Even before the Second World War had been formally declared between Britain and Germany, tens of thousands of children were being evacuated from England’s cities – prime targets for an expected German aerial bombardment – and sent to smaller towns and villages in the English countryside where they would be safer.
Britain’s dominions, including Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa, quickly offered shelter for evacuated children. In May 1940, the British government established the Children’s Overseas Reception Board to help families get their children out of Britain. Over 200,000 applications were received before the end of July.
The German U-Boats were taking a heavy toll on British shipping in the Atlantic, and there were simply not enough ships available to evacuate so many children. A very strict selection process quickly pared down the numbers. Ultimately, only about 3,000 children were evacuated through the CORB. The first child evacuee ship, Anselm, left England on 21 July 1940; eighteen others soon followed.
Among the children on these ships were Ron and John Hart, who arrived in Creston on 6 September 1940.
Written by Brian Bell and originally published in I Love Creston magazine, October 2011. Reprinted with permission
There’s familiarity, and there’s affection, and then there is pure, unadulterated love. The latter inspired an English octogenarian to maintain childhood ties to this Kootenay town over the span of seven decades and one ocean.
When John Hart says, “I love Creston,” he really means it.
He’s hardly alone in that regard, but his circumstances are certainly unique. Hart fled to Canada from England early in the Second World War to escape a suspected Nazi invasion, one of thousands of evacuees known as “British guest children” dispersed throughout the Commonwealth countries of Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and – in the case of 7,000 youngsters – Canada.
The vast majority were placed in foster care by the Children’s Overseas Reception Board but, in the case of then-nine-year-old Hart and brother Ron, 11, they had relatives with whom to stay – Auntie Grace and Uncle Alvin Millin and their son Louis, 15, who lived in Creston.
What was a fearful passage across the Atlantic and into the unknown for many children was, for the Harts, an adventure, a chance to meet some kin and escape the bombing in Middlesborough. Most families believed it would only be a matter of months before they’d be reunited, not the five years it turned out to be.
They would be five of the best years of Hart’s long life, during which he quickly bonded with the Millins, his classmates and the community at large.
A subscription to a cheap long-distance plan a couple of years ago prompted Hart to renew acquaintances by telephone with as many old school chums as he could track down, including one who still lives here, Gerry Ostendorf. She began sending him copies of I Love Creston magazine which he devoured, sparking an insatiable nostalgia for the place.
“It was quite an unusual but very good title for a small-town magazine, or for any magazine: I Love Creston,” says Hart from across the pond. “I have extremely good memories of Creston. I can remember some of the things from the 1940s better than from more recent years.
“It was an impressionable time, I suppose.”
Indeed it was. Middlesborough was one of the first places bombed. Hart experienced air-raid sirens, strict blackouts, gas masks, explosions and the terrifying drone of Nazi aircraft.
“Ron and I were quite resigned to leave, believing and hoping that the war wouldn’t be too long,” says Hart, whose father’s sister, Grace, had met and married a Canadian soldier, Alvin, in England during the First World War.
The Hart brothers left England in August 1940 on the SS Antonia as part of a convoy of passenger ships and military escorts, including an aircraft carrier. They entered Canada eight days later via Pier 21, the historic Halifax gateway, and were among 30 children destined for a five-day train trip to Vancouver.“The Prairie provinces seemed to go on forever,” says Hart, who received vaccinations on the West Coast before being sent inland to Creston. “Everything seemed big. The trains were big; the cars were big; the trucks were big. Ron and I felt so conspicuous in our short, grey trousers and with our Yorkshire accents.”
Ostendorf remembers the freckled, red-haired Hart making a smooth transition after arriving to begin Grade 4.
“I don’t think he wore those short pants for very long,” she says with a laugh. “I can sort of picture him like that, but he was just very much accepted in the class. He wasn’t shy but he wasn’t somebody who pushed himself forward either.”
Hart kept up his grades, played in the school band, joined cousin Louis in the air cadets and grew to love Canadian sports.
“After playing cricket and football (in England) we took to softball, basketball, ice hockey and lacrosse,” says Hart, who also liked the thrill of sliding in his pal Des Hester’s home-made bobsleigh, now on display at the Creston Museum.
He earned pocket cash picking fruit and mowing lawns, and helped out around the house by tending to the kindling wood and the garden, bundling and selling asparagus. In October 1944 he won a special prize for his entry in the Creston Lions Club’s Victory Garden contest: $2 in war saving stamps.
Peanut butter, hotdogs, waffles, maple syrup, Coca-Cola and Lifesavers were among the novelties that won over his tastebuds.
“Auntie Grace and Uncle Alvin did a good job in caring for us,” he says. “Uncle Alvin was very popular. He was often called Shorty by his friends. I remember once calling him Uncle Shorty – but only once.
“We lived for the first two years at the telephone exchange. Uncle Alvin was the manager of the Kootenay Telephone Company. Auntie Grace looked after the switchboard at night.
“In 1942 we moved from the telephone exchange to what is now Ninth Avenue, opposite Creston Valley High School [now Adam Robertson Elementary School].
“We didn’t find it difficult adjusting to school. School in Creston didn’t seem to have tough discipline. The teachers didn’t need to be heavy-handed. There was always a positive relationship between the teacher and the students.”
Free time was spent with his best buddies, Bob Rogers (who still lives in West Creston) and Stan MacDonald. Hart and Rogers skated on a slough on the flats, while Hart and MacDonald enjoyed hiking.
“We bought 12 pigeons together and often went up Goat Mountain and released them with messages informing his mom when we were coming home,” Hart says.
He also recalls overnighting at Camp Koolaree, on Kootenay Lake near Nelson, and watching movies at the Grand and Tivoli theatres in Creston.
And then there was Craigies’ swimming pool, which Ostendorf describes as “a wonderful old thing” in Erickson.
“Craigies’ was one of the first orchards as you go out of town,” she says. “They had an old dugout pool with a mud bottom and wooden boards up the sides, no lifeguard or anything, kind of a little diving board. Any kid that wanted to come could go in there.”
“I learned to swim in Craigies’ pool,” Hart says. “The boys changed on one side of the pool and the girls on the other side. I was scared stiff of the great-sized dragonflies but managed to learn to swim by the aid of a log.”
If it sounds a tad idyllic, it was, despite the atrocities occurring across the Atlantic. Homesickness was warded off by keeping busy – that and weekly letters John and Ron exchanged with their mother, Elsie.
Their father, Richard, was a major in the British army and Hart “always kept in touch with what was happening in the war – both in Europe and the Pacific. When it seemed that the war in Europe was nearing the end we left Creston, which was in April 1945. We had a marvelous farewell at school.”
“It was a big party, Ostendorf says. “They had a dance and a band.”
Hart, she recalls, found it hard to leave.
“He didn’t want to go back to England,” she says. “Of course they wanted to get home to see their mom and dad but I think they wanted their mother and dad to move to Canada.”
It might have been a safer bet as two ships in the convoy carrying the boys to Liverpool from New York were sunk by German U-boats.
“It was a most frightening experience,” says Hart, who found the adjustment to life back in the U.K. tougher than being evacuated to Canada in the first place.
His parents enrolled the boys in a grammar school in Blackpool, where they had relocated.
“It was so different to Creston Valley High School,” Hart said. “There was very strict discipline. We had to get used to rationing. I spent a fair share of time queuing in the local grocer’s shop. We seemed to have to queue for everything. It was a time of austerity and the country was slowly recovering from the bomb damage and upheaval.”
“He said that everything was so regimented,” Ostendorf says, “where everything was so free to make your own choices over here. That’s what he liked about it.
“John said, ‘We were back to the short pants and the knee socks and it was just like an army drill.’ If you talked you got cuffed, that sort of thing.”
Ron quit school within weeks but John stuck it out, eventually joining the Royal Air Force as a radar mechanic and pilot before bouncing around diverse jobs with insurance, chocolate, automobile and paper companies.
To his secular jobs Hart added another vocation in 1960, one that would last formally until 2007 when his wife Peggy died but in which he is still active part time. His Creston family, as it turns out, nurtured him spiritually at the same time they harboured him physically.
“Auntie Grace thought it was good to encourage Ron and me to go to the Anglican Church. We were both confirmed there,” Hart says. “Little did I realize that this was the beginning of my Christian faith. Five years later I came to realize what Christianity was all about.
“I became a pastor in an Assemblies of God church and retired 47 years later.”
Hart credits the power of prayer with his surviving a bout of bladder cancer in 1971, and now he’s approaching his 81st birthday.
As for the Millins, they moved to Vancouver in the late 1950s. Louis, meanwhile, visited Hart in England about five years ago, a couple of years before he died.
Hart, who has two daughters and a son, never made it back to Canada, though his brother attended a high school reunion in Creston in 1989.
His fond memories remain fresh, however. Why does he love Creston so? Let him count the ways: for its scenic beauty; the friendliness of its people; the students, teachers and activities of Creston Valley High School; skating, skiing, sleigh riding and playing basketball in winter; playing softball and swimming in Kootenay Lake in the summer; and, the carnival at apple blossom time. Oh, and his friends.
“He’s the type of person,” Ostendorf says, “(that) if he made friends with you, you were friends forever.”