Lorill (Franklin) Wingrave
A War Bride's Story - by Lorill Wingrave
I was the ripe old age of seventeen, reasonably fresh from school, when I met my future husband on the only blind date of my life. I had of course been fully instructed on the perils of such behaviour by my parents, but this night in February 1943, I threw all caution to the winds!
He was in the Army 1st Light Ack Ack, a gunner, and saw action all the way up through Italy and then in Belgium and Holland. We corresponded regularly and I was often teased by my mother who remarked that ours was a very peculiar courtship, carried on as it was through the mail. Just after VE Day, Barrie came back to England, we became engaged on May 16th and were married on August 19th 1945.
I should start at the beginning; I was born in London but grew up in Beckenham, Kent, a town just S.E. of the City; my father worked for the London County Council, my mother was a housewife as were most of the married women of the day. I have one brother seven years younger than me, and I recall that I had a very happy childhood; everything seemed all right with my world. However, the realization that all was not right came when I was about 12; Winston Churchill was talking on the radio one evening and I was very scared. I knew nothing of the world situation and Adolph Hitler was just a name. By 1938 world affairs were very wrong, and in September we had to be fitted for gas masks. This was a very scary, traumatic event and I recall my father, quite out of character, took us all to see "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" to take our minds off the impending danger - this was on a school night too!
It was one year later when war was actually declared; I was 14 and my brother was 7. We anticipated air raids immediately but for the first year nothing much happened. As my school was close to London the children were all evacuated into the country and I went with them. But I was very unhappy and begged to come home. As my father was evacuated out of London with his work, it meant that my mother and brother were home alone, and so I did come home. I had to change schools and continued my education until 1941 when, as I had started at age five, I had completed my matriculation courses by age 16.
However, in the fall of 1940, we knew we were at war for that is when the Blitz and the Battle of Britain began. Fortunately, most people had been able to make their houses as safe as possible; the Blackout had been the order of the day for nearly a year and we had covered all the windows with black cloth or paper. There were no streetlights, nothing but darkness, not even the light of a cigarette was allowed outside. Also, my father had built an earthen wall outside the patio doors in one room to make the room safe in case of flying glass. I remember watching the flames while London was burning; the flames could be seen for miles leaping high in the air.
As we lived S.E. of London we received the brunt of the air raids and became known as "bomb alley". As the planes came over to reach London, we were bombed and then again on their way back to Europe they had to get rid of any bombs left and so dropped them on us once more. The air raid warning would sound at about 5:00 p.m. and the all clear would not blow until about 8:00 a.m. the next morning. We slept under the stairs most of these nights, as this was the safest place in the house. We lived with these night raids continuously for five months as well as day raids also. One day my friend and I were "machine-gunned" coming home from school; two British soldiers dragged us off our bikes and lay on top of us under a tree, we were very scared! A miracle happened at Christmas that gave us some hope - there were no raids for three nights!
Early in 1940 the rationing of food and clothing was introduced. In the beginning it was not too severe, but as the years went by it became critical. Our mothers were very ingenious in stretching the meager week's rations. One meal in particular stands out in my memory - it was Sunday supper, we had no food and the next week's rations could not be obtained until Monday. My father remembered that he had one big cabbage still out in his vegetable garden and that was supper - boiled cabbage with a smear of what was left of the margarine. Actually the rations were tightened as war progressed, until it became a daily hunt for staples such as bread. Rationing was not fully lifted until 1948. The clothing coupons were very skimpy and unless a person had a large wardrobe to start with, it was difficult. I had worn school uniforms and so finding office type clothing was doubly hard. We all looked rather shabby by 1945.
When I had finished my schooling I took one year at business college and eventually worked for a printing and publishing firm in London. The office was on Regent Street very near to Oxford Circus. I had not intended to do office work but the only other training available was for nursing or teaching.
It was while I was working in London that I met my future husband. Barrie was stationed very close to my hometown. At this time all the young Englishmen were in Africa, and England had an influx of young Canadian soldiers - we had someone to dance with on Saturday nights! There were still air raids, but if we sang loudly and the music was loud enough it would drown out the sound of bombs dropping - all we felt was the earth heaving and knew it had not dropped on us. One tactic of war is to break the morale of the people but we would not break, and at seventeen or so we wanted to have some fun. At 17 and 18 we were too young to fully comprehend the ugliness of war; we danced, laughed and took cover during a raid and then continued on. I am sure my parents must have been very worried most of the time! Barrie used to see me home and later he would stay for the weekend, much to my young brother's annoyance, as he had to give up his room. However, these arrangements ceased when Barrie was sent overseas.
I had been wanting to join the Armed Forces but at 16 my parents would not give their permission. Now I understand why! When I was 18 the Forces opened up to take girls born in the first half of 1925 and that included me. So off I went to join the Army but ended up enlisting in the Navy - Women's Royal Navy Service known as WRNS. Barrie was in Italy by now and was not at all impressed with my decision! All the exciting jobs had been filled so once again I was put into office work - sending "signals" which was the naval term for Memos, also making out leave travelling passes for the sailors and other related office work. I was stationed in Poole Harbour, near the seaside town of Bournemouth on a Coastal Forces base. I remember that it was at this time that Radar was put to use; I had no idea what that was. I enjoyed my time in the Navy. I learned to live in a community - shared a dormitory with seven other women and generally adapted to my new life.
It was not until Sunday, June 6th, 1944 that I found out the true purpose of our small coastal base. Many more small landing craft had arrived in the past few weeks, including a great number of Canadian ones, which really crowded the men's quarters and eating space. However, when I went to work on that famous Sunday, the base was deserted except for the maintenance men. Not a small landing craft in sight! We knew something big had happened, but up to that day we had no idea - the invasion of France had begun, and with it the beginning of the end of the war. The sad part of course was that some of those sailors we had laughed and joked with did not come back.
Barrie and I continued to correspond and keep in touch. We had decided after writing all those letters that when we met again, and if we felt it was the right thing to do, we would become engaged and this we did. He came back to England in May 1945, just after VE day and we were married in August - actually it was a peace time wedding as VJ day had been declared! It was a small wedding as many of my friends' husbands or boy friends were not home yet. One thing I always remember is the help the cooks at the naval base gave me. Each week they would give a handful of raisins or currants, and egg or two and anything else needed to make a wedding cake. When I went home on leave it was a bit tricky taking such supplies in my suitcase, but I never broke an egg!
My parents really liked Barrie and he liked them, but they were not prepared for their daughter to go so far away. It was one thing to give a soldier a home away from home, my mother had said some time earlier that it was fine to have a friend, but you don't have to marry him! They were not happy at all about my going to Canada.
After the wedding, Barrie was shipped home in September and I left the Navy in November. I did get my old job back but it was not the same so I stayed home and helped my mother. As food had become so scarce I used to get up early and go out on my bicycle to be one of the first in line for bread and any other food I could find, and was usually home by 9:30 a.m. It would have taken my mother all day on many busses to do the same job if she was lucky enough to find anything. I had to wait eight months after our wedding before I received my papers with travelling instructions to Canada.
During this wait, my friend who had also married a Canadian from Toronto, and I went to lectures which the Canadian Government offered the War Brides in order to learn more about where we were going. We were in different rooms, Betty in with the Ontario brides and I was in with the Prairie people - at that time the three provinces, Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba were all lumped together still. I learned many useful things to help me start my new life. One was that if you let the fire go out in England you are cold but if you let it go out in Canada you are dead! Also, just about all country people have cars, they are not all new cars, in fact some are pretty old and dilapidated, but a car is a necessity to get to town. I really thanked the Canadian Government for having these introductory classes for us; actually the government welcomed us as at that time the Canadian ratio was four men to every girl - we were also considered "good British stock"! A bit like a cattle market!
The months of waiting to leave were a bittersweet time for us all. I left my home on Sunday May 12th, 1946, which I found out later was Mother's Day in Canada. Fortunately, at that time we did not have this tradition in England. Then, as just another war bride among the hundreds, I spent the first night billeted in Park Lane, London, the only time I ever stayed at such an exotic address. The next morning we were transported to Waterloo station by bus, taking a last look at Big Ben as we drove by. I remember wondering how life in England could just go on as usual when there we were, a busload of girls starting out on a traumatic journey.
And so down to Southampton and aboard the HMS Aquitania, my first time on an ocean liner. It was not what I expected as all the staterooms had been gutted, and we were herded about 50 at a time to sleep in two-tier bunks behind sheets of canvas. Under these strange conditions we did enjoy the gorgeous food - white bread and fresh fruit especially, I am sure we were all gluttons! Although our sleeping arrangements were very crowded (there was room for one person at a time between the rows of bunks), everybody was kind and helpful. Laundry and washrooms were filled to overflowing with baby diapers and other washing - the days before Pampers. I was so glad to be classed as a "single wife", that is one without children. I still admire those women who set out on that journey with little ones. The pioneer spirit was still very much alive in the war brides. I remember how blithely I set out on that big adventure, thinking that I could pop back to England for a visit. Canada wasn't all that far away I reasoned.
When we sailed into Halifax the sight was hard to describe. The weather was such that there was a fairy mist; we could only see parts of objects, portions of other vessels, a dismembered tree afloat, glimpses of land and all appeared to be floating in a rosy misty glow. It was exquisitely beautiful and unforgettable. Suddenly the ethereal mist gave way to the quay and people waving and cheering and the usual bustle that accompanies the arrival of an ocean liner. It dawned on me that all that water lay between me and England - and I still had a long way to go. We docked at Pier 21, which has now become quite famous.
When we arrived in Canada our money was changed, and it was goodbye to pounds, shillings and pence and hello to strange coinage. We had a short time before boarding the train and a group of us rushed to the nearest green grocery store. The owners were ready with bags of fresh fruit; they had seen plenty of war brides and knew what we craved.
The train was my home for the next four days. At this point I must again praise the Canadian Government for the organization. I always say that I could have been blind, deaf, dumb and stupid and still arrived at my destination. We were well taken care of - no worries about luggage, customs or any of the other irritations that beset the ordinary traveler. On the train the brides with children occupied the lower berths; we had twenty-two children under the age of two in our coach. They were all very good. I was in an upper berth and the first night was in a panic lest the thing closed itself up with me inside. You see, I suffer from claustrophobia. The ladies' wash room was reserved for ablution and the men's wash room for all the diapers. The bunks were made up at 5:00 p.m. so that the little ones could go to bed. Then the rest of us would gather in the men's washroom amid the diapers where we would smoke and pick the brains of the porter.
Because we were on a bride's special train, we had to give way to the scheduled trains, so our journey was slow. We spent considerable time on sidings and sometimes wives destined for cities such as Quebec were taken off at a siding and run into the city on local trains.
One morning there was great excitement; we were going to see Lake Superior. Being accustomed to Britain's small lakes and ponds, we did not want to miss one of the Great Lakes we had learned about in school. So we all crowded to the windows to get a glimpse! Then to our astonishment we found we were still travelling along the shore of Lake Superior eight hours later; the first laugh at ourselves and another point driven home about the size of Canada.
We traveled on through Northern Ontario where the only signs of life were a few Indian cabins and small children waving at our train. We wondered where all the towns and cities were. We began a sort of game, watching each time that the train stopped at a little hamlet to let a lone bride off, then discussing the husband and the in-laws who met her. We chugged along and eventually arrived at what used to be Port Arthur, before it became known as Thunder Bay along with Fort William. The ladies of the town were very hospitable and met the train with gifts and souvenirs.
At Winnipeg we had a two-hour wait and were allowed off the train with strict warnings to be back on time or we would be on our own. It was May 24th, 1946, and all of Winnipeg seemed to be going on a picnic. We struggled across Portage and Main, feeling that the traffic was all going the wrong way - it was a hair-raising experience. To our disappointment all the stores were closed. One suitcase belonging to a member of our party had been left in Southampton so she wished to purchase a dress to wear when she met her husband. We found one little dress shop and the owner furtively let us in and immediately pulled down the blind. This girl had a 15 month old boy with her and as she was engrossed in finding an outfit, I took charge of Adrien. Being a worrier, I left first so as not to miss the train. With Adrien in my arms, I staggered back across the widest street I had ever seen amid swirling traffic to the safety of the train. Fortunately, Adrien's mother arrived back in time.
Then, I was on the last leg of the journey to Alberta. I can still see the beautiful prairie sunset and the lights twinkling in the distance as we traveled across flat Saskatchewan land. We were very, very hot on the train and someone decided to force a window open. What a mistake! We were immediately smothered in dust. When we left Regina I knew that my turn was about to come. I was to leave the train at Bassano, Alberta, some 90 miles east of Calgary. The last night was a sleepless one, but finally, with butterflies in my stomach, I was there. That was the only time a train has ever stopped just for me. Six a.m., the sun already boiling hot, and there was this stranger in civilian clothes waiting for me. And I knew that at every window on the train faces were peering out to see who I had married!
After spending the weekend in Bassano getting to know each other again, and meeting the in-laws - my mother-in-law was understandably as nervous as me - I was welcomed to the family. They lived on a ranch 10 miles south of the town and this was a culture shock, nothing but miles of bald prairie, cattle and grain, no running water and an outside toilet. And very, very hot; I had never felt such burning heat, and by evening my lips were all raw from the dryness. These were the days when the country folk all came to town on Saturday night to shop and visit. Bassano really changed from what I had seen in the morning - there were dozens of people and I had no idea where they all came from. Everyone was dressed up in their Sunday best, stores open until 10:00 p.m. and we all ended up eating ice cream in the restaurant at midnight.
The next week Barrie and I went on to Calgary, it was my 21st birthday. This was a fascinating trip for me; there were 90 miles of gravel roads and the east entrance to the city of Calgary was a small wooden bridge, which allowed one car at a time to cross. I thought this very strange! Calgary was truly a cowtown then with only 80,000 souls. How small I thought. My first impressions of the city were of old street cars, frilly-curtained houses resembling doll's houses, men with open-necked shirts, riding boots, cowboy boots, wrapped bread, peanut butter, and a strange food known as corn.
A trip to the Rockies was soon arranged. The mountains were breathtakingly beautiful but the prairies, vast and lonely, tugged at my emotions making me feel happy and sad at the same time. After all these years I still am affected more by the prairies.
Barrie's dream on his return to Canada was to become a veterinarian but in 1946 there was only one veterinary college in Canada and that was in Guelph, Ontario. On applying he was told that there was a four year wait to get in. By the time the four years were up it was not possible to pursue this ambition. He obtained a job as a travelling salesman for an automotive parts dealer and had a large territory in Central Alberta, and I went with him. I saw a great deal of Alberta and I recall that all the talk was about rural electrification and REA's were formed. I found it hard to believe that people were still using oil lamps and outhouses, even in the small towns.
Eventually we settled in Erskine, Alberta, where I learned about those dreaded oil lamps. We ran a service station and my job was to man the pumps while my husband attended to the mail run. One day while trying to give service with a smile, I almost filled a radiator with gas! The car was an old Model A and I did not know that the gas tank cap was on the hood just below the windshield. Life was exciting - there were always new challenges to be met.
When we went to farming, my ignorance made me the butt of many a joke. I had grown up in the countryside and had been near and around cattle most of my life, but had never had a really close connection with these animals - they were just there. So, one time my in-laws had me believing they had to milk 200 head of range cattle that had just been weaned. I envisioned a wild cow milking contest to end all. My new experiences now included chasing cows and jackasses, learning how to wash a milk separator, how to cook on a coal and wood stove and chopping wood. I was fast becoming an efficient farm wife when Barrie developed malaria, (a legacy from service in Italy) and hay fever at the same time. So we left the farm, and moved to Edmonton where he was employed by Imperial Oil in their shop and lab.
At this time we lived on an acreage in Edmonton. This land has all been developed now and is unrecognizable, it was on top of the hill going down to the Storyland Valley Zoo on what was then known as White Mud Flats. Our home was in the bush and we were surrounded by wild roses and Saskatoon bushes - but we were living in what had been an airplane packing case measuring eight feet by forty; we managed to make it into a reasonably comfortable home. Many couples were living in rather strange places or with their in-laws, as there was an acute shortage of housing at the end of the war years with so many young couples all wanting a home. The beauty of the trees and bushes where we lived made up for the peculiar structure. Once again I learned new ways to deal with daily living. As we had no running water a waterman used to deliver enough to fill two barrels, which had to last for all activities for a week. One method was to bury all soiled diapers in a hole and then, when everything had solidified, just before washing, dig them up, scrape with a special knife reserved for the job, and then wash. I realize that early pioneers had probably had to resort to similar ways but this was in the 20th century and the soldiers used to say that England was backward!
It was seven years and three babies later when we finally lived in a more civilized manner. During these wandering years we called many different places home; Lacombe, Calgary twice, Edmonton, Jasper, and Barrie tried a variety of occupations - road work driving cats, welding, electrical work and he was at one time a Credit Union examiner and another period an insurance salesman. As a young boy before the war he had attended auction school and obtained his license; it was during the sixties that he realized his true ambition and that was to be an auctioneer. We opened an auction house in Edmonton, which we operated for a number of successful years.
In retrospect all the nomadic years were happy times, I learned a great deal about Alberta, lived in the city and also in country places and met many different people and made many friends. At least life was never dull but now I think I have had my share of moves. While all this was happening, we ended up with five children, and at least we stayed in each place long enough that their education was not really affected.
At the same time as we opened the auction house, we moved to the Wetaskiwin area on to an acreage at Clover Lawn. The older three children had graduated from school and were on their own, actually two were married, so we just had two at home. We loved this place and had intended to live out the rest of our lives there, but Barrie's health deteriorated and in order to be closer to doctors and the hospital we left our beloved country home and moved into Wetaskiwin. That was twenty five years ago and I have now lived in the same house for twenty-four of those years.
Barrie continued with auction involvement until ill health forced him to retire. I was working with the Wetaskiwin Chamber of Commerce and in 1987 we went on an Alaskan cruise to see the glaciers. Then in 1988 we realized a long time dream to drive across Canada and also visit Newfoundland. I am very thankful that we were able to do this as Barrie died in May, 1989.
I have never regretted my decision to marry a Canadian soldier although in the beginning I had some times of questioning. I suppose this can happen in any marriage, but I had too much pride and English bull-headedness to admit that perhaps I had made a mistake, and was determined that our marriage would not fail. There were so many things to get used to in a new country as well as a new husband! There were different customs (Halloween, for one), different food - how do you make a lemon pie, unknown at that time in England - and what do you do with corn - feed it to the pigs! I even discovered there is a difference in language as some of the English expressions mean something quite different in Canada and are not generally accepted in polite company. There were times when of course I missed my family and particularly my mother at the birth of my babies; it was then I longed to have her near. I am glad I stuck out the lean times, the worst times; the good times certainly out weigh them.
During my visits back to England, and I have been quite a few times since my family grew up, I have split loyalties. I love the country of my birth and youth but feel I could not live there very comfortably now. My fifty plus years in Canada have changed me and the England I remember from my childhood has vanished. For me something seems to be missing and I want to get back to Alberta where I really feel at home.
Compiled in 2003.
Compiled by: Gabrielle Kristjanson, Marilyn Hawkins, Lorill Wingrave
Sources: Lorill Wingrave, Carell Wingrave, Verna Ruskowsky, Dorothy Alberda, Allen Wingrave, Janice Wingrave