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Our story

Black and white photo of Hermann Gmeiner with small girl
Hermann Gmeiner meets a young girl from Rio de Janeiro on a trip to Brazil

As Europe began its recovery from the Second World War, a young Austrian man was moved to action by the appalling plight of the many children left orphaned and with no one to care for them after six years of conflict.

That young man was called Hermann Gmeiner, and in 1949, he and his colleagues established SOS Children's Villages, a charity founded on the belief that every child should grow up in a loving home, whatever their circumstances.

This is the story of how a visionary idea became a lifeline for millions of children all over the world as sixty years of history unfolded.

A global story

SOS Children's Villages is an international organisation with fundraising offices and charitable programmes in a total of 134 countries around the world. Some countries, like the UK, run fundraising activities only, directing all their charitable expenditure to Children's Villages and other SOS programmes around the world. This means that we help children and families in 125 countries globally.

The UK story

As the charity expanded, it took on a federal structure, with each national team working with a degree of autonomy while still enjoying the benefits of being part of an international organisation. Although each national team works independently, sharing, cooperation and exchange has always been a key part of the SOS ethos.

This is the story of SOS Children's Villages in the UK.

1960s: Getting off the ground

Britain became involved in the SOS adventure in the early 1960s, when an Edinburgh-born teacher called Bertha Forrester visited Austria to meet her friend, SOS Children's international director, Egon Hofreiter.

Black and white photo of trustee Christopher Brockleband-Fowler with six SOS UK team members outside the charity shop in Cambridge
Trustee Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler stands proudly with the SOS team outside the new shop in Cambridge

Upon their return, Bertha and her husband Jim founded the British Friends of SOS Children, which was registered with the charity commission in 1968. With its national headquarters in Lavender Hill, London, the British Friends was dedicated to supporting Children's Villages around the world and to the pursuit of the Children's Village idea in Britain.

1970s to 1990s: A flourishing endeavour

In the 1970s, local “branches” sprang up across the country, in Brighton, Cheltenham and Coventry to name but a few locations.

Later in the decade, SOS Children's Villages moved its offices out of London. MP and SOS Children's Villages trustee Christopher Brocklebank-Fowler persuaded the board that Cambridge would be an ideal location, complementing Oxfam's headquarters in Oxford. It also happened to be halfway between parliament and his constituency in King's Lynn.

In 1982, SOS Children's Villages took the lease of a premises on Cambridge's Bridge Street. On the ground floor, we also opened a charity shop, selling items from the countries where SOS Children's Villages works. The goods were new, sourced at trade fairs and sold at a profit, which was used to fund SOS Children's Villages charity work. A year later, a second shop opened on nearby Regent Street. Both outlets operated until 1994, when they ceased to generate a profit.

1990s to 2000s: Moving with the times

The past decade has been characteristically eventful. In 2004, we changed our trading name from “SOS Children's Villages” to the more eye-catching “SOS Children”, while retaining the original logo to celebrate our international role as part of a global childcare organisation. We also moved our national headquarters to new premises on Hills Road, Cambridge.

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This poster advertises ethical items on sale in Cambridge in the 1980s: “For all those difficult gifts and even the easy ones the SOS Children's Villages shops have probably the most varied range in Cambridge”

Following the Boxing Day tsunami of 2004, our presence across Asia meant that we were well-placed to deliver emergency relief and long-term support to families and children left devastated by the disaster. As part of our relief effort, the Royal Albert Hall hosted a “Classical Response” concert starring prominent supporters from the musical world, including Aled Jones. We held a second Classical Response event in 2006, this time hosted by Myleene Klass and again starring Aled Jones, along with G4. A third concert was held following the Haiti earthquake in 2010.

In 2011, we celebrated the 40th anniversary of our work in Africa. We commemorated this momentous achievement with the launch of the “Our Africa” website. This evolving educational resource features compelling, personal films devised and made by children across Africa, presenting their own issues in their own way. The following year, Channel 4's Jon Snow presented the SOS team with the “One World Media Award for New Media” to celebrate the success of Our Africa.

A Children's Village in the UK?

The possibility of a Children's Village in the United Kingdom has been explored a number of times from as early as 1969. Though no plans are currently in place for a UK Village, British supporters provide a nurturing family life to vulnerable children on every continent.

Cheltenham, 1969

A Scottish-based charity offered SOS Children's Villages a piece of land in Cheltenham and committed funding for the first house. SOS staff made fact-finding trips to Villages on the continent and commissioned an architect to draw up plans.

However, the scheme was later vetoed by the Home Office because they felt that the model would put too much strain on social services. According to the authorities, previous forms of “institutional care” for children were out-of-date.

Scotland, 1970

Newspaper clipping about possible SOS Village in UK
This article, published in the Glasgow Herald in 1972, reports that an SOS Village is expected in Scotland within 18 months. Plans were quashed by the Home Office on childcare grounds. Click image to see a larger version.

In 1970, Bertha Forrester suggested that Scotland might be a more fruitful location for a Village. Glasgow City Council offered a suitable site (on part of the ten-acre Springburn housing development) and pledged £3million in finance. Wealthy individuals came forward with the promise of support, and sufficient funding was obtained to construct a Village for at least eight SOS families.

Once again, plans were met with resistance from the authorities. This time, Strathclye Regional Council overturned the proposal on childcare grounds.

Barnados collaboration, 2008

In 2008, the children's charity Barnados expressed interest in adopting the SOS model in some of its work with disadvantaged children. Our chairperson, Mary Cockcroft, took three Barnados directors to see the SOS Village in Calais, and a joint project was proposed.

However, plans were shelved after a change of senior management at Barnados, who saw risks attached to running residential homes for children.

A Children's Village in the UK may be a long way off, but for vulnerable children in 125 countries worldwide, our supporters offer a lifeline. 560 SOS Children's Villages provide a loving home to more than 73,000 children and young people around the world, all of whom would struggle without the care and support of a loving family. Find out more about life in a Children's Village...

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SOS Children is a sponsorship charity: we give children around the world a home in a loving family.