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Mini Biographies of Scots and Scots Descendants (A)
Conni Attwell

It was early 1954, post war Scotland.  I was a dancer in Variety shows , I had friends,  but had no special someone, and no prospects since I had just broken up with a boyfriend..  I was fed up, life was gloomy and then I saw an newspaper advertisement for “A New Life in Canada”.  A girlfriend ( Doreen) and I decided to pursue this and decided to make appointments to see the  immigration  people at Thomas Cook Travel agents in Edinburgh.  and at that time you could get an assisted passage to Canada as long as you were willing to work and pay it off.  They were really looking for immigrants in those days..  We found out you had to pass a medical and be willing to take a job.  That was it!!  They had jobs aplenty for us too.  So we arranged to go for medicals in Glasgow and figured we would have no problems with jobs, etc.

Moxon Girls

We had had a variety of experiences working in odd jobs in between shows, in shops, waitressing, ushering in cinemas, and you name it. And of course I now had office experience. We also hoped we might get into theatre there??  We passed our medicals with flying colours so we were told we could book our passage by ship anytime within one year. If you waited longer than 6 months another medical would be required.  And so it was arranged, except that Doreen got cold feet and decided she would rather try for America where she had an aunt!!  Me?  Nothing ventured, nothing gained , I went ahead working my ass off to get some money to go with.  I booked a passage on the “Carinthia” from Liverpool to Montreal for the following year, took another   medical , worked and then worried about where I would stay in Canada.  My brothers who had been there during their Merchant Navy years were telling me to go   West, like Vancouver but most other people who had relatives in Canada were saying I should go to Toronto.  The ship would take a week to get to Montreal and then I would have a further week to get to Vancouver whereas it would only be an overnight trip to Toronto where everybody seemed to know someone so it was decided…Toronto

Mum was approving of me going, very unselfishly.  She wanted me to have a better life!! But Dad was a different story.  Although they had brought us up to be independent and responsible, Dad was in two minds about me going by myself.  This was different than going on tour…at least I knew the other people in the theatre (or he did) so he was at great pains about warning me that it was not a country paved with gold, it would be hard work and I would be very far away.  My folks did not have much money and would be unable to help if I didn’t like it.  It would all be on my own shoulders to either work hard to get back or make something of myself.  Well, of course, I reminded him that I had been travelling since I was 14, was now over 21, loved talking to people and was willing to work hard and so he was reluctantly convinced that I could take care of myself.  I worked 2 jobs to save and Dad kept my savings for me.  One pound a week and and anything else I got as gifts.  The average wage was around Five pounds per week then (changed days!!)  I managed to save 90pounds by the time I had to sail and felt like a millionaire.  (That would have been about 300 dollars).  God I was brave!!!  When I think of it now I get shivers!!  Mum and I went to the Y.W.C.A. to get advice on staying at their place in Toronto.  No problem we were told although you could not book a room like we wished!. And so it was set.  I saved like mad and the day came when I had to go to Liverpool to board the ship. 

Mum was coming with me as it was an overnight train trip to Liverpool and Dad,   Dorothy (who at 12 , still a child was more interested in playing on the porter’s trolley) and all my workmates & friends came to see us off.  Dad stood there with tears pouring sown his face and that was the only time I ever saw him cry.  I felt awful and wondered if it was too late to change my mind.  What a roller coaster of emotions.  But then we were off and Mum & I settled down for the long trip south.  What on earth was I doing??  What had possessed me to do this?? . Several times I just wanted to get off the train and go home……it was a horrible night and more was to come.  We got to Liverpool the next morning and collected my luggage (I had a wardrobe trunk and a red suitcase) and got a taxi to the docks.  The sight of that ship so huge, towering over us was daunting to say the least.  I was beginning to wonder how I could bear to say goodbye to my Mum.  What a mixture of fear and excitement!  It is indescribable! Mum was so supportive and reminded me that I could always come home again, that this was an opportunity for me and just make sure I made the most of it! 

We boarded that great ship together up the gangplank and were directed to the cabin I would share with 3 other women.  It was very compact with 4 bunks, a tiny bathroom, & tiny dressers between the bunks but wonder of wonders my wardrobe trunk had also been put in the cabin. I had not expected to see it until we landed.  So I had everything I needed right there. We then toured the ship (what we could of it) and she was so excited for me.  God only knows what she was going through that day,  I dreaded the time when she would have to get off but it came and she did….I stood on a deck which seemed to be 10 stories high  and watched my wee Mum go down that gangplank and stand on the dock to wave me goodbye.  She looked so small and vulnerable and I cried and worried about how she would get home by herself.  Then the ship pulled away with horns blaring, shouts etc and I made my way down to the cabin and cried my eyes out. 2 of my cabin mates were older women, nurses who were going to Soux St. Marie and I cant remember the other lady.  These ladies were the first of many angels I have met in my life and helped me get over that first afternoon. (The ship had sailed at noon).  Later, I found my way to the dining room, where we were allocated our table.  There was a Welcome Gathering  to tell us of the ship’s facilities and how to get around, people were introduced to each other etc.  I was at a table of 8 and there was another girl of my age travelling with her mother and we struck up a friendship The food was excellent and the evening was just a round of checking out the coffee shop, gift shops, hairdressers, the lounge where  they also held dances and the movie theatre. All incredible but I was tired and a little sad so made my way back to the cabin to go to bed.  I pulled down the cover of the upper bunk I was in and ….there was a card my Mum had left on the pillow with all her love and best wishes. That set me off crying again and it was a really rough night.

We sailed on a Wednesday and it would be the following Monday or Tuesday before we would dock in Montreal .  The clocks were put forward one hour every evening so we would be in the right time zone. It was a very good voyage and not being prone to seasickness, I enjoyed the food very much.  Sometimes I was the only one at the table because the others could not face food!! There were plenty of activities aboard the ship and my new friend Helen & I enjoyed the dances, games in the lounge and even the movies.  I’ll never forget watching “20 Thousand Leagues Under The Sea” . Quite unusual since as we were watching the rolling waves in the movie, we were also rolling in the waves! It was really good, I made lots of friends and there was quite a gang of us who would meet up each day for whatever was going on! It was a strange feeling though between two countries and there was no point in worrying over what I’d left and what I was going to. The days passed relatively quickly and on the Monday we saw land.  This was Halifax and as Helen & her mother were getting off there (as well as other people) the ship docked there for a short while. This brought me to earth with a jolt since we would be docking in Montreal the next day and my new life would begin!  It is exciting when a big ship is coming into port.  Tenders with immigration officials came out first and checked everyones passports etc.  We all hung over the decks watching the tiny tenders come by and the men climb rope ladders on to the ship, then we had to line up to meet with them. 

On the ship

After the formalities, the ship sailed into port and docked about 6 in the evening. When we disembarked, our luggage had been taken to a big shed and we had to look for our last name ‘initial’  Being an “A” I had a long walk but finally found it and my wardrobe trunk and red suitcase.  The Customs man just asked me what had I brought into the country and I just told him “All my worldly goods” .  He laughed, put a big white chalkmark on my stuff and that was that.  I was here!! Those of us who were going somewhere else by train were bussed to the railway station and since some of “our gang” were also travelling to Toronto, it was good company for an overnight trip. We boarded the train in high excitement and began talking of our new life here.  Some of the group had either lived here or were Americans going farther afield  but we sat up all night learning about customs, the money and any other hints we could get. And for us ‘newbies’,  feeling fear & excitement.  We arrived in Toronto’s Union Station about 7.30 am on the Wednesday morning, one week after leaving Liverpool and left the train and walked into the concourse.  I had very wobbly legs .  It was only as we stood (about 6 of us) ready to say goodbye that I realized that the other five were all going for different trains or had someone meeting them and suddenly I found myself completely alone in a strange station and country

To say I was scared witless is an understatement!  7:30 in the morning, in a strange place & a strange country alone….Jeez, what do I do now??  I just had my red suitcase with me and was not sure if my trunk had been on the same train or would be sent later so I had to get that sorted out. Pulling myself together I went looking for someone to tell me how to get my trunk and how to get to the Y.W.C.A. and I found a Travellers Help Kiosk.  The lady there   checked and said my trunk would be there in about 2 days and just to keep checking for it.  She also gave me the directions to get to the Y.W.C.A. on Elm Street but advised me to get a taxi until I knew my way around.  This I did very warily, because I was afraid of it taking too much money and I didn’t know how far it would be but I had no choice. It wasn’t too far and I found myself in the Chinese district of Toronto   I went into the building and over to the desk and explained I had just come from Scotland and could I get a room? Turned out they did not have rooms but dormitories and I could get a bed!  I don’t remember how much it cost but I would have a place to sleep.  I was guided upstairs to the dormitory that had about 6 beds each side of the room and allocated a bed.  There was no one else in the room so I just sat down on the bed and wished to hell I had never come  

So far, people weren’t as friendly as back home although not unfriendly either and I was so tired after sitting up all night on the train, I even wished I had stayed in Montreal overnight and maybe I would have been able to get back on the ship and go home!!   Two girls came in the room and I asked them where the bathroom was and where I could get breakfast.  They just said “Down the hall & downstairs” and   walked past   me.  Muttering thanks I went to the bathroom and then downstairs to a big dining room. .Self   service and I still didn’t know the money well enough to know how much I was paying but got some breakfast and then mindful that I was to report to the immigration office as soon as I arrived, I went to the desk to get directions and how to get there. I knew the address, somewhere on Church St, and was told to go outside, turn left on Yonge St and take a streetcar that ran straight up Yonge St to Church St ( Actually  they told me to go North on Yonge, and since this was not the way we spoke of directions in Scotland, I wasn’t sure which way North was??) So I had to ask someone to show me the way to Yonge St and point me North!! I was a little afraid to get on a streetcar, not knowing what to pay the driver and maybe it would get me lost, so decided to walk, get to know the place and window shop on the way.  Well, I must have walked for about 2 hrs or more. Church St was many blocks up Yonge and I didn’t know at the time that Yonge St was the longest St. just about anywhere! I kept looking for Church St and asking people and kept walking….Finally  I got there and found the building.  The office was upstairs so up I went into a dingy place with wickets along one side like a bank.

By this time it was almost 1pm   I went to one of the wickets and asked the man there if I was in the right place to report. He said ‘yes’ so I explained I had just arrived from Scotland that morning and had been told to report there but before I finished talking he looked at his watch, said it was his lunchtime and to come back at 2 o’clock.  I was thunderstruck when he closed his wicket and just left me standing there and that was the final straw.  I was so tired from walking and nerves that I just broke down.  Two people came over to comfort me,  a man & woman and they took me downstairs to a café where we had lunch and talked and waited until I could go back upstairs.  They were lifesavers and yet another of the many Angels I have met through my life. I finally got my interview and directions & instructions on where to go for a job.  One of the places was Simpson-Sears, a big department store. Anyway, I took all the papers he had given me and for the life of me I cannot remember how I got back to the Y.  Maybe my angels took me? ,or what I did for the rest of the afternoon.  I remember sitting on the bed in that dormitory and feeling as low as anyone could be.  I must have gone downstairs for some dinner but don’t remember.  I only remember crying   myself to sleep.  My angels had been the only really friendly people I had met that day.  How I got through that night I’ll never know!!

Next morning I decided that I’d have to make the best of things so went down and had breakfast and then asked at the desk about streetcar fares etc, and was given some sheets of directions, costs, and what have you.  I made my way back to Union Station to find out about my trunk and while I was there I remembered Christine, the  young girl who had liked to visit us in the dressing room at the Palladium Theatre in Edinburgh.  She had given us the address & phone number of her sister in Toronto when she emigrated to Canada 6 months previously.  I didn’t know if she would even remember me but it was a lifetime I could not ignore so….getting a little help with Canadian phones (quite different from home) I phoned. When a lady answered I nervously asked to speak to Christine and was to told to hold on.  She was there, thank God!!  The lady who had answered was her sister.!  And she did remember me and was delighted to hear from me.  When she heard my tale of woe she immediately told me just to go to the snack bar in the station and wait and she and her sister would come get me.  She warned me that it would be at least an hour since they lived quite a distance away (learned later it was Willowdale) and not to worry, they would be there.  At last I had spoken to someone friendly and I immediately felt better.  11/2 hours later to my relief they were there and oh God it was so good to see a familiar face.  After we talked they said they would take me back to their place for supper and would drive me back to  the Y later.. 

I realized during that ride to their house just how vast Toronto was but I was welcomed and fed and given all kinds of helpful information for the transition and I was among friends.  I felt human again by the time they drove me back, getting some of my independent spirit back and felt I would be OK.  I slept better that night and next day was able to go down to the desk and ask more sensible questions about different living accommodations.  They gave me a list of rental rooms, apts, etc that they had vetoed and I remember it cost me a quarter for that list.  Fair enough! I then went out and found my way to one of the them on Fern St  which was near the St. Clair subway. The subway just ran up and down Yonge St in those days and I felt it would be helpful in finding my way around the city. The house on Fern St rented furnished rooms with a communal kitchen, living room, bathroom but each room had a hotplate & kettle & mini fridge..  Can’t remember what it cost but I rented one of the rooms and then went back down to Union Station (on the subway) where they had my trunk so was able to get that delivered to my new address.  Things were looking up!!  I then went to the Y for my suitcase  and travelled back to my new digs in a state of euphoria.  Although still a bit scared and unsure of things I felt I was finally on my way!!!  I had already sent a telegram to my folks to tell them I had arrived safely (we didn’t have a phone then) so now was able to send a letter giving them my new address and reassure them I was fine!!  I couldn’t have said anything else  They didn’t have the money to get me back so I knew I would have to find a job pronto, save up and go back as soon as I could.  I also phoned Christine to let her know where I was and she came over to visit and make sure I was OK! . 

 I had stopped at a grocery store to get some supplies and I had bought an alarm clock and a small radio at a drugstore and  there were other roomers in the house  so although I still did not feel any warmth or friendliness I did have people to talk to, a connection with Christine, and it was a lovely feeling to be in my own room that night. Things were cheaper then and my 90 pounds had converted to something like $270, but by this time I had spent some of that so the next thing was to get a job.  Next day I went to the Simpson-Sear store, up to the employment department and was given a sheaf of forms to fill out. They wanted to know everything including my grandmothers maiden name!.  I had difficulty filling out the education part since it was a different system so after filling it all out as best I could , I handed it in and left.  I had been there about 2 hours and not a helpful soul in the place.  I needed a job but I left there thinking “I don’t want to work there”.  On the way home I decided I had better open a bank account and try to save some of the money I had left in case I didn’t get a job soon! I was buying the paper and checking ads but did not have the experience that some of them wanted and wasn’t sure of the locations.  After all I was a dancer, even though I had worked in shops, cinemas and had waitressed in restaurants, etc. between shows and while saving for Canada.! 

I went into the Bank of Montreal near where I lived to open an account and the fellow there started kidding me about my accent and asked if I was just off the boat!  (Little did I know that some people would be asking that same question decades later!!).  I told him that ‘yes, I was’ and if I didn’t get a job soon I would be back in for my money.  I think I deposited $100.  He suggested I try the bank and gave me directions to the Head Office.  I wasn’t sure about that since in Scotland you needed a Higher Leaving certificate from school to work in a bank but he assured me that you didn’t need that here. Another angel?  So off I went immediately since I was right beside the Subway and all I needed to do was get off at a station where all the banks had their HO’s.  I went to the employment floor of the Bank of Montreal and asked for the man who’s name I had been given.  Guess what?  He was a Scot who had been in Canada a long time and he was really friendly and helpful in telling me what to put on the education questions in applications.  The British education at the time was top notch so he told me always to put down “equivalent to Junior Matric” or Grade 13.  He also checked where I was living and told me to go speak to the manager of a branch at St. Clair & Dufferin, a short streetcar ride from where I lived.  Another angel! 

I went to that branch the next day, met & spoke to the manager (another Scot) and landed myself a job!  Unbelievable!! Someone was looking out for me, of that I’m sure!  It was a pretty junior position in that I had to balance all the out of town cheques, and tally everything with the tellers, take drafts around to business’s in the area who were our customers , balance everything up for the van which came to collect the days business and deliver it downtown.  If we were late in getting everything balanced then I had to take everything to HO myself.  However the bank would send me down in a taxi and I will never forget having to do this once during the Christmas period.  The taxi took me down Avenue Road and it was like a fairyland with all the Christmas lights and lit up buildings.  I was awestruck!!  Remember we in Scotland had not long before come out of blackout conditions during the war so it was pure magic! Although the work was unfamiliar, dealing with unfamiliar currency etc, I found I had an aptitude for it and really enjoyed the satisfaction of  finishing everything off for the day.  I also found the staff extremely helpful & friendly and there were 2 really amusing incidents,  The first was a lady customer who on enquiring if I was new and finding out I had just come from Scotland was amazed that I had learned to speak English so quickly (ahem!!) and the second was on being late for work one morning  (this was later when I was boarding with a family) I apologised by saying my landlady had forgotten to knock me up:.  (This was a very common saying in Scotland, to be taken literally).  I became especially friendly with 2 of the girls in the bank who took me under their wings (angels?)  Kay & Dorothy.  Managing to board with a family came about while I was delivering and collecting drafts from business’s.  Other banks had employees doing the same thing and we would meet up mid morning at a little café for coffee.  A woman who worked in the café had a husband who had been in Edinburgh during the war and she really took to me and on finding out I lived alone in a rooming house invited me to board at her home .  Her name was Mary McQuaig, her husband was Pud (Peter) and she had 2 children, Peter junior (around 11) and daughter Leslie (around 7).  They welcomed me and treated me like family (angels?). 

I eventually prospered, married, had 4 children over the next 15 years and presently live in beautiful Victoria BC Canada.

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