By Sue Tiffin
It was 75 years ago that Betty Inglis, along with her four-month-old daughter, Heather, boarded a ship out of Liverpool bound for Canada. The long-awaited journey would take them from Nairn, in the north of Scotland by train to Glasgow and Liverpool, then by ship to Halifax, by train to Belleville and the next day, to Haliburton County. In total, it would take almost two weeks, but after they arrived they would meet Betty’s husband Jim, and life after the war would begin.
“We came to Haliburton and we lived happily ever since,” she said.
Betty will be 100 next May, and laughs about hiding under her bed to avoid the spotlight when that time comes. Through the same daughter she brought solo as she immigrated to Canada, Betty reached out to the Minden Times from her home at Hyland Crest to share her experience as one of Haliburton County’s war brides – a term used for women who married Canadian servicemen overseas, before immigrating to Canada. After the Second World War there were approximately 48,000 war brides. A photo Betty has from 1996 shows a group of women – also war brides who settled in the area – celebrating their 50th year since landing in the country. Now, Betty might be the county’s last surviving member of that group, and though she says she is a private person, her story – similar to that of so many others – is one to share.
Betty grew up near Inverness in Scotland, out of the town in the country – a few miles out.
She was about 16 and finishing her last year of high school when the war started. When the war broke out, she said, you absolutely noticed a difference in life before and after.
“Oh, you certainly did,” she said. “One day, the headlines of the paper, the Express, were, ‘There will be NO WAR.’ The next day, it was, war had been declared. That was on the last day of August, ‘39.”
As any teenager, Betty had ideas of what she wanted to do with her life at that point, but the war disrupted those plans.
“Once the war started, everybody had to do something pertaining to the war,” she said. “Unless you had a specific job, say, maybe in a bank or something like that. If you didn’t volunteer, you were called up anyway.”
Betty’s father had a farm, so she and her sister helped him there, for awhile.
“I mean somebody had to do something to help,” she said.
Her brother, who was 17 at the time, had gone off to war in France, as well as a cousin.
“They were very, very young,” she said. “It would be weeks before we would hear from them, and we didn’t know if they were dead or not. And my brother survived, and so did my cousin. One was a pilot, another was a sergeant in one of the regiments, the Seaforth Highlanders.”
Betty said it was a time that is hard to explain now, to those who didn’t live through it.
“Things were very bad, because we didn’t get any communication of any kind,” she said. “There was no such thing as news of the war on the radio at night or anything like that. And then we had five years of the blackout, where we had no electricity – we had electricity but you couldn’t use it, you know. Oh yeah, the blackout was a terrible time, really because no matter … wait until I find a way to explain it … wherever you went, you had to have a little flashlight that had to be shone on the ground, not up. That was the only thing you had, that’s it. You went into a store or a shop of any kind. They had great big thick curtains, and you went in one curtain and out the other, and with no light being shone, from the bulbs above.”
Betty and her sister were interviewed by the government, and it was deemed necessary they join the service.
“We went to a hospital in Inverness which was heavily crowded with people from the south who were evacuated because of the bombing every night,” she said. “So we were there for a few years. It was really psychiatric nursing. We took our exams. It didn’t mean much to us – it meant a lot to us, but it wasn’t like today when people graduate and all.”
Betty said she and her sister wanted to stay close to home.
“We were afraid to go to well, to Glasgow, or London, we really were. So we chose Inverness, which we thought was safe … There were always planes overhead. But we never ever knew, we didn’t know if it was enemy or what, most of the time. We weren’t living where there was heavy bombing and you had to go underground, and all that.”
While Betty said she realizes it was a terrible time in other places, like London, there wasn’t anything she could do to help.
“You couldn’t travel, you couldn’t do anything,” she said.
In Inverness, Betty and her sister lived in residence at the hospital. They did get home on the odd weekend.
“There were buses, but when you got on the bus, it was so dark, and everybody had to put down the blinds,” said Betty. “No light was shining anywhere, so I just don’t even like talking about it.”
At that time, gas masks were mandatory.
“We all carried gas masks,” she said. “And you dare not go outside without your gas mask or you’re probably put in jail for the night or something. It was so different from the little masks people wear here now. This gas mask thing was huge, a great big metal box that you hung over your shoulder or what not.”
Despite the hardship, Betty remembers that others might have had it worse.
“But you know, everyone was in the same boat,” she said. “Your neighbours were, we were all alike. We were on rations. We were in the country, you could always go to a farmer’s field or our own and get something. I often think of those times. We were never – there were people who were hungry, who lived in the cities, because after all if you only got two ounces of something to do you a whole week … no idea what it was like … There were other families just as young, and they were doing the same thing, and kept wondering when would this war be over with? It wasn’t that long, it was five years, it wasn’t 20 years.”
Though her memory of that time is perfectly clear, there are gaps for Betty when times were hardest.
“In the hospital was a very trying time, it didn’t have nearly enough staff, oh no, that was way difficult,” recalls Betty. “In fact, I don’t remember that much about it, really.”
And at times there was relief from the stress and sorrow, pockets of happiness to combat the grief, and those times led Betty to find Jim.
“We would have joy at night, card games and we would get to go to dances in halls that were lit with candles inside, and no windows,” she said. “It was very primitive, there wasn’t a band or anything like that. Soldiers came in. It was just a normal thing to do really, we would go for a few hours, from 9 to 11 or so, and then you had to be home or your place of employment or something.”
Yes, Betty agreed, it was love at first sight when she spotted James Inglis, a corporal in the Canadian Forestry Corps, in 1944 at a darkened dance in Inverness. He was from the village of Haliburton.
“I hadn’t gone with anybody else,” she said. “He just seemed to have what it takes. And he was very well-liked here, because people used to tell me that. I was always glad of that. Oh well, I took him home, and they just immediately – especially my mother, my mother fell in love with him. She just thought he was great. My father wasn’t such a friendly-type person, but he took to my husband like fish to water. No bother. No bother at all.”
It was a quick romance said Betty – the pair met in February and got married in October in the same year.
“It was a very simple little wedding,” she said. “There was just the four of us there, and the minister of course. Well, how could you have anything else, because food was all rationed. And even clothing, I mean, you’re lucky if you got a dress from your cousin or your aunt or something. I mean a white dress. But I didn’t get anything like that, I just had a pink suit. I had hats and gloves and shoes to match. I had to get coupons for the clothes from neighbours or anyone who wanted to give me a few, I gave them a little money for that, because we had coupons for our clothing. I mean, if you bought a coat, you wouldn’t buy anything else that year, that was enough. So my clothing was very scarce, but I managed to get togged up for Sunday with a big fancy hat on my head.”
Betty remembers where she was when she heard the war would be ending.
“I do remember to this day. I was in a little town, a little village, called Nairn,” she said. “And then, it just came over a loudspeaker or something on the street. That the war was over. And everybody, people couldn’t believe it. Pub doors were open and people were going wild. I remember that very well.”
With the war over, there was hope in sight for the life Betty wanted, which included a home in Canada.
“When the war was over, Jim went, well, wherever the regiment was going – I don’t remember that bit,” said Betty. “But he phoned or somehow or other got in touch with me to tell me they were all leaving and I would be coming in a short time, so I was quite happy about that. I found out that was not the case, because I was pregnant, I was either four or five months, and I wasn’t allowed to travel. That was the biggest disappointment for me, because I was longing to get going, and then I didn’t get going for another 11 months afterwards. But then it all turned out in the end.”
Post-war, the Canadian government helped transport the war brides, their children, and also “male war brides” to Canada.
“I remember a lady from Ottawa talked to us war brides at a meeting in Inverness, she was giving us pointers about what to do and what not to do,” said Betty. “She said, don’t ever say, ‘oh, back home we did this,’ or ‘back home we did that.’ She said, people get sick of that. And you know that was very, very good advice, it really was. So when I came to Haliburton, I decided that I loved everything, even if I didn’t.”
It was May of 1946 when Betty and her baby travelled from Nairn to Haliburton County, travelling by government-arranged transport with other war brides.
“It was a little different because I had a four-month-old baby under my arm and I had to look after that child,” said Betty. “That was the big thing. And then when we did get onboard ship, I didn’t find it was a hardship because there so many young women who didn’t have any family, and they were happy to help me with mine.”
The ship – the Letitia, a French hospital ship – spent 10 days at sea, said Betty.
“But the ship was anything but modern, not like the ocean liners today,” she said. “But anyway, it was quite pleasant really, other than very rough seas at time. We finally arrived in Halifax. It’s a long time to be 10 days on the ocean, and not seeing anything. You don’t see a house or anything. You come to land and you get a funny feeling.”
Some girls from the ship were going as far as British Columbia, or to Montreal, or other places throughout the country.
“One girl got off in, I didn’t know this – I just read this afterwards – she got off in Calgary, or it was Edmonton, and she went to her husband’s parents house by sleigh,” laughed Betty. “The snow was so high, and she was from London – she’d never seen snow in her life. I didn’t have any experience like that.”
Instead, she reunited with Jim in Belleville, the first time she’d seen him in almost a year, and the first time he’d met his baby.
“He was more interested in the baby than in me,” said Betty. And then, laughing: “I always say that – it’s not true, but never mind. He was thrilled to death with the baby.”
The reunion was as sweet as she expected.
“It was really nice, I can’t tell you exactly, but I was very happy,” she said. “Happy and felt safe because I was alone for two weeks traveling with a little child, and when the war was over, that and many other things could have happened – accidents or things like that – but nothing happened.”
Betty and Jim settled into life in Haliburton, having four children, with three surviving. Betty raised the kids until the last one went to school, and then she went to work at the grocery store in town for many years, and then at a clothing store until she reached retirement age. Jim wanted to stay close to his family, so got a job with the municipality until retirement.
In the meantime, Betty met up with the other war brides in the area, who came from West Guilford, Eagle Lake, Wilberforce and Minden. Betty said they wanted to associate with each other – but they all lived happily amongst the locals, too, Betty noting, “I felt like the Queen sometimes, they were so good to me.”
Her experience is similar to so many others, leading to a fresh start at life after years of living through conflict.
“We just came from another country to this country, and things were good for us, really, compared to what we went through for five years,” she said. “I have no regrets about anything like that. My husband is gone now, of course, but we had a happy life in Haliburton.”
To learn more about Haliburton County’s war brides, see History in the Highlands in the Nov. 3 edition of the Minden Times.