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The Immigration Story of the Marshall Family (British Immigrants)

The Museum reviews and accepts donated personal or family memories and histories into its collection. As a learning institution, the accounts help us understand how individuals recollect, interpret, or construct meaning from lived experiences. The stories are not modified by Museum staff. The point of view expressed is that of the author and not that of the Museum.

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In 1952, Les Marshall was a bus driver in Liverpool, England. He loved his job and often drove the number 86 bus along Penny Lane, a street later made famous by the Beatles. He earned three pound a week which didn’t go far enough and sometimes the family ran out of coal for the fire or lived on jam butties (sandwiches) for a few days. Les had married Nora Henry in December 1939 and then gone off to war as a ground gunner in the Royal Air Force a couple of weeks later.
Their first child Nora Patricia (Pat) was born in November 1944. Nora lost a second baby then had no more. As well as a lack of money, food was rationed after the war and the doctor told her that she was undernourished and would probably not conceive again.
One day in 1952, Les’ twin brother, Fred, came up from Leicester for a visit and talked about the possibility of emigrating to Australia or Canada and getting rich. He went home but the idea germinated in Nora’s head. Nora looked at the map and decided that Australia was just too far away so Canada would be a better choice. She started her campaign: “Ooh Les, just think, we could go to Canada for seven years and come back and live like lords! Every day Les heard her repeat her wish, her dream. He didn’t want to leave his job and explained that in a few years if he kept his good driving record he could be made an inspector on the buses and get higher wages.
Nora insisted and nagged him constantly. In 1953, Canadian Immigration were campaigning in England. Inviting people to consider emigration to Canada. “God lumme”, Les said, “they make it sound like the streets are paved with gold.” He was not convinced. Nora kept at him. Pat, being 8 years old was ready for adventure and wanted to see the Indians that she had learned about in school and so sided with her mother on the issue.
In the end they won. Les finally agreed when he found out that the Liverpool Passenger Transport Corporation would keep his job open for three months, so if he returned within that period he would get his job back with no penalties.
So off the little family went for an interview with the Canadian officials. There was quite a line-up and a large picture of the Queen looking down as it wended its way down the hall. The Marshall’s were accepted pending medical exams. Everyone had to show the vaccination marks on their arms. Pat, who had been vaccinated under her foot (the doctor hadn’t wanted to disfigure a little girl’s arm), had to remove her sock and shoe and show her scar as well. Les and Nora had chest x-rays and then waited. Finally, the all-clear was given and preparations began for a January 1954 departure. Two large tea crates, wooden boxes lined with thick silver paper arrived and two trunks and suitcases. Pat was allowed to bring her teddy, a couple of dolls and a few books but didn’t complain because she was going to Canada on a big ship, and would see Indians in Canada. Her excitement was almost unbearable. Christmas came and went. Les lit candles on the tree on Christmas Eve and because he had black hair, did the first-footing for the neighbours after midnight on New Years Eve. (He took small pieces of coal to the front door of each house to give to the residents and was the first one to step over the threshold. This was meant to bring good luck for the year because it prevented a redhead from being the first one through the door which would bring bad luck.)
The January departure was imminent. Les and Nora said good-bye to all the family members and friends and Pat to her classmates who were mad jealous of the adventure she was going on. Going to Canader (as it was pronounced in Liverpool) was quite a status symbol! A few days before sailing the family moved out of the little terraced house on Gloucester Road which had been sold and rented rooms in a neighbour’s house. Then, horror of horrors, a letter arrived from the Canadian Immigration Department, informing Les that they had found a shadow on his x-ray and he had to have another x-ray and so could not depart on the given day. The neighbours agreed to continue renting the rooms and poor Pat had to go back to school, only to be teased.: “You said you were going to Canader!”
The shadow turned out to be just that, a shadow and not TB and the departure was rescheduled for February 19th, 1954 from Southampton as there was no ship leaving Liverpool that day. How odd to take a boat-train to the other end of the county to get the ship when Liverpool was one of the biggest sea ports in the world! It was February 19th, 1954. The R.M.S. Samaria was there in her berth. The adventure had begun.

The Journey

Three people walking up the gangplank: Les, melancholy leaving his mother and brothers, his friends on the buses and his beloved Liverpool behind, Nora optimistic: her friend, Winnie, whom she had worked with in the censor office during the war and who had already emigrated to Canada said that she would put them up in her house in Toronto and so they would not be alone at the beginning. Pat, so excited to be going on an ocean liner. She had traveled on buses and trains and a couple of times in Uncle Tommy’s car but this was the grandest moment of her life to date. She cuddled Teddy, her constant companion and whispered in his ear,” we are really going to sail to Canada on this big ship”. Being an only child, she only had Teddy to share all her joys and sorrows. The little family was shown to their Cabin B96. It was small with bunk beds, a sink and mirror. There was no porthole as it was on the lower deck.
After lunch they went up on deck to watch Southampton fade into the distance as the Samaria steamed toward LeHavre to take on more passengers. During the night the ship departed and headed out to sea.
Little Pat was in heaven. The meals were delicious. There were beautiful menus so that you knew what was coming. At four in the afternoon they served little iced cakes called fondants and tea. Back home in Liverpool there was never enough money to buy cakes. Her mother made apple pies sometimes but most of the time they had jelly and custard or custard on stewed apple or blanc mange and jelly.
On the third day, a strong wind and rough waves had the boat rocking back and forth. (Ocean liners had no stabilizing fins in those days.) Gale force winds and even rougher seas followed. As the days went on there were fewer and fewer people arriving for meals in the dining room. Nora succumbed to sea sickness and so Les and Pat had their meals in the dining room and brought crackers or toast and tea back for Nora. The waves were mighty and Les took his daughter to the deck at the back of the ship and they would count the seconds as the stern rose into the air and then came crashing down again.
This storm was followed by two very fine days. The ocean was calm and the three of them were strolling along the deck when Les, always a practical joker, took Teddy out of Pat’s arms and held him over the side of the ship. “What would you do if I dropped him?” he asked her. The little girl screamed and sobbed. It was unthinkable. Teddy’s little arm was so thin. It might come loose even if her Daddy didn’t drop him. Auntie Josie had given Teddy to her when she was four years old because she saw her cousins using him as a football and started to cry. Teddy was her best friend and most treasured possession. Nora then intervened: “Oh, stop it Les, give her back her teddy”. Pat took Teddy in her arms and her tears soaked into his little battered face all around his button eyes.
That evening after dinner in an almost full dining room, nearly all the passengers came out on the decks to marvel at the sunset. Golden red clouds made a full circle around the ship. Some people were heard to remark, “Red sky at night, sailors’ delight, red sky in the morning sailors take warning”.
Land! On February 27th Chebucto Head appeared abeam and the Samaria bearing her anxious emigrants docked in the Cunard berth in Halifax.
Why the Marshalls did not disembark at Pier 21 and take the train to Toronto remains a mystery but the trip had been planned that way and they stayed on board as the ship continued its journey. On March 1st, she sailed into New York Harbour, past the statue of Liberty and on to the landing stage. All the remaining passengers passed through the customs hall and then went their different ways. Les had two large and heavy cases. Nora had one and some bags and Pat and Teddy had a tiny case. Les inquired how to get o the train station to take the train to Toronto. He led his little family to a bus stop and they got on with all their cases and went past the driver to the seats. Suddenly the driver shouted, “Hey mister, what do you think you’re doing. You have to pay.” Les explained that in England conductors came around to take the fares and he didn’t realize that you had to pay the driver. Pat was upset that someone had shouted at her Dad. They got off at a large train station and lugged everything inside and Les went off to buy the train tickets. He came back with a worried look on his face and explained that they were at the wrong station and had to get back on a bus to the right one. Finally, exhausted, they found themselves aboard a train that would take them up to Niagara Falls and on to Toronto. It was night, Pat fell asleep immediately. The next day, March 2nd, the train arrived at the Canadian border. Immigration officers came on board and checked papers and gave landing cards which the three of them signed. These were very important cards, the officer explained and best be kept safely in the passport. A few hours later the train arrived at Union Station in Toronto. Pat was wide awake and excited at the prospect of finally seeing the Indians that they had learned about in school. Winnie and Charlie were there to meet them. Pat scoured the station but there were no Indians at all. She felt sad and cheated. The people looked the same as Liverpudlians. What a disappointment.

Life in Canada
Life in Toronto started out differently for each of them. Les approached the Toronto Transit Commission with his certificate of good driving and letter of recommendation from the Liverpool buses. He was told that at age 43 he was too old and so there was no hope of working for the TTC. He was very depressed but plucked up his courage and applied for a variety of jobs. Two weeks later he was working as a maintenance man for Lipton’s tea. His first pay was in cash in a brown pay packet which he put into his back pocket and happily took the bus home. The money they had brought with them had run out because due to the delayed arrival, Winnie and Charlie charged a month’s back rent as well as the current month. He desperately needed his wages. When he got home and put his hand in his back pocket the envelope was missing. “That’s it, Nora. My job in Liverpool is still open for two more months, let’s go back.” Nora replied, “Oh Les, How can we go back with even less than we left with. She continued: Give the country a chance”, words that came back to haunt her for years on end.
Nora then found a job at a Laura Secord’s shop. At first she had trouble giving change in dollars and cents as she was used to pounds, shillings and pence and sometimes would cry when she came home. The staff were told that they could eat as much chocolate as they liked while in the store but were not to take any home. Nora ate nothing all day but then brought some home. Pat’s favourite was Swiss milk chocolate and she would force herself to stay awake until her mother arrived at night.
Pat often cried at night as well. She went to Corpus Christi School and was put in Grade 4 and every time she spoke the other children would laugh and giggle. Her Liverpool accent was a source of great amusement. They would wait until the clock was half past the hour and ask her what time it was and she would say” half three” which left them in stitches. She pronounced hair like her without the ‘r’ and saw like sore. She called her running shoes “pumps” which meant high heels to the other children. She started to try and sound like a Canadian but then her mother would shout at her that it was TORONTO and not Torrona and so on. She excelled at spelling and grammar, being able to parse a sentence with diagrams while her classmates were still calling nouns “naming words” but arithmetic was a huge challenge because she had never learned the decimal system as everything was done in 3 columns: pounds, shillings and pence. She could neither skate nor ride a bike like the others. A popular Canadian girl, Mary-Anne Burt, befriended her and things were looking up. Then tragedy struck. Marry-Anne and her family burned to death when their house went on fire the weekend that Pat was supposed to be there for a sleepover. Despite her whining, her mother had said no, as she’d had never heard of sleepovers in England.
Nora and Les eventually wanted to live on their own and as they were looking at an apartment on Kinston Road, the caretaker of the building told them that the owners of the building next door were looking for a superintendent (caretaker) and if he took the job he would get free rent and a reduced wage. Les had been thinking of becoming a long distance truck driver but Nora wouldn’t hear of it. Lipton’s didn’t pay much and this offer was interesting and so he took the job.
Nora meanwhile became utterly homesick and depressed. She missed her father and her sisters and kept saying that she wanted to go home. Now it was Les who did not want to return, knowing that he would not get back his place on the buses and would have to work his way up again. Nora found that nothing tasted the same. “Bananas don’t taste the same, tomatoes don’t taste like tomatoes. I miss the little shops where they know your name and are friendly. I miss the fireplace” (this despite the fact that NOT having central heating and dealing with the soot and ashes and cold and damp was one of the reasons she wanted to come to Canada in the first place). Her initial optimism vanished and the idea of going home became a fixation. Two years later in 1956, Les received a telegram that his mother had died. He sat and cried. Pat had never her father cry and was devastated more by his sadness than by her Nanny’s death.
In 1960, Nora’s father died and she was desperate to go home for the funeral. Les went to the bank but they wouldn’t lend him the money for the trip. The day of the funeral passed. Nora was a wreck so he redoubled his efforts and asked all the tenants and finally was introduced to a credit union which lent him the money and so Nora took their daughter and went back to Liverpool on the Canadian Pacific ship, the Empress of Britain, to visit the family. The three weeks went by too quickly as they visited all the family and too soon it was time to board the Empress of Britain down at the Albert docks. That night the ship did not sail as planned and the next day all passengers were called to a meeting and informed that the dockers were on strike and as there was no chance of a quick settlement the company was offering two solutions. First passengers could sign up for a flight back the next day on a propeller jet that would refuel at Gander before flying to Toronto or they could get back the fare and find their own way back to Canada. Pat, now 15 and open to all adventures, went up and signed them up for the flight. Nora was panic-stricken, “Glory be to God I don’t want to get on an aeroplane” but seeing that it was the only way, acquiesced. She sent a telegram to her husband giving the date and time of arrival at Toronto airport. The flight was long and Nora was anxious as they had been seated next to the emergency door which she feared would fly open at any moment. She spent most of the flight holding on to the cotton belt of Pat’s dress with one hand and saying the rosary with the other.
Les hoped that the visit would do Nora good and help her to settle in Canada. It only made her worse. Eventually though, she adapted to the Canadian way of life but her goal was always to retire back home and not a day went by that she didn’t mention it.
Pat, meanwhile, was happy to be in Canada. Children adapt quickly and any initial negative experiences had healed. Nora’s parents came from Ireland and being a pious Catholic, she had groomed Pat to become a nun and was very upset when she entered the convent in Montreal instead of Liverpool so that she would be there when they retired back home. After seven years Pat left the convent and was teaching Grade 6 in Toronto. She moved to Ottawa to finish her B.A., married Germain Vezina and they had two children Luc and Stephanie.

Home Again
Finally when Les retired in 1978, they sold all their furniture, left their car with Pat and flew back home. Nora’s dream, however, soon turned into a nightmare. They had been away too long. Liverpool had changed. The family, attentive at first, soon left them on their own. Poor Les who had been a bus driver failed his driving test as he had gotten out of the habit of applying the handbrake every time he stopped. They had trouble finding accommodation as there were no apartment buildings like the ones in Toronto and they ended up living in a retirement home.
Most of all they missed the grandchildren. A little over a year later they started talking about coming back to Canada and contacted the Canadian High Commission in London only to be informed that they would have to re-apply as immigrants because they had lost their permanent residence status after 6 months. They knew that they would never pass the medicals as Nora had had a stroke years before and was found to have an enlarged heart. Pat who had become a Canadian citizen in 1967, (her Centennial Year project) then wrote an impassioned latter to the Canadian authorities, explaining the situation. Nora and Les were called for an interview to a consulate office in Birmingham and told that they had 24 days to get back to Canada. With so little time they paid for all their belongings to be shipped back and arrived in Ottawa shortly before the deadline. The whole undertaking was a financial disaster. One that many immigrants undergo.

In 1960, in order to complete her Masters in Education (Counselling) Pat needed a 400 hour field placement. After one day at a high school she quit on a gut feeling that the school system was not for her. She thought about her mother and how hard a time she had had settling in Canada even though she spoke the language and came from a similar culture and how much harder it was for the South East Asian refugees who were coming at the time (Pat was a member of a sponsor group with Project 4000 and was helping a Cambodian family at the time). This led her to apply and be accepted by the Ottawa Carleton Immigrant Services Organization (OCISO). Following the placement, she was hired as a Settlement worker and Volunteer Coordinator. After 10 years of service, she left OCISO to work with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). Once again, she spent many years supporting refugee resettlement from South-East Asia as well as refugees from other parts of the world.

Pat Marshall
June 5th, 2019