A war bride’s battle on the home front
Heart’s Content’s oldest resident gave up everything for love
At the kitchen table in her own home on a small lane in Heart’s Content, a 94-year-old woman sits quietly, preparing to share her story of love and woe.
Lining the walls around the house are black and white photos of long ago, some still in pristine condition. Memories of a life she once knew.
Surrounded by her daughter Frances, her two sons, Roy and Calvin, and her grandson Chris, Betty Piercey — the oldest person in her community — looks around, takes a deep breath and begins to recall the tale of how she became a war bride and left everything and everyone in her life behind in Scotland for a new life in Newfoundland. Although her voice is just above a whisper, her emotions are raw.
Her eyes glisten with the first memory as she opens her mouth to speak.
A love story
In the early 1940s, while the Second World War was waging, Betty was in her 20s and engaged to be married.
She was waiting on the side of a road in Edinburgh for a tramcar to bring her home, but before it arrived, a young Newfoundland man approached her. They exchanged pleasantries, and the young man offered to walk her home. She graciously accepted.
This man was George Piercey from Heart’s Content, who was serving with the Newfoundland Overseas Forestry Unit. During the war, some 3,600 men from this province served in this unit, which helped maintain Great Britain’s coal industry by supply timber for the mines.
She called off her engagement to the other man, she explains hesitantly, her cheeks turning pink. After only six dates, Betty and George were married, and soon became parents to their first child, a son, whom they named after his father.
When George received his war release papers in 1945, he was free to leave and go back home to Newfoundland. Of course, Betty and the baby went too.
In fact, she was one of an estimated 800 war brides to settle in this province after the war ended.
She left behind all her family members, including her youngest sister Frances, who was 16 at that time. But many of her friends came to Newfoundland with their new spouses as well.
The family joined hundreds of other passengers on the transatlantic steam ship, the SS Drottningholm — a transport ship used for military soldiers from Canada.
But Betty said if she knew what she was about to experience, she may have reconsidered the move.
When the ship docked, Betty remembers some 500 war brides staying aboard the ship, and returning to their homeland.
Culture shock is an understatement for what Betty says she witnessed when she arrived in St. John’s. It was even worse when she stepped foot in Heart’s Content.
It was as if she had taken a time machine and travelled back 30 years, Frances explains.
There were no roads, no lights and no indoor plumbing. There was also no bakery, all things which Betty was accustomed to having.
In her Scottish accent, Betty describes how different her surroundings were.
“Everything was perfect over there (in Scotland),” she says.
She came from a family that was in a much better place financially than the Piercey family. But they made due.
One of the most surprising things Betty remembers is how most people in Heart’s Content could not read or write. She had completed school in Edinburgh, just like everyone else there. But there was no school or any form of formal education in her new home.
As Betty began to settle into her new life, in a house she says resembled a shed, she had to learn how to bake, gather boughs from trees and live without luxuries she once had.
Betty was oblivious to the actual distance she was from her former home.
“Mom thought she could just hop on a bus and head home,” Frances explains. “She had no idea where she was going. Newfoundland wasn’t on any maps.”
But there were no buses, and moving home wasn’t an option.
Just like many war brides in Newfoundland, Betty experienced quite a bit of hardship. It was not only financial, but emotional as well.
She describes her in-laws, including George’s mother and sister, as unaccepting of her. The couple and their sons lived with the in-laws until the early 1950s, when they moved in with a friend.
Growing up a very passive woman, Betty describes not having use of the kettle and not being able to stand up for herself.
“I had to boil water in a milk can,” she says. “(George’s mother) used to hide the kettle.”
She had wondered most her life why she wasn’t accepted into the family, but her mother-in-law died many decades ago without telling her, although she says she did treat her better just before her death.
Betty says she has moved past all the negativity, saying she is a survivor.
In the years that followed, George and Betty did get their own place, a car and raised their six children. They eventually had running water in the 1970s, as well.
“We didn’t have a lot,” Frances says. “But we were clothed and fed, and mom made sure we went to school.”
With such a difficult path in life, Betty stayed strong and never gave up on her life and family in Heart’s Content.
“I had a very good husband,” she smiles. “And good friends (to keep me going).”
Although Betty has lived most of her life in Newfoundland, she now says since George passed in 1989, she has wanted to go back to her homeland.
“If I had a house over there, I’d go,” she explains.
The soft-spoken woman then says she wouldn’t change much if she could because it has made her the strongest person and mother she could be. She is in good health and still lives in her own home, surrounded by loved ones.
As Betty finishes her story, the family sits around, laughing and chatting about memories and times gone by.
A hint of a smile can be seen on Betty’s face, knowing she just shared the most intimate details of her life. And she is happy.
Betty Piercey shares her story of becoming a war bride, relocating to Newfoundland with her late husband George (in photo) and the hardships she endured.