A Journey To Remember

Hard to believe that it’s been 67 years since I disembarked from R.M.S. Aquitania at Pier 21, Halifax, nervous and a shade fearful of  my too- late-to-change decision.

It was June, 1948, when, with a pregnant wife and 18-month old son, we climbed apprehensively aboard R.M.S Aquitania for the journey from Southampton, England, to Pier 21, Halifax, Nova Scotia. From there we took a smoke and cinder blowing Canadian Pacific Railway immigrant “special” across Canada to Vancouver and CPR ferry to Vancouver Island.

The journey, while energized by adventure, 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 journey had involved trams, taxis, trains and a railway station change in London on a sullen June day, muggy, with thunder rolling around the horizon and a 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 seven 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 mothers’ with one child, I would be bunked with five other “separated” husbands. I asked if more suitable accommodation was available and was courteously reminded that this was an immigrant ship and 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 with the “father” above me who was dreadfully sea-sick. It was safer above than below.

We dined well on the way over. 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, now a museum of immigration history, was approached with apprehension. Would our luggage be on the dock as promised? How would we get from dock to the train to take us to Vancouver?  Our luggage was waiting for us – as were considerate bureaucrats who processed we “landed immigrants” speedily and handed us over to CPR people who shepherded us to a monster train and our assigned “home” for the next several days. We had a lower and upper bunks – 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 in awe our train clacked through the wilderness called Ontario and young Stephen became listless, restless, and fretful. With no family doctor nearby to attend to our needs the train was canvassed for a doctor. Another young immigrant with a stethoscope appeared to check the lad, diagnose “richer diet and time zone meal-time changes” and suggested we try and get some Woodward’s Gripe Water at the next stop – which would be Sudbury. It was strange to be 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 soon revived..

Woodward’s Gripe Water became a medicine cabinet fixture and soothed the gums of each of the eventual six Hume sons. 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.

Why  am I re-posting all this, a story I’ve told before? Because it will soon be July 1, Canada Day, marking close to seven decades since I asked Canada if I could live and raise a family here. Sixty seven years since Canada said “yes”.

There were a few unexpected, hard to handle, bumps along the way; sad times, sometimes desperate financial times. But over the long haul Canada gave me and my family better lives than we could ever have dreamed. And Canada remains a very special time.

And Canada Day is a good time to remember how fortunate I was, and am, to be Canadian by adoption.

4 comments

  1. Different times, different comforts. By contrast my forebears were packed into a converted cattle ship for the journey from Russia to Canada. Some died on the way. After depositing its consignment in Halifax the ship began its return journey and sank.

    If the mishap had occurred a bit earlier I would not be here.

    I’m reminded of this when I read of what’s happening to refugees on the Mediterranean.

    Like you Jim I’m happy to be here and thank Canada for wanting us.

  2. Thanks, Jim! Another good article which brought back my similar immigration story only I was only six in 1940 when we left Liverpool & landed in Victoria. Government House put on a lavish Christmas party for the children, we got cake & icecream! Canada has been good to us, but I too remember that last look at England & the worry of the unknown! Ian Buckingham sends.

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