Researching WW2 British Child Evacuees to Canada
John D Reid
Ted was apprehensive as departure hour neared. At 13 he was intelligent, having gained admission to the Great Yarmouth Grammar School, and mature for his age. Now here he was in September 1940 on board the Nova Scotia about to sail from Liverpool to Canada.
In 1939 experts predicted massive civilian casualties from airborne bombing of Britain’s cities. After the declaration of war one of the first actions was large-scale evacuation of children from London to the countryside. When the anticipated bombing didn’t happen the tide turned and many children returned to their families. Many more remained away.
Following the quiet of the phony war Nazi forces advanced in the spring of 1940. Country after country fell. British troops were evacuated from Dunkirk in late May, France fell in June and attack across the English Channel was believed imminent. In Europe the UK stood alone against a triumphant German military machine and, as Prime Minister Churchill put it on June 18, “the whole fury and might of the enemy must soon be turned upon us.” Britain’s morale was at low ebb. A new wave of internal evacuations from London and eastern England got underway in June 1940.
Some parents sought safety for their children further afieldi. 5,118 children came to Canada under non-governmental arrangements in 1940, and 1,532 under a government scheme. They were officially known in Canada as British Guest Children. Other British child evacuation for the period was 1,306 to Australia, 470 to New Zealand, 1,473 to South Africa, and 2,928 to the United States.
Non-Government Evacuation Abroad
Some well to do families had left Britain early, including 253 children under the age of 16 who were sent to Canada in 1939. Service clubs, religious organizations and companies set up independent evacuation schemesii, children often leaving Britain with mothers or the whole family.
The Canadian Pacific Duchess liners, busy making the east-bound crossing with military personnel, were the mainstay of the evacuation to Canada. Ships passenger listsiii show 288 children on the Duchess of Bedford and 397 on the Duchess of Atholl, both of which left Liverpool on 24 June. 522 children sailed on the Duchess of Bedford and 397 on the Duchess of Atholl on 16 July. A further 260 British children arrived in Canada in 1941, and 120 in 1942. There is little hard information about these children except those who got into difficulties and were adopted into the government plan through provincial child welfare authorities.
Government-sponsored evacuation abroad
For the less well-off or well-connected their chance came starting on 19 June 1940 when the UK government, responding to grassroots offers from the Empire, announced a plan for evacuation of children to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. The announcement read that “a total of 20,000 could be sent off immediately, of which 10,000 would go to Canada.”
CORB, the Children’s Overseas Reception Board, operated this scheme under the political leadership of Geoffrey Shakespeare, parliamentary under-secretary of state for the dominions in the Churchill government from June 1940 to March 1942. (Sarah Algeria) Marjorie Maxse was the director, described as a natural leader with clear vision and a single-minded determination to achieve her goalsiv. She held the position from 1940 until 1944.
It’s a sobering measure of the mood in Britain that 211,448 applications, wildly beyond authority’s expectations, representing approaching half the children eligible, five to fifteen years of age, were submitted to CORB. Applications had to be closed after only two weeks. How the plan worked in Britain The scheme’s operation was based on the system already set up for massive internal evacuation from London and vulnerable counties from Kent to Norfolk. Like its domestic equivalent the overseas evacuation relied heavily on the school system. It also drew on experience of agencies that had previously emigrated children and young adults. Newspapers published articles on where parents could pick up application forms and get further information, usually a local education office. Selection depended on quota guidelines. Children had to come from areas considered vulnerable to air attack, and be healthy with satisfactory school performance. At least 90% were to be from state run schools. No more than 25% on any voyage were to be Roman Catholics, nor 10% Jews. Forty percent in total were to be from Wales and Scotland. A host in Canada, usually a relative, could be nominated. CORB reports claim that the selection was made carefully but the details on how this was achieved are sketchy. From home to departure port children where escorted by a local adult, often a teacher or clergyman. They were brought together at a local school or hostel, subject to further medical examination by doctors for the host country and, sometimes after several days wait, boarded the ship.
Evacuation to Canada
The first voyage with CORB children for Canada was on Cunard White Star’s Anselm, 3,608 registered tons. It departed Liverpool on July 21 with 39 boys and 43 girlsv aboard according to CORB records. Most of the children had lived in or near Middlesborough, North Yorkshire. One carefully selected escort traveled for every 15 children aboard. They had their hands busy dealing with sickness, especially seasickness, and frequent lifeboat drills.
The Anselm arrived at Halifax on 3 August en route to New York. All but 28 children had specific nominated destination addresses known at departure, friends or relatives, — from Victoria B.C. to Sackville N.B. After confusion in Halifax, Cunard had informed authorities meeting the ship it would dock in Quebec, the children were taken to Toronto where all were soon matched with hosts.
The second ship with CORB children for Canada was Cunard White Star’s Hilary, 4,350 registered tons. Bound for New York the Hilary left Liverpool on August 4, stopping at Halifax on August 16 to debark passengers including the CORB children. They came from the east coast, Northumberland to Lincolnshire, and the London area. A few last minute replacements were from Liverpool.
On reaching Halifax these children made a three-day two-night train journey to Montreal where they were billeted at Royal Victoria College. Although settled across Canada, from Victoria to Halifax, the majority found new homes in Ontario. The recollections of one of these children, Marjorie (Ball) Smith, who eventually settled in Canada, are onlinevi.
German U boat attacks escalated and the next three ships with CORB children for Canada left in a convoy known as ZA. These were substantially larger vessels than the first two, and better protected – the convoy included the battleship Revenge carrying £14.5 million in gold being transferred to Canada.
Sailing in ZA from Liverpool on 10 August were the Cunard White Star’s Oronsay, 11,441 registered tons, carrying 187 boys and 166 girls from London and the Home Counties, and the Canadian Pacific’s Duchess of York, 11,722 tons, carrying 256 boys and 238 girls. Cunard White Star’s Antonia, 8,253 tons, joined the convoy from Grennock with 145 boys and 139 girls, a voyage recollected by Brian Proctor online.vii All three headed for Halifax arriving on 21 August.
The Cunard White Star Line’s Bayano, 3,935 registered tons, left Greenock on 16 August with 45 boys and 44 girls bound for Montreal. All but one lived in Scotland, nearly half in Glasgow. Two-thirds had a nominated host, most in Ontario and BC. It arrived on 28 August in Montreal and the children travelled overnight to Toronto staying at Hart House.
The ill-fated Volendam, a Dutch ship of 9,197 registered tons sailing for Cunard White Star, departed Liverpool on 28 August. The convoy was torpedoed late on the evening of 30 August. Lifeboats were safely deployed, 320 children rescued and returned to UK with no passenger casualties. The Furness Line Nerissa, at 3,115 registered tons, was the smallest ship to carry CORB children. It sailed from Liverpool on 7 September for Boston via St John’s and Halifax. Aboard were 16 boys and 18 girls from London and the Home Counties bound for British Columbia. A lively description of the voyage is onlineviii. There is some indication a handful of children came on a ship named the Newfoundland and another unidentified ship which sailed on 8 September.
The City of Benaresix sailed from Liverpool on 13 September, a Friday, with 90 CORB children. Just after midnight on 18 September the ship was torpedoed with the loss of 77 of the children, many from exposure. The disaster led to the suspension and eventually the termination of further CORB evacuations, but not before one more ship left for Canada. Children already transported to Liverpool where being held ashore, or boarded and then disembarked before sailing. In the case of the Rangitanex bound for New Zealand with 119 children and 14 escorts, it was diverted back to Liverpool to disembark the children.
The last vessel for Canada was Furness Line’s Nova Scotia, 3,840 registered tons, which departed Liverpool on 21 September. Five other ships in the convoyxi were sunk but the Nova
Scotia made it safely to Halifax on 3 October. Of the 29 children aboard, from homes from London up the east coast to Middlesborough, none had a nominated host. Life in Canada Many children had nominated hosts in Canada, although on inspection not all were satisfactory to authorities. A reported 50,000 Canadians had offered to take children.
Life in Canada
Distribution and operation of the program was managed by provincial authorities. This caused some frustration on the part of the British who didn’t appreciate the implications of child welfare being a provincial responsibility. However, there was little problem finding initial placements for most children. Inevitably some did experience the mental anguish of being chosen late in the selection. John Thomas Barnardo, whose agency sent more children to Canada than any other, said in 1893 “Emigration in the case of young children without continuous supervision is in our opinion presumptuous folly and simply courts disaster.” Inspection was not overlooked by CORB. Reports were requested and many sent back to Britain. There are transmittal letters in file DO 131 at Library and Archives Canada listing the names and CORB numbers of children included in the attached reports. The actual reports have been destroyed.
Many children where hosted by more than one family. Host sickness or death, transfer to another location, economic difficulties and problems with the child were all factors leading to a change in host. Each parent or guardian had agreed to support their child with 6 shillings a week, but currency restrictions meant transferring funds from Britain to Canada could rarely be achieved. Aggravating the situation was the fact that initially there was no allowance in the tax system to support these children as there was for the host’s own children. A letter on file from Nova Scotia authorities in 1942 lamented that it was then impossible to find willing hosts, a situation reported to be widespread elsewhere in Canada and the US. In October 1941 Mr. Shakespeare made a trip to Canada to visit many of the children and cement relations with federal and provincial authorities. He recognized he was taken along a well trodden path unlikely to reveal problems. A visit by Miss. Maxse in 1944 was followed by a refreshingly frank report. She praised the child welfare authorities of British Columbia, and was damning in her evaluation of those in Saskatchewan. Others were rated in between, mostly adequate if not fully meeting the standard she would have liked.
From 1942 onwards there was a slow trickle of children back to Britain. Some became old enough to join the war effort; a move CORB actively encouraged for boys aged 16 and girls 17 and older from 1943. Some parents judged the war to be going well enough that they wanted to reunite the family. In 1945 the pace of repatriation picked up. All children who wanted to return had done so by February 1946.
British Guest Children Stories
What can you find out about these children from the remaining records? To find out I looked for children coming from my original home town, Great Yarmouth in Norfolk.
The National Archives in the UK has index information about CORB children to its Discovery catalogue. By going to www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/catalogue, clicking on < Search the Catalogue > and searching the phrase < CORB AND Yarmouth > for series code DO you get two hits. Teddie Gerald Davy and Michael Oscar Hull are shown with their dates of birth, place of residence and CORB numbers.
The complete CORB file for each child was destroyed in 1959. What remains is a still informative two pages for each child in series DO 131/109. A microfilm copy is available at Library and Archives Canada.
For Teddie Gerald Davy the first page of his record, on DO131/109, LAC microfilm B5394, shows him to be CORB number 3226; religion Protestant; date of birth 6 September 1926; parents Herbert Cecil Davyxii and Louisa Elizabeth Davy. Their address, 84 Nelson Road Central, Great Yarmouth, is crossed out and 41 Gorse Road, Norwich added. The next of kin is Miss Ena Joy Davy, c/o 37 Heigham Road, Norwich. Teddie had only one placement from September 1940 with Rev Walter S. Dunlap, an RCAF Chaplin at 80 Oxford Street, Halifax, Nova Scotia. Diagonally across the top of the page is written “Returned 15.2.43.” The second page comments that the boy would have stayed at school until age 16 and matriculated, that his parents had no special plans for him, he had expressed an interest in the Air Force, and that he worked his passage back to England.
The CORB documents don’t give the name of the ship on which he sailed to Canada, but that can be found from the British outgoing passenger list now online at www.findmypast.com. He appears on the list for the last CORB sailing, the Nova Scotia, which left Liverpool on 20 September with the same home address on Nelson Road Central.
The facts on file can only hint at the full picture. Interviewed at his home in Alberta in March 2008 Mr. Davy recounted how he had been evacuated to Nottinghamshire in June 1940, seen an announcement in the Express newspaper and pestered his parents in Great Yarmouth with a letter a day until they made an application for him to be part of the scheme. He was taken to Liverpool directly from Nottinghamshire and recalls the voyage on the Nova Scotia as easy, no seasickness as he’d previously been in boats on the North Sea. He was well treated as part of the host family in Halifax, and recalls being at a reception during Mr. Shakespeare’s tour. When his host family was transferred to Montreal he decided to return to England which he did as a cabin boy on a Norwegian cargo ship in January 1943.
Mr. Davy returned to Canada in 1948 as part of an Ontario government immigration scheme to help farmers and commented he was one of the few who actually fulfilled the three month requirement on a farm. He subsequently joined the Canadian Navy for five years then settled in Toronto before moving to Calgary about thirty years ago. He remains in contact with the daughter of his host and considers the decision he made in 1940 and subsequent experience in Canada to have been very positive.
Oscar Michael Hull’s birth was registered at Docking, in north-west Norfolk, in the first quarter of 1927. The subsequent records reverse the order of his given names. His record, on DO131/109, LAC microfilm B5394, shows him to be CORB number 3227; religion C of E; date of birth 26 February 1927. His parents are shown as Dorothy Perfitt (mother) and the father deceased. The home address was 92 Salisbury Road, Great Yarmouth. The next of kin is W F Perfitt at the Salisbury Road address, with another as Mrs D. L. Mattocks, “Delora” Yarmouth Road, Broome, Bungay, Suffolk. His only placement was with “F. R. Hayes MSc (Dal), PhD (L’pool), FLS, FRMS” at 123 Oakland Rd in Halifax. Frederick Ronald Hayes was professor of zoology at Dalhousie University. He and his wife Dixie had no children of their own.
The second page comments that the boy would have stayed at school until age 16 and
matriculated, that his parents had no special plans for him, and he joined the Canadian Merchant Navy deciding to remain permanently.
A good overview of the CORB program is in the book The Absurd and the Brave, by Michael Fethney. It includes as Appendix XIV, a list of “The CORB children who arrived safely in the Dominions.” Separate lists are given for Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa bound children. For each child the CORB number, surname, first name, age at registration and home town are listed. They are given in “ship batch order” but without information on the date of departure or ship on which they sailed.
Just as with the home children who preceded them people still argue about whether moving to Canada, and elsewhere, was a good thing. Statistically more children died in the City of Benares disaster than would likely have died from bombing in England, leading some to call transporting these children through U-boat infested waters a war crimexiii. Others point to the better living conditions most evacuees experienced. Choosing to stay in Canada, or returning after repatriation are decisions that speak for themselves. In 1946 out of 1,535 children who were part of the scheme in Canada 1,326 returned to Britain. Although there are no statistics anecdotal evidence is that many eventually chose to make Canada their home.
i According to Children of the Beneares, page 3 “to the children, thrilled at the prospect of seeing and growing up in the New World, the perils of the passage were part of the adventure … Parents were swayed by their pleading, and by the feeling that to resist would be to deny them the chance of a lifetime, perhaps even the chance of life itself.”
ii Saints, Sinners, and Soldiers: Canada’s Second World War by Jeffrey A. Keshen Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004, 389 pages
iii Based on The (UK) National Archives Board of Trade files (BT27) as viewed online through www.findmypast.com
iv Mark Pottle, ‘Maxse, Dame (Sarah Algeria) Marjorie (1891–1975)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/39182, accessed 19 March 2008]
v There are discrepancies between numbers quoted from CORB sources and derived from outgoing ships passenger lists. The numbers quoted are those from CORB as published in The Absurd and the Brave.
ix Children of the Benares: a war crime and its victims, by Ralph Barker, London : Methuen, 1987, ISBN: 0413423107
x Six escorts, who had travelled to Australia on the Batory with 477 CORB children, were killed by gunfire on the Rangitane from a German raider. Most of those aboard became prisoners on the raider and its supply ships. After a month, just before Christmas 1940, the crew, including the author’s father, an engineer, and non-military passengers were released on Emirau island in the Bismark Archipelago, The escorts story is told in Prison Life on a Pacific Raider,
xi Convoy OB217, information from uboat.net, accessed 20 March 2008.
xii The death of Herbert Cecil Davy is recorded by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission < www.cwgc.org>. He was killed in Great Yarmouth in the collapse of a garage on 8 April 1941 while on duty as a special constable.
xiii Through the Eyes of Innocents: Children Witness World War II by Emmy E. Werner