Undergraduate Students Celebrate 75 Years of the Reading-Düsseldorf Association!

Part Two: UG student Eve Roberts reflects on her placement at the Berkshire Records Office, in collaboration with Reading-Düsseldorf Association.

Our much loved Discovering Archives and Collections Module enables students to test and develop their interest in careers in the archives sector through a 10-day placement at the Berkshire Record Office. This year, students Eleanor and Eve worked in collaboration with Reading-Düsseldorf Association, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary!

We are pleased to share these blogs ahead of the exhibition at Reading Museum opening this weekend (18th July 2022): ‘Head Over Heels: Friendships From the Ruins’ . Delivered in partnership with the Reading-Düsseldorf Association, the display will include rare items on loan from the Berkshire Records Office and an exploration of the Reading sculpture Cartwheeling Boys.

In the stunning visual display below, Eve explores the founding of the relationship between Reading and Düsseldorf. Inspired by ‘the children’, then-mayor Phoebe Cusden set up an exchange with local families in Reading. Read on for a beautiful story of love, community and kindness at the heart of Reading!

‘It Started with the Children’: A celebration of the Reading-Düsseldorf Association, by Eve Roberts

Although the association was formally established in 1948, Reading’s links to Düsseldorf had already begun through the efforts of the mayor at the time, Phoebe Cusden, as demonstrated by this letter written by Phoebe in response to an article published in The Spectator regarding the plight of post-war Germany. Given that the letter dates so soon after the war ended, yet expresses such a strong desire to illustrate ‘that we are not indifferent to human misery’, provides a particularly noteworthy insight into Phoebe’s own aspirations, but also the founding ideals that the association was built upon. 

Shortly after the end of the Second World War, a call went out to Berkshire County from the Royal Berkshire Regiment based in British-occupied Düsseldorf, to adopt the city.  This was answered by Phoebe, who set up a Christmas appeal in 1946 within the local newspapers. Although initially hit with criticisms stemming from continued hostilities towards Germany, the generosity of local people soon outweighed this, with donations of £80, 1,000 lbs food and 11 sacks of clothing assembled within a month, despite ongoing rationing.

Given this success, Phoebe undertook her first visit to Düsseldorf in 1947. Like many other European cities, Düsseldorf had been reduced to rubble by the war, with the photographs below providing just a small snapshot of the damage caused by bombing campaigns. On her return, Phoebe recounted the ‘appalling conditions’ of families within the city, with thousands living in ‘air raid shelters’ and ‘holes in the ground’, and ‘suffering from lack of bare necessities of life’. Seeing this first-hand drove aspirations to forge a link between Reading and Düsseldorf further and in 1948, the Reading-Düsseldorf Association was established.

When establishing the link between Reading and Düsseldorf, one of the main concerns of the association’s co-founders was the welfare of Düsseldorf children. A further appeal was published within local papers for families to take in children from Düsseldorf as part of an exchange. This was duly taken up and in 1948, six children came to stay with local families for three months, with the exchange then reciprocated in 1949 with seventy English school children.  As noted by Phoebe Cusden’s grandson, Richard Thom, the exchanges were extremely important to Phoebe:

She felt that she wanted to give the children a better life, but she also wanted the children of both places, Düsseldorf and Reading, to meet each other, learn to get on with each other, reconciliation after the war and to build up friendships that in some cases will last for a very long time.”

One of the six children to first visit Reading, Gretel Rieber, later recalled her ‘amazement’ at the luxury of being given a box of dates by a member of the association and that to her, Britain was a ‘land of cornucopias’ compared to the ‘cold, hunger and deprivation’ of post-war Düsseldorf. Although Britain was still suffering the effects of wartime rationing and damage caused by German bombing campaigns, the fact that for these children their time spent in Reading was so far removed from their lives in Düsseldorf, arguably provides a revealing comparison of the differing post-war societies in Reading and Düsseldorf. 

Due to the success of these initial exchanges, it soon became an annual fixture and in 1981, was officially termed the Mayor’s Young People’s Exchange. Although this ended in 1992, the association continues to encourage local school exchanges with Düsseldorf, which has also extended to include work experience trips for college students, and exchanges between local sports clubs, orchestras and choirs to name a few. 

As ties continued to grow between Reading and Düsseldorf, the association began to look for ways to commemorate the link for the 30th anniversary. This soon led to the incorporation of the Düsseldorf tradition of cartwheeling street performers.

Stemming from city folklore, it is said that on his way to his wedding, Prince Jan Wellem’s coach wheel came loose. To resolve the issue, a local boy stepped forward and rotated within the wheel, thus creating the effect of a cartwheel, from which he was awarded a gold ducat. To this day, children continue this practice of performing cartwheels in the cities of Germany in exchange for a penny.

For the 30th anniversary, a statue representing the cartwheeling boy was commissioned to sculpture Brian Slack, and unveiled outside the Hexagon Theatre in 1981, where it still stands today. As highlighted by the surrounding images, the symbol came to celebrate both the exchanges and the growing ties between Reading and Düsseldorf, with the incorporation of traditional folklore acting, as current vice-chairman Robert Dimmock notes, as a symbolic ‘identity’ through which the association could build itself around.

Throughout the association’s numerous anniversary celebrations, key events have often centred around musical and dance performances, with a vast array of local and international groups taking part.

Regarding dance performances, a firm favourite within anniversary celebrations is the Düsseldorf Grasshoppers, whose performances have spanned the majority of these celebratory events. Other groups have also included the Kennet Morris Men dancers and St Andrews Scottish dancers, who joined the Grasshoppers for an International Folk-Dance Festival held for the 30th Anniversary.

Anniversary celebrations also included several music concerts, with groups such as the Reading and Düsseldorf Youth Orchestras, the Düsseldorf Big Band and Reading’s Phoenix choir, timetabled to perform. Some groups, such as the Youth Orchestras, also forged their own friendships from these events and went on to host one another through several exchange trips and concerts; thus, extending the ties between Reading and Düsseldorf further.  

Following along similar performing arts-based lines, one of the main programmed events for the 40th and 50th anniversaries included performances conducted by the Düsseldorf Marionette Theatre.

Theatre productions included “The Ballad of Norbert Nachendick”, which followed the story of a tyrannical rhinoceros, and “The Magic Flute”, which was performed in Düsseldorf and follows the story of the lovers Pamina and Tamino. Each production used an array of different hand-made puppets and sets crafted by the company.

Although the performances were in German, issues surrounding their receival and understanding proved to be of little consequence, as highlighted by the local newspapers below, which mirror one another in their reflection of the overall ‘delightful theatrical experience’ of the productions, enjoyed by audiences of children and adults alike.

The local newspapers used within this online exhibition also illustrate how numerous anniversary celebrations enabled the association to explore different avenues of contact established between Reading and Düsseldorf. The use of performing arts in particular arguably reflects a symbolic sharing of cultural practices between the two areas, that enabled a shared cooperation between local groups and sustained interaction between Reading and Düsseldorf.   

We hope that you have enjoyed this online gallery, which has been granted permission for use by the Berkshire Record Office. All materials used within the gallery are located in the Reading-Düsseldorf Association collections and Phoebe Cusden collections held at the Berkshire Record Office.

Above: Photograph of Phoebe Cusden during a visit to Düsseldorf, D/EX1485/15/16

You can visit the exhibition at Reading Museum from this weekend and view some of the items above for yourself!

Archival Primary Sources:

Berkshire Chronicle, 30th May 1947, Reading, Berkshire Record Office, D/EX653acc9640.18.

Berkshire Chronicle, 11th July 1947, Reading, Berkshire Record Office, D/EX653acc9640.18.

Reading, Berkshire Record Office, Reading-Düsseldorf Association Collection, D/EX653acc4544.1.

Rieber, Gretel, ‘Friendship creates peace: 40 years of city friendship between Reading and Düsseldorf’, Reading, Berkshire Record Office, D/EX653acc9640.18.

Primary Sources:

Interview with Richard Thom, Reading, 24th November 2021.

Interview with Robert Dimmock, Reading, 19th November 2021.

Secondary Materials:

Corridor Press, Hands of Friendship: The Story of Reading’s twinning links (Reading, 2003).

Stout, Adam, A Bigness of Heart: Phoebe Cusden of Reading (Reading, 1997).

This entry was posted in News and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.