Christine Vassar Tall: The Story of One British Evacuee
There was family lore that we were distantly related to Matthew Vassar, who had immigrated with his family from Norfolk to Poughkeepsie, New York as a young child and went on to found Vassar College. So after Dunkirk, my mother telegraphed Vassar College asking if anyone would give sanctuary to one British evacuee named Christine Vassar. After a few more telegrams back and forth, the President of the College, Henry Noble MacCracken, offered me sanctuary for one year. That was how it happened that I, with several hundred other British children, embarked on the Duchess of Atholl on August 8, 1940, and sailed for America. We were in convoy through the Irish Sea, but were on our own for the rest of the trip to Montreal. It was very foggy with the horns blaring, except for one sunny day and many of us were on deck and a depth charge was sent overboard. Was there a U-boat around? It gives one pause, especially knowing that all evacuations of children were stopped by Churchill in October due to the loss of one ship with evacuee children on board.
After disembarking in Montreal, our group was sent by train to Boston where we were housed temporarily in a dormitory at Wellesley College. Eventually my foster father came to pick me up, but not before his friend Mildred McAfee Horton '20, President of Wellesley, had told me that he was a very important man and I must not keep him waiting! He took me to the family summer home in Connecticut. All the family were sitting around the living room waiting for the newest member of the family. The next day we went to the President's House, which to my eyes was a very grand place. On Monday, I was enrolled in Arlington High School as a ninth grader, though I was placed in an eighth grade American History class. In short order, I was coming back to tell the family about the "Abominable Acts" of the British Parliament which helped give rise to the Colonists' rebellion. In my English school, we were hardly out of the Middle Ages and I knew nothing about the American Revolution. Dr. MacCracken decided, in cooperation with the High School, that I did not need this at the time. Instead, I was placed in an American Civics class with a fine teacher, Miss O'Connell, and to this day when I go to vote I am grateful to her. I was also introduced by her to another faculty child, Carol Howson, who lived opposite the campus and immediately invited me to her birthday party. She introduced me to all the other youngsters, mostly girls, who lived up and down Raymond Avenue. It was a close knit group and, in retrospect, our life and escapades together roaming the campus, playing games, and visiting back and forth, seems idyllic. We still get together as a group yearly. Anyway, the MacCracken family very much became my family. They were very good to me and I am still in close touch with my foster-sister and foster-brother. I did not see my own family for seven years. They were able to be at my graduation from Vassar in 1947. After a year at Columbia, I went back to London to live with them, but decided that my life was really here. I had very much wanted to go back after high school and was very hurt that my family decided that I should stay and go to Vassar. It was not until recently that I fully understood the reasoning behind their decision.
For many years, the letters I and my foster family received from my parents and family were in a metal file box. As I was getting on in life, it seemed that I should do something with these and so decided to place them in the Vassar College Library Archives; before I did that, I photocopied them and began to cut and paste to make a more coherent narrative for my children, grandchildren, and English cousins. From this, I was led to read to any group who would care to listen to a story of one family's life living through the London Blitz and the flying bombs. I began to read histories and memoirs of others who had lived through the Blitz and also read about the war in Europe generally. From my reading about London during World War II, I learned that the area next to Morden, Cheam and Sutton, one block from my parents' home, suffered terrible damage during the flying bomb period just at the time I was finishing high school. More than three quarters of the housing stock was damaged. It made my family's decision more understandable.