At ten o'clock in the morning of 2 June 1930 about forty young men gathered
round a noticeboard set up on Euston station, which bore the message 'Boat
Train, Duchess of Bedford Liverpool. Hudson's Bay Company Party'.
The other travellers hurrying to and fro across the concourse, impelled to haste by the alarming pantings, snufflings and whistlings coming from the impatient engines, hardly spared us a glance, despite the flavour of distant adventure in that simple notice. For in those days, London was still the centre of a great empire and it was commonplace for parties to be seen gathering at railway stations, or at other places of departure, to begin their long journeys to far-away places. Tea planters for India and Ceylon. Rubber planters for Malaya. Mining engineers for South Africa. Administrators for the Indian and other civil services. Policemen for the African colonies. Farm workers to seek their fortunes in Australia, New Zealand or Canada. Traders for the South Seas. Servicemen for all quarters of the globe and wanderers just seeking sunshine or adventure.
We were to be apprenticed to the fur trade 'somewhere in Canada'. In age we were between sixteen and twenty-three. In occupation there were schoolboys, farm labourers, office workers, factory workers, estate workers, forestry people and even two seamen.
We had been told of the wonderful opportunities that awaited us, but what our informants had not known was that the worst depression the world would experience for many years was fast developing. Already the feverish post-war boom was collapsing. The sudden loss of confidence and the general insecurity of the world markets was soon to undermine the fur trade. Before some of us had finally reached our new homes, the whole department responsible for our engagement had been disbanded, with its members released to swell the ever growing ranks of the unemployed. Never again would a party such as ours gather in London.
An oriental philosopher once wrote that no matter how near or far the destination, every journey must somewhere have a starting point. My journey began in the June of the halcyon summer of 1913, to which so many thousands of women were to look back with aching nostalgia for all the rest of their years.
The shadow fell across my mother's life sooner than it did for the others. Six weeks before I was born, in the evening of a long midsummer's day, my father was brought home spread-eagled over a broken gate, dead of a terrible gunshot wound to the head.
Controversy, seemingly inseparable from the human state even in such tragic circumstances, broke out at once. The vicar refused my grandmother's request that her son's body should be brought into the parish church to await burial, on the grounds that he might have committed suicide. The coroner would have to give him earthly clearance from this suspicion before the church could grant him asylum. The clergyman had mistakenly supposed his parishioner, my grandmother, to be a meek and pious woman, an error he was never to repeat. He was astonished by the ferocity with which she defended her son's right to rest in the church, and reluctantly gave way.
So my father, poised as it were on the very threshold of eternity, was brought for the last time into the cool, dim, silent shadow of the ancient building, perhaps there to find the peace he had been seeking. The following day the coroner decided that death had been due to misadventure, thus calming the vicar's disquiet and giving at least some hope of an onward journey to heaven. For those that were left on earth, and in particular for my mother, the problems were just beginning.
Aged twenty-three, with three children already and a fourth expected, her outlook was bleak indeed, for there was no provision at that time for disasters such as this. No help could be expected from the state, since there was no social security or child allowances. Those who fell by the wayside, whether it was their own fault or not, had to pick themselves up or, as a last desperate measure, appeal to the workhouse guardians for relief.
Copyright © 1995-2004 by Edward Beauclerk Maurice. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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