The War Children that Tried to Come to Canada–SS City of Benares



Carleton Place British Children sent to Canada during the war–Photo from-Carleton Place and Beckwith Heritage Museum

Not only were children sent to Canada and other countries as British Home Children– but *others were sent away from home during the second world war. I guess it was a way the parents thought they could protect their children from the atrocities of war.

For the less well-off or well-connected  families; their chance came starting on 19 June 1940 when the UK government, responding to grassroots offers from the Empire, announced a plan for evacuation of children to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa. The announcement read that “a total of 20,000 could be sent off immediately, of which 10,000 would go to Canada.

*”I was put on a train with a ticket around my neck at four years old in charge of the guard bound for Northhampton away from the bombings. My older brother went thru the same experience. My mother tells me she was bawling her eyes out at the train station while she put him on the train, with a ticket round his neck, and sent him off to nowhere that she knew. But she did it to keep him alive – which is what parents are for. The “authorities” had no idea where he was for 4 yrs until he was returned. My mother didn’t know if he was alive or dead.  You do what you have to do”.


There were some children sent to Lanark County and some in Carleton Place were under the guardianship of Hilda Martin in possibly 1942 or 1943 at the Gillies home at the corner of Bridge Street and Townline.

Unfortunately some did not make it to Canada and yesterday I found an account of those children that perished at sea. History is not always smiles and chuckles, and since I did not know about this- I had to write about it.

The date was September 17, 1940, and it was 10 p.m. in the middle of the North Atlantic. Already 600 miles out to sea, the SS City of Benares was carrying 90 children being evacuated to Canada to escape the effects of the Blitz and they could wait out the end of the war in safety.  They had all been told to get into their pyjamas as the captain thought they were safe from any danger and had even congratulated them all at supper that very night.

However outside in the dark of night there was a storm raging and a Nazi U-Boat had been following the S.S. City of Benares. The torpedo hit the centre of the ship and immediately all lights were extinguished. The sinking ship took on an immediate list preventing the launching of many of the life rafts and trapping numerous crew and passengers below decks.

As a result, many of the 400 people on board were unable to escape. As hundreds of survivors struggled in the water during the fury of a raging storm, the U~boat´s searchlight swept over the chaotic scene, before it left the area for good.

The survivors in the boats with the children only clad in pyjamas huddled in the life boats were not rescued for nearly 24 hours, as the nearest allied units were 300 miles away. In that time dozens of children and adults died from exposure, or drowned, leaving only 147 survivors.

One boat containing music teacher 41 year-old Miss Mary Cornish along with 5 boys and 2 girls was not picked up for a further eight days until aircraft spotted it close to the shores of Ireland. In total 255 people (including 77 of the evacuees) died.

While British parents mourned the loss of their children the British Nazi propaganda machine *Lord Haw-Haw  aka William Joyce had a field day with it.


Survivors: Five survivors of the S.S City of Benares passenger ship which was sunk by a German U-Boat in September 1940. Left to right, Kenneth Sparkes, Derek Capel, Freddie Steele, Billy Short and Howard Clayton



*Lord Haw-Haw was a nickname applied to World War II-era broadcaster William Joyce, remembered for his pro-German propaganda broadcasts that opened with “Jairmany calling, Jairmany calling”, spoken in an affected upper-class English accent.

The same nickname was also applied to some other broadcasters of English-language propaganda from Germany, but it is Joyce with whom the name is now overwhelmingly identified. There are various theories about its origin.

Related Reading

The Children of Ross Dhu –Evacuation to Canada

Canadians Just Wanted to Use me as a Scullery-Maid

Come and visit the Lanark County Genealogical Society Facebook page– what’s there? Cool old photos–and lots of things interesting to read.

Information where you can buy all Linda Seccaspina’s books-You can also read Linda in Hometown News and now in The Townships Sun


About lindaseccaspina

Before she laid her fingers to a keyboard, Linda was a fashion designer, and then owned the eclectic store Flash Cadilac and Savannah Devilles in Ottawa on Rideau Street from 1976-1996. She also did clothing for various media and worked on “You Can’t do that on Television”. After writing for years about things that she cared about or pissed her off on American media she finally found her calling. She is a weekly columnist for the Sherbrooke Record and documents history every single day and has over 6500 blogs about Lanark County and Ottawa and an enormous weekly readership. Linda has published six books and is in her 4th year as a town councillor for Carleton Place. She believes in community and promoting business owners because she believes she can, so she does.

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