Leaving Liverpool: 1937

Patricia Skidmore

By Patricia Skidmore

image008From the 17th century until 1974, the British empire deemed some families too poor to look after their own children, seized hundreds of thousands of those children, and shipped them to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, and Canada as “white stock” and cheap labour for the colonies. Between 1883 and 1948, Britain shipped over 118,000 children to Canada. Marjorie Arnison was one of those children. Her daughter, Patricia Skidmore, tells her story in Marjorie: Too Afraid to Cry (Dundurn, 2012). This excerpt recounts the day Marjorie left Liverpool for Canada, September 10, 1937:


Marjorie stopped halfway up the gangplank, put her suitcase down, and looked up towards the deck. A puzzled expression crossed her brow. She glanced back down at the dock but saw nothing to explain what caught her attention, so she hurried to catch up with Kenny. They both marvelled at the size of the ship. Being this close filled them with awe.

Kenny’s excitement left him almost speechless as he pointed out to Marjorie the flags flying at the bow and the stern of the ship and the two large smokestacks. He told her that he saw the name — Duchess of Atholl. He wondered if they would allow him to explore all over the ship, especially the engine room. He hurried his sister, wanting to get up on deck as quickly as possible.

Marjorie Arnison, Pat's mother, 1937, BurminghamMarjorie was about to ask him how he could get so excited about exploring the ship’s engine, when the strange sound caught her attention again. Kenny kept going, his suitcase weighing him down, but she stopped to look around and tracked the sound to a group of people huddled on the deck of the ship near the top of the gangplank. A little girl was crying. Crying was a normal sound, but the sound that she heard was different — all mixed up with the regular cry. Something was seriously wrong.

As she neared the top, she could see that part of the commotion was coming from a very distressed woman, who was pulling at a little girl. Marjorie recognized the girl as one who had come from the Middlemore Home with her. The two younger chaperones were trying to bring the situation under control. Marjorie watched, horrified as one of them held the girl while the other pried the woman’s fingers from the little girl’s arm. When the woman fell backwards onto the railing, one of the chaperones quickly headed for the cabin with the child, while the other stayed behind. The sobbing woman stood motionless for a long moment, then screamed that she wanted her daughter, and begged them not to take her away to Canada. The chaperone reminded her that the Fairbridge Society now had guardianship over the girl and that nothing could be done about it. As she walked away from the distraught mother, she told her it was time to leave the ship. Marjorie jumped aside as the mother stumbled past her, her wails growing louder as she neared the bottom of the gangplank.

Duchess of Atholl, ship, cropMarjorie reached the boat deck, but, instead of finding her group, walked towards the bow, put her suitcase down, and stood as if glued at the railing. The little girl’s mother yelled out her daughter’s name one last time, then a strange quietness enveloped her. Marjorie kept her eyes on the dock, fascinated by the slumped figure. There were people everywhere, waving on the docks, climbing the plank, pushing carts, but to Marjorie there were only two — herself and the woman whose grief seemed to match her own.

Marjorie sat on her suitcase, and stayed by the railing for a long time, just watching. The last of the travellers arrived and seamen hauled the gangplank aboard, but the mother didn’t move. Men on the dock untied the huge lines, while others pulled the ropes aboard, dripping with water, and coiled them neatly on the deck. Marjorie stayed, spellbound by the mother’s misery.

Marjorie in 2012 with her story in print

Did her own mum miss her? She had not seen or heard from her since she left Whitley Bay. Did her mum know what was happening? No! How could she know? She would not have sent them away if she knew they were going to take them to Canada. Still, it was Joyce and Audrey that she needed the most right now. She was used to being away from her mum. It was not fair that they allowed Joyce to stay in England. But they said that Audrey would come to Canada one day. Joyce would probably get to go back home. As quickly as they surfaced, she forced her memories out of her mind. She had to. It was fast becoming her survival mechanism. She had to forget. Remembering hurt too much. Marjorie stood up and leaned over the railing and imagined her tears dripping into the water. Maybe they would reach the beach at Whitley Bay.



Patricia Skidmore lives in Port Moody, BC, near her childhood home. She is writing a sequel to this story as well as a book about her own experiences raising a family. Marjorie: Too Afraid to Cry is available here