Topic: Till death us do part by Mary Bell Thornton

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Till death us do part by Mary Bell Thornton is a 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition entry.

Archived version here.

It was timely that the congregation had gas masks at my parent’s wedding on Sunday 3rd September 1939, as the sirens sounded the first air raid of the war in London.  They grabbed their masks and started for the door and the nearest shelter, but the minister was quick enough to ask that they wait for the third and final reading of the banns so the marriage could continue.

My parents, Stewart Maclennan and Dorothy, nee Kenwright, met at the Royal College of Art.  They had recently graduated with first class honours and were coming to New Zealand where Stewart had a position as art master at Wairarapa College.  He had tried to sign up in Britain, but was told to go home to join up.  Dad spent his last pounds on a Julius Feurich grand piano made in Leipzig that was going cheap.

A week after the wedding they felt they were already leaving the war behind when they boarded RMS Rotorua in Liverpool and counted only twelve barrage balloons instead of the hundreds over London.  Once aboard passengers were not allowed ashore. The first night they had ARP (Air Raid Precautions - an organisation set up in the UK in 1924 to protect civilians from the danger of bombers), and were issued with gas masks.  The ship was painted grey and port holes had to be kept closed and blacked out.. 

The morning’s lifeboat drill on top of ARP the night before, brought home the fact that they were setting sail across a war zone.  Under way on the morning of September 11th RMS Rotorua hit the side of the dock and sprang a leak.

By noon the next day a circular steel plate had been welded over the hole and the ship refloated to join a convoy of half a dozen other dull grey ships in the Mersey. The Admiralty came aboard and just before dinner, guided only by harbour lights, RMS Rotorua quietly moved off in unison with the other ships and two destroyers.

During the night the boat whistle sounded, the engines stopped and loud thuds brought alarmed passengers on deck.  A depth charge had been dropped.  In daylight they could see the destroyers zigzagging in front of and around the convoy.  Aeroplanes flew in wide circles above them and in the early afternoon a bomber swooped down and dropped a bomb on something in the distance. 

A slow freighter kept the convoy speed down to about nine knots.  The Welsh and Irish coasts slipped out of sight as a new ship, a tanker, joined the convoy signalling with lights as it came.  The convoy slackened speed and one destroyer made off about two miles.  While the passengers were dressing for dinner, the Rotorua was shaken by the thud of another depth charge.  It was rumoured it took out two submarines.

Seaplanes replaced the scouting planes and depth charges became commonplace.  A British ship, coming to join convoy, was torpedoed four miles off and a destroyer let off three depth charges in retaliation but the convoy didn’t stop. Passengers volunteered to keep the 1600 to 1800 hour watch. Six short blasts on the whistle signalled the sighting of a submarine. As night fell on day three, one destroyer turned and left while the other zigzagged at the back of the convoy. The Rotorua steamed full speed ahead and left the other ships behind.  Alone and about 300miles north of the Azores the passengers were assured that they were practically out of danger.

Life on board ship became a round of concerts, housie, deck games, fancy dress parties and dances.  With blackout screens strung around the deck they danced under fairy lights to gramophone music.  Before their first landing the captain called a meeting to stress the need for secrecy in writing letters home.  Dorothy, the naive 24-year-old who had always lived at home and had been at art school on scholarships since she was twelve years old wrote excitedly of their adventure:


My dearest Mother and Dad

We got through the Panama Canal quite safely – it was a marvellous and thrilling experience all the way through, seeing the great locks quickly filling and raising the boat up so easily – and we saw the great dredges working where the bank keeps sliding into the canal – we arrived in Balboa at about 7 0’clock in the evening and caught a bus there into the city … have been having such a busy time with games and things.  


Her mother’s first letter was in a different mood:


My dear Dorothy and Stewart

I have been going to start a letter to you for some time, but felt I must wait to know you were safe first.  Dad has been to Leadenhall St this morning to see if he could get any news of you. All they would say was you were safe and had touched port, not another word could he get, still it’s a great thing to know you are out of danger.  We have so looked forward to a cable from you, but have to conclude you were unable to get one through, never have three weeks dragged so to me before; it seems months since you went away.  We do hope there soon will be a letter from you, it will not seem so bad once we get letters to look forward to… 

We have listened to every news since you left and suppose shall go on doing so.  I expect you know all we do about everything.  We seem to be watching and waiting for all time.  We listened to Mr Chamberlain’s speech tonight and it looks as though Hitler will get it in the neck before long.  It’s a cow ain’t it.  Food gets dearer and more difficult but if we do not suffer any more than we are doing now, we shall indeed be lucky.


On an August Bank Holiday when they were out for the day, their house was bombed.  Dorothy’s father died of cerebral haemorrhage before the end of the war.  

If the menu of the Diner D’Adieu on their last night aboard was typical of the food eaten throughout the voyage, Dorothy and Stewart knew nothing of hardship regarding food.  Hors d’oeuvres, fillet sole frit au citron, oyster patties, roast lamb and mint sauce, Cumberland ham Florentine, curried lobster, potatoes - roast, boiled, gaufret, cauliflower, French beans, sirloin of beef, haunch of mutton, ox tongue, Tyrolienne pudding, scotch cheese cakes, coffee and bon bons au chocolat to name but a few of the delicacies they had to choose from. 

The Rotorua docked in Auckland on Friday 27th October 1939. The 14-hour trip on the night train to Wellington was a total culture shock to Dorothy.   No dining cars and five-minute stops to get a cup of tea and something to eat.  The full moon revealed unpopulated bush and mountain country with one or two tiny towns – just a few wooden houses really, she wrote.  The railcar to Masterton was the maddest ride I’ve ever taken – it swayed and bumped and jumped all the way and rushed around the side of hills with hundreds of feet below – it was wild country practically uninhabited.  We crossed the Rimutaka range and climbed 1141ft in about an hour then dropped 900ft in about 15 minutes.

 Masterton had no trams or local buses.  There was no sign of war and no home guard. Even in Auckland and Wellington they had seen only one or two men in khaki.  By now school teachers were on reserve but once a week Stewart drove to the Featherston Japanese POW camp with a woodwork teacher, a boot maker and a farmer where they taught art, woodwork, boot repair and wool classing to the prison officers.

Dorothy and Stewart arrived with 10/- to their name and had to borrow money on Stewart’s wages to pay their first rent.  They set up home with the grand piano, a card table and two wooden apple boxes to sit on.  At the time of writing, people who were at the end of year school dance in 1939, can still describe Dorothy’s dress, part of the portfolio that had seen her accepted for Vogue magazine (London), as a designer.  If she hadn’t married and emigrated, she would have had to work as a draughtsperson in an airplane factory as part of the war effort.

The Rotorua made more trips to Australia and New Zealand.  In 1940 on a trip out to Australia she was torpedoed and had to put in to Panama for repair but on December 11th the same year, returning to England with a cargo of food and meat, she was sunk by U-96 in the Atlantic, 100 miles from land with 22 dead and 110 survivors. 

Her luck had run out. 


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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