Nancy Smith (née Heron) 1939 Scrapbook
Nancy Smith (née Heron) 1939 Scrapbook
THE TRIP OF A LIFETIME
England, in 1939, and a lovely warm late July. The only clouds on an otherwise blue horizon, however, are ominously dark ones, for the world may be hovering on the brink of another war . . . .
Amongst a diverse group of British schoolgirls, happy preparations are being made for the trip of a lifetime a wonderful summer tour of Canada.
65 girls and 4 teachers from a variety of Britain’s top private girls’ schools are excitedly packing for what has been promised will be a great adventure - A coast to coast tour of Canada. Three of these girls form the Hunmanby Hall contingent, namely Dorothy Hunter, Nancy Heron and Elizabeth Brindle. Nancy Heron has already purchased a large scrapbook for the many items she hopes to collect on the tour.
The tour, of which the formal title is “The British and Dominion Schoolgirls Visit to Canada - Summer of 1939 - 28th July - 16th September”, is taking place under the auspices of the Overseas Education League of Canada. The trip is essentially a coast to coast tour of Canada by special train, embracing visits to Quebec, Montreal, Ottawa, Kenora, Calgary, Banff, Lake Louise, Field, Vancouver, Victoria, Nelson, Winnipeg, Fort William, Port McNicol and Toronto, and featuring a week at the King’s Camp on Sulphur Mountain near Banff in the Canadian Rockies. Additionally, the school girls will be divided into a Northern and a Southern group and each group will field a cricket XI for a series of demonstration matches for the entertainment and enlightenment of their Canadian hosts.
The League, in a helpful information letter dated 28th June 1939, advises the girls to ‘travel light’ taking only one normal size suitcase and a small handbag for overnight use. However, they were told that they had to have appropriate clothing for ocean and train travel, hot days and chilly nights, city sightseeing, occasional parties and receptions and ‘camp’ life, and on reading the list of items the League deemed essential, one can imagine the head-scratching and agonising that must have gone into the packing exercise.
For example; a red blazer and matching beret provided by the League (girls were asked beforehand to submit their measurements), one grey flannel pleated skirt, one white ditto, one evening dress of printed silk, one afternoon dress of material that does not crush easily, one simple frock suitable for dinner on the ship, 2 pairs of white pleated shorts, 3 white and 2 pale blue short sleeved aertex blouses, one white plain straw hat, one pair of evening shoes, 2 pairs of good walking shoes, 1 pair of white deck or tennis shoes, 1 pair of navy-blue slacks, a warm jumper or cardigan, bathing suit and cap, dressing gown, underclothing, a warm overcoat. Nancy Heron had penciled in an addition to the list, specifically pyjamas, an article of clothing without which every English girl should not venture abroad. The girls were informed that it was not necessary to take a large number of silk stockings as they could be purchased cheaply in Canada.
A letter from the Canadian education authority, bearing the same date, informs the headmistresses of the English schools that, owing to the developing international situation, modifications to the original itinerary were necessary. The most important change was the withdrawal of the Australian and New Zealand schools because of the threat of war.
The Itinerary document shows the girls leaving Liverpool on Friday 28th July aboard the R.M.S Duchess of York, bound for Quebec arriving on the 4th August.
The document also contains some interesting advice to the girls. It was headed “The Great Adventure!” - and it exhorts the girls to see themselves as “Explorers”, setting out not just to find Canada, but also the heart of the Canadian people. They are advised that, as they are probably accustomed to a rather large share of life’s good things, they should not feel disappointed in the lack of sumptuousness in the ship’s quarters, and that they, and their parents too, may feel that they should be traveling in a more expensive section of the ship. They are told, to put it more in the vernacular, that by ‘roughing it’ a bit, their characters will be much improved. The rest of the document is of a similar uplifting tone.
Ominously, the concluding paragraph contains the reassurance that should the worst happen, and war break out resulting in the girls being stranded in Canada, they will find ready hospitality and a means to continue their education.
The author was Fred J Ney, who was the principal organiser of the tour, and founder of the Overseas Educational League. He is remembered in Canada as a war hero and a pioneering educationalist.
The Quebec press reported on the arrival of the British girls with some excitement. Nancy Heron and Elizabeth Brindle of Hunmanby Hall; Marjorie Brown of Cheltenham Ladies’ College, and Elizabeth Bishop of Queen’s College, turned reporters and interviewed the newspaper men. They said they had learned about Canada from Grey Owl, the Canadian naturalist who died recently.
Several of the reporters wanted to know about the current dance craze that was sweeping Britain called the “Boomps-a-Daisy”, and the girls were asked if they could do the dance themselves, and the answer was a very emphatic “Ye-e-es!”. They had not made their minds up yet about Canadian boys as they had not yet had the opportunity to meet many. Questioned about war preparations as affecting them in daily life, they said mock air raids were “Very exciting at first, but have now become more or less part of the daily life.” Pretty light-haired 16-year old Dorothy Hunter of Hunmanby Hall Girl’s School told the reporters conditions in England were normal and that the country seemed prepared for anything. One of the girls however, Nancy Heron, 17, also of Hunmanby Hall, felt they weren’t quite well prepared as they “ought to be.”
On the 7th August, the girls were in Ottawa. In the evening they saw Lionel Barrymore and Sir Cedric Hardwicke in the newly released film“On Borrowed Time”. The 11th August saw the first cricket match between the Northern and Southern girls, held in Calgary, tickets a mere 75 cents each.
On the 17th August, the Woman’s Canadian Club held a luncheon in honour of the visiting British schoolgirls, and on the 18th August another demonstration cricket match took place in Vancouver, which was very widely reported in the local press with many pictures, as indeed was the arrival of the girls in the city. “Bright-eyed, vivacious and practical - with here and there a touch of coquetry - 65 healthy British schoolgirls in red blazers and berets poured onto the Canadian Pacific Railway platform this morning with eager questions and happy observations bubbling from their lips . . . . laughing and joking as they swarmed about the platform, they betrayed natural surprise and delight in being welcomed to the city by the Mayor . . . Ranging in age from 15 to 20, the girls showed a noticeable absence of make-up. A few used lipstick but the majority with fresh creamy complexions, white teeth and sparkling eyes, had no need of artificial aids to beauty.”
The quality of the girls’ cricket skills made them many admirers in the local sports press.
An article written on the match reports on a conversation the journalist had with one of the girls, to whom he gives the non-de-plume “Jean” - There are no Jeans in the party, and by her forthright manner of speaking one likes to think he was talking to one of the three Hunmanby girls. He had asked her if they were worried they may get stranded in Canada should war break out . . . “No, we are not worrying in the least . . .from what I have seen of Canada I don’t think I’d mind very much being stranded here . . . . I can just imagine what mother and father are doing right now . . . this Hitler, he makes me SO angry. And I’m glad, by golly, he is being forced to toe the mark. Should war come, then he’ll get the thrashing he deserves . . . And another thing about this man, Hitler, dad says . . .Oh, by golly, I’m in. It’s my turn to bat. Cheerio! I bet I get a ‘duck.’”
The three Hunmanby girls were indeed ‘stranded’ separate from the rest of the group, so it is not a long shot imagining that he was speaking to one of them.
Another newspaper reported the girl’s comments on Canada . . . “We saw our first Mountie, but we were very disappointed as he was on a bicycle.” . And on the Canadian English . . .”We have picked up lots of Canadian slang,” “We say ‘sure’ and ‘atta-boy’ and ‘How’m I doin'?”.
On the 28th August the girls were guests of the Lieutenant Governor of British Columbia at Government House. The 30th August found the girls in Winnipeg, where they were billeted with local residents who provided dinner and accommodation, with yet another demonstration cricket match the following day. Whilst in Winnipeg war broke out, and on September the 4th, with banner headlines, the Toronto Globe and Mail reported the event. One can imagine the feeling of the girls as they read this news.
In another newspaper article, Dorothy Hunter explains that despite the dreadful news, it was decided to complete the tour. At the conclusion of the tour itinerary, it was decided that due to the dangers associated with an Atlantic crossing, at least some of the girls, including the three Hunmanby girls, would continue their education in Canada.
The three Hunmanby girls enrolled on first year courses at Toronto University. Nancy Heron chose medicine, Elizabeth Brindle the first year of the Honour Course in Social and Philosophical Studies and Dorothy Hunter a special mathematics and physics course.
This venture seems to have been less than successful, and Nancy Heron telegraphed her father . . .”Studies useless all three wish return with group”. The three girls eventually returned safely to England on an un-convoyed, blacked out ship.
The threat from German action in those early days of the war was a very real one. When war first broke out, many German battleships and cruisers were already in position in the Atlantic, as was, even more worryingly, most of their available submarines. These German naval forces immediately started attacking allied vessels.
Within hours of the declaration of war, U30 had attacked and sunk the liner SS Athenia. The SS Athenia was on her way to Montreal and was on almost the same route that would be taken by the schoolgirls on their return home. Ironically, a ten-year-old Canadian girl on theAthenia was the first Canadian to die as a result of the hostilities.
Another casualty was theSS Duchess of York that had taken the girls to Canada. Converted to a troopship in 1940, she was sunk after two days of continuous German bombing in 1943.
England in 2007, and a cold, damp November day. A biblical lifetime has passed since that mad, frenetic summer of 1939. Recently retired from training dental hygienists at King’s College School of Dentistry in London, and now settled in Penrith, Cumbria, I am quietly pursuing my new retirement hobby of collecting 19th century ephemera. I am trawling through the contents of several cardboard boxes in the Penrith auction rooms, when my eye is drawn to a nearby table whereon lies a battered old scrapbook . . . . .
William HJ Crothers
13th November 2011