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Joan Pankhurst goes to the USA,1940-43

by Mike&Joan(Pankhurst)Coulthard

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Joan Pankhurst
Location of story: 
Kent, England & Boston,Massachusetts
Background to story: 
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
29 June 2004

3 September 1939. 11.15 am. The Prime Minister's broadcast to the nation:
`This country is at war with Gemany'. Soon afterwards an air-raid warning sounded.
The immediate effects: evacuation of children from London and other major cities. Troops crossed to France but little happened—most action was at sea; German U-boats attacked shipping.

During the winter my school friend had letters from her aunt in the USA, and it emerged that she was making arrangements for my friend and her brother to travel to the USA as evacuees. After a lot of discussion I was added to the plan and in the spring we journeyed to London for interviews and, finally, a very full medical examination. We began to feel really excited and during the summer we were told to pack two suitcases of clothes to be ready for the journey abroad.
I was an only child so my parents were a little apprehensive but the general feeling throughout the country was that the war would end in six months or a year or so and so our journey was to be a wonderful holiday.
We were told to report to Grosvenor House in London on September 16th 1940 so my parents drove us all to the hotel and we assembled in the ball room and then we were marched off to waiting coaches, waving to relatives.
Our coach journey took us to Liverpool docks where we were billeted in an empty school, a little scared by the constant bombing of the port but finally we were loaded on to a sizeable passenger ship, the RMS Antonia of the Cunard Line. We sailed out in a large convoy on September 19th; there were 118 British children including some babies and young children and those of us in our teens had to help care for the little ones. A London doctor, Dr.Ian B. Mackay was in charge. Our convoy sailed out across the Atlantic and we headed toward Greenland to avoid enemy U-boats, passing ice bergs and we also glimpsed the Northern Lights, until we passed Belle Isle and entered the St. Lawrence river, sailing to Quebec where we docked for two hours and then on to Montreal.

Our first landing on foreign soil! A hot sunny day; we walked to the top of Mont Royal and there had our first ever Coca-Cola: such excitement! We transferred to a train and had a super journey up the Hudson River valley to New York. Once there we stayed in a school and were taken to see the sights of New York, including the Empire State Building and Broadway. Then our group was broken up and thirty of us were directed to a train and travelled to Boston; once there we met the families who had agreed to host us.
For a few days I was very nervous but I was warmly welcomed by my new family and there was even a daughter the same age as myself so I became a new daughter of the family. I was taken in to the city and treated to a shopping spree! New skirts, jumpers and shoes were bought, and smart underwear including, wonder of wonders, a few bras— at our Grammar School back home in England we all wore so called sensible underwear: stout vests, navy knickers and woollen stockings. My English clothes were packed up and given to the British Relief Society to be sent back to England.
I was admitted to the Beaver Country Day School in Chestnut Hill, one of the few experimental schools in the USA, where the development of individual thought is a prominent feature of the education. The school believes that students can best prepare for adult responsibilities and citizenship through experiments in democratic living; matters of general school concern are discussed and voted on by meetings attended by students and faculty and presided over by the Student Government President.
I had a wonderful three years, including summer camps, and graduated from the school in May 1943. In the summer I also had a job in a fashion shop to save money to buy presents to take back to England and decided to apply for a passage home. I left Boston with a guardian on the night train to Halifax, Nova Scotia and found a merchant ship waiting which sailed on September 24th but we had to leave the convoy when our vessel sprang a leak. After returning to Halifax we waited for a few days while the next convoy was formed, and sailed on September 29th; after a stormy voyage we docked in Avonmouth on October 13th. Once on shore I travelled to London with another passenger from the ship and my large cabin trunk (which is still in our attic!). In London of course I had to phone my parents who did not even know that I had sailed, and then get a train from Charing Cross down to Kent; it was a very emotional meeting but I soon settled in my home and visited lots of old school friends. After a few weeks I decided to apply for the WRNS and the week before Christmas had to report to Scotland for training.

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