Greatcoats and Glamour Boots

Canadian Woman at War, 1939 - 1945
by Carolyn Gossage

This collection of official wartime records juxtaposed with personal reminiscences is a long-overdue tribute to those women who signed on to serve King and Country in Canada and on overseas postings. Here are some of their comments:

"In basic training, if you hadn't been able to laugh, you wouldn't have been able to retain your sanity. In fact, there were a few who didn't..."

"We had to do what we were told, that was all there was to it. No questions asked. Mind you, I don't think women take to orders as readily as men do."

"Getting overseas was the ultimate for everyone - of course, we didn't know what it was really like. It was just the idea of the excitement and the adventure of it all."

"The first time I went over to the Continent, the Germans were still bonbarding the coast of France, and we had to dodge the flak."

"Having shared that experience was like having a language of your own. It was quite a shock when you left the service - everything had changed."

"I just wonder, if you would turn the clock back, what it would be like today, with so many women being educated. I think it would be much different - an entirely different ball game - because men dominated the whole thing then."

"Bacon and eggs! What a thrill after all those years of powedered eggs."

The foreword to Greatcoats and  Glamour Boots is by Canada's first female astronaut, Dr. Roberta L. Bondar (http://www.robertabondar.com/):

Dr. Roberta L. Bondar
In times of war, humans are capable of accomplishing extraordinary things. In the two world wars of the twentieth century, the balance was struck in favour of good over evil. Fewer books have been written and movies made, however, on the atrocities of war than on heroic deeds of men of action. This perhaps reflects our repulsion of war with its attendant horrors and our need to find something redemptive in the morass of human suffering and destruction. As a nation, Canadians don't like war, but neither do we want to shy away from our responsibility to promote the concept of world peace.

The three themes of war, patriotism, and of individual Canadians accomplishing extraordinary things are captured in Greatcoats and Glamour Boots. This book is about a segment of the population of Canada that might otherwise be buried in the sands of time and the Department of National Defence archives. More often than not female heroes remain unsung. The women who comprise the subject matter of this revised edition overcame so many obstacles and frustrations that flying in space almost pales by comparison.

These were women who lived in a unique time and accomplished remarkable things during the most precious years of their lives. Although they were from different backgrounds and had different expectations, they all wanted to live and experience life with the same degree of opportunity and responsibility afforded to men. And why not?

It is impossible for those of us born in 1945 or later to feel the isolation from loved ones imposed by wartime service or the ever-present possibility of death. We can't imagine the roles that women were expected to assume in the advent of World War II, although in part many of us may relate to the frustration of not being heard, believed in, or accepted as equals. What spirit and determination these women in the 1940s must have had - to try to be all they wanted to be and to have leaders who would go to the wall for change! And it wasn't only women in uniform who felt the time was right; but others, not serving in the military, who realized that they, too, should expect equality of opportunity. The truth is that women are constantly evolving - philosophically, spiritually, emotionally and, most recently, defiantly, in the face of inequality.

As a society, today, we are attempting to incorporate gender equality in practice as well as in principle. But in the 1940s, this was not the norm. There were "women things" and there were "men things". And it takes time to change - attitude first, equipment later. It is not surprising that any woman performing a task previously in the exclusive domain of men would have to cope with a pre-existing design that might not be readily adaptable to her. For instance, the very idea of not being able to adjust the seat in a car, van or sports utility vehicle to accommodate a female habitus is unthinkable by today's standards. In the "Notebook" entries, however, we find mention of a perfect example of the kind of difficulty women were faced with when trying to manoeuvre trucks that had been engineered for male drivers. Women simply had not been expected as part of the military machine. And there is a photograph of a group of women at sea leaning against a railing in what appears to be inclement weather in skirts and nylons, no less. These and numerous other examples highlight the fact that Canadian women in uniform during World War II not only pushed the envelope, they enlarged it.

This book, with Interviews so candidly given for our thoughtful reading, is a milestone in terms of Canadian women's history. If anything is to be learned, it is the lesson to all that the struggle towards gender equality was hard fought and should not quickly be forgotten.

Carolyn Gossage has been steadfast in ferreting out the stories and people in vintage photographs so they are more than nameless faces. These images are vivid reminders of an era that lives in memory - a time of innocence in a time of turmoil. Canadians have been blessed with the example of these women who rallied for the cause of peace. The ripple effect includes the reality of the high percentage of women who are now part of today's workforce and the increasing realization that women are to be taken seriously - very seriously.

WWII was a black and white era indeed, and, although the events are virtually surreal to most of us, the faces could be those of our mothers and grandmothers. These are lives to be celebrated. There are far too few left to thank.


The most surprising sketchbooks of a Victorian gentlewoman

Forgotten Graces
The Travels and Sketches
of a Victorian Gentlewoman

by Carolyn Gossage

This is a book to excite the mind as well as the eye, introducing the unlikely but intriguing combination of fine art and a detective story. The subject, Miss Charlotte Price (1796-1868), a well- travelled British gentlewoman, sketched and painted unstintingly for over fifty years, producing more than 2500 drawings and watercolours of 19th century England and Wales as well as numerous European “Grand Tour” destinations. Incredibly, however, before their reappearance in a rural Ontario village, her collected works remained locked away in a trunk for close to a century.

My chance discovery of the twenty leather-bound volumes containing much of Charlotte Price’s extensive record of her travels at home and abroad marked the beginning of an investigative odyssey-in-the-making. How had they found their way from London, England to a country boarding school in Lakefield, Ontario? Who was this astonishingly prolific and gifted artist? Where and how had she developed her exceptional artistic talent? I found myself confronted with the irresistible allure of the unknown. 

Subsequent attempts to find answers to these and other beguiling questions concerning the elusive Miss Price have since consumed the better part of twenty years. What emerges in this book includes an account of my quest, accompanied by a series of carefully selected illustrations. These will, in turn, be augmented by material from regional archives and excerpts from 19th century travellers’ guides, such as John Murray’s handbooks.

In my view, the unique juxtaposition of an unsolved mystery and the artist’s charmingly rendered images, accompanied by her own observations - as well as those of other travellers of the times - have the potential to attract both national and international interest. In an era that harbours a resurgent nostalgia for the lost graces of the Victorian Age, it seems timely that the life and work of Miss Charlotte Price should be given their due.  

'The Charlotte Price Collection'

A Visual Journal (1819–1868)

The year is 1865. A lace-bonneted British gentlewoman — slightly past middle-age — is posing for a formal photograph. Standing stiffly in front of a typically Victorian backdrop, complete with a a tasteful vase of lilies, she appears a dignified but reluctant subject. Is she perhaps apprehensive of this new technological means of recording exact images? Having spent virtually a lifetime sketching and drawing whatever she found visually exciting or appealing, she may even harbour a certain prior prejudice against this so-called “magic box” that is about to produce a precise replica of herself within a matter of seconds.

Whether or not the results of this photographic foray pleased Miss Charlotte Price, her portrait served as the frontispiece for each of the twenty-three leather-bound volumes sent out from London, England, to the quiet Ontario village of Lakefield in the 1890’s. The drawings and watercolours taken from her original sketchbooks cover a span of fifty years of extensive travel and observation, not only in Britain but on the Continent as well. Underneath the photograph of Charlotte Price is a finely inscribed request phrased with precise delicacy:

These sketches, being the work of a dearly loved sister who died before many of them were finished — and, it is feared, before very many others were sufficiently set, it is kindly, but MOST EARNESTLY requested that they may not be touched by the finger. She left above two thousand five hundred sketches and it is but just to her memory to remark that many preserved in these volumes would never have been placed there by her own hands — some of them being amongst her earliest sketches — others hastily taken and very many with observations written on them — that under other circumstances would have been erased, but all have been left just as they were found and as HER work, and as a recording of times, places and circumstances of great mutual interest and enjoyment, all are equally valued by her who repeats the request contained in these lines.
The Park, Norwood (London) 1873.

This earnest and eloquent request appears to have had the desired effect. Aside from the occasional brown flecks and foxing that are attributed to the aging process, (human and otherwise) the contents of the volumes bound by Ackermanns of London in the 1870’s are essentially unmarred. What remains of Charlotte Price’s work has survived two ocean crossings a century apart and is still in remarkably good condition. Certainly Miss Laura Price, Charlotte’s “dearly loved sister” who engaged Ackermanns to bind the sketchbooks for posterity in 1873, would find it difficult to imagine that they would be destined to cross the Atlantic, gather dust in a Canadian attic for almost another one hundred years and eventually be rediscovered at Lakefield College School near Peterborough, Ontario.

Family Ties with Lakefield College School

The story of what prompted Charlotte Price’s beloved nephew, Matthew Rolleston to emigrate from England to Canada and - more specifically - to the Lakefield/Peterborough region in the mid-19th century may never come to light. There are, however, records in the Birmingham Archives in England indicating that Matthew’s grandfather, Theodore Price, Esq. had given Matthew his blessing in the form of a generous legacy in 1854. Undoubtedly this inheritance provided a distinct boost to the morale of the young settler and his family.

 According to the annotation on an unfinished sketch found in his Aunt Charlotte Price’s collection when it was held in safe-keeping at Lakefield College, Matthew - along with his wife and at least one child - were the occupants of a wilderness “shanty”, which - in all probability - he had built with the welcome assistance of his pioneer neighbours. Through his marriage to Catherine Reid, Matthew Rolleston had become a brother-in-law to the illustrious Col. Sam Strickland, who already owned much of the land in the Lakefield area. By extension, Rolleston also became part of a close-knit group of early Ontario settlers that included Strickland’s married sisters, Susanna Moodie and Catherine Parr Traill. The accounts penned by these two intrepid women about the rigours of pioneer life in the Upper Canadian wilderness have long since become integral to our understanding of the capacity for endurance required by those who ventured forth to set down roots in the wilderness.

In 1879, when schoolmaster Sparham Sheldrake first undertook the education of the sons of local settlers in what was to become known as Lakefield College School or the Grove, he, too, established a close association with many of these same pioneer families. In fact, Harborne, the property owned by the descendants of Matthew Rolleston abutted on the land destined to become Lakefield College.

Three generations later, in the early 1970’s, this proximity would become an instrumental factor in the school’s acquisition of Harborne from Rolleston’s great granddaughter, Mrs. H.R.S. Pocock of Jersey in the Channel Islands. Having inherited the property on the death of her father, Col. Alfred Lefevre, her childhood ties with the College remained strong and an agreement was quickly struck that the College would purchase Harborne and the adjacent land. At the time, the College administration also agreed to become unofficial guardian of the majority of the bound volumes of Charlotte Price’s sketches, owing to the difficulty of transporting them to the Channel Islands. Bookshelves in the reception area just outside the Headmaster’s study seemed an ideal place for them to be temporarily given house room and it was here - on these same shelves - that my first chance encounter with the monumental output of Charlotte Price’s life’s work took place over twenty years ago. In the interval, the College has become co-educational - a fact which I feel almost certain Miss Charlotte Price would find highly gratifying. In any case, what follows is an account of the information I have been able to uncover relating to the Price/Rolleston family history and also of the many questions that still remain unanswered.

Trying to unravel the mystery

It is more than ten years since my first meeting with Charlotte and her sketchbooks at Lakefield, while rummaging through a cupboard that contained the College archives. Initially I mistook the two large stacks of volumes for old ledgers or enrolment books. Perhaps they would be useful for my research on the school’s origins. It was only when I took down the first volume from the shelf and opened it that I realized I had inadvertently stumbled upon something quite extraordinary. There was Charlotte Price, just as she had posed more than a hundred years earlier. And beneath the photograph, her sister’s concern for the preservation of a lifetime of recorded memories. Look, but don’t touch. As promised by its title, the volume I had randomly selected did indeed contain “Sketches from Nature.” But nothing could have prepared me for the captivating beauty and diversity of the “times, places and circumstances of mutual interest and enjoyment” described by
Charlotte’s sister in the foreword.

Clearly this collection of skillfully executed drawings, sketches and watercolours was the work of an accomplished artist. But who was Charlotte Price? Where had she studied? And how had these sketchbooks found their way across an ocean and into a locked cupboard in a prestigious Canadian boys’ boarding school?
Leafing my way through the volumes, I uncovered only two loose drawings relating to Canada West as it was then known: one marked “Dear, dear Matt’s Shanty, Peterborough” and the second “Our Beloved Matt’s Grave, Peterborough, Canada West”. Had Charlotte Price lived in the vicinity for a time? What part had “our beloved Matt” played in her life? His identity might help to explain the sketchbooks’ presence in Lakefield. Alas, local records turned up no early settlers answering to the surname Price.

Without the hand-written inventory lists included in the front of each of the twenty-three volumes, tracing the circuitous and often mystifying course of the Price family ties on both sides of the Atlantic would have been impossible. These and the annotations that accompany many of the Price drawings were the key. Together they provide at least a glimpse of the woman who, in the manner of film-maker Alfred Hitchcock, occasionally placed herself in the foreground of a drawing with a telltale sketchbook on her lap. Charlotte Price was, as suspected, a maiden lady of independent means. And she was almost certainly a pupil of the celebrated 19th-century British artist, David Cox Sr. The number of drawings in the collection labeled “Copy from Cox” implies an influence of importance.

This impression is strengthened by a distinct and unmistakable similarity in composition, perspective and technique. Here again, the main difficulty was finding a link of some sort between Cox and the ubiquitous Miss Price. Many dead ends and blind alleys later, the various bits and pieces of the original puzzle have at long last fallen into place. The trail that began in Canada led first to London then to Jersey in the Channel Islands, and from there to Birmingham and Harborne. In the beginning my attempts to uncover every conceivable piece of information — any link that might help to fill in the gaps — were frustratingly unproductive, but I was reluctant to call a halt. Charlotte Price and the circumstances surrounding her life had gradually become a minor obsession.

During the course of this lengthy unravelling process, I found myself inextricably immersed in Charlotte Price’s world. It had, in effect, become mine as well. Through her eyes, I was transported into an irretrievable past — a past that she recreated with loving care. Her intention, it seems, was to record these images purely for her own satisfaction and for the private pleasure of family and friends. Mine has become the desire to present this unintended legacy to generations unknown and unfamiliar — to bring Charlotte Price’s “times, places and circumstances of great mutual interest and enjoyment” into another century and beyond.


While many of the pieces of the Charlotte Price puzzle have fallen into their respective places, the whereabouts of over seven hundred missing sketches and watercolours has yet to be established. The contents of the original 20 volumes I came upon in Lakefield account for approximately 1500, while the three in Jersey make for a total of only 1800. Someday the remains of Charlotte Price’s legacy may turn up; perhaps here in Canada; perhaps in Britain; or perhaps in some totally unexpected place. They may, in fact, never come to light, in which case we can be more grateful than ever that so much of her work has been preserved for our present enjoyment.

I leave you with some of Charlotte's amazing sketches - after all, it's her art which brought all this about. Even in the book I had to be painfully selective, and for this blog I can choose even less. So be it. Take these as an appetizer: 

 Bagnères de Bigorre near the Coustous Promenade, circa 1855.
Watercolour and chalk.

 Fort at Urdos. 'A quarter of an hour to Spain', 1855.


see also:

Greatcoats and Glamour Boots
Based on the letters written by Mary Buch, a young Canadian airwoman
A Close Look At The Past and Present Of The Most Famous Book Fair Of Them All
A story of courage during WWII


Based on the letters written by Mary Buch, a young Canadian airwoman

Props on Her Sleeve:
The Wartime Letters of a Canadian Airwoman
by Mary Hawkins Buch

with Carolyn Gossage
A first-hand account of the experiences of a young Canadian airwoman who served both in Canada and on overseas duty, this series of 150 letters brings home the day-to-day immediacy of life in uniform during the Second World War. Moments of hilarity interspersed with impatience and frustration are recorded verbatim, along with an underlying sense of urgency about winning a war that hung in the balance for too long.

Written to the Dean of Women at Macdonald College in Ste. Anne de Bellevue, Mary Buch's letters lay untouched for over fifty years after her return to Canada from England in 1945. Today they serve as a looking-glass into the War Years that is tinged with the freshness of youthful spontaneity and the promise of a brighter tomorrow.
Carolyn Gossage has interwoven colourful contextual sidebars that provide today's reader with an overview of times and circumstances that have become increasingly elusive in the intervening years.


A Close Look At The Past and Present Of The Most Famous Book Fair Of Them All

A History Of The Frankfurt Book Fair

by Peter Weidhass and Carolyn Gossage
Translated by Wendy A. Wright
published by: Dundurn | October 31, 2007 | Hardcover 

For anyone who loves books and would like a look behind the scenes of the trading of the written word, this colourful and revealing look at more than 500 years of commerce conducted at the renowned Frankfurt Book Fair, from its beginnings in the Middle Ages, is a MUST HAVE.

Even then, in spite of internal strife and religious upheaval, books were becoming increasingly accessible to those who found their way to Frankfurt to buy, sell, and promote. The fact that King Henry VIII sent Sir Thomas Bodley as his personal emissary to purchase books for the new library at Oxford University is an indication of the Fair''s growing importance outside Germany.

Through the ensuing centuries, the fortunes of the Fair waxed and waned; however, the period following the Second World War brought with it a new spirit of renewal that has yet to lose momentum. In recent years, increasing number of international book fairs have taken the Frankfurt model, and each is finding its own way to further enrich the world of books everywhere.

see also:

Greatcoats and Glamour Boots
Based on the letters written by Mary Buch, a young Canadian airwoman
A story of courage during WWII
The most surprising sketchbooks of a Victorian gentlewoman

A story of courage during WWII

The Accidental Captives:

The Story of Seven Women Alone in Nazi Germany

by Carolyn Gossage

published by Dundurn | March 24, 2012 | Hardcover 

Here's how it all started - back to the beginning:

Carolyn tells here in her own words about how she discovered the story of seven Canadian women who found themselves trapped in Nazi Germany after a passenger ship sailing from New York to Cape Town was attacked and sunk by a German raider in the South Atlantic.

Over twenty years ago in the Metro Toronto Reference Library, I was sifting through the library’s card catalogue researching another project when I stumbled upon Free Trip to Berlin, published in Canada in 1943.

The book’s unusual title immediately caught my attention, and once I had a copy in my hands it was a matter of minutes before I was irrevocably drawn into this extraordinary and fascinating story. Almost certainly this was largely due to the author’s distinctive style. Isabel Russell Guernsey was clearly a woman of exceptional intelligence, wit and charm, whose irrepressible joie de vivre reverberated through the decades  since the publication of her book.

In April 1941, Isabel Guernsey was a passenger on board the Zamzam, an Egyptian liner sailing from New York Harbour to Cape Town, when the ship was attacked and sunk by a German raider in the South Atlantic. The Zamzam’s two hundred passengers were literally fished out of the water by the crew of the raider and transported via a German prison ship to Vichy France. Here the majority of them – as neutral citizens of the United States – were then released, while the remaining passengers were transported to the Third Reich as prisoners of war. Among these were 28 women and children who were citizens of either Great Britain or British Commonwealth countries – including Isabel Guernsey and a number of other Canadians – who were dispatched by train through German-occupied France and zigzagged their way through Nazi Germany before arriving at Liebenau, an internment camp in the vicinity of Lake Constance (the Bodensee), near the Swiss border.

Three months later, seven of the Canadian women who had been passengers on board the Zamzam received permission to leave the camp and travel unescorted to Berlin, where they held high hopes that arrangements for their safe return to Canada could be made within a matter of weeks. Instead, before their exchange for an equal number of German women in Canada was finally realised, they remained stranded in Berlin for the better part of a year.

By the time I closed the covers of Isabel Guernsey’s book, I realised that I had unwittingly fallen under its spell. What an intriguing story and what an incredible journey! I was consumed with curiosity, but soon realised that I was also left with more questions than answers. Isabel’s account concentrated primarily on her recollections of the people she came to know during her stay in Germany, whereas her impressions of the six Canadian women who shared the same experience remained on the periphery. Isabel herself mentions this disparity in her foreword to  Free Trip to Berlin. ‘I regret that my Zamzam companions appear so incidentally in these pages, which is a pity, since each one is a story in herself…This is a story mostly about people – people I met and grew to know in Germany. My hope is simply that they, through me, may shed a little light that hasn’t been shed before.’

I, too, found myself equally disappointed that her companions in adversity were mentioned only in passing. Dozens of beguiling questions had already begun to surface and percolate in the back of my mind. Who were these six other Canadian women who had been thrown together by fate and circumstance as Isabel’s companions on this 1941–42 wartime odyssey that ended with them being marooned in Berlin? Vida Steele from Three Hills, Alberta, Olga Guttormson of Naicam, Saskatchewan, Allison ‘Jamie’ Henderson of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Katharine ‘Kitsi’ Strachan and Doreen Turner from Toronto and Clara Guilding, formerly of Toronto. Why had they chosen to leave the safety of home to risk a four-week Atlantic crossing fraught with uncertainty and danger? How had they reacted – both individually and collectively – to the countless difficulties they encountered on their long and wearisome odyssey? And after spending more than a year in Nazi Germany, initially as civilians detained in a variety of jails, then an internment camp and later as ‘enemy aliens’ at large in Berlin, how had they dealt with the challenges of fending for themselves and organising their lives in the war torn capital of the Third Reich?

In retrospect, it must have been at precisely this moment that I realised that sooner or later I would have to try to find answers to these and other enticing questions in order to record my own expanded version of this long-forgotten and little known World War II episode.
When their ship was sunk from under them in the South Atlantic by the Atlantis in April 1941, there began a series of shared adventures which included 140 Americans – their fellow passengers on board the Zamzam. Ultimately, protected by their neutrality, the Americans were destined for release; however, for the Canadians the journey had barely begun.

Now it would be up to me to attempt to shed even more light on what lay beyond Isabel’s personal perspective. However, it was only four years ago that I began concentrating my efforts on finding answers to the myriad unrelenting questions that had remained with me since my discovery of Free Trip to Berlin more than twenty years earlier. It was now or never!

Since Isabel’s original account had been written long before the final outcome of World War II, as an aspiring journalist she had taken pains to protect the identity of certain individuals she encountered during her time in Berlin. In many cases, she made a point of identifying these people using only their first names. Her intentions were noble, but this inevitably created certain difficulties in terms of further research.

Fortunately, another of her Zamzam companions, missionary nurse Olga Guttormson, had written and published Ships Will Sail Again, which includes her own detailed account of the Canadians’ extended stay in the Third Reich. Although a few of the others left cursory references and reminiscences of their mutual ordeal, without the literary legacy of these two women there would be little or nothing to bear  witness to the relatively brief presence of these Canadian women in Berlin. What they have written – each from her own point of view – presents the reader with a first-hand account of life among the inhabitants of Berlin between September 1941 and June 1942. Events observed, almost seventy years ago, through the eyes of outsiders looking in.

In any case, most of the additional side bars only came to light once I had decided that I would have to cast the net wider by sending out an author’s query to local newspapers across Canada in an attempt to locate survivors or relatives of those who had been passengers on board the ill-fated Zamzam. The response to this was nothing short of overwhelming, and provided me with invaluable new information and insights from a variety of sources across Canada, and also the United States. Among these were the colourful revelations found in the letters of Kathleen Levitt, a young British war-guest who had wisely decided to remain in the Liebenau internment camp with her two young children, Peter and Wendy, rather than risk the perils of accompanying her Canadian friends to Berlin. Then, too, there were the exhilarating first-hand reports and photographs of two American journalists, David Scherman and Charles Murphy, both of whom had been released in Biarritz with the other American citizens after an extended five-week ordeal aboard the German prison ship Dresden as involuntary guests of the Third Reich.

As for the seven Canadian women in Berlin who had been unwilling participants in this wartime drama, their experiences and observations, hopes and frustrations struck me – even for those exceptional times – as something unique and extraordinary. Each had been caught up unbidden and unexpectedly in a war in which they became reluctant pawns in a diplomatic game of cat-and-mouse.

Once dispatched to Hitler’s stronghold, the seven Canadian Zamzamers also became, by default, an unrecognised and inconsequential addition to Berlin’s population, sharing the same cares and anxieties, withstanding the same miseries and misfortunes while, at the same time, remaining outsiders in an alien place. By the same token, as ‘enemy’ foreigners caught up in unfamiliar surroundings and unusual circumstances, each had the benefit of her own unique perspectives and personal insights. And the more of these I discovered, the more fascinated I became as the pieces of the story of this incredible journey gradually fell into place. ■

Ethel and P.G. Wodehouse, known to his friends
as ‘Plum’ and to his readers as the creator of Bertie
Wooster and Jeeves.