Francesca Wilson in Peace and War

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‘In my farewell speech I promised them that I would tell England about them – their talents, their vitality and the wretchedness of being homeless in the world.’

This promise was made by a Birmingham teacher at Föhrenwald Displaced Persons Camp outside Munich in 1946. Her name was Francesca Wilson (1888–1981) and she had spent the previous year working on behalf of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) with survivors of Dachau concentration camp. Francesca’s journey to Föhrenwald was only the most recent episode in a remarkable life dedicated to the relief of civilians displaced by war.

She is one of a number of Birmingham women who were active in international humanitarian causes in the first half of the twentieth century, many of them Quakers, whose stories deserve to be better known.

Francesca was born into a middle-class Quaker family in Newcastle upon Tyne on 1 January 1888, and although in later life she herself had an ambiguous relationship to religion, much of her humanitarian motivation can be traced to her Quaker heritage. Her own educational aspirations were encouraged by her father Robert, a pacifist with an international outlook. He ensured that Francesca received an advanced education for a girl at the time: she attended the Central Newcastle High School for Girls, then Newnham College, Cambridge. Whilst teaching in Gravesend during the First World War she became involved with Belgian refugees, an encounter which had a long-lasting impact.

KEYWORDS: Women, World War 2, Quakers, Refugees

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