Editor’s note: when we spoke to Lulu for this story, she mentioned how much she still loves the music of Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy – singers from the 1940s. If you’re so inclined, we recommend listening to one of their tunes while you read this blog post. Here’s a link to one of their greatest hits, Indian Love Call: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1n_bUSywN94.
Last year, the Cunard Line celebrated 175 years in business. Its fabled vessels have plied international waters in high style, and played a role in nearly two centuries of history.
Lulu Chisholm, sharp as a tack at almost 94 years of age, took time to chat with us this Fall about her time working for the company.
“You can do almost anything on a ship,” says Lulu with faraway eyes. She remembers the times she traveled on her employer’s ships with amazing detail.
“There was always lots to do. On one trip we had a fancy hat parade, where you made hats out of whatever you had in your luggage. At night there was always the orchestra and dancing. You could even see a movie on board – but who would want to?”
Lulu Chisholm was born on the Magdalen Islands in 1921, where she lived until the age of 18. Her father was a Morse Code operator for the Canadian Marconi Company, and was stationed there in 1917.
In 1941 Lulu moved to Halifax, where she accepted a job as a stenographer. Two years later, she took a job at the Cunard Line’s busy Halifax offices.
“Oh there was a lot going on then – it was wartime, you know,” says Lulu. “I earned $93 a month, working in the freight department. I was a typist and I did shorthand. I loved every minute of it.”
At the time, the line’s two largest vessels – the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Mary – were repurposed to carry troops overseas. They were the fastest ships available, able to make the Atlantic crossing in four days.
“My first experience on one of the Cunard Line vessels was on the Queen Mary. It was in troop-carrying mode at the time. Our boss arranged for all the girls in the office to go on board for afternoon tea,” says Lulu. “We had a tour of the ship afterward, and saw where the men would sleep in rows of hammocks.”
At the end of the war, ordinary civilians began travelling overseas again.
Lulu describes trainloads of people arriving in Halifax to travel to England on the Cunard ship Aquitania.
“The girls in the office would do check-in, taking a portion of the ticket as they boarded the vessel. And then we’d be invited on board for dinner,” she says. “It was wonderful.”
In 1949 Lulu accepted a transfer to Cunard’s Toronto office, where she could live closer to her brother.
“I took a job in the freight department there – but instead of being the only girl there, I was now one of three,” says Lulu.
Shortly after moving to Toronto, Lulu was offered the position of assistant to the Office Manager – someone she had a great deal of respect for.
“He was a marvelous man. He always dressed immaculately,” she says. “I was really pleased about this new job, I had my own office and everything.”
At the time Lulu was working for Cunard, employees needed to put in 15 years before they were allotted three weeks of vacation time per year.
When Lulu earned her third week, her good friend May Blakely said: “we’re going overseas whether you get seasick or not.”
“May and I did two trips together. The first was in 1963 on the Queen Elizabeth, to southern England.”
Here’s what Lulu had to say about the voyage over:
On that first trip, they would change the clocks back an hour a day each day at midnight, so when you arrived in England you were all adjusted. One morning we overslept and missed breakfast. The waitress asked if she could make us coffee, but we said no, that was all right. It was a beautiful day, and we were walking on the deck. Near the swimming pool was a bar, and on it there was a huge tray of sandwiches. I asked May – do you want a sandwich? She said to me: I’ll have a sandwich if you have a pint! So we had a breakfast of beer and sandwiches!
On the way home, Lulu and May traveled on the Franconia – a much smaller vessel – during a hurricane.
“That was quite an experience! During the storm they handed out little blue pills for seasickness, and we ate only chicken sandwiches and apples for an entire day. No extra fluids.”
Lulu’s next trip with May was on the Queen Mary in 1965.
Captain Warwick entertained us before meals in the dining room. On one cloudy day with rough seas, I said: ‘it looks rough out there, but I don’t feel any motion – why is that?’ The captain said: ‘my dear, I have the wind behind the ship.’”
We had terrific table companions on that trip. The eight of us had a great time.
The orchestra leader took requests – and when we arrived in the dining room, they would start to play our music. Back then I loved listening to Nelson Eddie and Jeanette McDonald.
In 2006 the Queen Mary came to Saint John, and the captain on board was the son of Captain Warwick.
Lulu remembers May – her traveling companion on these adventures – fondly. May has since passed away, but Lulu says her spirit stays with her.
“She’s right here on my shoulder.”
Lulu concluded her career with Cunard in 1968.
“I was proud to be a Cunarder. I am still proud to be one,” she says – emotion in her voice. “I love to talk about those times.”
In 1976 Lulu married the love of her life, a man she met on the Magdalen Islands when she was 17.
Don Chisholm came to the islands as a tutor for the English children in the community of Grindstone. Classes were held in Lulu’s parents’ home, and he lived there with them for approximately two years. He went overseas to fight in 1940, met and married his first wife Winnifred in 1942, and was in Holland when the war ended. Don and his wife had two children, and in the early 1960s the family relocated to Saint John, where he took a job at Veteran’s Affairs. Winnifred passed away in 1974.
In August 1975 Lulu was visiting family on the East Coast, and she decided she should visit Don.
“I knew he wasn’t well at the time, and had recently lost his wife,” she says. “When I saw him I gave him a peck on the cheek. His arms flew around me and he said: ‘we can do better than that.’ And that was it!”
In January 1976, Don visited Lulu in Toronto, and in April she came to Saint John for his 60th birthday. On the 29th of May they were married, and Lulu moved into Don’s home in Erb’s Cove on the Belleisle Bay.
“Everywhere I’ve lived, I make sure I can see the water,” says Lulu. “I’m proud to have been a part of the Cunard story. All the people I worked with there were very good to me.”
This post is also available in: French