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Halifax statue will mark women’s contributions to Second World War

Peggy McAlpine unveils one of the poster board designs for the monument honouring women volunteers during the Second World War in Halifax in this photo taken in March. (HERALD FILE)
Peggy McAlpine unveils one of the poster board designs for the monument honouring women volunteers during the Second World War in Halifax in this photo taken in March. (HERALD FILE)

While entertaining soldiers with her piano accordion during the Second World War, Charlotte Guy Jeffries never imagined that more than 70 years later she would be recognized for her volunteer work.

“I guess we made a lot of people happy,” said the 96-year-old Halifax resident. “The city was full of service people and something had to be done to occupy and entertain them.”

On Thursday, Jeffries will be one of three wartime volunteers who will unveil a monument on the city’s waterfront boardwalk outside the Halifax Seaport Farmers’ Market. The three life-size bronze statues honour the diverse and vital work thousands of women like Jeffries did during wartime.

“They are the last unrecognized veterans of the Second World War,” said Janet Guildford, chairwoman of the Halifax Women’s History Society and the monument project’s leader. “It is really important that we recognize the central role that they played, not only for the servicemen but for families and communities. The women volunteers just made it all work.”

 

The three life-size bronze statues honour the diverse and vital work thousands of women like Jeffries did during wartime.  (CONTRIBUTED)
The three life-size bronze statues honour the diverse and vital work thousands of women like Jeffries did during wartime. (CONTRIBUTED)

 

Called The Volunteers, it is the first monument with full-size figures of women in Halifax’s history.

Of the city’s 280 reported statues, fewer than a dozen show women, and if they do, most of them are mythical creatures such as fairies and nymphs.

“This is the first monument in this city to honour real, proper women,” said Guildford, a retired professor who taught Canadian, Maritime and women’s history at Mount Saint Vincent University.

During the Second World War, Jeffries, a talented pianist and accordionist, was working at Mills Brothers clothing store on Spring Garden Road.

Hugh Mills, the store’s owner, arranged for local singers and dancers to entertain the tens of thousands of servicemen who arrived in Halifax.

Jeffries soon became a hit. She performed all over the city and even on ship decks and for wounded soldiers on hospital trains. The Halifax Herald Concert Group, as they were known because of the financial assistance they received from the newspaper’s publisher, also went overseas.

In Europe they brought entertainment and music, including the popular tunes of Vera Lynn, to the troops.

“Everybody was volunteering in the best way that they could,” said Jeffries modestly.

Women volunteers also provided food and clothing to the servicemen who passed through Halifax on their way to Europe to fight.

The men were often sent off to war inadequately dressed and without sufficient medical supplies, said Guildford. It was women at home who helped to fill these gaps in services and supplies.

“The Canadian government was totally unequipped to run a war. The only way they could do it was to rely on women,” said Guildford.

 

The three life-size bronze statues honour the diverse and vital work thousands of women like Jeffries did during wartime. (CONTRIBUTED)
The three life-size bronze statues honour the diverse and vital work thousands of women like Jeffries did during wartime. (CONTRIBUTED)

 

The Halifax Women’s History Society was set up in 2013 with the idea of establishing a monument to honour the women’s wartime volunteer work before the entire generation passed away.

“We had a real sense of urgency about getting this story told,” said Guildford.

It was an ambitious project. The society raised more than $700,000, which included a $100,000 donation from an anonymous woman volunteer. They also received support from all three levels of government. The monument stands on land donated by the Halifax Port Authority.

The society started out with the idea of one figure but ended up with three. While they are not of specific women, they are meant to be symbolic of all the women and children in the city who contributed.

“All three of them are all of us,” said Guildford.

The statues represent three different generations — an older woman with her Mi’kmaw basket containing knitting, an African-Nova Scotian canteen worker carrying a tray, and a girl pulling a wagon filled with salvaged items such as broken toys and old pots.

“We wanted to indicate to viewers the diversity of the women in the volunteer war effort,” said Guildford. “They did such diverse work.”

The design, by artist Marlene Hilton Moore, was chosen in a national competition.

Moore, an Ontario-based sculptor who designed the Valiants Memorial in Ottawa, started on the monument in January and worked six days a week, with the help of an assistant, to complete it this fall.

“The women aren’t real. I invented them, but when you look at them you are going to believe they are real,” said Moore, who will be in Halifax for the official unveiling. “I think the public will feel personally engaged with these women.”

Moore hopes people respond to the characters she created for Halifax’s waterfront in a similar way that students have to a statue she designed of a young, passionate Wilfrid Laurier sitting on a bench, thinking deeply about the future.

At Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario, students often take pictures beside the statue, and touching him before an exam is said to bring good luck.

 

The three life-size bronze statues honour the diverse and vital work thousands of women like Jeffries did during wartime. (CONTRIBUTED)
The three life-size bronze statues honour the diverse and vital work thousands of women like Jeffries did during wartime. (CONTRIBUTED)

 

On Thursday, each of the sculptures will be unveiled by a woman volunteer from the Second World War.

Jeffries will unveil the statue of an older woman. Known as Woman with Knitting, the statue represents the women who supported the troops by knitting countless socks, caps and sweaters. The Canadian Red Cross estimates that 750,000 volunteers knitted 50 million articles during the Second World War.

Margaret Gordon, a volunteer who sang at Halifax’s Gerrish Street Hall, will unveil the statue known as African-Nova Scotian Woman.

Gordon frequently sang at the club which served the African-Nova Scotian community during the war years. At the time, canteens and clubs were segregated.

The statue of a canteen worker carrying a tray illustrates the hard work women did to feed the more than 100,000 servicemen who stopped in Halifax enroute to the battlefields.

Joyce Purchase, who was a child during the Second World War, will unveil the statue Young Girl with Wagon. Children like Purchase were also part of the volunteer war effort. They often did salvage work. The Canadian government encouraged people to salvage materials that could be converted into tanks and other weapons.

The Volunteers official unveiling will take place at 11 a.m. on Thursday. A private reception will follow the brief public event.

“I think in a way it is a people’s monument because so many people have helped,” said Guildford.

 

-Allison Lawlor/The Chronicle Herald

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