The following festive story hit the national and region al newspapers on the eve of Christmas and it is indeed a heartwarming story for the season.
We forget how things were during World War Two, but 67 years ago, on Christmas Eve 1944, 200 handcrafted toys were delivered to York Mansion House to be delivered to the sick and needy children in the City of York hospitals and institutions. This was the result of a chance flash of inspiration by a French Air Force Lieutenant, Sous Lieutenant Lemarchand, serving in the Mechanics Section with the French Squadron’s based at Elvington, who had seen the L.N.E.R (London & North Eastern Railway) charity Christmas tree whilst passing through York Station. He decided it would be a fine gesture of goodwill to make some toys for the sick children and was sure his fellow mechanics would agree.
With just three days to go before Christmas Eve, having secured the heartfelt agreement of the Station Commander, Colonel Bailly, who was the Commanding Officer of the French Air Force, work began.
Using any scraps of waste material available, and using tools as crude as razor blades, the mechanics worked night and day and produced a staggering 204 toys of all types and descriptions – true labours of love and imagination. Officers of the base had put up prizes as a friendly act of support and incentive and the first prize of a bottle of whisky went to the maker of a model Normandie type Liner, perfect in every detail and able to float. Second prize, a bottle of gin, was the reward for the producer of a swinging dolls treasure cot, decorated with the Rose of Alsace, made from beaten metal. A fully furnished kitchen stove, complete with an array of cooking utensils won a couple of bottles of aperitif! Every toy proudly bore the Cross of Lorraine to mark their heritage and it is not beyond the realms of imagination to suppose that the craftsmen had been making the toys with thoughts of their own children or younger relatives, or even the children they hoped to have, firmly in their minds.
The avalanche of toys delivered to the Mansion House that Christmas Eve turned the State Room into something resembling a toy shop, and the slightly bewildered Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress, Councillor and Mrs. H C de Burgh and the City Sheriff, Councillor J H Kaye, thanked the French servicemen most warmly for their magnificent gesture to the less fortunate of the city’s children.
The details of this heart warming story have recently come to light from a recent member of the French Veterans Association, Groupes Lourds, Dr. Churet, whose father was the Engineer in charge of all the mechanics based at Elvington during their service here. We have discovered that a resident of Elvington, John Nicholson, is still in possession of one of the toys, given to him as a child. We would be delighted to hear from anyone else who has one of these unique novelties, so that we can discover more about the ‘men behind the imagination’ and learn more about this charming episode in Elvington’s history.
Museum Director, Ian Reed, said, “The humanity of these young French airmen towards the English children, whilst their own families and loved ones were in unknown circumstances within Occupied France, shines through the ages as a testament to their fundamental good nature and kind spirit. This is a story which touches all our hearts especially at this time of year 67 years on”.