Home | Nostalgia | A final family picnic before tragedy strikes: Clouds of war gather over a Langholm family’s idyllic summer
Nostalgia | 5th September 2019

A final family picnic before tragedy strikes: Clouds of war gather over a Langholm family’s idyllic summer


EIGHTY years ago on September 3, 1939 Britain declared war on Germany after it invaded Poland.
The E&L Advertiser will feature a series of articles over the next few weeks looking back at what became the world’s most horrific war and which lasted for six years through the eyes of some of the families who lived through it.
We begin with The Last Picnic by Christine Curtis.
THE scene is of an idyllic family picnic at the Bowholm Bridge, Canonbie. What could go wrong? Sometimes, it is best not to know what is around the corner.
A special summer holiday for the family with cousins from Canada and spending precious time with them was no mean feat in those days before jet aircraft made holidaying abroad commonplace.
But that sunny summer’s day belied the darker days to come because this was late August in the sunny summer of 1939. The clouds of war were gathering.
Those in the photo are, back row, left to right, my dad Ross Calvert, good friend Joe Finlay and Ross’ cousin Hay Gillespie.
The women in the middle are Kate Calvert, formerly of Henry Street; sister-in-law Nell, Ross’s mum who lived in the Pot Mairket; Jessie Gillespie, mother of the Canadian cousins; and Jenny Lyon. The children in the front row are Bert Calvert, Billy Barrow and Hay’s brother, Jim Gillespie.
My dad fondly recalled those last few, relatively carefree days when they played in the rivers and on the hills.
Jessie’s husband got in touch from Canada to suggest it might be prudent to bring their return voyage forward, which they did.
They boarded the Athenia in Glasgow and sent a postcard to the family in Langholm from Liverpool where many more passengers poured onto the already crowded ship.
On Sunday, September 3, 1939 the ship became the first victim of enemy fire when it was sunk by the Germans 250 miles north west of Ireland.
Jessie and the boys were fortunate enough to get into a lifeboat but it capsized and Hay and Jim were trapped under the hull.
Luckily, their father had taught them to swim well in the Canadian lakes and, eventually, they were rescued but it was a while before the family was reunited.
Their arrival on Canadian soil was recorded on Pathe News and shown in the Picter Hoose in Charles St where, allegedly, the projectionist stopped the film so the family could see clearly that they had survived.
In 2014 Hay and Jim were invited by the Imperial War Museum to attend a special event remembering the sinking and they also visited Langholm, making contact with the Morrisons, who were also cousins.
There is another Langholm connection. An article in The Telegraph reported on the death in 2009 of a woman called Joan Hecht, thought to be one of the last survivors.
She had spent the summer of 1939 in Langholm with her nurse/governess, Jean McVittie.
My mother clearly remembered playing with her and no doubt both my parents played with these transatlantic visitors in the lull before the storm.

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