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Marja SaloMarja Salo, former Chair of the Federation writes.

The writer worked as the Secretary General of the Helsinki Finnish-British Society from 1970 - 2000 and as the Executive Manager of the Federation of Finnish-British Societies from 1986 - 2011, Chairperson from 2005 - 2011.

Reciprocal economic and commercial relations between Great Britain and Finland are longstanding, but cultural exchange between the two countries really only started at the end of the nineteenth century or early twentieth century, and it is within this relatively recent framework that we should see the development of Finnish-British Societies. Occasional meetings and club evenings had been arranged earlier, but the founding meeting of an organized Anglo-Finnish Society was held on 15th April 1926 at 7pm at the Students’ House in Helsinki. The intention was to found a Society on a broad, democratic basis so as to enable as large a number of people as possible to benefit from its activities. This attempt was to prove successful.

The Anglo-Finnish Society (later called the Finnish-British Society) is today among the oldest friendship societies in Finland. Initially the Helsinki Society represented the whole country but the situation changed as many other societies and English clubs were founded throughout the country. Oulu English Club, founded in 1935, became the second oldest society, and by the 1950’s -70’s there were around 60 societies or clubs throughout the country. During this latter period English teaching by native British teachers was one of their most important activities. It could be said that these organizations to a large extent brought the English language to Finland. Since 1972 the Helsinki society has also acted as a language test centre for Cambridge University language exams and from 1989 – 2000 and again from 2007 onwards for IELTS (International English Language Testing System), the world’s leading test of English for higher education.
Teaching English was of the utmost importance in the societies’ life and survival, but cultural and social activities walked hand in hand with the teaching, and the societies had lively social and cultural programmes in English.

The Helsinki Finnish-British Society was founded in 1926, the same year as Queen Elizabeth II was born. Thus one of the highlights in Finn-Brit history was 1976 when the 50th anniversaries coincided. The Queen and Prince Philip visited Finland in May 1976 and representatives from the Finnish-British Society were invited to a reception to meet the royal guests.

The Society’s 50th anniversary celebration was held on the 1st – 3rd October, 1976. The distinguished British novelist, Margaret Drabble, had been invited to Finland by the British Council, and she gave a talk on women writers at Helsinki University. On the following day there was a morning reception at the Society’s premises, followed by a formal luncheon. The main 50th Anniversary event took place in the afternoon at the festival hall of Helsinki University, and the celebrations were concluded with the Anniversary Ball at Adlon.

Several Anglo-Finnish Days were arranged in the 70’s and 80’s. These were three- to four-day cultural events to which well-known speakers were invited, and these happenings were always attended by members from other societies. Other events included plenary meetings and conferences held annually at different venues throughout Finland, which were accompanied by seminars and local events arranged by the host societies.
There was, however, a need for more organized and centralized cooperation.

In 1978 the first issue of the Finn-Brit Magazine appeared, put together by the Mikkeli Society, and it has been regularly published ever since. In the same year there was an attempt to found the central organization, but the rules needed some further amendments. Nevertheless, a year later, the Federation of Finnish-British Societies was established at the annual general conference in Oulu on 14th October 1979. All local societies are members of the Federation, but every society is, however, independent and has its own character and emphasis. Teaching English took place at over 30 societies until the 1990’s, though this is the case at only a few societies today.

The Federation celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2009. Its present activities include several specified projects in addition to supporting the local societies both financially and culturally. Among the Federation’s activities are the Debating and Writing competitions for upper secondary school pupils, teaching courses for special purposes, the annual autumn seminar, the Magazine, visiting lecturers from Britain, summer trips to Britain, and so on. A comprehensive historical survey of the Finnish-British Society movement waits to be written. It would certainly deserve it.

I have written here about the earlier days, focusing on the Helsinki Society – where I worked for 30 years – whereas the next editorial will point more towards the future. It is now time for a changing of the guards and a new era is starting. I am stepping down and Tarja Teitto-Tuckett was elected Chair at the 2011 AGM of the Federation in Kuopio. I thank you for the many good decades - altogether over 40 years - during which I had the pleasure of working with this fine organization and I wish the Finnish-British Society movement every success in its important work in the future.

Marja Salo