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"WAR GUESTS" in Canada, 1940-1943

by Elizabeth Lister

You are browsing in:

Archive List > Childhood and Evacuation

Contributed by 
Elizabeth Lister
People in story: 
Patricia Paton, Nee Massy-Beresford
Location of story: 
St Sauveur - Canada
Background to story: 
Civilian
Article ID: 
A6073625
Contributed on: 
09 October 2005

This story was submitted to the People's War site by a volunteer from CSV Berkshire on behalf of Patricia Paton and has been added to the site with her permission. Patricia Paton fully understands the site's terms and conditions

My family travelled to Canada in the Spring of 1939 where my father, an officer in the Rifle Brigade, took up a two-year exchange appointment with a Canadian Officer at the Royal Military Academy in Kingston, Ontario. My mother was delighted with the posting as she had grown up in Canada and had many friends there and in the United States.

My father guessed that war would break out during the year, and it was likely that the family would stay in Canada for the duration. So, when our house in England was sold, he arranged for the money to be transferred to Canada, fortunately just before such transactions were stopped by the British Government as a wartime measure to retain funds in England. This enabled him to buy a plot of land on the outskirts of St Sauveur, a farming village and ski resort about fifty miles north of Montreal in the Laurentian mountains, where an architect friend set about designing and building a French-Canadian style home for us to live in. My father was recalled to duties in England in February 1940, and my mother, faced with a long separation, moved us into a new house and set about making the mud and builders' rubble around it into a garden. My mother gave my brother Michael(aged 5) and me (nearly 9) our lessons on the PNEU system (Parents National Educational Union, an organisation that provided books, teaching materials and exam papers for children being educated at home or overseas). She also took on a Norland-trained nurse to look after one-year old Christopher; Miss Dunkley - or Dunkie the affectionate nickname that she was soon known by - became a reliable friend and support to my mother throughout the war and beyond, turning a hand to anything that needed to be done and coping with the many domestic crises that came our way.

By mid-summer 1940 England was being bombed and France was falling to the Germans. On 20th June my mother received a telegram from a PNEU teacher who had been a governess to cousins of ours, wanting to bring a party of children and nannies to form a school at St Sauveur. Without hesitation she cabled back "Yes" and set about finding accomodation in the village, and sponsorship from her many Canadian and American friends since the British Government had decreed that children leaving England could not have money sent to them. By the end of July she had been offered temporary accomodation for the children in a women's ski club building, formed a PNEU school, and incorporated the Massy-Beresford fund with herself as Secretary/Treasurer to deal with finance. On 1st August the party of 23 children aged from 5 to 16 and 3 adults arrived having crossed the Atlantic safely. Her Canadian friends were most welcoming and hospitable, insisting that the children were not evacuees but "War Guests". Within a few months my mother had negotiated a lease on a building in the village that had been a holiday inn, and after a lot of hard work furnishing it the children were moved in and the building renamed Rydal House School. More staff were taken on, and other children who had travelled to Canada separately joined the school, including the nephew and niece of the then Queen Elizabeth which gave the school some publicity in the Canadian press.

My brother Michael and I attended the school until the summer of 1943 when it had to close because the lease on the building had run out. By then the immediate threat of invasion had receded, and many of the children returned to England by the 'Neutral Route' on the crowded and uncomfortable Portuguese ships to the Azores, and thence even more uncomfortably by military plane to Shannon and finally by small seaplane to Poole Harbour. Others, including my family, moved to Montreal and continued our education at Canadian schools until we were ready to return to England. We crossed the Atlantic in April 1945 on a troopship carrying Canadian airmen, in a convoy heavily guarded by destroyers. The convoy frequently and rapidly changed course to avoid suspected submarines while the destroyers fired depth charges, raising great plumes of water into the air on the horizon.

During the life of Rydal House School the Canadian and American sponsors were extremely generous with funds, most of them refusing payment at the end of the war. One Quaker couple from Connecticut, who were childless, sponsored two children, gave every child in the school a present at Christmas as well as a complete outfit in the school colours (all knitted by Mrs Thurston herself). Other kind friends paid for the two older boys to attend a Canadian prep school as boarders. Most of the sponsors became lifelong friends of the children and their families.

My mother coped with all the secretarial work and accounts of the school, as well as arranging quarantines for epidemics of scarlet fever, chickenpox, mumps etc. visits to the doctors, dentists - and theatres - in Montreal, and gave a birthday party for every child in the school which in Summer would be sausage and corn cob picnic in our garden for up to 40 children and adults. Although at times very tired, but the task that she had taken on kept her sane throughout the worrying period after my father was taken prisoner by the Japanese when Singapore fell, and she only received a postcard from him every six months at best. Fortunately he was fairly well treated by the Japs who kept a group of high ranking British, Dutch and American officers in reasonable health as a 'trump card' in Formosa. They were lated moved to Manchuria and were released by the Russians in August 1945. My father did not know that we had returned to England in April of that year, having not received our letters, so he travelled to San Francisco with the Americans and thence by train across the continent to St Sauveur where he was able to have a look at the house he had had built for us and which had been our much-loved home throughout the war. On his return to England in November he commented wryly that he had "completed an entire circuit of the globe without a ticket, passport or a penny piece in my pocket".

In the Spring of 2000, many of us who had been at the school in St Sauveur met for a reunion in London, and it was decided that our memories should be recorded for posterity. My brother Michael undertook to make contact with as many former pupils as possible and collate their stories, and any relevant documents and photographs, into a booklet. This he did, and 'Il y a Soixante Ans, The Story of an English School set in a French-Canadian Mountain Village, 1940-1943' was created It contains the story
of 33 of those who attended the school; their most vivid memories were of the snow in Winter, the skiing and skating (two members later skied for Britain in the Winter Olympics) the hot summers camping by lakes, swimming and canoeing, the friendliness and hospitality of the local people. The overall conclusion of them all was that, despite being separated form their families, their time in St Sauveur was the happiest period of their childhood.

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