There is a corner of Manchester that is forever Switzerland, thanks to members of the city’s Swiss Club – some of whom have been here more than half a century. Their stories recall a Britain – and Switzerland – of a bygone era.
The elders of the club arrived thanks to work or marriage and stayed by accident or design.
“I wasn’t happy at all when I first came over,” says Dieter Senn. Twenty years old, fresh from Basel, and based on the outskirts of Stoke-on-Trent to run the family’s ribbon business, Senn had a number of gripes when he arrived in 1964, from the lack of central heating to the difficulty of finding spaghetti and salami.
Within a couple of years, all that had changed. Thanks to his love of horse riding, he decided to buy a horse, and the woman he bought it from eventually became his wife.
Fifty years on and Senn is still here. He might have moved to North Wales following retirement five years ago but he’s still a pillar of the Swiss Club Manchester and drives over regularly to meet old friends.
He has also retained strong links to the city of his birth. Until the mid-1990s, he returned every year to play the drums in his carnival clique in Basel.
Swiss Club Manchester
The Swiss Club Manchester was founded in 1850 by a group of Swiss businessmen in the textile, textile machinery, machinery and dyestuffs industry. They formed a club to meet and exchange views and information.
Over time factories were built and opened and Swiss nationals came to Manchester to manage them. The club remained a businessmen's club but they also had social events and formed a rifle club, a Jass club, etc.
They met in the Midland Hotel, which is still going strong (and where these interviews were conducted) or the Grand, which has been converted into flats.
In the past 15 years companies such as Ciba, Geigy, Clayton Aniline, Renold Chains, Sulzer, Selecta and Swissair have closed and left Manchester. So have many of their expat managers and families.
The club has become more of a social club with a yearly programme of outings, walks, lunches and visits on a monthly basis.
Peter Immer from Thun remembers cold houses with ineffective coal fires and the wind blowing through unsealed doors and windows. “It took a bit of getting used to,” he says.
Born on September 17, 1933, in Thun, Immer first came to Britain in 1954 for a three-year course at Huddersfield Technical College. It was the year that rationing ended and he had also never seen a gas lamp before.
However, he did meet his future wife on that trip and, after living in Switzerland, the couple came back to Macclesfield in 1961.
Immer sold weaving machines made by Rüti Machinery Works in canton Zurich.
“When I arrived in the UK, there were just five customers who had our machines, all Swiss firms which had established themselves in Scotland,” he recalls.
“When I retired our market share was around 80% of the UK market. We sold a lot of machines, thousands…and quite a few are still working.”
“Delivery time was 36 months with 20% down payment in Swiss francs and the remaining 80% prior to shipment.”
Today, the company, which is called Sulzer-Rüti Machinery Works following a merger, is a shadow of its former self, a victim of the major changes which came to the textile industry during the 20th century.
“In 1961, when I started here, there were about 320,000 looms operating in the British Isles: ten years later it was 170,000, and when I stopped working in 1995, it was about 25,000,” says Immer.
“I got in at the right time and got out at the right time. Today I would fit in like a square peg in a round hole.”
Brass bands and nursing
“I wanted to speak perfect English when I came over,” says Ruth Haas Eckersley, her Saddleworth accent tinged with the slightest hint of Basel Country.
The nurse and brass band enthusiast came to England 12 years ago on a two-week holiday hoping for musical inspiration at the Royal Northern College of Music.
On the last day of her trip, she met her future husband. She returned to Switzerland for six months, running up, as she says with a laugh, huge profits for Swisscom, before deciding to emigrate.
A marriage and a daughter later, she’s still here and lives on Saddleworth Moor, about 12 miles from Manchester.
Eckersley says she joined the Swiss club and started to read the Swiss Review when she was pregnant as it suddenly became important to reconnect with her own culture.
She has been keen for her daughter Chiara to learn Swiss German and hear about Samichlaus as well as Father Christmas.
“I try to bring her up with both traditions,” she says. “It’s a richness, isn’t it?”
She says expatriates sometimes get stuck in a time warp when they think about their own country.
“You always remember it when you left. I find myself giving opinions about schools for example and then suddenly realise things have changed.
“When you talk about Switzerland, you’re talking about that Switzerland of years ago.”
“The ones who have been over here for any time conserve the memory of how Switzerland was when they left and not Switzerland today.”
That’s a view shared by Sandra Glauser, secretary of the Manchester Swiss Club. She’s British but now has a Swiss passport and speaks Swiss German. Her husband, who is originally from Altdorf in Canton Uri, spent 35 years working for Swissair.
“I think it’s the same for everybody who goes somewhere else and lives there for a long time. When you go back, it’s not like it was when you were there.
“It’s not being a foreigner in your own country. It’s simply all moved on and you have left it as it was. And you think it’s the same but, of course, its not. It’s not at all.”
The couple met when he was posted to England on a transfer. He subsequently joined Swissair and they lived in Zurich for seven years and Cologne in Germany for another three before moving to Manchester in the 1970s.
Postings to Moscow, Tehran and Karachi followed, but they always kept their house in Stockport as a base. When retirement loomed and knowing that Swissair operated direct flights between Manchester and Zurich, they opted for England over Switzerland.
Glauser says that as Swiss companies have moved their operations out of town, the Manchester Swiss Club has evolved from a businessman’s club to a social club.
One member who’s witnessed that firsthand is 90-year-old Bernard Simon. Simon came over on his first trip in 1948 to help set up the British operations of pharmaceutical company Geigy from Basel.
He returned to Manchester on a more permanent basis in 1954 and apart from a seven-year spell in London has been here ever since.
He was with Ciba and later Ciba-Geigy following the merger in 1971 but had retired long before the merger with Sandoz in 1996 to create Novartis and the closure of the company’s facilities in Manchester.
Simon worries about the future of his club.
“The club will have problems in the future because there are no Swiss coming over or far less because the big companies are no longer in Manchester.
“They have closed down operations here. There is no intake from Switzerland any longer.”
For the time being, at any rate, there is no cause for alarm. It still is the largest Swiss club in Britain outside London and currently has 113 members.
Reinforcements from an unexpected quarter have helped keep numbers up. Some new members’ only tie to Switzerland is their love of the country.