When Christmas came early for brave Edward

Headlines of just a few of the stories concerning little Edward Burke, of Grange Park, Blackpool, who died of leukaemia, aged four, in 1964, despite being sent for treatment in Corsica
Headlines of just a few of the stories concerning little Edward Burke, of Grange Park, Blackpool, who died of leukaemia, aged four, in 1964, despite being sent for treatment in Corsica
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They celebrated Christmas Day early - on Saturday November 16 - on Blackpool’s Grange Park estate back in 1963.

The kind-hearted community had arranged a festive party for three-year-old Edward Burke, who, doctors said, had not long to live.

Grange Park boy Edward Burke, who died, aged four, of leukaemia in 1964

Grange Park boy Edward Burke, who died, aged four, of leukaemia in 1964

Around 70 children, including his big sisters Patricia, 13, and Kathleen, 10, joined in the fun in the church hall where little Edward was a Sunday School scholar and they were all told: “Pretend it’s Christmas, Edward must not know the truth.”

Edward had started feeling ill some seven months earlier and his parents Edward Snr and Mary, of Tarnbrook Drive, were given the devastating news that their fair-haired son was suffering from the rare blood disease leukaemia, for which there was no cure.

One minute the young party boy was sat beaming with delight at the wheel of his brand new police patrol car, the next he was excitedly trying on his new cowboy suit, watched over by, who else but, Father Christmas.

His party, at St Michael and All Angels, was arranged by neighbours - among them a Mrs Riley, Mrs Senior, Mrs Butcher and Mrs Jeffries - after they heard Edward might not even live until Christmas.

Headlines of just a few of the stories concerning little Edward Burke, of Grange Park, Blackpool, who died of leukaemia, aged four, in 1964, despite being sent for treatment in Corsica

Headlines of just a few of the stories concerning little Edward Burke, of Grange Park, Blackpool, who died of leukaemia, aged four, in 1964, despite being sent for treatment in Corsica

They set up The Little Edward Fund and the hard-working committee collected money across the estate and approached several Blackpool stores for help which was gladly given.

Even the Mayoress, Mrs J H Smythe, turned up at the party, taking with her a bright red toy bus for Edward.

But a measure of the Burke family’s resolve was that they did not let Edward forget other sick children. The day after his party he took a box of fruit to the children’s ward of Blackpool Victoria Hospital.

The fund-raising did not stop there, according to the now-yellowing cuttings from half a century ago filed away in The Gazette’s archives.

Edward reached his fourth birthday on December 18 and the family’s friends and neighbours stepped up their appeal after news reached Blackpool that French biologist Gaston Naessens had offered to treat Edward with a new serum which, it was claimed, had already cured hundreds of children.

A sum of £500 was needed, and raised, so Edward and his mum could fly out for the six week course of treatment on the island of Corsica.

On New Year’s Eve, in a phone call arranged by the BBC and broadcast on their Voice Of The North programme, Mr Burke was able to speak to his wife and son and, the following afternoon, the first day of 1964 definitely brought a promise of hope, as in a second phone call to a friend’s house on Grange Park, young Edward could hardly contain his excitement as he told his dad: “I am getting better!”

But then, as Edward was just half way through his treatment, this happy tale of a miracle cure took an unexpected and heartbreaking turn when the French authorities declared the anti-leukaemia serum prepared by Gaston Naessens worthless and that his 30 or so child patients, including 14 from the UK, should be sent home immediately.

There were riots by up to 100 young demonstrators after police swooped on Gaston’s home to confiscate the serum. More than 400 riot police were then flown to Corsica to contain the escalating trouble as the biologist, who had become something of a folk hero, was charged with illegally practising medicine and pharmacy.

Edward and his mum Mary arrived back in England and the youngster began what The Gazette referred to as “standard treatment” at Victoria Hospital. Mrs Burke said on her arrival home: “It was the biggest let down I have ever had. I didn’t think the French Government would be so heartless. I am heartbroken but still hopeful that something will happen to help us,”

Those people who had given so readily to The Little Edward Fund were now offering up their signatures instead - to a petition, which topped almost 500 names, calling for Monsieur Naessens to be allowed to come to England and continue his treatment of Edward.

Mr Burke even sent a telegram to French President Charles de Gaulle appealing for him to intervene, as well as a letter to the French Ambassador in London.

Unfortunately, Edward lost his fight for life within a matter of months, around the same time that Monsieur Naessens was found guilty and given the maximum fine for the illegal practice of medicine and pharmacy. His “anablast” serum, having been analysed by the French Cancer Research Institute, was declared worthless, made up mainly of water, salt and phenol.

Here in Blackpool, The Little Edward Fund was wound up and the Burkes donated all the toys and clothes sent by wellwishers to the Ormerod Convalescent Home for Children, in St Annes, where the Sister Superior said: “The toys and clothing were sent to brighten the last days. They were given, I am sure, as a practical expression of sympathy by many people who will like to know that other children are benefiting by their kindness and generosity.”

Edward’s story will be featured in a forthcoming programme on the history of the telephone on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday, December 21.