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That time 48,000 women came to Canada to get married

A brief history of The Overseas Women’s Association, the social club for war brides and its connection to the Sault

From the archives of the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library:

Everyone loves a good story, especially one involving romance. The popularity of such television shows as The Bachelor, The Bachelorette, 90 Day Fiancé, and the Harlequin romance books attest to this fact.

Forty-nine women epitomized a true romance when they arrived in Sault Ste. Marie after the Second World War as war brides. Their stories also involved a good dose of danger, adventure, and bravery to risk everything they knew for a chance at a better life.

The term “War Brides” was the title given to the estimated 48,000 women who married Canadian servicemen stationed overseas during the Second World War, who then followed their new husbands home to Canada after the war, or made the trip during combat to escape the dangers in their home countries.

These women in particular faced a great deal of peril as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean as German U-boats were patrolling the waters. This was the case for Mrs. Jean Cartmill, one of the forty-nine women who made their way to Sault Ste. Marie, who described her voyage on the Mauritania as “hectic” as the ship was followed for a while by the enemy.

Despite a military mandate condemning marriage, countless servicemen found love when they were on leave at dances or the pubs, or with women who were in the service themselves. The dangers of war heightened the belief that time was precious, and since there was no guarantee that you would survive until tomorrow, marriages were often entered into after short courtships.

The marriage ceremonies themselves were simple affairs with homemade gowns (some were made from parachutes!), men dressed in their uniforms, and small receptions due to the rationing of food. As the number of these marriages increased, an organization was founded by the government called the Canadian Wives Bureau.

It was here that wives could apply to immigrate to Canada, and could find help with the transition to a new country. This organization also arranged the eventual transportation of war brides to Canada by boat, and then by train.

Their transportation was financed by the Government of Canada and was one–way only. Wives were permitted free passage for their children as well.

Travelling in retro-fitted troop ships or converted ocean liners such as the Queen Mary, many wives recounted hanging diapers up to dry beside luxurious pools or having their babies sleeping in hammocks above their berths. For some, the trip to Canada was an enjoyable adventure where they could revel in the company of other young wives and feast on the plentiful food.

After experiencing rationing for all the years of the war, many brides were over the moon to dine on such items as fresh fruit, bacon, eggs, and cheese.

For others, the trip was an ordeal of seasickness, crying children, and intense feelings of homesickness. Many worried that they had made a terrible mistake and yearned for their parents.

Margaret Maxwell, another war bride destined for the Soo, recalled to the Sault Star in 1996 how she remembered slowly drifting into port in Halifax.

“They were playing Here Comes the Bride, and there wasn’t a dry eye on the ship.” She stated, “It’s a strange feeling when you come into a strange country. You’re alone, there’s no phone to call home and you couldn’t go back.”

Many of the ladies were not prepared for the change of pace, lifestyle, and scenery. Many were moving from crowded cities with modern amenities and were shocked by the vast wilderness of Canada as they travelled across it by train to their destinations.

They also were not prepared (or possibly warned) about the living conditions. Margaret Maxwell’s new husband was working at the Algoma Ore division in Wawa.

"There was no water, no indoor toilets, and I had never seen a Coleman stove in my life. I thought it was the last place God put on earth. I had never seen the bush before and there were no roads out of town.”

Needless to say, this was all quite an adjustment for these new Canadians so a War Brides Club was formed in 1952 which would later be renamed the Overseas Women’s Association.

The majority of the members were British and they held monthly socials which according to Margaret Maxwell felt “like going home once a month.”

The club helped assuage the incredible homesickness and loneliness many felt. The club continued on for many years – they had annual banquets and the very popular Mistletoe Hop event.

The Sault Star reported in May of 1968 that “the girls from the British Isles and their husbands really know how to have a party. They are great for spontaneous singing and dancing.”

Joyce Armstrong was one of the original members of the War Brides Club. She reported to the Sault Star in 1967 that “this country is a land of opportunity but it doesn’t baby you. You have to work for what you want yourself.”

She also felt that there were wonderful opportunities here that would not have been possible in Great Britain – “a home of your own, a car, a trailer, a vacation away from home every year, were Canadian commonplaces.” She also reported that “this country grows on you.”

There were many new things to get used to – black flies, husbands hunting and fishing, liquor laws, the taste of Canadian food, in-laws they never got to meet before marriage, no indoor plumbing or electricity in some cases and desperately cold snowy winters all required some adjustment.

Joyce recalled in 1996 to the Sault Star, “I was lucky. I was never painted a rosy picture of Canada but some of the girls were and they came here with false impressions.”

One war bride that arrived in the Sault with an additional hurdle to overcome was Ghislaine Thibodeau. She sailed to Canada in 1946 and was Sault Ste. Marie’s first war bride from France.

This is particularly notable as the Canadian Encyclopedia lists that only 100 war brides came from France following the Second World War. According to a Sault Star article from 1994, the first months after arriving were a bit of a struggle as she could not speak any English and relied on her husband’s family to translate for her when out in the community.

Another war bride who had a language barrier to overcome was Anneke Thompson who came from Holland. She had met her future husband at a church fellowship meeting in her home country after it was liberated.

When he left for England in the fall of 1945 they feared they would never see each other again, but they began to write letters to one another and romance blossomed. The love letters continued for over a year until it was announced that women engaged to servicemen would be allowed to enter Canada if the Canadian would be responsible for the passage.

After a 10-day voyage on an ocean liner to New York, a train to Toronto to meet her fiancé Percy, and a long car ride over sometimes flooded roads, Anneke arrived in Sault Ste. Marie. The pair was given only three weeks to marry by the Canadian government, once Anneke arrived on Canadian soil.

The term, war bride is generally used to refer to those who married servicemen during the Second World War but is now also used to specify women who married and made the trip to Canada following the First World War as well.

Mrs. Nellie Premo is believed to be the very first war bride to arrive in Sault Ste. Marie on Jan. 13, 1919. A Sault Star article from 1992 recounts how she was only 20 years old and carrying an infant when she stepped off the train at the Bruce Street station, only to find there was no one to greet her.

To be dropped off in a strange new town in the dead of winter in an unfamiliar country would be quite overwhelming but Mrs. Premo took it all in stride. Her husband Louis (who she had met about a year previously and married after a quick courtship) had returned to the army barracks in Toronto and was not there to meet her.

With the assistance of a deliveryman, she found the home of her new in-laws and settled into her new life in Canada.

She went on to have eight more children and made Sault Ste. Marie her permanent home. After a rocky start in Northern Ontario for many war brides, they soon acclimated to their new homeland and have left a lasting legacy in the families they raised and their charitable works in the community.

They found truth in the old adage that “home is where the heart is.

Each week, the Sault Ste. Marie Public Library and its Archives provides SooToday readers with a glimpse of the city’s past.

Find out more of what the Public Library has to offer at and look for more Remember This? columns here