An untold story about Churchill, expats, rats, and a sinking ship

Cartoon rat with a suitcaseOver the coming weeks people will be commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. One of the great untold stories of that momentous time was the exodus of young British emigrants in the years after the war. Such was the scale of population loss that wartime leader Winston Churchill appealed to those wishing to depart Blighty’s war-torn shores ‘to stay here and fight it out’. And, in a fit of pique according to reports in the Daily Express, Churchill accused these expats of being ‘rats leaving a sinking ship’. Churchill was soon to perform what later became known as a ‘U-turn’ when, during a visit to Canada, he said, ‘A magnificent future awaits [immigrants] in Canada.’

When Churchill made his appeal for people to stay at home in a 1947 BBC broadcast he observed that since the end of the war: ‘More than half a million of our people have applied to emigrate to Canada, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, and several hundred thousands more want to go to the United States or South America. These must be among our most lively and active citizens in the prime of life who wish to go to some place where they can make the best of themselves and their children.’ The number of departing citizens was enormous and became even larger in subsequent years.

Why did so many people want to leave a victorious and jubilant Britain? The reasons are many and complex, as my co-author and I found out when interviewing English expats for our new book Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945. Many felt the economic damage inflicted by six years of war frustrated personal ambition and the desire for a better life. Others quickly became disenchanted with continued austerity after years of deprivation. And, with so much bomb damage, young couples found it extremely difficult to find anywhere half decent to live—many were forced to delay marriage or to stay with their parents, a situation that was less than ideal. One of our interviewees, Agnes Butcher, said, ‘We came to Canada to improve our lives. Where we were in that old house in England it was, you know, pretty cold, hard living in that house and we thought by coming to Canada we’d improve our lives.’ Her husband added, ‘It’s a lot different now, but at that time…no way we could buy a house; you’d have to double the wages for people.’

The war and its aftermath had also created a climate of fear. Many of the interviewees reflected that they wanted to bring up their children away from the risk of war and bombing. Faraway places like Australia and Canada were perceived, rightly or wrongly, to offer safer environments. For example, Isobel Sinclair, who emigrated to Toronto in 1956, speculated that living through the London blitz as a child and then the fear of nuclear annihilation had had an impact. She recalled clearly the huge areas of bomb destruction that still existed while she was in London, and the maps in the newspapers that showed the radius of London that would be wiped out by an atomic bomb. She wanted to experience life while she could.

Stoking the interest in emigration were the fiercely competitive advertising campaigns conducted by the UK immigration offices of the Australian, New Zealand, and Canadian governments. At one time Canada had offices in eight British cities and long queues of prospective immigrants frequently formed outside them. Competition produced varying travel incentives. Australia provided highly discounted fares to immigrants who subsequently became known as Ten Pound Poms. The New Zealand High Commission offered a smaller number of free and subsidised passages, and the Canadian government developed a loan scheme. Emotional links reinforced the advertising blitz. One of the most imaginative campaigns was carried out by George Drew, the Premier of Ontario, who sought to capitalise on the misery of the record-breaking harsh winter of 1947 by distributing food parcels from the people of Ontario to the residents of Suffolk.

Around the time Canadian food was supplementing East Anglian diets, at the other end of the country in Cumberland, Nella Last, one of the most prolific of the ‘ordinary Britons’ who wrote diaries for the Mass Observation Project, was recording her impressions of Churchill’s ‘stay home and fight it out’ broadcast. Expressing her empathy with the emigrants, she wrote, ‘I share his concern about so many who want to go abroad, but what can we do? Youth is so fleeting. This generation has lost so much, and dear God they ask so little—just that chance to work and see something for their labours, a share in those simple good things in life in the way of food that the colonies have to offer. I’ve never yet heard anyone speak of making a fortune or of big wages, only the chance to get on.’

Invisible Immigrants: The English in Canada since 1945 by Marilyn Barber and Murray Watson is published by University of Manitoba Press.

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