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A warm reception: Canada’s children of the Blitz

CORB children en route to their new home 1940.
National Archives UK
It was around 11 a.m. on Aug. 4, 1940, when Margaret Beal bid farewell to all she had ever known. Departing on a train from Scarborough, U.K., the 14-year-old watched as her parents, standing on the platform, faded into the steam.

Exactly 26 years before, the British teenager’s home country had been mobilizing upon the outbreak of the First World War. Now, she, too, was on the move, although her journey was destined to be markedly different.

Beal was venturing not to the British countryside like those children of the domestic evacuation scheme dubbed Operation Pied Piper. Instead, her voyage would take her across the ocean to find a faraway refuge in Canada.

At that time, however, the Dominion had a complex history with hosting Britain’s youth. Between the 1860s and the 1930s, the Home Children scheme had involved impoverished or orphaned juveniles resettling in rural Canadian households. There, despite a proportion experiencing better lives, some children had recounted tales of forced labour and abuse.

Nevertheless, Canada was willing to host again on the eve of the Second World War. As early as 1938, having recognized the proverbial dark clouds of war gathering over Europe, Canadian newspapers, organizations and individuals implored their country to welcome evacuees should the need arise.

In response, scores of primarily upper-class British families accepted the offer. Meanwhile, back in England, those families unable to afford private evacuation costs complained of the perceived injustice.

Their concerns were heard on June 20, 1940—84 years ago this week—when British authorities founded the Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB). Chaired by Under-Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs Geoffrey Shakespeare, the initiative catered to prospective evacuees aged five-15.

Beal was one of them. The Yorkshire-raised child—since accustomed to gas masks, rations, air-raid shelters and blackouts—had been selected from 201,168 applications received within just two weeks of the program’s opening. Such was the influx that Shakespeare suspended the plan on July 4.

Those approved families still needed to break the news to their children. For some, suggesting they were going on an extended holiday was enough to temporarily quell anxieties. Others, especially younger evacuees, struggled to comprehend why their loved ones were sending them away, whether to Canada or the fellow host countries of New Zealand, Australia or South Africa.

Having appeared more concerned about her parents’ welfare, Beal saw her imminent departure as a great adventure. Her subsequent escapades would end up being largely indicative of numerous evacuees’ experiences.

The realities of postwar Britain proved too much for many former evacuees.

Aboard RMS Antonia, Beal spent time with her new CORB friends, ate some of the finest luxuries since the advent of rationing, and practised lifeboat drills should a U-boat attack occur. She would be one of the lucky ones.

On Aug. 31, 1940—mere days after Beal’s crossing—the SS Volendam, carrying 320 evacuees, endured an attack from the German submarine U-60. Miraculously, no children died, and the ship was even recovered.

No such miracles were destined for the SS City of Benares.

Overnight on Sept. 17-18, 1940, U-48 stalked the evacuee-carrying vessel. A torpedo struck close to the stern—where the children slept.

Seventy-seven of 90 CORB evacuees lost their lives, either during the attack itself or succumbing to their wounds in storm-beaten lifeboats.

It had been precisely what parents had tried to prevent. Thus, in the immediate aftermath of the tragedy, the CORB scheme was discontinued.

However, for those children already in Canada—many of whom had arrived via Pier 21 in Halifax—the program carried on as intended.

Shortly after landing in N.S., Margaret boarded a train bound for Winnipeg. When not admiring the vast wildness outside, she watched as other evacuees disembarked en route, all the while wondering when her turn would come.

Among her curiosities were the francophones of Quebec, the candy she received from enthralled locals, and, upon reaching her final stop, the journalists and general crowds cheering the evacuees’ arrival in Winnipeg.

Wherever they ended up, the 1,532 CORB children—nicknamed war guests—received a warm reception and, ultimately, an adoptive Canadian household. They attended Canadian schools, made Canadian friends, and enjoyed Canadian leisure activities. Over time, some even developed Canadian accents.

But staying connected to their homeland remained vital. Aside from letters and parcels, a privileged few—including Beal—were afforded the chance to broadcast messages over the radio courtesy of the CBC and BBC.

In what would be a defining moment of her life, on Christmas Day 1940, Beal fell in love with the microphone after only a two-minute conversation with her parents.  

Yet, as the older evacuees reached enlistment age, thoughts drifted to joining the armed forces, whether in Canada or across the Atlantic in Britain.

Beal chose the latter. While most younger war guests would have to wait until the conflict ended before returning home, the 18-year-old travelled back to the U.K. in the autumn of 1944. There, she saw her parents for the first time in four years, although the reunion was not as expected.

After VE-Day, countless evacuees faced similar circumstances upon seeing their families again. At train stations across the country, loved ones struggled to recognize each other through inevitable growth spurts, North American clothes, Canadian twangs, or healthy weights unaffected by widespread rationing.

The realities of postwar Britain proved too much for many former evacuees, especially the youngest members returning to a country they couldn’t remember. During the subsequent years, a number moved to Canada for good.

Beal would eventually join them. Having missed her chance to serve in the British military, she refused to miss out on a life overseas. Recalling her passion for the microphone, the new Canadian later became Maggie Morris, a radio and TV personality best known for CBC’s 1960s quiz show, Flashback.

Beal passed away in 2014, aged 88. Despite having reservations about the CORB scheme’s necessity, she never doubted its huge impact on her life.


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