While many grandparents tell their tales of being evacuated to the British countryside during the Second World War there were a handful of children and teenagers such as Marion Cropley, who were sent overseas to Canada until the later years of the war when the Atlantic became too dangerous for such crossings. These children often experienced very different lives in Canada compared to their British counterparts, this was particularly obvious during the Christmas season. With rationing on the home front, families often resorted to crafting presents as the production of luxury items was put on hold, as many materials were used for the war effort. In Canada however, while the effects of the war were still felt and countless young men were conscripted, the economy was relatively stable. The evacuated young people obviously pined and worried for their families back at home, many including Marion, who had settled within walking distance of Niagara Falls, discovered that they could enjoy Christmas with much of the shadow of war gone. Much of this is evident in Marion’s diaries which fortunately she thought valuable enough to preserve. Today they are available to read in the Norfolk Record Office (NRO).
It is obvious that Marion was well loved and she received many gifts and trinkets from her family at home and by her adoptive family in Canada, often outside the holiday season. Her foster family, the Excells even bought her a kitten upon her arrival. When she was not at school or work she and her friends would often swim, eat ice cream, go to the cinema, dance or spend time with the Canadian troops stationed on home duty. Although she spent most of her time having fun and indulging in various pleasures and pursuits, Marion kept track of events back in Norwich. Her mother often had to reassure her when she saw the newspaper articles. In her Canadian neighbourhood too, citizens became anxious as news reports of husbands and sons being killed or going missing began to emerge. The war was ever prevalent in Canadian society and when America joined the war this was further reinforced when Marion could often see at her local station, trainloads of American troops, black and white passing through the country by rail. Even when Marion frequented the cinema she could not avoid being reminded of the current conflict, especially as in one peculiar diary entry she mentions viewing ‘Der Fuhrer’s Face’, one of Walt Disney’s now infamous World War II propaganda shorts involving Donald Duck being forced to work in a world seemingly made up of nothing but swastikas. But perhaps most iconic of all, Winston Churchill himself made an appearance on his Niagara Falls visit. Marion describes crowds of people and great excitement as the British Prime Minister held up his iconic ‘V’ for victory gesture.
Despite the constant reminders of events unfolding across the Atlantic, she and her friends tried to find solace in the month of December. After taking many winter exams she must have felt some relief singing carols in the school auditorium and putting up Christmas trees. She helped her friend Eleanor decorate her tree before the Excells got their own which was was apparently so tall that the top had to be cut off just to fit inside. As Marion collected presents and cards from her new found friends and family the world of film also seemed to embrace the Christmas spirit as Marion and her school went to the ‘Hollywood’ cinema to see ‘The Christmas Carol’. Like countless teenage girls today, one of the first things that came to the mind of Marion was Christmas shopping. In December 1940, her first Christmas spent in Canada, Marion and her friend Betty had spent much time buying, posting, writing cards and wrapping up presents. On 23 December she made sure to do her fair share of last minute Christmas shopping to get more things for the tree. When she got home she became excited when all the lights came on, something that would have been unthinkable back in Norwich with the blackout. On the 24th she spent ‘all morning’ making a star for the tree before going over to Betty’s place and making plans for a party. When Christmas arrived Marion talks about the visit of the Excells’ friends, Mr and Mrs Carpenter before walking over to see Esther Van Garder and calling at the farm. On a busy day like Christmas she also helped ‘auntie’ with the housework. On Boxing Day she met a neighbour Marion Cudmore as well as Uncle Billy who apparently had another Norwich girl in his care, Olive Harris. The two seemed to get along quite well, probably because they could strongly relate to each other’s situations, they played games and slept in the same room.
From her late teens onwards, every December Marion would devote much of her time to Christmas shopping, mostly buying cosmetics and clothes for her friends and family. She seemed particularly pleased when her mother gifted her with a kilt, as she happily posed dressed in it for a photograph.
These first hand accounts prove that even in one of the darkest periods of history, Marion and others like her were able to find solace around the month of December. Despite the constant reminders of the war surrounding her, Marion could indulge in the Christmas period as she pleased and her adoptive family would always make sure to make the most of the Christmas festivities within their steadfast Canadian community.
Rebecca, NRO Volunteer