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Written by Carrie-Ann Smith, Chief, Audience Engagement

Group of people standing together wearing warm winter clothing.

Elsie and Ed surrounded by her family and friends at their wartime wedding.

Credit: DI2016.191.13

Most days I have a pretty good time at work, but I don’t know if I have ever laughed as much as I did during the recent three-day Canadian War Brides and Families Reunion. It was my good friend Elsie Mills and her friends Pat Malek and Nancy Crooker who kept me in stitches.

Head and shoulder portrait of a young woman wearing a military beret.

Ruby Fletcher during the Second World War

Credit: S2012.702.1

The first time I met Elsie was early in 1999. The museum staff had finally moved from our small off-site offices into Pier 21, but the renovations were not yet finished. One day I encountered Elsie outside the museum, where she was reading the Historic Sites and Monuments plaque and feeling reflective about the journey her life had taken. I brought her into the museum and made her a picture of the Britannic, the ship that had first brought her to Pier 21 back in 1945. Elsie and her daughter Betty came back for the official opening of the museum on Canada Day that same year. Elsie donated her story and a friendship was begun. A few years later her story was included in Linda Granfield’s Brass Buttons and Silver Horseshoes: The Story of Canada's British War Brides. Linda told Elsie that the museum didn’t possess a silver horseshoe in its collection, so Elsie spread the word and her best friend, war bride Ruby Fletcher, donated hers. Ruby was unable to travel to Halifax so Elsie presented Ruby's silver horseshoe to us. In her speech on that day Elsie had a prophetic vision for what Pier 21 could become. She said, “Pier 21 belongs to all that saw Canada, first, by stepping out from it's shed, into a world, of who knew what? None of us knew what was in store for us, but took that step anyway. I came back on a visit, and came to Pier 21 to see it…Ruth Goldbloom, past president of Pier 21, put me in mind of that hymn we used to sing as little children - This little light of mine, I'm going to let it shine. I would like to see that light shine in all of us that came through pier 21, just imagine if we all sent in our stories, and made a library of them, if all whose parents or grandparents came through here became members, what a showplace this would be.”

Over the years Elsie helped build our collection and populate our Wall of Honour and Wall of Service by speaking about the museum to community groups in Southern Ontario. She visited us for one of her birthdays and I learned a few things about planning outings for ladies on scooters. If you don’t know the Prince George Hotel in Halifax it is three quarters of the way up a very steep hill, with the harbour at the bottom. Both Elsie and her daughter Betty were on scooters and making me very nervous, so we opted for a cab to take us to our destination, the Harbour Hopper, Halifax’s amphibious touring vehicle. Not the best idea on my part because the steps to the Harbour Hopper are tricky, but once we settled in it was fun - my favourite part being Elsie correcting the tour guide on points of British and Canadian history.

Young woman bending down to look at a woman in a wheelchair, she smiles affectionately at her.

Elsie and Carrie at the Canadian War Museum in 2007

Credit: © Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21

Elsie and I were together again for the war bride train events of 2006 and in Ottawa the following year for the Mother’s Day weekend opening of artist Bev Tosh’s war bride exhibition at the Canadian War Museum. You can well imagine that I was pretty excited to learn that, at 94, Elsie was going to be coming to the May 2016 Halifax Canadian War Brides and Families Reunion. As we finalized our plans Elsie explained that Ruby Fletcher’s daughter Pat and her friend Nancy would be joining her.

The excitement started on Friday, May 20th as the Westin Hotel lobby filled with media wanting to talk to the ladies. Elsie gave a great interview and was featured on Live at 5 that evening. My favourite quote from one of Elsie’s interviews was her description of the little town of Brussels, Ontario, where she first settled in Canada. She said, “It was the last town that God created and He forgot to come back.”

Elderly woman laughing as she sits in a wheelchair with lots of Union Jack flags attached.

Elsie on her ‘decked out’ scooter at the War Bride and Families Reunion, Halifax, May 2016

Credit: Courtesy of Elsie Mills

The laughs really started the following day when Ruby's daughter Pat finally corrected Elsie, who had been calling Pat's friend Nancy by the name of Shirley for two days. There is a line in Psalm 23:6 which includes the partial phrase 'surely, love and goodness', and somehow, during those two days, as Nancy had seemingly become 'Shirley/Surely', Elsie and Pat became 'Love' and 'Goodness'. The three ladies now had new nicknames, and they stuck for the rest of the reunion. I had to warn the Reverend Canon Charles Black, who was giving the morning prayer service, that if he uttered that phrase there would be hysterical laughter which he should not take personally. He assured me that he was using a 1930s Order for Morning Prayer, which would not include that particular psalm. At the service everyone was on their best behaviour with nary a snicker heard until, at the end of the service, Father Charlie introduced his wife – Shirley.

Elsie has kept me smiling in the days following the reunion as we exchange photographs via email. In one note she wrote, “Now I have to go back to my hum drum life, bit hard after my princess status, LOL.” but my favourite quote is, “Really really tired and still on a big high, who needs the weed, we do well with Pier 21 and a reunion, LOL.”

Elsie says it wasn’t her last visit and I suspect that Pat and Nancy would welcome another long weekend in Halifax. We will all be looking forward to the return of Shirley, Love and Goodness.

A band plays on stage as a crowd looks on, there are images being projected onto a screen behind the band.

150 guests from the Canadian War Brides and Families Reunion enjoy the music of the New Players Choral Society at a Pier 21 Tea in their honour.

Credit: © Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21

Elsie’s story:
I stood at the window today looking across a field of sweet corn. So many years have passed and so much has happened. It’s August, 1999, a beautiful day. The sun is shining and the sky looks so huge. That was the first impression I had of Canada, May 25th, 1945.

I was 6th of 10 children, my father was a constructor, working for the Admiralty in England. I started working in a hospital in London, England and had chosen nursing for a career, but Psychiatric work was difficult. My father, having moved out of Admiralty Headquarters in London, England, was relocated to the Pump Room Hotel in Bath which were temporarily turned into offices for the duration of the war. My father relocated my mother and younger family members to Bristol, so I changed hospitals and relocated to Fishponds Hospital, Bristol, to be close to them. Bombs dropped frequently, and air raid sirens went every night. Women were being called up to join the services. I was in a reserved job, but decided to join the air force as a W.A.A.F. and took job training as a dental clerk orderly. I was posted to Paignton, Devon and the fickle finger of fate stirred the pot. My Canadian husband-to-be was in a convalescent hospital in Brixham, Devon about 10 miles from Paighton. I was on duty the night we met and wasn’t supposed to be at a dance, but I was! Ed was with a group that had come over to the dance. He had run out of money to get back, so I staked him to a taxi ride. I always told him I just married him to make sure he paid me back and I still say he didn’t!

Young man in military uniform stands next to his new bride.

Ed and Elsie’s wedding

Credit: Courtesy of Elsie Mills

We were married for 48 years, have 4 children, the oldest, Ian, was 9 months old when we arrived in Canada, and the eldest girl was born 8 months later. We have 9 grandchildren and 8 great grandchildren.

Ed rejoined the army in 1948 and served until 1968 and with his war service completed 26 years active service.

Life was always interesting, living in Ontario, Quebec, back to Ontario, Germany, and Manitoba. Ed served in Holland and England during the war, and Cyprus, Korea and Germany as a Peacekeeper. I found life very busy but, with his frequent absence, it was a lonely life. I have lived in all shapes and sizes of houses. The smallest was at Wasaga Beach, Ontario when Ed came back from Korea. It was so small that the bedrooms only held a bed and dresser, and we had to crawl over the bed to get in the room. There was a river running along the bottom of the property and Ian used to sweet talk the fishermen out of a fish almost every week. That was a lot better though than the H-hut we lived in at Wolseley Barracks in London, Ontario. We really had to watch out for rats, coming up the standing pipe there. We learned to shove paper around the pipe and as they were pulled down we put more around the top.

Old faded photograph of a couple and their kids sitting on the grass.

Ed and Elsie with their first two children in Canada

Credit: Courtesy of Elsie Mills

In 1949, pay in the army was really poor, and good homes hard to find. Polio was a constant summer-time threat and Bulbar polio visited us. Our eldest daughter, Betty, was one sick lass, but she is tough and she survived and off we went to Montreal. We lived above a restaurant. The kids loved it, and visited downstairs frequently.

In Germany, we lived above a butcher shop and saw some strange ways of curing meat. I have never really enjoyed hot dogs since. We moved to P.M.Q.’s (permanent married quarters) in Soest and Werl, Germany. They were really nice three bedroom, beautifully furnished apartments. We moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba and our furniture, after four years in storage, when it finally came, smelt bad, and took only a year to fall apart. It seems it had been in a flood while we were away. The army doesn’t believe in compensation, and you sign papers that you won’t talk to the media, so, like a good soldier, you accept life and get on with it. We moved into a little house in Winnipeg P.M.Q.’s. During the winter the upstairs bedroom wall would freeze and with it, any sheet or blanket that touched it. How cold does it get in Winnipeg? Answer: so cold that if you hang washing on the line, it snaps right off, leaving the pegs and anything attached; example - hems, pant tops, or feet of socks there until spring. No kidding!

In 1968, Ed had been really sick, so he decided to retire from the army. We came back to London, Ontario to be close to his family.

My mother died in 1953 while we were stationed in Montreal and my father died in 1955 while we were in Camp Borden. I had the opportunity to return to England in 1958 with my children on the way to join my husband in Germany, and although I hadn’t been able to see my parents again, I had the opportunity to revisit the rest of my family. In Halifax, however, is a reminder of my father’s expertise. The Admiralty anchor that is on the Corvette, was the anchor modified by my father. Anchors at one time used to be pulled up by hawser and put on the deck. Mr. Alfred Nash, my father, modified it to allow it to slide up the outside of the ship and lock into the side. The first of these anchors were put on an Indian Line of ships in 1936.

What a shock to an English War Bride to come from a home that was planned and built by my father, to a terrace house, with a pump in the well for water, a loo down the garden, snow in the winter that was pushed back to the hydro wires, where the doctor travelled on snowshoes to visit his patients, and they dropped yeast to make bread and other emergency commodities by parachute until they blasted the snow so the trains could get through during one very difficult winter. I wanted to go home, but I didn’t. The girls the Canadian soldiers brought home as brides were tough but then they had endured four years of war, hadn’t they?

My eldest son, the one I brought with me is a retired priest living in Winnipeg, with his wife, he has two children, and his daughter has two little girls. Betty died in 2013, she had 3 children, and 7 grandchildren. Jacqueline, was a school teacher, had 3 children (2 died) and 2 grandchildren. James and Helen have two boys, James is a Systems Manager and lives in Calgary, he is much younger than the other three.

I now live in a little house in Glencoe, Ont., but for health reasons as soon as a place becomes available, will move to an assisted living residence and will sell my house. I love going to Pier 21, and really hope to go there again.