Helen Ellis founded Migrant Help in 1963 under its original name, the Kent Committee for the Welfare of Migrants. Her daughter, Margaret Hurst, talks about Helen’s life and memories of the charity’s earliest years. 

My mother was born in Switzerland in 1913, and came to England to learn English in the 1930s. Later she went to work at a children's home in Paris, where she made Jewish friends who, to her enduring distress, did not survive the war. 

She and my father Fred, a teacher, met while Mum was working for the Civil Service in England in the mid-1930s. They married in 1936. 

There is a photo of them when they were newly married. You can see that they were really happy and so full of hope for the future. Their first child, Veronica, was born in 1940 in Folkestone. Mum described it as “an indescribable joy” and her “great consolation” when Fred was away at war for the next six years. 

Mum and Veronica were evacuated from Folkestone during the war: first to Wales, then Leeds, where my dad had family. It was a very tough time for her, but she took in a German Jewish refugee called Tilly, through the Kindertransport scheme. Tilly carried on with her education and moved to America after the war with her German Jewish husband, also a refugee. 

Helen and Fred (circa 1935-6)

When the war ended, Mum went back to Folkestone, and Dad returned from Greece, where he was stationed, a while later. The war had taken a toll on them both.  

I was born in 1946, and in 1948 we moved to 39 Limes Road [where the charity would later start life]. Every summer we took in foreign English language students, so I would sleep on Dad’s army camp bed in the dining room. It was wonderful having all these young people coming from all over the place – France, Sweden, Italy. We had them because my mum loved the connection with other places in the world, and also as a way of paying for our education. 

Immigration Officers at the port got to know of her and called when they had people who needed help. I remember her going to the phone, in a cupboard under the stairs, and getting a taxi to Folkestone or Dover harbours. Mum said: 

During the day, while my daughters were at school, I was occasionally called down to the harbour by the immigration authorities, when Swiss citizens had problems with entering the country. I helped found the Committee of the Swiss Welfare Office, and chaired it for 20 years. So it was natural for the Swiss Embassy to tell the harbour authorities to contact me when they needed advice. This is how I came to my harbour work.

The charity must have started in an itsy bitsy sort of way like that. By 1963, things had really started building up. 

Helen, Fred and Margaret (1970s)

The office used to be in our dining room. There were all sorts of people that my mother helped. Then they found her a room in Folkestone Harbour to work from. 

One year she decided to recycle Christmas cards to sell them to raise money. She must have sold huge numbers. She was a great cake-maker and I remember she gave the postmen cake as a thank you. 

In 1965 I moved away to university in London. Mum and I would often meet at Lyons Corner House – she was coming up and down to London quite a bit for the charity. The work built up slowly: she was the sort of person who was able to take it in her stride. 

I can remember one young man who she helped to get refugee status, visiting him initially on a ship where they held migrants off Harwich, who would go and visit her every year. She helped him to find a job in London. She was really happy when she was able to help people settle. 

Helen and Fred (circa 1998)

People just utterly warmed to her. She was somebody who was respected, who got on with people, and who was empathetic. I think what people appreciated about my mother was the freedom she assumed people should have. She wanted her daughters to be independent: when I was just 12 she took me to Paris to introduce me to a French family, and then left me with them to learn French. There was that sense of freedom and an expanded world.  

Her uncle Heinrich and his wife had adopted an Armenian girl, and he wrote a book about Armenian refugees and migration, which made a big impression on her as a child. And coming to this country at a time where many people didn’t understand the difference between being Swiss, German and Swedish was quite challenging for her. I think her compassion for displaced people came naturally from those experiences. 

In 1967 she was awarded an MBE for her welfare work in Folkestone and Dover. She was so proud. It was a huge acknowledgement for her, as she wrote: “since then nobody regards me as a foreigner. I belong to country and people.” 

After Mum died, we scattered her ashes at sea, as she had wished, in sight of the White Cliffs of Dover. 

Since I love Switzerland and England to the same degree, I cannot be buried in either country. I therefore wish to be cremated so that the ashes can be strewn into the sea, which I love so dearly – with the hope that my soul will find acceptance in the eternal home of heaven.

Helen, Veronica and Phoebe outside 39 Limes Road