Dorothy Autridge walked anxiously up the gangplank of the giant passenger ship docked in Vancouver’s harbour, clutching her one-way ticket to New Zealand and her beloved hope chest.
It was December, 1946, and she had fallen in love with a Kiwi air force pilot who had been on a training course at an airbase in Saskatoon, not far from her home. She’d met Brian Autridge at a New Year’s Eve dance at the base on Dec. 31, 1943, and within six months, they were married. Shortly after the wedding, Brian was shipped off to battle in Europe and the couple remained apart for more than a year. When the war ended, he returned home to New Plymouth, New Zealand, and beckoned Dorothy to follow.
Now she was sailing after him, setting out on a three-week journey that would land her in New Plymouth on Christmas Eve. She had no idea what to expect. Brian worked at his father’s clothing store in the small city nestled on the west coast of the country’s North Island. The marriage didn’t last and, within six years, Brian vanished, leaving Dorothy to raise their two daughters. She spent the next three years saving enough money to buy a trio of tickets back to Canada.
Dorothy never talked about that time of her life and it would have remained a closed chapter had it not been for her eldest daughter, Calgary-based artist Bev Tosh. In 2001, Tosh painted a portrait of her mother based on a photograph from the 1940s. A few months later, she was in New Zealand teaching an art course when a local newspaper ran a story about the portrait along with a front-page photograph. Soon women began approaching Tosh to talk about their experiences as war brides, telling stories of hope, resilience and hardship. “All the hair would stand up on my arms when I heard a war bride story,” Tosh recalled in a recent interview. After returning home she began painting portraits of the war brides she’d met, using photographs from their wedding day. That led to more stories, more portraits and still more stories.
She’s now painted more than 200 war brides from Canada, the United States, Europe and Asia. Each is based on a wedding day photograph and they are all painted on cheap plywood lined with cracks and imperfections, something Tosh says reflects the challenges of their lives. “It’s become a life-changing project for me,” she said.
A collection of 40 of Tosh’s war bride portraits has been put on display at the Royal Air Force Museum in London, the biggest public showing of the artwork outside Canada. The exhibit runs until next September. The paintings line the walls of a large gallery on the upper floor of a sprawling section of the museum, which is built on an old airbase in north London. They offer a compelling contrast to the museum’s massive showcase of vintage aircraft, military weaponry and depictions of fighting men. “Some people come to the museum and they tell us this is the most moving thing they have seen,” spokesman Kris Hendrix said.
It’s easy to see why. Each painting carries a short story of the bride and her life after marriage. The women came from all walks of life and many overcame enormous obstacles to begin life in a new country with a man they barely knew, or in some cases as widows with children. One of the first portraits is of Kathleen Patterson, a vivacious 21-year-old Londoner who married a New Zealand air force pilot a few weeks before he died in battle. Patterson was left destitute and alone after the war, so she accepted the offer of a one-way ticket to New Zealand from the government and headed off, carrying her baby and a coat she’d made from a blanket lined with coffin satin she’d procured from an undertaker. There’s also a portrait of Jessie McTeer from Yorkshire, whose first fiancé, a French resistance fighter, died in battle. She then married a Canadian soldier only to endure years of a “loveless, abusive union from which she eventually escaped.” Another portrait is of Margaret Bowen, a teenager from Wolverhampton who married Canadian soldier Harry Brownrigg, the son of a wealthy family in Newfoundland. When he took her home to St. John’s after the war, his mother treated Margaret like a maid and made her do menial chores around the house.
“These young women who headed out, they were an amazing bunch of women,” said Chris Merritt, who lives in Halifax and whose mother, Barbara Crook, is featured in the London exhibition. Barbara was a teenager from Leeds when she married Andrew Crook, a Canadian radar technician stationed near the city. They married on Sept. 1, 1945, just as the war was ending. He returned to Canada shortly afterward and she arrived the following spring, travelling to meet him in Toronto carrying only her sewing machine and a favourite clock. They settled in Dartmouth, where she taught nursery school and he worked for mental health agencies. Merritt, 62, cried when she saw her mother’s portrait for the first time in London last month. “It’s just being an older person now, I have a better understanding and appreciation for what it took for her to leave her parents and go to be with a man in another country, and a man who she’d only known for four months,” she said.
Roughly 44,000 war brides came to Canada after the Second World War, along with 21,000 children. There was initial resistance from the military, which frowned on Canadian soldiers marrying local women. But once the war ended, the government relented and co-ordinated a giant relocation effort, giving brides and widows a one-way passage to Canada. Another roughly 4,000 women left Canada as brides of servicemen from other countries, such as New Zealand, Australia and the United States.
“We don’t want it forgotten what they did,” said Lynn Martin, president of Canadian War Brides and Families, an Edmonton-based group that organizes annual reunions for war brides and relatives. “It’s too easy for our younger generation not to get that education and realize what an important part they played in Canadian history.” Martin’s mother, Violet Findlay, is also among the portraits in the London exhibition. Violet, who was from Blackburn, England, served with the Royal Air Force during the war, tracking German bombing raids and driving an ambulance. She met Canadian serviceman George Findlay and they married in April, 1945. He returned to Canada and she came later, making the voyage from Southampton to Halifax and then by train to rural Saskatchewan where he had a farm. “My mom came from a home with indoor heating. The farm had outdoor plumbing and was heated by a stove filled with wood and coal. It was real culture shock,” she said.
Tosh continues to gather stories of war brides and meets as many as she can, with more paintings to come. Her mother, who died in 2012, is among the portraits at the London museum and Tosh said she still marvels at her courage. “What I take away from all of these women is the strength they had to walk up the gangplank and follow those vows,” she said. “Some of them couldn’t do it. They tried once or twice, they could not walk up that gangplank but the huge majority did and for better or worse cobbled a new life in a faraway land. And I think there was a profound hope in that, hope for the future. Those are things that I think we need to remember and acknowledge.”