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The Immigration Story of Stewart Hetherington Steelle and Mary Ross (Scottish immigrants)

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Immigration to a New Land

This is a story of my parents, Stewart Hetherington Steelle Ross. Sept. 19, 1918–

May 11, 2003 and Mary McKechnie (Thompson) Ross, March 8, 1918–

September 9, 2005 and their quest to find a new life in a new land…. A land of opportunity for a poor working man living in the tenements of Glasgow, Scotland.

In 1949 I was ten years old when the lives of our family would change drastically. All six of us lived on the fourth floor of a Glasgow tenement building in two rooms– a bedsitting/living and dining room combination with a‘scullery’ adjoining and a bedroom down the hall. It was imminent (at least that is what my parents thought) that we would get a‘house’ in Glasgow terms a townhouse-type dwelling with three bedrooms. We would be near the top of the list as Mom and Dad had two boys, John (Jack) Thompson Ross– two years old and Andrew (Drew) Addison, Steell Ross, five years old and two girls, Mary Carle Ross– ten years old and Helen Ross– three. (Dad forgot to give Helen a middle surnames as is customary in Scotland).

But before this great event could happen, Dad won a football pool! He and a couple of friends played the pools on a regular basis– as I recall the teams were the Rangers and the Selkirks. The win was in partnership with the two other friends, but it was enough for Dad and the family to immigrate either to Australia or Canada. Dad always felt if he could ever afford it he would immigrate out of Scotland and go to Canada where there were greater opportunities to get ahead.

Dad’s football pal, Charlie Wilkie, had a relative who live in Canada… a helping hand would smooth the way in a new country. And so after filling out the papers and buying a plane ticket, Dad and Charlie were off to Canada… I think in the fall of 1948– to Edmonton, Alberta to pave the way for a new start for our family.

But, in Edmonton in 1948 the work was seasonal, especially during the fall and winter months. In spite of having a roof over his head, Dad became discouraged at not finding work and got homesick for the family. After a coup of months he flew back home to Scotland again. But, not content to give up the dream of a better life for us all, he again flew off to Edmonton– I presume in the Spring as we, the rest of the family, finally joined him in June of 1949.

Step back to a ten year old leaving her home with a mom towing four children, three of them five and under on a big long journey! First, I presume by taxi to the train, as no one we knew had a car– in fact anyone having a friend or family member with a car visiting on Budhill Avenue, would find all the young members of the family clammering all over it, showing it off to all the other children in the street. Mostly, cars coming to Budhill Avenue in those days were there for wedding parties or for funerals. The train took us to the South of England to Southampton where we would board the Cunard ship, the Aquitania. This ship was used during the second world war to transport troops and brought numerous immigrants to Canada. One year after our arrival in Canada, it was retired from the fleet.

I can’t imagine what it must have been like for my poor mom dragging four children off the train and onto the ship! Did we take another taxi? Was the train station in the same area as the ship dock? How did our suitcases and large trunks make it onto the ship? I wish now that I had questioned my parents for more detailed information. I don’t know many details, but I do remember that the wrong trunk was delivered to our cabin– the one with winter clothes, etc. that we didn’t need and the luggage which contained the items we required was deep in the hold! My poor Mom had to make do– wash items in the sink…for four children! I don’t remember the drudgery– it was exciting to be on our way to a new land! One wonders if one really remembers incidents or if it’s because we’ve been told the stories a few times. Like the one about the ship steward who thought my mom was rather cute and tended to flirt with her hoping, perhaps, for a little shipboard romance? And how my mom told me when he was approaching to stick around and how I maneuvered my way between their conversation, throwing my ball into the air and catching it all the while. I remember dishes sliding back and forth on stormy seas. There was sea sickness but I can’t recall who suffered– hopefully not mom as she had her work cut out for her dealing with us all. I do recall the first sighting of Canada. The call went out on deck,“ there’s Canada!” and looking out to shore and seeing many short pine trees in the distance. Again, how did we get to the train from Pier 21 in Halifax– where one and a half million immigrants like us landed in Canada. Was the station nearby? I presume luggage was handled by the ship and train’s staff. Our trans Atlantic voyage had taken seven days– only four more to go to our destination. The train was exciting to us children. Would we see cowboys and Indians from the window as was expected? Perhaps we’d spot horses or bears or other wild animals! In Scotland, this is what we heard of Canada. The train voyage wasn’t quite as exciting for our mother, however. As the story goes, there was very little money left for food and we made do with apples and oranges brought from the ship and treats/snacks given us children from fellow passengers. But soon we arrived. I don’t recall the sequence of events once in Canada. I do recall it was a tough time for my parents. It was still difficult to get work and we lived for a time in the garage of Charlie’s relatives. We slept in metal army bunks and I remember there was no lock on the door. My dad had worked as a fitter in the shipyards on the Clyde during the war– there wasn’t too much shipbuilding going on in a Prairie town like Edmonton! Dad did what he could to eke out a living. They found an ad for a four room shack for $200.00 that had to be moved from the property it was on. Mom and Dad bought a lot, I think it was on 158th street in Jasper Place, and if my memory serves me well, I believe the lot cost $ 500.00. At that time there were no water services and they hand-dug a cellar in that hard clay soil to accommodate a large water tank. What a job that must have been! Water was delivered from the city in large water

Trucks. Casting my poor memory back, I think of the Murphy’s– the people who sold the shack to my parents and our first Christmas. I guess Elda Murphy saw the hardship– all those kids– no money (or not much anyway) as she arrived at our door with a turkey pie, vegetables (from her garden– everyone had a garden in Edmonton in those days) and I believe some kind of dessert– probably apple pie. My poor mother cried at her thoughtfulness, generosity and neighbourliness. The Murphys remained friends with my parents for the rest of their lives. Another neighbour who made my mother feel welcome in her new home and land was Margaret Bowles. One day, soon after we moved to our shack, a woman cam walking up to our wooden plank walk. Our dog (I had brought a mongrel home and insisted he stay) was barking at her and my mom called out‘walk through, he won’t hurt you’. It was common place, in those days, for people to walk through your yard to access the next street. And Margaret replied that she was here to visit not to cut through the yard. Another, lifelong friend was established for my mother. In fact, the entire Bowles family remained close to my parents and siblings from then on. It was not easy for my mother to make friends. She lacked a certain confidence in herself. She had had trouble with her eyes as a youngster and as a young woman and this, plus what she thought were prominent teeth made her really quite self-conscious. As young children and even as teens it was hard for us to realize the sacrifice my parents made. It seems when my mother left Scotland, she left very ill parents. Her parents had separated many years before.“Gran” had become confused– I remember the words‘shell-shocked’ from the bombing during the war. It was perhaps after this period of Gran’s life that she wrote the following poem.–


I was ill and tired and weary,

My heart bowed down with care,

To gain my strength, I came at length,

To“Knowes” on the hills of Calander.

A beautiful haven of rest and peace,

My praises of it will never cease.

My first is for the Matron,

So gentle and so kind,

To me she was a friend in need,

Such friends are hard to find.

The Knowes, a beautiful rest house,

So elegant, cozy and clean

Huge log fires, comfy bed,

Food fit for a queen.

All credit goes to Matron,

Who works from morn to night,

Never grumbling, always smiling,

Seeing everything is right.

She is splendid and methodical,

Everything is on the dot,

When it comes to serving meals,

They’re always nice and hot.

In memory of some happy days,

To matron and the“Knowes” I

Sing my praise.

M. Carle

Gran died on August 15, 1949 two and a half years after writing this poem. Her death certificate stated Huntington’s Chorea, Bronco-pneumonia as the reason for her death. Gran was only fifty-one years old. Her death came just two and a half months after we arrived in Canada. Did the doctors really know in those days? Huntington’s Chorea is known to be passed on to offspring. My mom therefore, lived her life thinking she would probably not live much beyond fifty years old. Mom’s dad had had a stroke and lay paralyzed as she visited to say good-bye. He too, by coincidence, was fifty-one years old when he passed away nine months after we immigrated to Canada. How heart wrenching for her to have to leave both parents in such a state. The world was a much larger place, in those days, and the thought that you might be able to afford to fly back for visits never occurred. Women’s place was with their husbands and there was no turning back. Mom received the news of her mother’s death in a letter she opened after boarding a bus in Edmonton with children in tow. I don’t recall when she received word of her dad’s death– some months later. This time in her life must have been very difficult and maybe mom had more strength and confidence than I gave her credit for.

Dad did what he could to earn a living, working at whatever jobs he could get. Our small tarpaper-covered shack was heated by a kitchen oil stove and some kind of a pot bellied affair in the front room The two bedrooms at the back of the house were not heated and I can remember thick layers of ice on the inside of the window. It seemed my feet would never heat up as I shivered under the blanket in my bunk bed! There was no inside plumbing– mom had a pump in the kitchen to pump water from the water tank down in our dank cellar. And speaking of that cellar– during those freezing winters, it was too cold for us kids to go out to the‘outhouse’, so mom and dad would lift the heavy door to the cellar and we would venture down the wooden stairs to the handy bucket that was kept there for this purpose. I don’t know whose job it was to lift this up those stairs and trek back to the outhouse. I never heard anyone complain…you did what you had to do in those days. As we lived next to an open field I can remember snow drifts so high they reached the top of our swing set. My eyelashes and nose would be white with frost on the way to school. There were no sidewalks or paved streets in Jasper Place where we lived and come spring, when the snow melted, the roads would become gumbo. I’d start off to school, say three and a half feet tall and by the time I got to school, I’d be four feet. One had to stop every once in a while and find a stick and try to scrape the mud off your shoes before you could carry on. But, we children had fun there, running and playing in the vast field beside our home, rafting on the stagnant pool of water which was a magnet for mosquitos. And boy, was there mosquitos. We lasted four years in this harsh climate. My dad was prone to bronchial trouble and cam down with pneumonia and was very ill. The doctor advised my mom to get dad to a warmer climate, or they’d be taking him out in a box. And so, once again, we headed out for new terrain…beautiful British Columbia. Dad had a car by this time and I can remember mom’s nervousness as we went through mountain passes where the road was barely wide enough for two cars and you could look down, way down, as the care inched it’s way past other cars. There was nothing like the super highways we have these day..

We arrived in the lower mainland around June of 1954 and stayed in a cheap motel on Kingsway Street and another on Hastings street in Burnaby, until we found our home on Union Street. Here I lived until I married in 1959. During those years, my parents worked hard…again it was difficult to get started. Mom got a temporary job with the post office during the Christmas season. Dad worked as a Janitor for Woodwards…they did what they could to keep us fed and clothed. There was no help in those days for immigrants starting out. No welfare, unemployment insurance or any other help– you were on your own. When mom was applying for the post office job, she hit it lucky. The gentleman interviewing her, knowing she was an immigrant, took an interest and asked her how she was making out. When she told him how hard it was for her husband to find work in his field– a fitter, he gave her a name of a manager and told her to have dad phone this man at Dominion Bridge. Dad worked for Dominion Bridge from then until 1977 when he was involved in an industrial accident and broke both his heels. It was also about this time that Dominion Bridge was moving their company from Boundary Road, Burnaby to Calgary. Dad opted to retire. During the time dad worked at Dominion Bridge, mom worked for McGavin’s bakery. She became shop steward for the union and operated a large bun packing machine. This was probably one of the worst jobs mom could have worked at as the heat always got to her. But, the money was good and she had four kids to support. I can remember mom coming home with donuts (odd sizes that wouldn’t sell) and us kids dancing around– boy, were those donuts delicious! Yes, mom and dad both worked hard all their lives, but were always glad they had come to Canada and yes, they did enjoy the good life here. They bought a lot on Capital Hill and built their dream home with a beautiful view of downtown Vancouver. The sold their home on Capital Hill in 1978 and moved to, according to Dad,“God’s country”– Penticton. But, Dad was only fifty-nine when he retired and they still had to watch their pennies‘till their pensions kicked in’. They had learned to be frugal and it served them well. They spend many good years heading South in the winter in their camper van for a few months and basking in the sun in Penticton in the summer. And for their offspring– we all managed to survive childhood, the youngest, Jack, serving with the RCMP for twenty five years in Alberta– father of two children. The other brother, Drew (Andrew) becoming quite the expert in restoring old cars, married and had one son. Sister Helen, married had three children, traveled and lived in Japan for a few years. The author, now married, traveled back to Scotland in my early twenties to seek out my roots. After a couple of years of living in Britain and Germany, I settled down in Burnaby and had one daughter, Helen Louise Pearl. As is common today, I married again and gained three step-children, Rick, Christina and Loretta. We’ve now added two more grandchildren to the mix– Rebecca and Olivia. I worked as a sales agent for many years till I retired in 1997.

Dad must have been right to call Penticton,“God’s country” as all three of my siblings have ended up living in Penticton and Naramata! Mom and dad had 7 grandchildren, Andrew, Helen, Jacqueline, Stewart, Suzanne, Jordan and Kimiko and 13 great grandchildren, Christy, Meagan, Jacklyn, Sarah, Lindsey, Graeme, Nathan, Ethan, Jaden, Blake, Noah and Katie. Since mom and dad’s deaths in 2003 and 2005 another little grandchild was born this year– Samual, and so the circle of life goes on. We children of immigrants learned to be frugal, to be independent and not to be afraid of hard work– and it was certainly past on to us to love Canada and to appreciate all that we have in this country.