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.
My grandmother then decided she was in need of a housekeeping
companion and that her daughter-in-law could fill this position. There would
be no pay as such, but food for the young widow and her children would be
provided, sparingly as it turned out, and even more sparingly, clothes.
Children's garments could be made from oddments, sewn, knitted and
handed down. As for my mother, now that she was a widow and would wear
black for the rest of her life as Queen Victoria had done, she could inherit the
old lady's cast-offs, suitably trimmed to size and shape.
This was how my family came to live in a large, cold Victorian
house in a small township on the north Somersetshire coast. My mother
brought with her all that she possessed in the world. A few items of bedroom
furniture. A dressing table and a little jewellery, a few books and a Colt
revolver with six rounds of ammunition. What desperate resolve prompted her
to bring these last two items I do not know, nor did I ever inquire.
The year after our arrival, 1914, the Great War broke out. Perhaps
the atmosphere of emergency and the heavy emotional demands made upon
most of the young women of her generation helped my mother resign herself,
at least temporarily, to living the routine of her elderly mother-in-law.
As children we were happy enough, fitting ourselves, as children
do, into the circumstances that surrounded us, but mother had to suppress
much of her natural jollity, acting as a buffer between her often noisy children
at the top of the house and the solemn, easily disturbed downstairs of our
Grandmother did not believe in the classless society. Indeed, so
convinced was she of her own social superiority that there was not one single
person in that Somersetshire township who could justifiably be invited to take
tea with her. Ranged behind her in defence of her position were several dukes
and other aristocrats, closely followed by admirals, generals and the like,
some of whom gazed down at us from the walls of the stairways and
downstairs rooms. This meant that there was very little social life to enliven
the dull days for mother.
A room at the top of the house was set aside to be used as a
school, and armed with a selection of rather aged textbooks, the young
widow began the education of her children, my eldest brother being already
over four years old. The knowledge contained in these textbooks was
rigorously drummed into our heads, for mother was aware of the necessity of
obtaining an education of a higher standard than that offered by the free
schools, if one was to prosper, and the only way to do this would be by
gaining scholarships or similar awards.
One day a visitor called who had heard about a well-known
boarding school that had been established with the sole aim of educating
suitable children whose parents did not have the available funds. A great
number of good people contributed money to the school, and if their
contribution was sufficiently large, they were allowed to place an approved
child there. I think mother must have written to every single benefactor in
order to gain places for her children, and she eventually succeeded in
obtaining one for each of us, three boys at the boys' school and our sister at
the girls' establishment.
The schooling provided was sound, practical and aimed at
producing adaptable adults, able to use such common sense as they
possessed. Aware of the undoubted benefits of such an education, I would
like to be able to record that this was a happy period of my life. Alas, this
was not so. From the very start, the school was like some sort of prison. On
my second day I quite unwittingly broke some obscure rule, for which the
housemaster, no doubt a brilliant mathematician, but lacking in any
noticeably human attributes, accorded me a public beating. A suitably sour
start to a relationship which was to lack warmth for the next seven years.
As time went by, my mother began to think increasingly of
escape from the situation which had trapped her for so long. The atmosphere
in the old lady's house was not a happy one and my mother longed to go to
the other side of the world and start afresh. We had no money, but could
work hard and New Zealand sounded like a land of opportunity.
My brother blazed the trail by setting off just after the General
Strike of 1926, helping to stoke the boilers of an ancient coal burner as it
steamed across the Pacific Ocean. He was to work on farms in New
Zealand, and two years later my other brother followed him. The three of us
who were left at home were to wait until I had finished school, then set off
As the time loomed near, however, my prospective life as a
farmworker lost its appeal for me. We wrote letters to everybody we could
think of to see if they could squeeze me in somewhere else, but the reply
was always the same – too young and no qualifications. Christmas 1929
came and went with the problem no nearer solution, but early in the New
Year, a chance happening at school provided a possible answer.
A week or two after the start of term, a visitor arrived to take up a
long-standing invitation to spend a weekend at the school as a guest of the
headmaster. He was the archdeacon in charge of the missionaries working in
the Canadian Arctic territories. The news that the clerical visitor was to give a
Saturday-night talk was received with some resignation by the boys, but the
archdeacon, whose diocese spread from the tree line right away up to the
last few humps of ice at the North Pole, had brought reels of film with him
and caught our interest and attention immediately when his operator put the
first one in backwards. It was the run of a visit by some Hudson's Bay
officials to a post above the Arctic Circle. A solitary white building crouched
beneath towering black cliffs. A door flew suddenly open and two portly city
executive types marched smartly out backwards, skilfully negotiated a short
but steep slope then performed an incredibly agile backward leap into a
motor boat waiting at the water's edge.
After this entertaining start, the film's chief interest centred on the
activities of the Hudson's Bay Company. Incorporated by Charles II in 1670
as the 'Gentlemen Adventurers trading into Hudson's Bay' and led by Prince
Rupert, they had been inspired by the thought of getting into Hudson's Bay
and establishing trading posts ahead of the French. In this they had been
successful, so they later extended their field of operation over the whole of
Canada and later still to the islands north of the mainland. The remote Arctic
establishments could only be supplied by sea and it was the voyage of the
tough little Nascopie that the archdeacon had recorded on film. There were
hunting scenes, trading scenes, pictures taken under the midnight sun, of
polar bears and walrus, of far-away places and people, enough to titillate the
imagination of any schoolboy. Moreover, from what our speaker said, it was
fairly obvious that this great company employed young people who did not
have any special qualifications. I summoned up my courage to confront the
authorities and request further details. An interview was arranged with the
archdeacon himself. It was to take place in the headmaster's study on the
The missionary was looking out of the window at the boys
scuttling about in the quad on that wet and windy February morning when I
crept into the holy of holies. I thought that he looked rather surprised when he
saw me. He said:
'You wanted to see me I believe?'
'Yes sir,' I replied, not knowing quite how to develop the
'How can I help you?'
'I wanted to ask about the Hudson's Bay Company and what age
the apprentices have to be,' I blurted out. The archdeacon looked at me in
silence for what seemed to be a very long time. It was fairly obvious that he
did not consider me to be the stuff of which 'Gentlemen Adventurers' are
made. Then he said slowly:
'I think they do sometimes take boys of sixteen if they are
suitable, mostly they are rather older. Why do you ask? Are you thinking of
'Yes,' I replied. I knew that I should expand my answers but
somehow dried up in the face of what seemed to be disapproval. The
missionary sensed my nervousness.
'What makes you think you would like the life up there?' he
asked. 'It's not an easy place to live in you know. Many of the posts are just
one man among the Eskimos and Indians and no other post near enough
even to visit.'
The slight softening of the archdeacon's attitude released my
tongue sufficiently for me to explain our dilemma. He listened in silence.
When I had finished he actually smiled.
'Well,' he said, 'I can understand your anxiety to help your mother
and I can probably help you with the company, but you should understand
what it is you are doing. What about your exams? Have you taken School
Certificate yet? Even if the company ignores such things, you may need
some qualifications later in your life.'
'I should take School Certificate this summer, but that would
mean waiting until next year. Things would be very bad at home by then.'
'Do you know anything about northern Canada apart from what
you heard in my talk?' 'Only what I have read in books.'
'It's a very lonely life as I have said. The supply ship comes up
once a year. At a small post it may only stay for a few hours and that is the
only contact with the outside world until the next year. There is just a small
house and a store. You will have to forget about cinemas, theatres, dance
halls and everything like that. The ship brings up a small amount of fresh food
but after that has gone you have to hunt for yourself. There are just six posts
on Baffin Island, which is three or four times the size of England, and about
fifteen Europeans. The weather is generally cold, except for a week or two in
the summer. Sometimes in the winter the temperature goes down to forty
below zero. Some posts have a wireless receiving set but they don't work
very well because of the distance from the stations.'
The archdeacon made this little speech as though determined to
counteract the favourable impression created by his film show.
'What about doctors?' I asked, more from nerves than for any
'On Baffin Island there is just one doctor. Usually if people
become ill they have to do the best they can with their medicine chest.'
I was more careful with my next question.
'What sort of animals do they hunt?'
'Seals,' he replied without enthusiasm. 'Some deer. Ducks. Polar
bears. Fish of course, salmon trout mainly and cod further south. Walrus and
the larger seals for feeding the dogs.'
It seemed pointless to ask any further questions. After all the
months of searching for a way out of our dilemma, the providential arrival of
the archdeacon with his news that the Hudson's Bay Company would
probably take me on right away decided the issue.
'I would like to go for an interview if it can be arranged.'
'Very well. I will see what I can do. In any case, you will have time
in the next week or two to think about it all.'
So ended my first meeting with the Archdeacon of the Arctic.
Within a few days I was summoned to an interview in London.
From my point of view it was a great success. They gave me a closely
printed contract to take away and study. I never did find out what it actually
said for it was written in legal jargon well above my head. Everyone was very
friendly, they gave me £1 for expenses and even suggested that I should go
to the cinema before returning to school. Perhaps they were thinking of the
years that I might have to spend without cinemas.
The second interview was more intimidating. I had to wait half an
hour in an ante-room before I was called in to the departmental manager's
office. It was a splendid office with a thick red carpet and leather armchairs.
The manager gave me a very earnest talk. There wasn't any Mr Hudson's
Bay, he said, so that every hard-working apprentice had a thick carpet and
leather chaired suite within his sights, or at the very least a chief trader's
certificate to hang on the wall, if he could survive forty years in the
Eventually the talking was over and they produced the official
contract, now with all the details filled in. I was to bind myself for five years to
the company, serving wherever they might decide to send me. They would
keep me and pay me 10 s. (50p) per week, though should I rise above the
apprentice level during the period, some modest increase in salary could be
The terms did not appear unduly harsh. The money did seem to
be a little on the short side even for those depressed days, but that was a
fairly common complaint at the time, so I signed the document and even light-
heartedly agreed to become a competent bookkeeper and typist during the
few weeks of waiting before they shipped me off to Canada. Such is the
foolish optimism of youth.
One immediate benefit arising from my decision became quickly
obvious. I was no longer an inconspicuous monitor of my school. An aura
compounded of snow, ice, dogs and polar bears separated me from my fellow
boys, even those who had reached the dizzy heights of the First XV. To my
astonishment, this also actually clouded the vision of some of the masters. I
exploited this situation to the full so that my last few weeks were the
happiest of my years at the school.
My housemaster, for some reason or another, was the last to hear
of my new status, and when he called me in to go over my end-of-term report
he appeared to think that I was still just an ordinary schoolboy. It seemed
that my progress in scripture had only been rated as 'fair'. He did not feel it to
be satisfactory that the word 'fair' should appear on the report of one of his
monitors and he might feel it necessary to demote me.
I quickly set his mind at rest by telling him my news. A curious
expression came over his face when he heard that I was off to the wilds,
rather as though I had opened some door in his mind that had been closed
for a very long time. He wrote to me in the Arctic several times and I later
heard that my replies had been read out at prayers, a signal mark of
At the end of term a special train came to the school station to
pick up the boys travelling to London or beyond. The train left just after 6 a.m.
in order to avoid the morning rush, so it was very early one spring morning
that I discarded my school uniform and, puffed up with sufficient false pride to
still any lurking doubts, set off to prepare myself for my life among the
Some years previously, an old great-uncle of ours had died,
leaving my siblings and me £52 each. As I was shortly to become an earner
in my own right, I dipped into this money to equip myself for my new life and
at once purchased a colourful shirt, riding breeches and a horsy jacket. This
gave me, on such occasions as I actually appeared in public in my new
outfit, a sufficiently bizarre appearance to cause one of the more spiteful of
our neighbours to remark: 'He looks quite colonial already, doesn't he?'
My mother, still under forty years old, had hardly dared to even
think about the day when she would finally be released to live again, and now
suddenly it was within sight. Already she and my sister were filling up the
forms necessary to obtain an assisted passage to New Zealand, where they
would join my brothers.
Shortly after my arrival home, an important-looking letter came
from the Hudson's Bay Company. It reminded me rather sternly that I had
undertaken to achieve competence in bookkeeping and typing before leaving
England, and warned me that I would have to produce certificates to avoid
being left behind on the quayside. A visit one afternoon to an established
business college in the town indicated that this was not going to be as easy
as it sounded. They smiled pityingly and showed us the door. We journeyed
round all the other colleges in the town. The answer was always the same.
They did not undertake to turn out typists and bookkeepers in a matter of
weeks. Finally, to my horror, mother unearthed a girls' college willing to
attempt the impossible task.
My frantic efforts to spare myself this frightful indignity were
unavailing. In these days of the easy mixing of young people of both sexes it
is hard to credit the conditions that prevailed seventy years ago. At school no
females were allowed. Even the maids, unless they were grey-haired, had to
operate out of sight of the boys. Consequently, unless there was a good
social life at home, boys and young men were awkward in their relationships
with girls, even singly. Now I was to be put in with a whole college of them!
Like some rare oddity, I was placed at a desk facing two rows of
girls and was so busy watching for slights and suspecting all kinds of
indignities that I never got to know any of them. I was to become aware
before leaving that these girls had a much better idea of natural behaviour
than I did.
The women in charge of the place had pulled a few strings, and a
few days before my departure presented me with an official-looking but vague
document. This declared me to be indoctrinated, both as to the keeping of
books and typewriting, though not accepting any responsibility for the
outcome of my activities.
After the presentation, one of the other pupils, a small plain girl
whose nose was slightly flattened as though having been pressed against a
window pane too long, rushed forward and pushed a small package into my
hand. It was from them all, she said, to wish me well in whatever outlandish
part of the world it was to which I was going.
This sudden expression of goodwill from my contemporaries, and
girls at that, quite overcame me. The unexpected kindness never faded from
my mind and the gift, a small silver propelling pencil, remained one of my
prize possessions for many years.
The Hudson's Bay Company apparently expected me to transform
myself from a schoolboy into a practical handyman in the few weeks
available between leaving school and the departure for Canada. They sent a
list of the more important arts which it would be wise for me to cultivate.
Apart from the bookkeeping and typing, it was desirable, they wrote, to gain
a knowledge of the combustion engine, some idea of first aid and experience
of simple cooking.
The far northern districts of Canada, being so isolated, were totally
dependent on sea travel by motor boat for summer hunting. There were no
mechanics as such, so it was important that as many people as possible
should be capable of keeping the engines running. The lack of doctors meant
that the post staff would have to deal with accidents and illness and a
knowledge of basic first aid was vital. Apparently, few Eskimo women had
any idea of cooking, so we would have to do our share of preparing the meals.
As the list of necessary accomplishments grew, doubts began to
creep into my mind. Had this apparently ideal solution to our problem blinded
me to the reality of the situation in which I was going to find myself ? Not
even my mother, always prepared to believe the best about me, would have
claimed any practical virtues for me. Yet it seemed that it was practical
people who were wanted. Of what use would it have been to be top of the
German class when the motor boat broke down? How could a sound
knowledge of history stop me from being sick when someone came to see
me with a bone sticking out of their arm and blood everywhere? Would the
promise that the form master had assured me I had shown in English give me
any confidence to prepare a meal for the weary traveller?
These fears subsided when the final documents arrived for my
mother and sister to sign for their passage to New Zealand. Amid the
excitement at the prospect of an early release, my natural optimism
reasserted itself. When the last day came, it seemed unlikely that we should
ever spend time together in England again, so the three of us took a picnic
and hired a boat to laze down a river through the quiet Somerset countryside,
where we had passed many happy hours in days gone by.
That night I said goodbye to my grandmother. She seemed much
affected. She said that she wished that she had had more money so that we
could have stayed in England and not gone so far away, but the family
fortunes had dwindled and there was nothing she could do. She gave me a
little package wrapped up in tissue paper. It contained two spoons and a fork,
silver with her family crest stamped on the handles. This was to remind me of
all those people who had stared down on my childhood, and how well some
of them had acquitted themselves.
Mother and I set off for London early the next morning, my sister
having already gone back to her job in Bristol. We stayed at an old-fashioned
hotel, and went to a theatre, and after breakfast the next morning made our
way quietly to the ten o'clock rendezvous at Euston station. I remember
thinking back to our first parting, on the day that mother had taken me down
to start school. The tears had streamed down my face then and she had tried
to console me by saying that it would only be a few weeks before the
holidays. This time the tears streamed down her face as we began to move,
and I did not know what to say.
Five years suddenly seemed a very, very long time.
I remember little about the voyage across the Atlantic. Being a summer
passage, it was calm and uneventful I suppose, with little to do except eat,
sleep and play deck games until we reached the St Lawrence river and had
our first glimpse of our future homeland. We had a brief run ashore at
Quebec, just enough to say that we had set foot in Canada, then the next
day docked at Montreal, where our posts would be assigned.
Our accommodation on the ship had seemed almost luxurious, so
our temporary home in the city was something of a let-down. The public
rooms were sparsely furnished with trestle tables and wooden chairs and
there was little attempt to reach any standard of comfort, but the people who
ran the place were good-hearted souls, who kept our spirits up with an ample
supply of good plain food.
The Hudson's Bay Company offices in Montreal were in McGill
Street, and though half our number had taken the train westward, there
seemed to be quite a crowd of us milling about in the comparatively small
office space. We met the men in charge of our areas and most of the
apprentices were told where they would be going. Another boy, Ian Smith,
and I were 'odd men out' for whom a home would be found during the course
of the summer travels.
To relieve the congestion, a party of us were sent down to the
docks to work on the Nascopie, the ship that the archdeacon had told us
about at school, now loading up for her annual trip with the year's supply for
the distant posts.
After the majestic liner which had carried us so smoothly across
the Atlantic, the Nascopie seemed very small and insignificant. Her decks
only just rose above the level of the wharf, whereas the liner had towered up
above the dockside. Her paintwork was dark and workmanlike whereas the
Duchess had gleamed and dazzled in white. None the less, many of us were,
in the years to come, to form an affection for the little ship which no ocean
liner could ever have inspired. Sometimes she was naughty. In rough weather
there were few tricks that were beyond her, particularly when coming down
the Labrador coast with only a few light bales of furs in her holds. She would
then creak and groan in the most alarming manner, but survived the worst
hammerings the North Atlantic and the Arctic seas could serve up, to return
each year, like a faithful friend, to keep us company for a few hours or a day
or so in our northern solitude.
More than once the Nascopie took on a double duty, when lesser
craft than she gave up the unequal struggle against fog and ice. The old ship
had been built during or just before the First World War, and was one of the
finest steel icebreakers ever constructed. During the war, she was employed
smashing the ice in the White Sea, and according to all reports was well
ahead of the Russians in this field. Once, in a convoy in heavy ice, the huge
Russian icebreaker leading the convoy got stuck. The Nascopie bustled up
alongside and hailed the Russian.
'Shall I go ahead, sir?' shouted the captain.
'How the devil can you go ahead when I'm stuck?' roared back the
'Shall I try?' 'Oh, go to hell if you want to,' snapped the Russian.
The Nascopie broke through the ice jam to lead the convoy into
harbour, and for good measure, on the way home, she sank a submarine.
Small wonder that she grew on us almost as though she were human.
On that first Monday morning, however, we were not greatly
impressed. In fact by the time we had finished carrying the heavy mail
boxes – and it is extraordinary how heavily a year's mail can weigh – we
were not sorry to see the last of her for the day.
We soon made friends around our temporary home. One Saturday
night, a French Canadian family held a wedding reception in the building. Two
or three of us were hanging about so they invited us to join the party. During
the evening, we were approached by a rather unsteady-looking man who,
after casting a glance at a priest standing near by, said in a deep but
penetrating whisper: 'H.B.C. eh? Do you know what that means? ''Here
before Christ,'' that's what it means!'
He told us that he had been trading with the company for over
thirty years. Ian asked him if he had retired and the man roared with laughter.
'Retired?' he shouted. 'I'm never going to retire. They'll find me
one day somewhere along the trail and I hope they'll leave me there.' He
waved his arm round the room then went on.
'This sort of thing's not for me. I only came because she happens
to be a niece. I'll not be down this way again. Victor's my name. They'll know
me up the river. I don't have much in this world but I'm free. I go where I like
when I like and I'm off home in the morning.' He waved his arm and marched
off towards the table where the food was set out. I was often to think about
Victor in the years to come, his boisterous good health, his obvious
contentment with the life he had chosen, and his best clothes, which looked
as if they had not been worn for many a long day.
We met three sisters at the wedding too who had come from
Three Rivers and had made the trip down with their father and mother. They
were good fun and Ian Smith and I and another chap took them out for a
picnic the next day, as they spent the weekend in the city. It was the first
time that I had ever been out with a girl other than my sister, and one of
them, Laurette, said she would write to me. I rashly promised to write and
send her a fur from wherever I was. She did write too but alas did not receive
the promised fur.
By the end of the next week, so far as we could see, the
Nascopie was just about fully laden. We were not surprised to be told to
pack up again in preparation for moving on. Then at the last minute, because
of the shortage of accommodation on the ship, Ian, myself and three others
were told that we were to take passage on another freighter, which was going
up as far north as the Labrador coast and Ungava Bay. Somewhere up there
we should join up again with the Nascopie. This meant that we should be
sailing a few days later.
The evening before we parted we all clubbed together to buy some
beer and had a small party – at least we sang songs and were generally very
noisy. Now that we knew that we were to be northerners, an air of easy
comradeship settled over the gathering and it seemed likely that we should
have much to do with each other over the next few years. Such is the
remoteness of life in the Arctic that I was only to see three of the dozen or so
present after that season.
The five of us that were to be left behind went down to the docks
to see the rest of our party depart. Prepared for laughter and banter, we had
not expected the sailing of the little ship to be so stirring. The vessel was
bedecked in pennants, apart from the Red Ensign at the stern and the Blue
Peter at the mainmast. A detachment of the Royal Canadian
Mounted Police, in their scarlet uniforms, was drawn up on the deck for
inspection by a high-ranking officer. There were priests, government officials,
traders, doctors and scientists. In her holds, we knew, were the supplies for
a territory ten times the size of England. We shook hands with our friends.
Some of the ladies farewelling their nearest and dearest cried, while another
group was singing.
Then the siren sounded out in long blasts, the propellor churned
the water and she was away. A nearby harbour tug blew her a rousing
farewell and more and more sirens sounded their good wishes. Black smoke
belched from her funnel and as she moved out into the stream we could see
clearly all the things lashed to her decks. Boats. Canoes. Drums of gasoline.
All sorts of queer-shaped things covered with tarpaulins.
Ian and I watched her manoeuvre into midstream and then head
out of the harbour, the white pennant of the Royal Mail slapping in the wind at
the top of her mast. Down river, the Canadian navy, in the form of two
destroyers, dipped flags in salute as she steamed by. Just beside me
somebody's friend had forgotten a last message, bawling out 'Happy
Christmas' in the forlorn hope of being heard on the ship. We began to
understand why they had told us that to think about the Arctic without
thinking about the Hudson's Bay Company was like writing a book about sea
without mentioning ships.
A few days after the departure of the Nascopie, the remaining five
of us set off quietly for the docks, taking with us all our worldly possessions.
By ten o'clock that morning we were assembled in a rather gloomy shed at
the city end of the wharf, where the van had unloaded us. The ship on which
we were to take passage, the Ungava, was alongside the far end of the wharf,
so we had a fair way to go with all our baggage.
One of our party could hardly move, so heavily laden was he with
cases and packages, and his crab-like motion attracted the attention of a
'Why didn't you bring your bed, boy?' the man guffawed.
'Where the devil are you off to with all that load?'
'I'm going north for five years,' came a voice from behind the
parcels and cases.
'Well in five years' time you'll either be dead or carrying twice that
much on one shoulder,' shouted the man amid his laughter as he went on his
way to the dock gates.
There was no glamour attached to the departure of the Ungava.
She was just a rather rusty old freighter, and an ugly one at that, setting off
on a more or less routine passage along the Labrador coast. She was heavily
laden. Her well decks were completely filled in with drums of oil, so that care
had to be taken when passing across them to avoid falling overboard.
There was no one to see us off, apart from a couple of officials
from the office, so without any fuss or palaver, about an hour after we had
come aboard, the crew cast off the lines and, belching black smoke, like the
Nascopie we set off down the river.
The old ship had no licence to carry passengers. We had had to
sign on as crew, deckhands, stewards, stokers and the like at a token wage
of one dollar per week. I was allocated to a job as 'assistant purser', which
did not please some of the others, for they considered it to be a cushy task
compared to theirs. As it turned out that I had laboriously to type out page
after page of bills of lading while they had little to do after a slight scurry of
activity in the mornings, they were quite pleased.
Ian and I went out on deck that first evening, making our way
perilously over the oil barrels to a space on the stern, from where we could
watch the muddy waters stirred up by the propellor and the coastline
dropping behind us. We were somewhere between the two cities of Montreal
and Quebec, the former just a distant glow on the horizon, the latter not yet
visible. Above the hills, the summer lightning forked and flashed and the
thunder rumbled distantly. A few lights twinkled on both shores. A small
township, stretched along the bank of the great river, drifted by and dwindled
into the distance.
We did not speak much. I think we both realized at last that
before long the lights of our accustomed world would have faded behind us.
Ahead would stretch the vast empty wilderness of the Arctic to which we had
so lightheartedly committed ourselves.
Copyright © 1995-2004 by Edward Beauclerk Maurice. Reprinted by
permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.