A Belfast Lads Tale Of Emigrating to Canada…

Harold (Pat) Patterson tells his tale of how a young lad from the Shankill ends up in Toronto Canada. His story features some minor identity fraud, bad beer, and decking the boss!

ME 1958

Pats Passport Photo From 1958

I had just turned 16 the month before and now I was going to Canada to join my sister Irene and family Billy, Marilyn, Michael and Colin. My brother Joe was living with them also. Billy and Joe went to Canada in March of 1957 and Irene and the kids followed in November of 1957. So just before I turned 16 I decided I was going too.

Mum and dad didn’t put up any argument as they knew that there was not much future for me in Belfast. So with ₤25 ($68 Canadian dollars) in my pocket, I shook my dad’s hand and he wished me good luck and into the taxi and I was on my way. We went down Agnes St. towards the Shankill I glanced back and he was still standing on the footpath watching the taxi move away down the street. A tall slim figure with combed back graying hair, one hand in his trouser pocket and the other raised in a wave goodbye.

That was 50 years ago and little did I know then that, that would be the last time I would ever speak to him or seen him alive. He passed away in August 1964.

I like to think that his only regret was that he was not going with me as he loved Canada and I grew up hearing about stories of his time in Canada. He immigrated to Canada in July 1929, then in October 1929 the stock market crashed and work was hard to find. He told me stories about the country and the weather and the cold winter and what he did to make money to send home to my mother. He rode the rods on the train to different towns and cities across Canada trying to find work but in the end, he asked the government to send him back home to his family. I guess that was some time in late 1930 or early in 1931.

So going to Canada was a natural thing for me to do. After all my brother Joe was there and my sister Irene, brother in law Billy and my niece Marilyn and nephews Michael and Colin, as well as my aunt Lilly and Uncle Harold and my cousins Harold and Linda. Billy and Joe would send letters and pictures back to Irene and they were of weekends fishing, camping, picnics and the hot summer weather, and everyone was enjoying themselves.

I left Belfast March 8, 1958. Before my departure for Canada, my mother and I were going to visit my sister Morrine and her husband John in Aldershot, England. This was my mother’s first trip to see them since they were married.

My dad was not going. We were going by taxi to the docks to catch the Heysham steamer for the crossing and then by train to London and then on to Aldershot.

So I went to Morrine and John’s and stayed with them for a couple of days. Morrine and John had a big house but they only had one bed. (They’d only been married about a year.) So John had gotten a couple of camp beds for him and I to sleep in as mum and Morrine shared the real bed. I recall saying to John to be careful getting in to the cot as the canvas might rip and sure enough, just as he got in and settled there was a ripping sound and John’s cot ripped in two. So there was John backside on the floor struggling to get out of the cot and I was laughing my head off.

Well on the Monday March 10 we went to London and I boarded the TransCanada Airlines (TCA) Vickers Viscount, and left all behind as the plane headed to Preswick, Scotland, where we took on more fuel and passengers.

We took off about 11 PM and after a 12 hour flight I landed on Tuesday March 11 at around 7 AM at Toronto’s International airport at Malton, on the northwest outskirts of the city. The population of Toronto was about 700,000. I was a bit disappointed that there was no snow. I walked off the plane onto the tarmac and across the tarmac to a single building that was the terminal, it wasn’t very big in 1958. Through customs and emigration and there to meet me was my brother Joe and the wife of an old friend of my dads Mrs. Jack Watson. She had a 1953 Studebaker car and we headed down highway 27 to Browns line then east along Lakeshore road to New Toronto and up 15thstreet to Irene & Billy’s apartment about 8 AM. Joe had to go to work and it was reunion time and then after breakfast, Marilyn and Michael and Colin had to go off to school. Irene had a two bedroom basement apartment, Irene and Billy had one bedroom and the kids had the other, Joe and I slept on a divan (fold down couch) in the living room.


Toronto Skyline (Photo from elpadawan)

I gave Irene $60 of my $68 for room and board (I paid $15 a week) Billy was working at Sherriffs, they made jam and stuff. Irene worked there for a while too.

Sometime in the morning Irene took me downtown to get a winter jacket. We caught the street car on Lakeshore Road and went down Queen Street. We got off at Young Street and she showed me Eaton’s and Simpsons, we walked around a bit then headed east to Spidina Ave. We stopped in at a restaurant Queen St & Spidina to have a coffee and I spotted what I thought was chocolate pie but it wasn’t, it was pumpkin pie. So the first piece of pie I had in Canada was pumpkin, it was the first time I ever had pumpkin and it was good too. I got a windbreaker in one of the stores on Spidina then we headed home.

Irene and Billy didn’t have a car but Joe had a 1949 Packard, it was a big car, unfortunately it wasn’t running at the time. When Billy and Joe got home from work we had supper and a family reunion. I can’t remember if I brought them anything from Belfast, probably did. We had a talk about work and Irene was saying that they were encouraging the kids to stay in school and that at 16 years old, I may find it hard at the unemployment office. We were going there on Wednesday. Now I had to work as there was no way I was going back to school and besides Irene and Billy couldn’t afford to keep me. So Irene suggested that I lie about my age. Tell them that you are twenty she said. If they asked for my birth certificate I was in trouble so I got a pen and carefully changed the date of birth on my passport. So now I was twenty. I guess being 6 ft 2 in helped.

Marilyn, Michael and Colin came home from school and we had a reunion. After supper Joe, Billy & I went to visit Jack Watson’s family who were friends of my dad’s. Jack had come to Canada around 1953 or 54 and they lived on 23rdSt. in Long branch. Back in Belfast Jack had his own dental labs, one in Belfast and one some where else, Dundalk in the south of Ireland I think.) But when he came to Canada his credentials were not recognized and to be a denturist he would have had to go to dental college for two years. He couldn’t afford that so he went to tool and die making, he also made dentures and crowns in his basement for friends.

Jack gave us a beer, my first beer in Canada, Carlings Black label. I took a drink and nearly spit it out it was terrible, never been much for Canadian beer since. (I did put a few pints down me when I was back in Belfast in May 2006)

To say the 2 bedroom apartment was a bit crowded for 3 kids and 4 adults with one bathroom would be like saying it doesn’t rain in Belfast. It was hot in the apartment, it was the first time I really experienced central heating. I found it very dry and I was always thirsty for the first couple of weeks until I got acclimatized. It was March and the heat was going full blast, of course Irene liked it as she was always a cold riffed woman. There was no chance of having a lay in either because once one of the kids were up so was every one else.

As soon as the kids were up the TV (a 21” in a blond wood cabinet and we got about 8 channels, 4 Canadian and the rest from Buffalo in the states) was on. Irene was up making breakfast and asking the kids “you washed yet, get that breakfast down ye, come on get ready for school, turn that TV off,” and on it would go until they were out the door.

Well Wednesday morning Irene took me to the unemployment office on the Lakeshore road at 24th Street. I filled in the forms and put down warehouseman as my occupation. I guess I looked twenty because they didn’t ask me for any proof. When they asked me what my education level was I had no clue, I said form 7 as we didn’t use the grade system in Belfast any way they put down grade 9. I later found out that the education system in Ireland was a lot better than Canada’s. The education in Belfast was equivalent to grade 12 or better.


Toronto Old City Hall (Photo from Steven Harris)

Every day I was at the unemployment office looking for work. In those days companies would call in and place orders for workers, mostly labourers and sometimes skilled trades. There were no placement agencies or head hunters in those days. During the week we would visit Uncle Harry (Harold) and Aunt Lilly and my cousins Harold and Linda and other friends of Irene and Billy. My cousins, Freda and Helen were living in Toronto too.

On Saturday we went grocery shopping, I think we went to the Dominion store in the west end of Long Branch. All the bread, fruit, vegetables, milk, meat, laundry detergent etc for the week for 7 people cost $20-$25. I was astonished at the price of tinned salmon, a 6 ort 8 oz tin was about $1.00, it was rare to have tinned salmon in Belfast as it was so expensive.

Bus and Street car fare was 15 cents. Cigarettes were 30 cents for 20 and 33 cents for the 25 pack. Gas was 29 cents a gallon. A hamburger was 20 cents, 25 cents with the works, a restaurant meal was $1.50 – $ 2.50 for pork chops, small steak etc which were the most expensive things on the menu. Shows (pictures) were 85 cents to $1.00. The exchange was about $2.90 to the pound.

Well on the Monday March 17 I got a job. My first job in Canada was with Universal Form Block Company, they made forms for the construction industry for pouring concrete walls. Of course I had to start right away and the place was off Kipling Ave. north of the Queensway. (Actually it was called the Queen Elizabeth Way, but everyone called it the Queensway). The man at the unemployment told me how to get there. I think I ran all the way, down the Lakeshore Blvd. to 18thSt (Kipling Ave.) and a mile or two up Kipling Ave. I guess I got there about 9 or 9:30 and they put me to work.

They took me to this big steel table and the foreman showed me what to do. There were hundreds of these angle iron 4’x8’ frames and 4×8 sheets of plywood, a 21/2 Lb ball peen hammer and a bucket of steel rivets. Put the frame on the table, put the plywood in the frame and rivet the plywood to the frame, 24 rivets (3/8” dia) per frame.

Pound the rivets in, stack the frames on a pallet and on to the next frame. It was hard boring work but at least I was working. For the first week my hands and arm ached from the pounding on the hammer. We worked 5 ½ days a week then and every day I would walk the couple of miles to work in all kinds of weather. I didn’t get paid that first week as they held a week back in those days. On the following Thursday or Friday I got my first pay, I was paid by cheque and I hadn’t got a clue what to do with it. I got paid $1.25 an hour, $55.00 for a 44 hour week, I paid $6.00 income tax and $0.85 unemployment insurance so there I was with a piece of paper for $48.15.

A couple of the guys said that they were going to the bank to cash their cheques so I went with them. I didn’t have a bank account then so I handed the teller my cheque, she gave it back to me and told me to endorse it, I guess I looked at her with a dumb look, sign it she said. So I singed and she gave me the money. You sure couldn’t do that today. I was rich, I paid Irene $15 for room and board and I had $33 left.

Well that job only lasted about 4 weeks as I guess they filled the order. Or maybe it was because I decked the foremen the week or so before. Now in Belfast we used swear words, the four letter kind. In Canada I found out they have a few swear words that one never heard in Belfast. Like SOB, CS, MF. Well one day the foreman came in and he was mad at me for something he gave me hell but when he called me a Mother F—. I hit him, oh I was going to kill him, I had never heard anything so disgusting before in my life and I just lost the rag. Well after things had calmed down the boss explained to me that he didn’t mean anything by it, that is was just a figure of speech. Well in the remaining week or two that I continued working there no one ever swore at me again, especially the foreman.

So that was my first work experience in Canada.

Did you emmigrate from Belfast? Tell us where you ended up in the comments box below. We would love it if you want to send us your story.

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