It was June, 1948, when, with a pregnant wife and 18-month old son, we climbed apprehensively aboard the ocean liner Aquitania for the journey from Southampton, England, to Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia. From there we took a smoke and cinder blowing CPR immigrant special train across Canada to Vancouver then the ferry to Vancouver Island.
The journey, while energized by adventure for a young English family venturing far from home, seemed interminable. It took two weeks from my wife’s home in Cleveleys on the Fylde coast of Lancashire to a small James Bay apartment pre-rented for us by Victoria friends we knew only by correspondence. There had been two brief pauses on the way, the first to say goodbye to my folks in the English Midlands, the second to overnight in Southampton the night before we sailed.
The rest of the journey involved trams, taxis, trains and station changes in London on a sullen June day, muggy, with thunder rolling around the horizon and a very young son, Stephen, already wondering why we weren’t there yet. After a night at the Dolphin Hotel in Southampton we boarded, a little intimidated, what had once been the largest ocean liner in the world and sailed for Canada – a story book world but for us still unknown. Sixty six years later I can still remember standing at the ship’s rail and, with a touch of melancholy tinged with anxiety, watching England and home fade into evening mists.
Our two weeks “on the road” from portal to portal was a picnic by comparison with real pioneer immigrants, but not without its moments. The first came when we were assigned our cabins for the crossing to Halifax. We would not be travelling together as family. Joyce would be in a cabin with six other mother’s with one child, I would be bunked with five “separated” husbands. When I asked if there was any more suitable accommodation I was courteously reminded that this was an immigrant ship and that we were traveling at immigrant ship rates. Joyce, seven months pregnant, told me not to worry she and Stephen would be okay. And she was and so was I once I traded my lower bunk for the “father” above me who was dreadfully sea-sick. It was safer above than below.
We dined well on the way over, it being remembered that in 1948 food in the UK was still strictly rationed. The Aquitania obviously re-provisioned on the Canadian side of her “immigrant” runs.
Pier 21 in Halifax, disembarkation port for thousands before and after us, was approached with apprehensions. Would our luggage be on the dock as promised? How would we get from dock to the train to take us to Vancouver? Both were waiting for us – as were considerate bureaucrats who processed we “landed immigrants” speedily and handed us over to Canadian Pacific Railway people who shepherded us to a monster train and our assigned “home” for the next several days.
We had a lower and upper bunk – and at the end of the coach a small lounge area with modest cooking facilities. A bit like a moving campsite, but more than adequate for families who had survived half a dozen years of war time hardship.
As we watched our train clacked through the wilderness called Ontario and young Stephen became listless, restless, fretful. With no family doctor just down the street to attend to our needs the train was canvassed for a doctor and another young immigrant with a stethoscope appeared to check the lad, diagnose “diet change and different drinking water” as the cause and suggested we try and get some Woodward’s Gripe Water at the next stop – which would be Sudbury. It was strange looking for a drugstore rather than a chemist’s shop, stranger still to be asking so far from home for an old English over-the-counter cure-all for all childhood ills. But, bottle clutched safely in hand, I was back at the train as it started to move West, Stephen was administered a tea spoon or two full of the elixir and was soon his normal self.
Woodward’s Gripe Water became a medicine cabinet fixture and soothed the gums of the eventual six Hume sons. And it wasn’t until, they were all grown to manhood that I discovered that the original “Gripe Water” contained 3.6 per cent alcohol.
A little weary and overwhelmed by the vastness of Canada, we made it to our first Canadian “home”, a small apartment in James Bay comprised of tiny kitchen, a poky bathroom and a small bed-sitting room. Immigrants a century earlier would have found it of royal suite quality. And to be honest, so did we, even as we started to look for somewhere “with a little more room.”
So why am I posting all this old history stuff now? Easy answer: Because its 66- years since we made a young-couple decision to seek a better life in Canada. Sixty six years of bounces, some good, some bad. Of friends made, friends lost in a still young country that has roughed me up from time to time on the way to where I am – but has given me incredible opportunities, and rewarded me with good life, good friends and a great family.
With July 1 being Canada Day I thought it fitting to remember June 1948 when we asked Canada if we could come and live here and call it home: and Canada said “yes”. And I say “thank you” for making me a proud Canadian.