At the end of World War II there was a common determination to prevent the occurrence of any further wars between the countries of Europe. Jean Monnet (1885-1979), a Frenchman born in Cognac, a businessman and man of vision, was largely instrumental in the foundation of the European Coal & Steel Community, which led to the European Economic Community and later the European Union. Out of this European Community ideal emerged the notion of twinning towns within the Community to develop social ties between them.
The towns of St Cloud in France and Bad Godesberg in Germany were among the early ones to be twinned in this way (1957) and the then Deputy Mayoress of St Cloud, Mme Nina Clément, who had herself lived through two World Wars, conceived the idea that the women of the two towns should make personal contacts to help develop the friendship between them. She accordingly gathered together a small group of ladies prepared to do this, and visits were exchanged between them and a similar group of ladies from Bad Godesberg.
Maidenhead was twinned with St Cloud in 1957 and with Bad Godesberg in 1960, and in 1964 Mme Clément invited a party from Maidenhead to visit them at the same time as they were receiving the ladies from Bad Godesberg, to observe and consider setting up a similar group of our own.
Four ladies went: Cllr Muriel Hayes (Mayor); Dr Mary Bell (founder of Maidenhead Mothers’ Club and an international representative of the Inner Wheel); Peggy King (founder of the evening branch of the Townswomen’s Guild, Area Secretary of the Guild’s Federation and member of the Inner Wheel); and Grete Winton* (member of the Twinning Committee, Danish-born and able to speak both French and German). They reported back to the Twinning Committee and, as a consequence, an article was published in the Maidenhead Advertiser inviting interested ladies to form a group here.
The first meeting was held on 13 January 1965 and an official Group inaugurated on 17 March that year, with Grete as President and Dr Mary Bell as Secretary. Its first title was ‘Maidenhead Women’s Group of the European Movement’, and its stated aims:
‘…to inform ourselves and others of European problems, to make contact with women in Europe, particularly from our twin towns in France and Germany, and to do this (sic) through lectures on Europe, through meetings with our sister Groups in St Cloud and Bad Godesberg, both as hosts here and as guests in their homes…’
Our first exchange visits were with Bad Godesberg in 1966 and 1967, and we received St Cloud in 1968. Similar Groups were subsequently formed in our twin towns of Kortrijk in Belgium and Frascati in Italy and exchange visits began to take place between all five towns in the Circle on a regular 4-yearly cycle. In the fifth year a Congress of all the Groups was held in one or other of the towns. Our twinning was on the basis that we were all on rivers and within commuting distance of our nation’s capital (Bonn being then the capital of West Germany at the time).
Later, through personal contacts with the Italian President, Maria Fausta Roncoroni, some ladies from Salzburg in Austria also became extremely interested in our movement and themselves formed a Group. Although Salzburg is not actually one of our twin towns, they applied to join the Circle and were voted in as members at the Congress in 2004.
Greta continued as president for seventeen years, from 1965-1982. Subsequent Presidents have been: Joan Brooks , Win Law , Vicky Austin-Clark, Iris Belsten, Rita Ashmore, Linda Johnston, Anne Home & our current President is Hilary Lawes.
The success of the European concept is self-evident in that, although we may at times have had disagreements, there have been no wars between the countries of Western Europe in the last 65 years. The emphasis in our ladies’ Groups has always been on friendship, and we would like to believe that the idea that you are much less likely to contemplate waging war against someone whom you have entertained in your own home, or has received you into theirs, and who you can truly call a ‘friend’, has played some part in this peace!
*Grete Winton was working in Paris after the War, where she met Nicky Winton, and they married. She spoke French, and also had knowledge of German from the time of the Occupation in Denmark. It was only much later, in 1988, that Grete came across documents in their attic which detailed how, in 1938/9, Nicky had organised the escape of 669 Jewish children by train from Prague, just before the German occupation, thus saving them from the Nazis. He also arranged for their reception into English families. When his work became public knowledge he was dubbed ‘the British Schindler’ and in 2003 he received a knighthood. Grete died in 1999 and Nicky in 2015.