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Canadian Adventure

© bedfordmuseum

Contributed by bedfordmuseum
People in story: Felicity Wells
Location of story: Erindale, Toronto, Canada
Background to story: Civilian
Article ID: A3869733
Contributed on: 07 April 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by Jenny Ford on behalf of Felicity Wells and has been added to the site with her permission. The author fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

In the summer of 1939 I was eleven. My boarding school was evacuated from Broadstairs in Kent to the north coast of Devon where wer lived in the Watersmeet Hotel at Mortehoe, on a cliff above a sandy beach.

Even there we felt the threat of German invasion from France so it was surprising that my parents thought it would be wise to send me to Canada with the two youngest children of friends in Chester, Barbara and Chris Tubbs.

What was surprising for me was the way my headmistress sent for me at the beginning of June 1940. She told me to go upstairs and pack as my sister would be arriving to collect me in the afternoon. "You are going to Canada" was the only explanation. Upstairs matron was there to help me. My legs shook so much she made me sit on the bed while she packed my trunk. There were tearful farewells to my friends and then Anthea and I set off. My Canadian adventure had begun.

We went by train to Abergavenny to say goodbye to my father who was South Wales Army Commander and then on to Chester to my mother. Railways in wartime were unreliable and my school trunk was lost en-route to Chester so I set off abroad with one suitcase full of new summer clothes and a few things I had with me from school.

The night before sailing we spent in a large hall in Liverpool on mattresses on the floor with a minimum of undressing. I remember almost nothing of saying goodbye to my family - it was all unreal and we thought it would only be until Christmas. Had I known it would be four years I might have refused to go.

The ship was the liner, The Duchess of Atholl, converted for use as a troop carrier. We were on F Deck, each cabin with stacked bunks. The crossing took about eleven days of violet, stormy weather. I was so sick that I never reached daylight for a week and then only to lean on some grey metal to enjoy fresh air on a damp and windy day.

I have always remembered the relief as we turned into the calm St.Lawrence River with green trees and fields on either side; this was Canada and we had crossed the Atlantic safely.

There were customs and immigration at Quebec and we later went by train to Toronto where my two Chester friends were met by their hosts, Canon and Mrs. Dixon. It was apparent that they were not expecting three children but with true Canadian hospitality they telephoned their relations, the Kortright's and said "Do you want an English war guest?" The immediate answer was "yes" and I was received into the kindest family in Canada with whom I spent every school holiday for four years.

The school Barbara and I had joined was an Anglican Covent, St.Hilda's from Whitby in Yorkshire. (Barbara's brother went to a Canadian school). A philanthropist, Mrs. Evans of Toronto had lent the nuns her large, low, stone county house. Glenerin Hall was at Erindale, 18 miles from Toronto on the way to Niagara, a quiet rual community with farms and woods and a small church which we filled on Sundays. There was even a private zoo nearby.

Several nuns and a few lay mistresses had accompanied about 65 girls from England. They gave us the best school days possible in the circumstances but they were hampered by lack of money. Despite generous help from the Alumnae of St.Hilda's College in Toronto we were short of books of all kinds, had no science teaching and few musical instruments. There was a swimming pool in the grounds (with the odd snake in the surrounding grass) a small sports field for hockey and plenty of grassy space.

The former large bedrooms were filled with bunks or beds and we had classrooms all over the buildings. The spacious music room with a fine organ was turned into a chapel and we attended services throughout the week enlivened by choral singing and incense and processions, all very new to me after the plainer services of garrison churches.

The lessons and syllabus for school certificate followed the English pattern and after struggling through our exams in the glassed-in conservatory (partly during a crashing thunderstorm)it was not encouraging to be told that if our written papers were sunk in the Atlantic on the way home we would have to sit the examination again.

Much of our mail from home was sunk and what did arrive took several weeks. I have always mourned the loss of my parcel with a Christmas stocking and home made presents. It was not possible to send much and family presents were treasured but we knew we were lucky to have a peaceful life and our losses were nothing compared with Europe's losses.

We listened to the news from England on a crackly radio, writing our bulletins for the rest of the school with as much as we could hear. There was great rejoicing when America joined the war in 1941, particularly as it had been suggested that Japan might try to invade Canada and we had felt caught between both sides of the war.

We shared our lives in a way that would not have been the same in England. Family members were serving all over the world; there was good news or bad or worst of all, none. In the holidays we met each other to enjoy life in Toronto with our Canadian hosts or in their cottages by the lakes to the north.

Although we did all the housework at Glenerin Hall there was a school cook, the redoubtable Mrs. Fernandez. She was an extremely large lady who made her underclothes from the linen bags the flour came in. We enjoyed seeming them on the washing line, stamped with the name of the supplier. Her cooking was erratic and she had a temper to be avoided but we learnt to eat pumpkin pie and grapefruit without sugar and tough liver and remembered the posters in town which showed a group of pigs with the caption, "Four out of five go to Britain." My Canadian family packed parcels for Prisoners of War and we met Canadian Servicemen who were on their way to Europe so our peaceful days at Erindale were not entirely isolated from the real life going on at home.

At Christmas the school entertained the surrounding villages with nativity plays and old English carols in the church halls and schools and occasionally we helped on nearby farms.

In early summer of 1944 my father found out that it was possible for children evacuated to Canada to return on naval ships. Looking back this seems extraordinary but the U Boat threat was very much less and four years had been a very long time. My Canadian Uncle Frank Kortright was far from pleased. He felt that I had been kept safe in Canada and should not be put in any danger until was assured but he was overruled and at the beginning of June Barbara Tubbs and I left for England. Her brother had returned home earlier. Barbara was 14 and I 16 and we had been together for much of the time since we left Chester, so it was natural that I should look after her until we reached Chester again.

There were more sad farewells and with our luggage marked with the one word "Roger" we took the night train from Toronto to New York, sleeping in tiered bunks curtained off from the corridor.

We were met by a business friend of Uncle Frank who took us to a hotel where all the other travellers had "Roger" luggage. We were told we could explore New York until the evening. What an invitation! We had no money (as far as I remember) so could not shop or go far. We walked up and down Fifth Avenue admiring the shops and smart people in summer fashions and with coloured shoes which we had not seen before. We even walked in Central Park but not very far from the road as we had watched American films and knew about gangsters!

In the evening we were taken by bus to the docks and through an enormous opening in the side of a ship which towered above us. It was an aircraft carrier, H.M.S. Ruler, ferrying planes (with folded wings) to Europe. We were to be in bunks (again) in the officers quarters with kind Lt. Mossman to look after us.

Another amazing voyage, shorter and less rough than in 1940, with meals in the wardroom and warning on deck to look out for a white streak in the sea aiming for the ship. We had ringside seats to watch a boxing match: at the end the Captain said, "That was a clean match" which seemed odd as there was blood on the men and on the deck.

A band of younger boys were on board (not in my care) and Barbara and I were asked to take some of them to tea with the Captain. I thought they should wash their grubby hands and we were shown into the Captain's smart bathroom. To my horror they left the white towels black! We escaped to a good tea and nothing was said.

D-Day happened during our voyage. There was great excitement. Some of the sailors played a joke on me by saying that the ship was being diverted to South Africa and we would have to make our way home from there. It seemed far fetched but possible.

In the end we sailed into Liverpool on June 11th and I landed in the same month as the department in 1940. My father made a sketch of H.M.S. Ruler being escorted in by tugs, a strange sight indeed.

Barbara and I were reunited with our parents in the Captain's cabin - more unreality but it was good to be back. The Canadian adventure was over: unforgettable and life changing. I shall be grateful for ever to Canada and Yvonne and Frank Kortright. They came to England when I married Oliver Wells in 1949: the wheel came a full circle.

Source: BBC WW2 People'st War. WW2 People's War is an online archive of wartime memories contributed by members of the public and gathered by the BBC. The archive can be found at bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar.