“Never has the buying power been as great and never the supply been as limited in Duncan,” moaned a Duncan merchant in reference to wartime shortages.
Christmas to New Year’s, 1943 — 75 years ago — was a mixed bag for residents of the Cowichan Valley.
For the second time in just over a generation the world was at war and its influence was felt on the Home Front, too.
Even those who didn’t have a father, son, brother or sister serving in the Canadian armed forces were subject to its impact, if only in the form of rationing and shortages.
Three-quarters of a century later, the December issues of the weekly Cowichan Leader give us a good insight into what it was like as a new year (the fourth one since the start of hostilities) approached.
On Dec. 9, front-page headlines tell of a lost hunter in the Shawnigan Lake area and that Pilot Officer Arthur (Sonny) Freeman, RCAF, of Cobble Hill, is missing after a bombing mission. Two editions later, that of the 23rd, it’s a report of the death of Cadet Lee P. Leighton, Duncan, in a mortar bomb explosion while he was training for a commission in the artillery.
By the time of that issue of the 23rd, businessman (and future mayor) J.C. Wragg and F.W. Hitchcock had been elected to Duncan Council by a one-third turnout of potential voters and the Cowichan Branch of the Canadian Legion had also gained a new slate of officers. The Duncan Hospital’s Women’s Auxiliary had raised $650 from their annual bazaar, and the British High Commissioner had paid a flying visit to the Prince of Wales Fairbridge School at Cowichan Station.
Duncan Kinsmen were out to see that the city had public sanitation facilities after a talk by game warden Rex Hayes in which he informed them of wild game’s value to the economy. This included the bounties paid for predators — thousands of wolves, cougars and coyotes annually.
By then the search for missing hunter Kenneth Duncan of Victoria had been abandoned and four Duncan residents had been fined $3 and charged $3.50 costs each for not having current radio licences.
As viewed in hindsight, it’s revealing and disconcerting to read that “spirited bidding” at an auction of seized possessions of Japanese-Canadians who’d been interned for the duration was cancelled because the government’s reserve prices were thought to be too high.
Everyone was affected, allbeit on an arguably less dramatic scale, by food, fuel and liquor rationing, and a milk shortage. Valley bicyclists were said to be “vexed” because of the unavailability of batteries for their headlamps, oil and carbide lamps not being able to fill the void because they, too, were in scarce supply. Farmers reported smaller crops for the lack of fertilizers, many of which used chemical ingredients needed for the manufacture of munitions. The rationing of newsprint had some newspaper publishers, who considered themselves a vital part of the war effort, concerned, too.
But it was the lead-up to Christmas and New Year’s and social life went on with school concerts, church socials and a dog show. The biggest concert, staged in the Shawnigan Lake Community Hall by the public schools of the area and the pupils of the Strathcona Lodge Girls’ School, drew a capacity audience.
Businesses, too, had their work to do, the CNR putting a 20-man gang to work repairing track on the Cowichan Lake line. This was an expensive fix for the national railway because of the wartime shortage of skilled labour; in this case the new-hires were professional hard-rock drillers temporarily unemployed in their own profession who drew higher pay. So severe was the labour shortage that each section foreman was expected to maintain up to 20 miles of track with just a single helper; in Victoria, 16 soldiers had been temporarily relegated to track repairs in the railyard.
The fact of regulated blackout conditions didn’t apply indoors (if you blocked off all windows) and Nanaimo-Duncan Utilities Ltd. urged consumers to make their homes bright for the holidays by replacing their 60-watt bulbs with 100-watters. These would consume more electricity, of course.
The Greenhaven on Station Street, which many will remember as a restaurant, also advertised cigarettes and tobaccos “of most every brand”.
Begg Motors was offering cash for late model cars (production had stopped in 1940) and R. Cummins, bookseller and stationer, promoted his store as the one with the Christmas Spirit.
There was a triple bill at the Capitol Theatre headed by Randolph Scott, Claire Trevor and Glenn Ford in The Desperadoes, showing in “gorgeous” technicolour and accompanied by the wartime feature Corvette Port Arthur, a colour cartoon and the latest news.
A reward was offered for the return of a horse missing from Westholme and you could buy holly for 30 cents a pound at Duncan Grocery.
There was, in fact, a Christmas buying rush in Duncan with hundreds of shoppers vying for the limited number of gift items on sale because of wartime priorities. Some of the shortages were so severe that “merchants in all lines are finding it impossible to meet the demand for certain types of Christmas gifts,” reported the Leader. “Already [as of Dec. 16] some lines have completely disappeared from store shelves and it is impossible to replace them.”
“Never has the buying power been as great and never the supply been as limited in Duncan,” moaned an unnamed merchant.
In shortest supply were metal toys and parents were having to settle for those made of wood, cardboard and paper or crafting something of their own in their home workshops. Children under 10 were the most affected by the wartime priorities.
Seemingly counter to this report is the large ad placed by Westwell’s which declared, “We still have loads of gifts for young and old!” As did Hudson’s Hardware which proclaimed, “toys and gifts galore for every one!” Cowichan Merchants’ full-page ad shied away from toys altogether, promoting gifts of clothing and furniture instead with the advice, “This Christmas above all others should be practical.”
As for Christmas candy, well, that was rationed, too, as was sugar. Ditto candied fruits, and local farmers had been unable to meet the demand for nuts. Nor had they enough turkeys for the marketplace because the usual supply from Alberta poultrymen was hampered by the high costs of shipping. “Order your Christmas turkey early or you may have to do without one. We will supply birds as long as our stocks last and in the order in which they are ordered,” advised a city butcher.
As proof that some things never change, the Leader editorialized on the low numbers of voters who’d exercised their franchises in recent civic, municipal, provincial and federal elections. This, when hundreds of thousands of young Canadians were risking their lives to protect Canadian democracy. Such indifference and apathy, the editor warned, led to “trouble and dictatorship — i.e. loss of freedom.”
But — this Christmas of 1943, and the dawn of a new year, 1944 — there was a palpable difference in the air. After four years of sacrifice and pain for those serving in uniform and at home, four years that had sometimes bordered on despair as the seemingly invincible Axis powers gained ground, there was hope that the worst was over, that the tide of war had finally changed for the better.
Already there were optimistic newspaper articles and editorials about the post-war challenges of rebuilding a battered world.
The Leader of Dec. 23 carried a lengthy, front-page Christmas message from the Archbishop of Canterbury who expressed the hope: “…If all sections [of society], owners of capital, owners of land, salaried officials, skilled workmen in sheltered trades, unskilled workers in unsheltered trades, unskilled workers and casual labourers can care more for the fellowship of society than for their own advantage, we can make our social life, which must be re-shaped anyhow and will be plastic for two or three years after the war ends, into something for which all the blood and tears will have been worth while….”
So it was at Christmas-New Year’s, 75 years ago.