look sternly into the camera. You might think you are looking at an idyllic family image from days long past.

The truth behind the picture is only revealed when Claire Parkes begins to speak in a clear, dusky voice. She was born in 1913 in Zwingen – then still part of canton Bern, now part of canton Basel Country. At the time the photograph was taken, she was about seven and still called Klara Bärfuss.

“Our mother had that photo done in a studio before we went to the children’s home,” she says. “Father was already dead, he died of Spanish flu.”

Sophie Bärfuss, Claire's mother, with eight of her 14 children. Ten died young. Claire, then still Klara, is on the far right. The photograph was taken around 1920. (courtesy)

Sophie Bärfuss, Claire's mother, with eight of her 14 children. Ten died young. Claire, then still Klara, is on the far right. The photograph was taken around 1920.


The dog ate polenta, she got soup

Her mother and seven of her children were suffering from tuberculosis, which was incurable in those days. She died of the disease. Klara never found out exactly when. At that point the authorities had already placed her in a Catholic home in Sursee in Canton Lucerne, in central Switzerland.

The home sent her out to work at the age of 15 as a maidservant in the house of a wealthy family, where she was given watery gruel to eat. Half-starved, she sometimes secretly ate the polenta that she had to cook for the dog. “I never took anything out of the dog-bowl; I always took the polenta from the pot and put it on a plate,” she explains.

Her life is almost unimaginable today. A life which entailed somehow getting by; fitting in without falling apart.

She seldom had support. “My younger sister Paula was able to train as a seamstress, thanks to help from a sponsor,” says Parkes. “That was a major exception and a great stroke of luck.” Two other siblings were adopted, and 10 of the 14 children died young.

Klara becomes Claire

An intelligent child, Klara herself dreamed of learning languages. That was not just an impossible idea but a preposterous one for a girl like her from a working-class family with numerous children. But her dream was to be fulfilled. First she travelled across Switzerland working as a maid and cook. She lived in French-speaking Switzerland, where she became Claire because there were already two Klaras at the station café in Geneva.

She stayed Claire, but staying put was not her thing. By 1949, at the age of 36, she had worked for 20 years in countless jobs.

Then she read the following newspaper advertisement: “London couple seeks Swiss home help.”

At that time she was not the only Swiss woman who went to Britain to work and learn the language; the hard-working Swiss were in demand.

Here, too, Claire changed jobs frequently and even served at the home of an aristocratic English bachelor, where she became acquainted with Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister. “She used to like coming to the kitchen to chat with me.”

Sir Michael, the Duke di Ventura, Lady Montagu and Lady Renshaw – even at 101, Claire Parkes still remembers all their names.

Her memory is extraordinary, which perhaps has something to do with the fact that she likes “watching my own films in my head”. She has been almost completely blind for several years and this is often the only way to while away the time, as this dainty elderly lady lives alone.

New Zealand, London, Eggiwil

Claire Parkes’ husband Stanley died many years ago. She met him, a former professional soldier, in London. They married when Claire was 42. “That morning I worked, and in the afternoon we went to the registry office. I had put the clothes ready on the bed so that I could get dressed quickly.”

Stanley, who was traumatised by the Korean War, was as incapable as his wife of staying put. When a doctor said that a subtropical climate could help to combat his attacks of malaria, the couple emigrated to New Zealand.

They worked in a vegetable factory there for several years and could even afford to buy a house. Claire Parkes was happy. She would have liked to stay in New Zealand. But in 1964 Stanley persuaded her to return to London.

It was Claire Parkes' wish to return to rural Eggiwil. "This is my home," she says. Two years ago at the age of 99, after more than 60 years abroad, she moved to a care-centre for the elderly. At first she lived reclusively there; now she knows some of the people of Eggiwil, and the people of Eggiwil know her – she is, after all, the oldest inhabitant of the community.

Swiss and world history

Über London und Neuseeland nach Eggiwil (Via London and New Zealand to Eggiwil) is published in German by the Verlag Hier und Jetzt. It is written by culture journalist and translator Simone Müller.

This story first appeared at

Translated from German by Catherine Hickley


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