Winnifred Allen (1902 – 1996)

Winnifred Griffin Allen, also known as Mother, also known as Grandma, also known as Auntie Win, also known as Grandma Win, also known as the Doctor’s wife, was born in London, England in 1902, the second eldest of 5 sisters! At age 8 she immigrated to Canada. Her parents were unable to pay the fare, so the Canadian government subsidised them, on the understanding that the fare would be paid when the family got established in their new home. Arriving at Pier 21 in Halifax, they were quickly sent on to Montreal by train, where they were met by family friends who had come to Canada earlier.

John Griffin, her father, was a landscape architect and planted fine gardens for wealthy residents of Montreal. He also kept large vegetable and flower gardens behind their home. Her mother, Lillian, was a trained mid-wife, and supplemented the family income working with the St. John’s Ambulance.

Grandma learned family responsibilities early. Beyond sharing the household chores with her sisters, she was called on unexpectedly when she was 14. Her mother suffered a stroke, and Grandma dropped out of school for a year to care for her and the household. In 1918, at the time of the pandemic flu outbreak, her mother suffered a miscarriage, and she assisted the doctor who came to the house to attend her mother.

She started to work part time for the YMCA in her teens, including being a counsellor at their camp in the Laurentians, called Camp Oohlawan. Ultimately, she was able to return to high school, which she completed in 1922. She celebrated by cutting her long, brown curly hair into the latest style, the bob. She was the only member of her family able to go to university, but only with the financial help of the YMCA was it possible. The director paid her annual tuition of $150. She continued to earn money by baby-sitting.

Grandma took Arts at McGill, graduating with honours in Sociology in 1926. While at university, she joined the university debating club, where she developed life-long public speaking skills. She joined a social club where she was introduced by a mutual friend, Bill, to a tall, handsome, blonde young man named Stewart, my Grandad. At the time she was engaged to another, but Grandad stole her heart. He was in med school, anticipating graduation in 1929, and already planning for a medical career in India.

Upon graduation in 1926, she was employed by the Bell Telephone Company. It was the period when women were becoming active in seeking to achieve the same status as men. She often spoke of the unfairness of the young men, whom the women trained, earning a better salary. By now, she was engaged to Stewart, and having been transferred to Vancouver by Bell, she was able to meet Stewart’s family – his widowed mother, his younger sister and two younger brothers.

By this time, Stewart was close to completing medical school and making his plans. Applying to the United Church of Canada to be appointed to India as a missionary, he was frustrated by the slow moving wheels of the Mission Board. If he was not appointed, then he would have to apply for a medical internship. Hoping to speed things up, he boarded the train for Toronto and United Church headquarters. While meeting with the Mission Board, he learned that there were no openings in India for a doctor. While he pondered his next move, Dr. James Endicott entered the office and suggested to Stewart that he might go to China instead! Sounds fine to me, says Stewart.

Grandma and Grandad were married in Montreal in August of 1929 at the church which sponsored them to China. After a 2-week honeymoon in Lake Placid, they returned to Montreal, packed their belongings and set off for the west coast in Grandad’s sister’s Model A Ford! Then 27 years old, Grandma left her family behind and would never see her mother again. There were adventures on the way, including having the battery stolen from their car on a Saturday night in Trail, B.C. where the only accommodation was in the local tavern where the miners came to carouse on Saturday nights. Grandma was so terrified that she had Grandad push the dresser against the bedroom door to keep out intruders.

In early October, they boarded a ship in Vancouver. With them were Fred and Anne Reed and their three eldest children, who were returning for a second term to Sichuan, China. Grandma suffered terribly from seasickness for several days, but later the trip became a wonderful experience. With a stopover in Japan, they arrived at their destination in Shanghai some time later.

Then the adventure began – the purchase of further supplies in Shanghai, the boarding of a steamship as far as Ichang (Ee-chahng) and the subsequent long journey by junk up the Yangtse River to the bustling city of Chungking, arriving in early December. Climbing the slippery wet steps from the river to the city street, she fell heavily, causing a subsequent heartbreaking miscarriage. While in Chungking they stayed with Gordon and Clara Jones at the Business Agency. Clara and Grandma became good friends. Later on, there were many afternoons that a trip to the city from home across the river included having tea at the Agency, with Clara as the always gracious hostess.

Grandma and Grandad went on to Chengdu to begin their language training and to await the decision of where they would be sent. There had been no missionary doctor in Kiating (Ja-ding), now Loshan, for some time, so it was decided that their first station would be there.

Language study continued with a new Chinese language teacher. Grandma’s needs in Chinese differed from Grandad’s. She was going to have to be able to manage a household that at minimum usually included, a cook, a Da-niang (Daw-niong) or nanny, and a houseboy. When she could not communicate what she wanted with any of them, it meant a quick trip to the nearest missionary home for help! The cook was usually the most valuable member of the staff – planning, shopping and preparing the meals for the family. Every night, after the cook was finished for the day in the kitchen, he was expected to bring a daily account of his spending for food, and get money from Grandma for his anticipated expenses the next day. Grandma diligently recorded the figures in her ledger.

Within the year, Grandma delivered her first child, a pretty little girl they called Margaret. Other little girls followed a couple of years apart. The second baby, Catherine, died at age nine months, probably of meningitis. Ultimately, there would be four girls; Margaret Williamson, Gwyneth Smith, Phyllis Donaghy and Marion Reilly, all born in China, except my mother Phyllis, who arrived on the scene two weeks after the family returned to Canada on their first furlough in 1936.

Over the years, Grandma learned her role as a missionary’s wife, but one whose husband was frequently away for long stretches of time. This was not uncommon for most wives, but particularly so for doctor’s wives. In the summer of 1933 while at Omei, Grandma had a terrible fright when word was received that Dr. Allen had died! With Earl Willmott she rushed back to Kiating (Ja-ding)to discover that it was Dr. Frank Allen and not Grandad, who had suffered a sudden, fatal heart attack.

When Grandma and Grandad returned to China in 1938, they were stationed in Chungking. Grandad would run the new hospital on the South Shore, away from the city, for the next 12 years. Building the hospital in that location proved fortuitous as the Japanese were at war with China, and Chungking was very heavily bombed from 1939 onward, as Chiang Kai Shek had moved his government to Chungking from Nanjing. The old city hospital was destroyed, but the new one sustained no damage. With every bombing raid, Grandad would leave the house for the hospital, or the city, while Grandma gathered up her brood and took them to the small dugout on the compound where they lived. Often these raids came on a bright moonlit night. Coats and shoes would be at the foot of each bed, just in case. Usually, long after the raid was over, Grandad would not be able to come home, as there were so many casualties, and no doctor but himself to attend to them. There was no way of knowing whether he was safe or not, until he arrived home, completely worn out. Obviously this imposed a terrible strain on Grandma. But no one ever heard her complain – she just accepted what had to be done, and bravely carried on.

Frequently, Grandma did work at the hospital. Her main project was the linen room, where bed linens had to be sorted and checked. Sheets showing heavy wear in the middle would be ripped in half, the outer edges sewn together to extend the life of the sheet, for there were no new replacements available.

Grandad encouraged his maternity patients, especially those who lived any distance away, to come and stay at Grandma and Grandad’s house for the last couple of weeks of pregnancy. Sometimes this meant just the mother, sometimes the father and other children as well…clearly a house full…and Grandma’s responsibility to see that they were well cared for.

Life during the war was difficult for everyone – goods were in short supply and inflation was rampant. In 1941, five Canadian dollars would not buy a pound of unrefined sugar. Along with the difficulties associated with managing her household staff and coping with the difficulties of war and deprivation, Grandma had to send her children away to school. In 1940, Margaret, at age 10, was sent to Jenshow, followed by Gwyneth in 1942. Then in the fall of 1943, Gwyneth, age 9, and my mother, Phyllis, age 7, went to Zigong for the school year. They lived with the Stinson family, and walked about a kilometre each day to the Reeds house. Anne Reed was their teacher, the Hoffman sisters, Elinor and Malcolm Reed their classmates. Only the baby, Marion, was at home. It was a heart-wrenching experience for Grandma.

Travel was difficult too. The roads between Chengdu, the mission hub, and the outlying station were rough and unpaved. Transportation was irregular, at best, and travel was usually by postal truck or some other truck. The postal trucks had no seats – one sat on the mail bags. There were frequent breakdowns. Sometimes, where it was convenient, boat travel was easier. However, even it could go wrong. Most Chengdu and area families spent their summers on Mount Omei, as the heat and humidity of a Sichuan summer were unbearable. When the family was settled in Chungking, Grandma and Grandad chose to return to Omei for the summer until disaster struck. Travel was by houseboat, a modest accommodation, and the luggage was transported in a second boat. There was always a great deal of baggage, as you had to take not only your clothing, but your household furnishings and staple foods. On the return home at summer’s end in the summer of 1939, the baggage boat sank, and although the contents were retrieved, Grandma spent days spreading soaked clothing and other things out on the front veranda so they would dry. Nevertheless, some items were destroyed. We never spent another summer on Omeishan, but purchased another house from the British Embassy, in the Chungking Hills, that would be their place of retreat in the hot summer months.

The war years were tough for everyone. Finally the United church ordered all women and children to return to Canada, and the family left Chungking in June 1944, flying out over the Hump from Chungking to Kunming, through the passes between the Himalayas to Assam; and on to Calcutta, a dangerous trip in itself. A train carried the family from Calcutta to Bombay. Grandma, my aunts and my mother boarded the troopship, General Gordon to return to Canada, via San Francisco. Grandad returned to Chungking to fulfil a commitment to the British Embassy, who had no other medical assistance at hand. He would return to Canada, a year later, in 1945, briefly, only to be asked to return to China by the International Red Cross. They wanted an assessment made of all the hospitals that had been in the Japanese controlled areas in China. Once again, Grandma spent a year on her own.

In late 1947, Grandma and her family returned to China, this time travelling by freighter. The trip took 12 weeks via the Atlantic, Mediterranean and Indian Oceans. It would be their last term in China. My Aunt Margaret, the eldest, was left in Montreal, attending university. After a short stay in Hongkong, Gwyneth and Mom would fly to Chengdu to attend the Canadian School. At the end of the 1949 school year, Gwyneth would return to Canada. My mother, Phyllis, went back to Chengdu from Chungking for her first year of high school. She was the only high school student, with nine others in grade school. She boarded with Uncle Earl and Auntie Kay Willmott. While she was there, the Communists took over Sichuan province. By late May of 1950, the school year was over – as was the school itself! Mom returned to Chungking where Grandma and Grandad had decided that it was time for Grandma and the two youngest girls to return to Canada. Again Grandad chose to stay on as his experience with the Red Cross in 1945 had convinced him that it would be possible to continue his work in Chungking until his term was up in 1954.

In December 1950, disaster struck! On Boxing Day, a telegram arrived at the family home in Montreal! Grandad had been arrested! This would be the worst time for Grandma for no one knew the details until returning missionaries saw him in a hotel in Chungking. It would be a very worrying time until Stewart returned from China for the last time in February 1952….. More that 21 years had passed since their first trip to China…..

Grandma was very active in her church over the rest of her life, serving in leadership roles frequently. She and Grandad moved to Cardinal, Ontario in 1959, where he continued in private practice for 20 years. Upon his retirement, they made the move to Lynn Ontario where they spent many years enjoying a much quieter life…filled with their church, and their friends and family. Grandma slowly developed dementia, but on the occasion of their 60th wedding anniversary in 1989, she surprised us all as she spoke thoughtfully and with conviction to the family and friends who had gathered to celebrate. Upon Grandad’s death in September 1992, Grandma moved to a senior’s residence near Kingston where she died of pneumonia in November 1996 at the age of 94.

Growing up, I always had a sense that my Grandad, Dr Allen, was a very special man….and he Was…..

What I failed to realize until much later on, likely when I became a wife and a mother myself, was just how truly extraordinary my Grandma was….

In today’s world of television, radio, email, texting, Facebook, twitter, skype, and on and on…..we have constant access to information and communication with our family and friends….We have constant and instant confirmation that all is well….My Grandma lived on other side of the world…the wife of a doctor who was frequently away from home. She had young family….away at school from a young age…She was in a country whose first language was not her own….where supplies and money were scarce…and where peace and freedom of speech was a luxury that couldn’t be counted upon. Ultimately she came home with her girls, to the safety of Canada only to be left to wonder the fate of her beloved Stewart…..

When Grandma fell for that handsome blond haired med student at McGill, I have a feeling that she knew that her life with him would be filled with purpose and adventure…..and oh how it was and….Oh how very brave she was!! An exceptional lady to say the least!!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *