1939 School Trip to Canada
Margarette Benjamin (Obee, No.1, 1936 - 39) describes a life-changing School trip to Canada at the outbreak of the Second World War
On the 28th July 1939, a number of girls from schools all over southern Britain assembled at Euston Station. We were about to embark on the journey of our lives. The trip had been planned by the Overseas Education League (OEL) of Canada, and the organiser was a Major Fred Ney. Major Ney was a firm defender of the British Empire, and had come up with the idea of taking groups of schoolboys and girls from one country and give them a summer’s holiday in another part of the UK’s vast dominions. So English students would go to Canada, Canadians to Australia, Australians to South Africa, etc. Each contingent would experience life in another part of the Empire.
As the various groups met on the dock at Liverpool and boarded the Canadian Pacific Liner, the Duchess of York, Major Ney said goodbye. It took about five days to cross the Atlantic and we arrived at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River and enjoyed another day of quiet steaming through the Quebec countryside, until at last we reached Quebec City.
Here we were welcomed by the city dignitaries and ate a large ceremonial dinner in the very same room as King George VI and Queen Elizabeth had dined in two months before. This was one of the magical facets of our trip, over and over again we were treading in the path of their Majesties. Due to the success of the Royal Couple, Canadians were only too glad to welcome any of their subjects!
From Quebec we boarded a Canadian Pacific Railway train, first to Montreal, then Calgary and finally passing through the Rocky Mountains to Vancouver. One of the attractions of the trip was that we were to form two cricket teams, which would put on demonstration matches across the country.
In Vancouver we played a match and also took a cruise around the harbour. At one point, two small destroyers bobbed across our bows. “There goes a third of the Canadian Navy!” we were told. Major Ney had bravely said that he thought there would be no war in 1939, but even though we were now thousands of miles from all the tension, we were anxiously following the news.
We started to head back East and our next stop was Banff in the Rocky Mountains. By that time I had made a good friend, Rosemary, who like me, was keen on riding. Instead of joining the guided tour that day, we booked horses and a guide of our own. He took us out along the Bow River Valley, where we were able to drop in on one of the guide’s friends, a Mountie. Can you imagine the thrill we two English teenagers got from actually sharing a meal with two strong men of the west!
In Winnipeg we played our final cricket match. The news from Europe was getting no better. On to Ontario and we crossed Lake Superior and it was there, on a Sunday morning, that we awoke to see newsboys running up and down the dock waving newspapers with the great black word on them - WAR! As we reached Toronto, the final stop of our trip, the group’s mood was subdued, and very anxious as to what lay ahead. Major Ney met us, along with other staff from the League, to calm our fears and to lay out the plan for the group. Three days after war had been declared, the S.S. Athenia, coming from the UK to North America carrying a large contingent of evacuated children, was sunk. At that point all regular shipping schedules ceased, we were not to travel home as expected.
The sponsors of the tour were wonderful. They found places for the whole group to stay and study. I attended McGill University in Montreal for one year, which was as great an experience as the tour had been. The majority of the group spent up to a year in Canada but to my knowledge, only two of us stayed for good. Eluned MacMillan (Carey Evans, No. 2, 1933 – 39) who at that time had been Head Girl, but was already studying medicine, went to the University of Toronto to continue her pre-med studies. There she met another doctor in training, Robert MacMillan. She settled in Ontario and became a famous conservationist. I finished my freshman year at McGill, thanks to the University’s generosity in waiving my tuition and also the costs of any board and lodging in the women’s residence. I can never thank everybody enough for the way in which they took the English refugees to their hearts.
In the spring of 1940 it was still impossible to get much money sent from England, so the OEL rep in Montreal found me a job and a boarding house to live in. The very first evening I sat down for my supper, a young man to my right said “here’s the sugar for your coffee” and poured a spoonful into my cup. “I’m sorry, I don’t take sugar” said I, as I looked into the eyes of my future husband! But that, as they say, is another story…..