The North Atlantic at its best is unpredictable, but in December it is like a thing possessed of many demons, rendering the air with moans and shrieks as it rolls and leaps to free itself of human contact. Such was the crossing in December 1905 from Liverpool to Halifax. To add to the discomfort of passengers and crew, the ship was on its maiden crossing and it was rumored that the decks were too heavy.
Whatever the cause, Polly was long past caring. Everywhere in the steerage cabin was evidence of vomit. The pile of soiled linen in the corner, the much-used bucket, and Polly herself. Her long auburn hair was tangled and wet, clothing soiled. The women who attended her were not in a much better state, but had done their best. Polly didn’t notice. She no longer asked about the children. She had been worried about Doll who was only three years old, but Winnie was eight and faithful in looking after her little sister. Hector would not heed his older sister, but Polly had been assured that he was fine, roaming around with the resilience of a six-year old, poking into everything and asking questions of the seamen.
As the ship slid down the next big well, Polly only prayed for an end of her 25 years before the horrible ascent brought her insides with it. Even the women talking of the new life in Canada and Dan waiting — nothing mattered to her but thoughts of death and peace.
“What a stench! You should get this cleaned up.” A nurse had been prevailed upon to come down for a quick look around. The medical staff were so busy all over the ship, that there was little time for those below. “See if you can wash this woman a bit. I know that everyone is squeamish just now, but she will feel better for it. Here, girl, take some of this. It will help settle you down.” Polly swallowed the bitter liquid and fell back limply into the stained pillow. “I’ll leave this with you. She can have a teaspoonful again in an hour. I hope this wind lets up soon. If I wasn’t running around after others, I’d be down myself.”
The bitter liquid found Polly’s stomach and she gagged. “Oh, no you don’t,” her new friend, Effie Danhauer cautioned, “Let it be there. It can’t do good, if you don’t keep it down.”
Polly was asleep before the awful shudder and rising of the decks, but her friend was rushing for the bucket.
“When you’ve finished putting the bread to rise, you can be on your way, and take this wee box of fancies to your sister with our regards.” That was all Polly was waiting to hear and she rushed to her room to put on her ‘bit o’ best’, poked her hair under a small hat and dashed down the back stairs. She paused only a second or two to express her thanks to Cook. Closing the kitchen door carefully behind her, she was off through the short cuts that would make the two miles to the Tranmere Chapel as short as possible. The ceremony had started when she slipped up to the back of the small gathering of friends and relatives who were hearing her sister, Winnifred, say her marriage vows. Polly was breathless and flushed. Her hair kept escaping from under the hat, and as she pushed it up, she noticed that her nails were still edged in hardened bread dough. Several heads turned with kindly nods, but from her mother, Eliza, came the usual disapproving glare. Polly worked her way to stand behind her mother and her sisters, Emily and Maude. Winnifred caught sight of her and smiled. Grandmother Turner wagged her head ever so slightly, but looked kindly. And then, the ceremony was over. Winnifred was now the wife of a junior clerk. She was the first of the four girls to marry, although Emily was the oldest. Eliza was reasonably satisfied as George was an only son and would get the house when his widowed mother died, and he had a good chance of going ahead in the firm. Emily would probably get an offer from her widower employer at the dry goods store. Not as good as she had hoped for her daughters, but at least not to be ashamed of. Maude and Polly were still young and there was time to be finding suitable husbands for them.
Eliza became aware of Polly embracing Winnifred. “Let go of her, you look like a ragamuffin!” Eliza always spoke slowly with great emphasis on breathy h’s. She was determined not to slip into the shoddy way in which Lancashire people took liberties with the letter ‘h’.
“Oh Win, y’ look so lovely. I ran all the way when Cook said I could come. I ‘adn’t time to do much wi’ meself.” It was her Grandmother’s hand she felt on her arm. “You go along to the house with Helen here. She will help you freshen up.” At her Grandmother’s house, the maid gave her a scented bowl of warm water in which she scrubbed the dough out of her nails and freshened her face.
“Here, let me take off your hat and brush your hair. You needn’t have it done up today. You are only 15 and can still wear it down at parties.” When the auburn mane was shiny and under control, Helen secured it back with two of Grandmother’s second-best combs. “She said you were to use them today and have fresh stockings.” When the old shoes and stockings were removed, the sight of Polly’s rubbed toes made Helen gasp. “How ever did you get like that?” she exclaimed. “The linings of the shoes are worn ‘n rolled up, `n now the shoes are wet ‘n I “ad a fair way t’ come”… all in one breath. “Why these shoes are a sight and too small for you. I’ll see if I have something that will fit better.”
The transformation took only a short while and Polly joined the small group of well-wishers who were gathering in the parlour. “Poor child, she works in the kitchen over at Seagram’s. She only gets off once a month.” “I dare say she is happier there than with that shrew of a mother of hers.
Eliza sidled over to her third daughter, “Who gave you permission to use my Mother’s combs? And those stockings shoes’ You think: you are at a children’s party with your hair down, do you! You had better bring those shoes of Emily’s back. There’s plenty of good wear in them still. Her voice was low and well-bred as usual, but dripping with disapproval. One listening might even think that she hated the child who looked so much like the husband who had disappointed her and then had the effrontery to die three years earlier. Well, she showed them! She asked nothing of anybody. She would never take help from her younger sister Elizabeth, for all she had a husband who was well up in the bank and her children had had a proper education. Young Frank was in the upper school now. Yes, Eliza was seeing that her girls were suitably placed. The best place for Polly just now was in service. She was too fond of a good time, always laughing. She knew how to get some work done when she had a mind to, Eliza had taught her that, but it irritating to have her around. She’d think of a match for her in a few years. In the meantime, she saw as little of her as possible.
“Oh yes, it was Winnifred’s wish to receive her wedding quests in her Grandmother’s home. My Mother was a Caulfield, you know, and my Father was well -placed in business,” Eliza chatted with her new in-laws. Although Eliza had put Winnifred up to asking Grandmother Turner for the use of her house for the reception, Eliza had insisted on making the bridal outfit. It was a pale blue shantung suit, well-fitted and intricately embroidered. The white silk frills at the neck and sleeves were edged with delicate homemade lace. Eliza was an expert needlewoman and sold her finely made baby layettes at her market stall each Saturday. Now, she looked over Winnifred’s slim frame and noted the fit of her outfit at the shoulders and the finishing at the seams. “Quite acceptable!” Eliza thought, and it was.
In Polly’s memories, nothing could diminish this day for her, because when they went outside to throw rice and wave off the newlyweds, one of the most important things in her life happened. Two young men had stopped across the road and raised their hats in a gesture to the departing carriage. They were both fair-looking, taller by a foot than Polly, nicely dressed in suits and ties for walking out. It was the taller one whose bright blue eyes caught hers. A smile tugged at the corner of his mouth and although he controlled it, his eyes sparkled so that she knew he had seen her. Her cousin, Frank, went across the street to talk to the young men and then returned to bid his farewells to Grandmother Turner and to his mother. Polly grabbed at his arm, “Frank, who’s that?” “A couple of my friends from school, John Watson and his cousin.” “But the taller un, who’s ‘e?” “That’s Dan Bulmer.” – the first time she had heard his name! – Dan Bulmer! “Where’s ‘ e from? “He’s from out Hindpool way, but he’s boarding over on Johnson St. He works at the shipyards.” “’im? ‘e looks like a gentleman.” “He is, he’s a fine musician too. You can hear him at the Salvation Army any Sunday. Goodbye now, I must go, got an appointment.” He walked over to his friends chuckling.
“Frank’ll tell ‘im,” she thought. “I don’t care, let ‘im tell.” She decided then and there that her next Sunday off would be spent at the Salvation Army Citadel.
Polly was seventeen when she married Dan Bulmer. Eliza was reasonably satisfied with Polly’s choice of husband as the Bulmers were well thought of and owned their own house. His father, William, was a roller at the steel mill. The children had been suitably educated and the boys had trades. They all played a musical instrument of some kind and there were lively parties in the house. Dan made good money at Vicars Shipyards and gave music lessons as well.
Young Winnie was born within the first year of their marriage. Those were wonderful times. The young couple had rooms not far from Seagrams and Polly went to work in the kitchen most days and took Winnie in the pram. Dan would go to walk them home and their evenings were spent with loving and planning. He was a quiet, reserved young man in public, but in private they romped and laughed like children. They were so opposite in temperament but so well-suited to complement their natures.
When Hector came along, they got a bigger place and Polly settled in to keep house for her man and growing family. But the Shipyards had fewer and fewer orders. It became ‘cut to a few days a week’ and then a shut down. With so many in the town out of work, it was almost impossible to find any work in the town where so many counted on work at Vicars. Dan’s savings were used up and they went back into two rooms. Polly did a bit of midwifery but soon Doll was on the way. Dan took a job delivering coal. He was strong but exhausted after ten hours carrying heavy sacks on his shoulders. He gave music lessons when he could, but even that fell off. Emigration became a serious topic of conversation. Ever so many were on the move. Dan’s sister, Catherine, was on her way to South Africa where her husband had been offered a job. Frank Helks had married a Yorkshire mill girl, Annie, and they talked of Canada.
General William Booth devised the Salvation Army’s Overseas Plan in which “All colonists and emigrants generally would bind themselves in a legal instrument to repay all monies, expenses and passage, outfit, or otherwise, which would in turn be utilized in sending out further contingents.”
So it was decided that Dan would go to Canada and when he had repaid his fare he would save enough to send for Polly and the children. This meant that they had to move in with Eliza and Maude. Although Eliza said little of her objections to Dan, she made up for it when he was not around. She never got over the Salvation Army wedding and the children’s dedication ceremonies. “We’ve always been C of E,” she repeated to anyone who would listen, although she was inside the church only for baptisms and weddings.
Seeing Dan off to Canada was more heart-wrenching for Polly than when he went to the Boer War. He had gone off then with a trainload of buddies, waving and laughing about what they would do to relieve Ladysmith and he was not gone many months. This separation was for at least two years. Her heart was heavy as she turned her feet toward her mother’s home, knowing full well the tirade she would have to put up with for the time before Dan would send for her.
At first he sent money home, but Polly was anxious to get to Canada as soon as possible and prevailed upon him to put the money toward her fare. She went back to work in Seagram’s kitchen, leaving the children with their grandmother or Auntie Maude. “Goodness knows when they will hear from their father again. Many a man has taken the opportunity to get out from under his responsibilities and it would be just like it for me to have to devote the rest of my life to bringing up these children.” On and on, Eliza would go, pinching this child and pushing the others as she warmed up to her subject. No amount of assurances from Polly could slow her down. When the children went up to bed, their Mother would talk to them about Canada and stay until they were asleep. Tired herself, she would go down to do laundry and prepare their meals for the next day.
At last the notice arrived to say that Dan had saved enough for their fare, and preparations were made for their departure. So much to leave behind and the dear friends and were many stories of savages and wild animals. Dan had written about the city of Toronto with street cars and lights and he had a job at a shipyards.
Polly thought about this while she was packing and tucking away a tea set and a few nice pieces for her new home. Luggage was very restricted so it would be like starting over.
Polly’s mother-in-law, Alice, and her sister known as Auntie P. Brazier, gave the children coats for the journey. Not to be outdone, Eliza had made dresses for the girls and a shirtwaist for Hector. Polly had an old traveling suit of Winnifred’s and a hat from Emily, neither of which fit very well, but as her mother said, “that girl, she doesn’t look good no matter what you put on her.”
Winnifred’s last words whispered in her ear, “think of being with Dan again and your wonderful new home. Then, you won’t be afraid and the trip will pass quickly.”
The ship was rocking gently now, and Polly slept. She was rocking in Dan’s arms and he was stroking her hair.
The port of Halifax could have been in Borneo for all they could see of it. The fog horn had been going for what had seemed hours and the rolls of white mist were drifting over the wharves and sheds so that nothing could be seen beyond the immediate buildings. They followed one another clutching their children, bags and parcels. Swollen feet thrust into tight shoes, clothing soiled and wrinkled, leading children who were tired and grumpy, the wives and children of the Salvation Army’s Overseas Plan filed on to the cold wet floors of the Emigration Shed. Their leaders had all the necessary papers so they checked through with relative ease.
“Now move along with your possessions and stand under the letter of your surname. Your baggage will be brought there and you must check that it is all there before we proceed to the train.” The Bulmer family joined those under the letter ‘B’ where boxes and trunks were already piling up. The children ran around looking for names on the baggage and with some difficulty and passage of time, their five boxes were located and marked for the train.
The public washrooms had water but it was cold. Polly would have liked to get at their hair but she didn’t want anyone to get his ‘death of dampness’, so another quick wash was all they could manage. One good thing, though, she had lost some weight on the voyage and Winnifred’s suit fit her better. They glanced out the door in the direction of Halifax City but it was shrouded in fog. Only those people moving a few feet from the door could be seen. A strong smell was on everything.. “What a stink! a child complained. “Nova Scotia is noted for its lovely cod”, someone said. A wail went up from another child. “I don’t wanter be in Cander, you’ll be giving uz that arful codfish oil.” “You hush now, or I’ll feed you to a cod.”
A Salvation ‘Nell’ came around with hot cocoa and doughnuts. The children had never seen the buns with a hole, but it was welcome and warmed them while waiting to start the last leg of their journey to Toronto in a railway coach.
They were allotted two seats facing, to seat four, and they would have to live and sleep there for three days and three nights. The seats were made of closely woven wicker and gas lamps swung here and there overhead. Fortunately, there was
a coal stove and hot water could be heated for tea.
“There will be frequent stops where you can get out and stretch your legs and also buy food for the journey. There will be hawkers coming on board but their food will be expensive,” their escort explained.
And so, Polly settled herself to see something of her new country. From that moment she became a Canadian. She and Dan did not believe in bringing troubles to their adopted country. “If you don’t like it ‘ere, go back ‘over ‘ome’ and see if you like it better,” she would tell the grumblers `around her. Many did go back, but Polly always considered Canada her home where she and Dan would have a better life and their children would have advantages.
Excitement rose during the trip from Halifax. There was so much country to see, trees and more trees, fields full of snow. Tiny hamlets were cut off from the rest of the world except for a small train station. Milk cans were put on and taken off, boxes and bales went from one stop to another and people waved from everywhere. They waved from passing trains, for wagons filled with children apparently headed for school. Women stepped out of small houses, wiping hands on aprons and gave a wave to the only people they would see that day. The children thought they saw Indians behind every tree and the wondering and talking about what they would find made the days go quickly.
The train shunted back and forth in the yards for nearly an hour before it headed into the station in Toronto, creeping slowly into Union Station while instructions were being given on what to do on embarking.
“We must consider the other train passengers who want to meet with friends and relatives, so we will proceed in an orderly fashion into the station and find a place where we can meet with our families.” A small pocket mirror was passed around and most women were primping in reflections from the window of the train but they seemed beyond repair after the long trip with minimum toilet facilities. “Now you carry this and you see to your sister…”, Polly tried to get her brood together. “The band, the band! Can’t you ‘ear the band? I can ‘ear Dad’s band!” There was no keeping control of the children now. As soon as they were free of the train, they raced down the platform. The music gradually stopped as men reached for their children. With the young ones clinging to his legs and Doll in his arms, Dan made his way to Polly. Never one to lose composure in public, his eyes were full when he took Polly by the arm and said, “I see you made it alright, lass. “‘ere give us a proper greeting, you great aper”, Polly laughed and then he put his arm around her and gave her a hug as she slipped a kiss on his cheek. “Now don’t get me sniffling, you know ‘ow red I get,” she said.
True to keeping things as inexpensively as possible, S.A had planned for them to ride the Toronto Street Rail’ to their new homes. The fare was six tickets for a quarter and Polly got her first introduction to Canadian coin. Then, they walked the five remaining blocks to the houses the Army had converted into two-room cold water flats for families until they relocated. Dan had been living in their flat awhile and had picked up some essentials through the Thrift Shop, but essentials indeed! The larger room had a pull bed for them, a table and five chairs, a tap and sink. A small room was partitioned off with a small bed and a cot for the children. There was a coal stove for cooking and heat. Even with the stove lit, the windows were frosted. A bare bulb hung in the centre of the larger room and none in the other.
“Laundry room, bath and toilet are downstairs in back. You’ll have to manage with a bucket in the night. There is a large tub you can share around for children’s baths and some arrangements will be made for using the laundry.” One couple downstairs seemed to be in charge of the arrangements.
“It’s not much, but we’ll have what we need until I can find us something else,” Dan said. “Never mind, it’ll do nicely. We’ll make us an ‘ome of it while we’re ‘ere. The main thing is that we’re together again.”
The children bathed while Dan went back to the station with some of the men and a wagon to bring the boxes. The room was very crowded once their baggage arrived. Polly slipped down to the wash house and found Effie Danhauer there having a bath. “Ain’t it grand that we’re startin’ out in the same place. My George says ‘e’ll have us outa ‘ere in the week. We’ll ‘ave to find a place close by you.”
The people downstairs brought up a pot of stew for their first meal and the children went tired to bed. Dan and Polly sat across the table, gripping hands and trying to gap the events of the past two years. She was the talkative one and tried to tell all about the trip over at one time, interspersed with questions about his job and the city in general. Dan didn’t complete an answer before Polly was off about something else. It wasn’t until he said, “No one can know how lonesome I was for you”, that she rose and walked toward their bed. “You don’t ‘ave to be lonesome anymore.” They held one another close, doing all the things that lovers do, whispering of the pain and longing of separation and the hopes for their future. Polly’s world was on the right tracks again, she glowed with love and hope. After, when Dan fell asleep, she laid beside him and looked around the room. The moon was bright and lighted the room but the frost on the window was so thick no one could see in or out. Someone, years before, had pasted paper with blue roses over the shiplap walls. The paper was now faded and cracked at each join. She walked across the cold floor to lay out Sunday clothes for the morning meeting. The wooden floor was cold and rough where it was covered with a worn square of linoleum. When she slipped back beside Dan, the bed was warm and she stretched out beside him. She thought, “It’s not much, but now we’re on us own.” Their first Canadian child, Ivy, was born nine months later.
Continued – Polly – Chapter 2