Click to hear the song before reading…
One of six siblings, Chrissie Mills was born in a working class suburb of Birmingham in 1922. She was seventeen at the outbreak of the second world war and worked nights in a factory, along with thousands of other women, providing the necessary workforce whilst the majority of men were conscripted. Birmingham was the beating industrial heartland of England with numerous factories producing war goods, amongst the most prominent being the Spitfire factory at Castle Bromwich and the Austin factory in Longbridge producing military vehicles. This, of course, made it a target for the Luftwaffe, with nightly raids at the start of 1940 and continuing right into 1943 resulting in over 2,000 dead and 3,000 injured. Only behind London and Liverpool in the tonnage of bombs dropped.
Bob Jones and his crew were on a training exercise in the vicinity of Birmingham and in need of some serious R & R, which on one night led them to the Crown Pub in the centre of the city, in the heart of the legal and financial area. The Crown is an old traditional Victorian pub which has served the community for well over a hundred years and would have appealed to the visiting airman with its combination of tradition and, of course, dance nights at the back of the pub. This is where Chrissie and Bob met for the first time.
There were two function rooms at the Crown, a smaller more intimate one, and a much larger room, which would regularly host dance nights. This room became well known in the seventies as the venue where Black Sabbath had their first gigs. But, this was a long way in the future.
These World War II dances were packed and intense affairs, where whirlwind romances started and could end just as quickly. Chrissie was obviously enamoured and impressed with the handsome airman with his tales of a far off country, which in those days, would have been like on another planet for her. This was towards the end of 1943, and then Bob’s squadron, the 425 Alouettes, got stationed in North Africa at Tunis. The stay was not to last long, before at the start of 1944 he was re-stationed back to Tholthorpe in North Yorkshire. At this point it occurred to both of them, that the relationship was something more than casual, and that a long distance relationship between them, him in Yorkshire, her in Birmingham wouldn’t last. So, Bob proposed, and they were married in April 1945 with the reception at Chrissie parents house in Small Heath, Birmingham.
The wedding day…
The choice now was not an easy one: stay in Birmingham in a war ravaged country or head to a new continent with a bright future. It sounds an easy decision, but it wasn’t. It would mean leaving behind everything she knew; her family, friends, the city she grew up in. But finally after long deliberation, she decided to head to Canada with Bob and start a new life, with the knowledge that she probably would never see her family again.
The SS Ile de France set sail from Southampton heading for Nova Scotia on March 30th, 1946. This was one of many war bride transport ships that were organised and paid for by the Canadian government. Chrissie was one of about 45,000 so called ‘war brides’ who made their way across the Atlantic in anticipation of their new lives. All arrivals landed at Pier 21 at Halifax, Nova Scotia. This former ocean liner terminal has been compared in its importance to Canada to that of Ellis Island in New York, taking in large waves of immigrants throughout the years.
The long and arduous journey continued by train to the far distant town of Squamish on the Canadian West Coast, just outside of Vancouver. A journey of a couple of days winding its way through the large open Canadian countryside, until climbing through the Rockies to finally arrive at its destination.
Squamish in 1946 had a population of approximately 5,000, a town built for the burgeoning railway in British Columbia. This was not Birmingham, which even at that time had a population verging on one million. The thoughts going through the new arrival’s head can only be guessed: relief to have arrived, fatigue and maybe slight disappointment.
Bob, in the middle with Chrissie on his right. Bob’s brother is to her right and their father wearing glasses in the front.
Life in Squamish
They settled into married life until Bob eventually got itchy feet and started to look for new challenges, and this came in the form of an offer to move to San Jose in California with his brother to run a flying school. Of course, he jumped at the chance to continue flying. They moved to the states in 1947, into a picture book clapperboard house with apricot trees in the front garden. Chrissie fulfilling the role of the housewife, cooking and looking after the house and husband. But, something was not right. As much as she tried to suppress the growing feeling of unrest, these feelings would simply not go away. She was homesick, it was too hot there, she missed England.
Chrissie flew to England at the start of 1948, the North American adventure had come to a premature end. She wouldn’t end her days in a foreign country, but back in Birmingham after all, surrounded by the friends and family who she thought she would never see again.
She met her new husband, John, in 1950, they both shared a common love of dancing, and started a family. Which is where I come into the story.
My mother never told me that she had been married before, she felt I would think badly of her and maybe not respect her. She only told me when it was unavoidable. So, she kept the story to herself for forty years.
In the eighties, I was a design engineer at Rover cars in Longbridge, Birmingham. One day I was chatting with colleagues when the telephone rang. On the other end of the line was my very excited mother.
‘You’ll never guess who just called.’
‘Yes, that’s right, I won’t’.
Then the penny dropped. Bob had come over for a reunion with former comrades, combined with a trip to the old stomping grounds in Yorkshire. While he was in Birmingham, he had the idea to track down the woman with whom he was married all those years ago.
Where to start?
Was it still there?
Yes, it was, but it’s a different place now to what it was then. He told the taxi driver the story, and he had the idea to call the local radio station, BRMB, and maybe they could put out a broadcast. The station was accommodating, sensing a good story, and duly put out a message. This was heard by Chrissie’s cousin, who called her. The radio station put Chrissie and Bob in touch with each other, and they met up at a top Birmingham hotel with Champagne and strawberries. That was the reason for the phone call I received. She didn’t want to go on her own, so of course, I went along. Curious as well to see the legendary Bob.
Chrissie at the reunion
Bob turned out to be a thoroughly charming man, tall, with a delightful Canadian accent, and during the course of the next few days, he wined and dined my mother, and she had the best time she had had for a long time. She had suffered serious illness, and caused by this, my parents had been separated for a long time. Chrissie lived alone in the old family home.
Bob asked her to return with him to Canada. Whether this was meant seriously is hard to say, but that is not important, he provided her with the will to carry on and see her through the last years of her life.
Bob went to his reunion and the two never saw each other again, she died in 1989 and he in 1993.
Source: Michael Walker