The Immigration Story of Winifred Robina MacArthur (English War Bride)

Category: 
Culture : 
Country of Origin: 
Port of Arrival: 
Language: 
English
Creative Commons: 
CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Accession Number: 
S2012.2504.1
Story Text: 

As of 2012 we are two surviving daughters, three sons, two granddaughters, four grandsons, two great granddaughters and one great grandson. We all now live in only three Canadian provinces, but collectively we have lived in all but Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. We are all Canadians even though one of us was born in England and one in Germany. And we all share a family connection to Pier 21 with Winnie MacArthur.

Winifred Robina Cole was born on the twenty-sixth of September 1924 in the rather non-descript town of Spennymoor, County Durham to Gilbert Clarence Cole and Elizabeth Fowler. Her other grandparents' family names were Leng and Hagar. Her two brothers were Eric and Gilbert. Her father was an electrician and the one who inspired her curiosity about science and how things worked. Growing up in a small town in north-eastern England during the austere inter-war years, Winnie expected that she would spend the rest of her life close to home. A long trip would be the twenty-two miles to the North Sea holiday town of Hartlepool. But the Second World War changed all that.

First, it meant that her job leaving school would be with the Royal Post, which provided both mail and telephone services. Second, it meant that through a series of unusual connections, she would meet Vans Gordon MacArthur. Gilbert, also known as Clary, trained with the Royal Air Force at Summerside before the war. While there Clary dated a young woman named Alberta who subsequently gave his Spennymoor address to her cousin Vans as he was heading off to war.

Vans was one of the thousands of Canadians billeted and training in England awaiting the order to liberate Europe. He had lied about his age to join the Army early and naively raised his arm when the infantry company sergeant-major asked"Who knows how to drive?" Growing up on his father's farm on Prince Edward Island he had to learn to drive a tractor of course. Consequently he found himself as a crewman in a tank in the Lord Strathcona's Horse (Royal Canadians) in preparation for the invasion of Italy. During a period of leave in England, Vans went to visit Clary who introduced him to Winnie.

Reportedly, her mother had to convince Winnie to accept Vans' marriage proposal. No wonder: marry a man she hardly knew; travel thousands of miles to Canada; become a farmer; and, have little prospect of ever seeing her family in England again. She did marry Vans, but her life unfolded differently.

After the war, Winnie was left behind when Vans was repatriated with his unit. By the time she could get passage on the Aquitania in September 1946, she was a mother of a four-month old daughter, Irene. Winnie never recounts that crossing, perhaps because it was a blur of anxious anticipation. Vans met
them at Pier 21.

In spite of all the long, hard work, Winnie enjoyed becoming a farmer, first on Vans' parents' farm and then their own small place purchased through the Veterans' Land deal. Winnie also learned to drive a tractor, and the family grew with the birth of Eric. With two children approaching school age, it was not the tough life of farming the wrong end of PEI that brought a reconsideration of the future, but a matter of education. One evening at the kitchen table, Winnie thought about the one-room school house up the road with a seventeen year-old boy as the part-time teacher and realized that was not good enough for her children. The next morning Vans rejoined the armed forces, this time in the Royal Canadian Air Force.

Soon Winnie was living in a"permanent married quarter" on the air force base at Rockcliff, a suburb of Ottawa. Only two years later she was learning to speak German from the landlady of a tiny apartment in Iffezheim, a small town famous for its horse race track. It was also near the newly-built Canadian air base, home of 4 Fighter Wing. As one of the first residents of the married quarters, Winnie could look out from the second story balcony onto the large new school. Living and travelling in post-war Germany for three years was an adventure and an education. Winnie was also able to visit her family in
Spennymoor.

After the lushness of Iffezheim, Winnie had tears in her eyes at the shockingly bleak and barren countryside around Sudbury on the drive to her next home at Canadian Forces Station Falconbridge, an outpost on the"Pine Tree Line" of radar stations across mid-Canada. However her greatest sadness whil
there was the death of her daughter Clare only hours old.

Life on a small radar station was like existing on an island. The one hundred and thirty-four families were isolated from the nearest towns. The father in every family worked; the mothers kept house; and, the packs of kids played outside where the only worries were the occasional cuts or scrapes from playing rough games. Everyone had to get along. The station had its own public school, gymnasium, snack bar, bowling alley, swimming pool, movie theatre, skating rink and ball diamonds. Winnie only had to drive to do the family food shopping every two weeks. She did get used to the acid-stunted trees, but never to the constant taste of sulphur in the air when the wind blew from the nickel mine smelters. Kevin was born in Sudbury, followed by Vivian four years later.

Vivian was born with cerebral palsy, but fortunately she also inherited her mother's fierce determination and sense of independence. Even so Winnie's life changed dramatically to adapt to Vivian's special needs.

After seven years in Falconbridge, Winnie moved into another married quarter only eighty miles east on Canadian Forces Base North Bay. Rob was born the following year. Two years later Irene married, and a year after that Eric left home to attend military college. Soon Winnie had the first of her six grand
children.

Winnie then made a much longer move to a married quarter on Canadian Forces Base Edmonton. After a few long winters Winnie and Vans decided to leave life in the Forces in favour of a more settled life where Vivian would have access to the facilities she required.

Winnie visited British Columbia and it felt like home. They bought their second house (if they counted that tiny farm as their first) in Richmond near the Vancouver Airport and settled in. After Vans retired for the second time from his job at a veterans hospital and with her family off at school, Winnie, now in her fiftes, went to work as a sales woman. She thoroughly enjoyed the responsibilities, friendships and independence of working out of the home.

When she too"retired" they bought a new house further inland in Maple Ridge. Winnie describes this as a truly peaceful time when she and Vans had some of their happiest years together. They explored all of the local areas, driving and walking. Winnie was especially proud of Vivian who was living quite
independently and contentedly in Vancouver, and who only occasionally called for assistance. They bought a piece of property on Gabriola Island and began to develop it as a holiday spot. They visited all of the family and even made a couple of sentimental journeys back to where their farm once was on PEI.

Vans died on Remembrance Day 1991.

Winnie bought a small house in a seniors' complex in Maple Ridge and kept up her busy routines. She has continued to visit her family wherever they are. Each of the three years that Eric lived in England, Winnie spent a Spring month visiting parts of Great Britain about which she had only ever read. She visited Irene in Bermuda, and even went to China with her. For someone who had never been anywhere at the age of twenty, she certainly made up for it into her eighties. And by now her family has grown to include three great grandchildren.

Last year Winnie decided that she was too far from the family action, so she moved into an apartment in the former Olympic Village in trendy False Creek. It is conveniently close to Vivian's apartment and much more accessible for the rest of the family when they travel to visit with her in Vancouver. She most
certainly is not ready for a seniors' home although she admits she can only walk for an hour a day, not her former great treks.

She is a long way and a long time from Pier 21 but for her and all of us, that journey to Canada shaped many lifetimes.

I hereby authorize the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 to use the above information as indicated on this form.