Ryan Taylor Remember the war brides, too
War brides


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By Ryan Taylor

"Overpaid, oversexed and over here." That's how American soldiers in World War II were described when they were stationed in Britain.

Plenty of Canadians were there too, and they may have had a similar reputation. At any rate, romance was in the air. Plenty of soldiers married in Britain.

After the war, about 75,000 British women who had married foreign soldiers left for Canada, the U.S., Australia and New Zealand. It is surprising to learn that the greatest number went to Canada.

They left from the traditional emigrant ports -- Southampton, Liverpool, Glasgow and Belfast. Most were processed through a military camp, then crammed onto crowded ships. It may have seemed glamorous to be crossing the Atlantic on the Queen Mary, but it still was outfitted as a troop ship. It took 2000 women and children at a time, and the emphasis was not on comfort. Many war brides crossed on smaller ships which were also less sturdy and more smelly.

For many of the young women, separated from both family and husband, it was a time for fear, and perhaps regret. The whole process was neither as pretty or as much fun as Cary Grant's experiences in the postwar film I Was a Male War Bride.

Within a year, officialdom had sent all the thousands of women to their new homes. One source says the Canadian defence department "went about organizing the movement of war brides with the precision of a D-Day assault."

If you have a war bride in your family, are there records in Britain which might tell you something about her?

The English departure records are held at The National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) at Kew in suburban London.

They are in their original state -- not microfilmed or indexed. There aren't even any finding aids. Searching in them is a throwback to the old days of genealogy, when all a researcher could do was sit down with the documents and plod through them.

The best bet is to see if the bride or her family have any indication when she sailed and the name of the ship. That will help in narrowing down which file to use at TNA.

The good news is that once you find an individual file, it's a goldmine of information for Canadian and American brides. As well as name, age and address of the woman, her husband's service details are given, and information about any children. There may even be marginal notations, often the genealogist's most sought item.

Keep in mind these records are for brides who departed from Britain only. There were many European brides from other countries, and records of their departures from continental ports are not known to exist. Some brides were brought from the continent to Britain and shipped home from there, in which case there will be departure records, but don't expect to find any record of their trip from their home to England.

At this end, there is an extensive website at www.canadianwarbrides.com, which provides information about the brides and tries to link up old friends who've lost touch. It also has a list of provincial war brides associations. Every province but PEI has one.

There are also books about the war brides' experiences. One of the best is We came from over the sea: British war brides in Newfoundland, edited by Barbara B. Barrett (1996).

As Remembrance Day approaches, we will be thinking of all those whose lives were affected by the wars of the last century. There may be a war bride in your neighbourhood -- ask her about her experiences. It's a side of World War II you may not have considered before.

Posted November 6, 2004
Column copyright © 2004 Ryan Taylor

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