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Rough crossings

York Membery looks back to an era when scores of poor Britons sailed the Atlantic in search of a bet

Ten pounds must have gone a long way in 1928. It had to - because that's how much my father had with him when he left Britain for Canada eighty years ago. I had always wanted to find out more about the lost Canadian chapter in Dad's life. He was in his fifties when I was born and died twenty-odd years ago (just after I had left university), taking the story of his time across the pond to the grave.

When he died, I discovered some old sepia photographs of his time in Canada, along with the odd letter which suggested, much to my surprise, that he had planned to stay there for good. I vowed to retrace his journey some day and find out why he eventually returned home.

This year I finally got to visit Halifax in Nova Scotia. Once an important British (and still Canada's main Atlantic) naval base, the city is home to Pier 21 (, a former arrival centre that is now a museum of immigration - the Canadian equivalent of Ellis Island, New York. Between 1928 and 1971, one and a half million immigrants, roughly a third of whom were British, passed through here.

In my father's day, crossing the Atlantic took up to a week. Some migrants saw it as the start of a great adventure, speaking excitedly of seeing "pack ice and icebergs"; others were too seasick to care. The museum tells the stories of the various migrant groups, among them the "home children", some 100,000 of whom (orphans or children of the "undeserving poor") were sent out from Britain's grimy cities in the hope of securing for them a brighter future in Canada's wide open spaces. However, many found no better a life, as a moving oral testimonial from a Scottish orphan girl sent out in the late Twenties makes clear: she caught chilblains, lost both her legs to gangrene and never got married, because "no one could afford me".

My father had sailed from Southampton "third class" on the Empress of Scotland, a former German liner that had been handed over to Britain as a reparations payment after the First World War. His fellow passengers came from Britain and beyond (several were Scandinavian). Some described their religion as Hebrew.

Among other things, the new arrivals were asked if they were "in any way mentally or physically defective or tubercular". Just about everyone ticked the "No" box. They were also asked if they intended to reside in Canada permanently. "Yes," my father answered - and the words "Landed immigrant" were stamped on his papers.

My father had lined up a job in Victoria, British Columbia, and back then, if you wanted to cross Canada "from sea to shining sea", rail was the fastest, easiest option, though the journey to the Pacific coast still took the best part of a week.

Transporting migrants across Canada was a big money earner for the Canadian Pacific Railway company and its rivals up until the 1950s, when the airlines began to grab an ever bigger slice of the action. Canadian Pacific, which began operating a transatlantic service in 1903, actively sought migrants in Britain and Europe, advertising land for sale at "$2.50 an acre" on the prairies. It even laid on special "Colonist" carriages for migrants which had basic sleeping facilities and a small kitchen at one end of the car.

That said, some migrants got a considerably warmer welcome than others: the arrival in 1913 of several hundred Russians, heading for the prairies, caused such alarm that they were put on a sealed train with armed guards when they landed in Halifax, before being despatched, parcel-like, across the country.

On finally reaching Victoria - still the most "English" of Canadian cities, if more reminiscent of a kinder and gentler England of the past - my father started work at a local dairy.

However, Dad's North American odyssey did not last long. The only hint of an explanation I had was a relative telling me that he'd been "let go" by his employer after a couple of years. After a stint hawking Christmas cards door to door, he returned to Britain.

Now, however, having visited the Pier 21 museum, I understood for the first time why things hadn't worked out. The Great Depression, triggered by the Wall Street Crash of 1929, bit that much deeper in the United States and Canada than in Britain. As such, the 1930s were the only decade in Canada's history during which more people left the country than arrived.

Perhaps my father's shame at not having made a success of things across the pond was the reason why he never spoke of this all-but-forgotten episode in his life. And although following in his footsteps was a sobering experience, it finally helped me resolve a family riddle - even if I did need somewhat more spending money than Dad had on him when he arrived in Canada all those years ago.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?