For British War Brides and friends Irene Marsh and Joan Spencer, the Second World War was more than a black and white newsreel. This was a colourful and exciting time that would change their lives forever. The two women who met in Winnipeg were best friends for over 60 years when Joan passed away in 2022. In February 1998, I was fortunate to write the stories of these two contemporaries of Dickies From Gunton: Canadian Brothers in Two World Wars.
First published in February 1998 By Liz Katynski
Joan Spencer came to Winnipeg as a British War Bride after the Second World War.
Part One: Joan Spencer
Joan Spencer was born and raised in Birmingham, England. And there, as a teen working in a local restaurant- a job she took somewhere between school and deciding where she would go from there, Joan met her late husband, Arthur.
Arthur Spencer was born and raised in St. Vital (later a part of Winnipeg), she says. “He had the nicest smile and curly brown hair. He had the nicest face.” The 22-year-old was with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, working in communications. “He was headed for Nottingham, where it is said you will find the most beautiful girls in all of England. He stopped in Birmingham first.”
The year was 1942 and she was 17. “The restaurant was on the main street. I wore a black dress and white apron. One day, two handsome soldiers came in. One was French and flirty and the other was smitten, with me.”
At the end of her shift, Spencer found the young soldier waiting outside the restaurant for her. She took him home to meet her parents. “My mom was glad he was not a yank,” she laughs. Six months later, they were married.
Joan then served in the British women’s army for three and a half years, while her husband continued his duties. She drove a truck, transporting German prisoners from the docks to the prisons. At the end of the war, some of them were only 15 or 16 years old and quite terrified. Others were quite handsome. She also rode a motorcycle. “As a young person, you feel no fear. These were fun and exciting times,” she says. She wanted to venture further, but because her husband would not give his written permission for her to travel, she remained in England and Wales during her service. “The men were taking care of us, and I accepted it at the time.”
Birmingham was on Hitler’s hit list, because it produced munitions, she says. During her army service, she would catch a taxi downtown and head home to the suburbs for the weekend. Many times the cab would have to stop and back up for some distance and find another way to go, to avoid the huge craters in the road. Fires burned on the sides of the street, and she could feel their heat from inside the cab. Incendiary bombs lit up the area. She remembers the low hum of the German planes flying overhead. Air raid wardens and fire fighters worked many hours to keep people safe. And though she was entitled to the same rations as the soldiers during her service, Joan remembers her mom getting her weekly rations in a small bag. For example, there were only two ounces of butter per person per week. Joan says she still has trouble sitting down to an extravagant meal.
Joan came to Winnipeg in April 1946. “I was seasick all the way here. I thought we would never get here. My first sight of Canada was the rocky, barren countryside of the East Coast. It is not a pleasing landscape.” She remembers her husband coming to greet her, in his big fedora, brown tweed jacket and grey pants. “He looked strange out of uniform. He looked rather odd.”
The couple lived with his parents in one bedroom of their small house for a time, and Arthur had a secure job at the post office. Joan had trouble adjusting to life in Winnipeg. “I hated Canada. I was terribly homesick. My in-laws were very kind but I missed England so.” She remembers Portage Avenue storefronts looking like props on a movie set. And when the family gave her a shower, a custom with which she was very uncomfortable, “A shower was just a rain shower to me,” she says. “It seemed like charity.”
The couple’s first home cost them $3,500. It was a tiny house on Vivian Avenue, with one bedroom, no hot water or bath, yet it did have a potbellied stove and an indoor toilet. “It was a castle to me. I was expecting. We got a crib for the baby.”
Joan took her first daughter with her for a return visit home. “It was the 1950s. They suffered a long time there after the war. I realized then that the Canadian way of living was very good. We had a good life.”