Barbara Cass-Beggs was 34 years old when she boarded Athenia in Liverpool on the afternoon of Sept. 2, 1939, with her husband, David, and 3-year-old daughter, Rosemary. In a little more than 24 hours, Barbara and David would become separated from their daughter when a German U-boat torpedoed their ship, the central event in my forthcoming historical novel, Without Warning.
Nothing in Barbara’s life prior to boarding Athenia could have prepared her for the hardships she was about to endure or the terrible anxiety of separation from her daughter.
Barbara Cass was born in Nottingham, England, the younger of two daughters. Her father, Bingley Cass, a Church of England minister, moved the family frequently as he sought positions of greater responsibility in churches with ever larger congregations.
A shy child, Barbara grew up loving music and became an accomplished pianist as a teenager. A generous 21st birthday present from her godmother gave Barbara the opportunity to leave home and study piano and voice at the Royal College of Music in London. By the time she completed her studies, she had grown into a confident, attractive young woman who earned a modest living by giving recitals and teaching music to youngsters.
Her time in London changed Barbara in other ways as well, awakening her intellect and steering her toward a progressive social and political outlook. She began questioning the tenants of her Church of England faith and as a young adult she moved away from church dogma to become something of a philosophical Christian.
After joining the Student Christian Movement, Barbara attended a summer camp and met David Beggs, an electrical engineer with a similar liberal outlook. Although four years younger than Barbara, David’s intelligence, wit, and thoughtfulness quickly outshone the other men in her life and they were married in 1932. Their strong mutual respect for each other led them to adopt the married surname of Cass-Beggs.
The first few years of their marriage they commuted on weekends from the Midlands, where David taught electrical engineering, to London, where Barbara performed as a soloist with The Charterhouse choir. When David took a position as a lecturer at Oxford’s School of Technology, the couple moved to the university town. Their small home soon became a popular gathering place for more liberal-minded students and discussions around their dinner table often lasted well into the night. The routine changed very little when, in August, 1936, Barbara gave birth to Rosemary, who never seemed bothered by the presence of so many people in their home.
When Rosemary was two years old, the Cass-Beggses took in a boarder, William “Bill” Gibson, a Canadian pursuing medical studies at Oxford University. Through Bill they met his brother James, a Rhodes Scholar. Bill and Jim became very popular with little Rosemary, and the brothers grew quite close with Barbara and David. The young men made Canada seem like an enlightened paradise where society was less structured and the Cass-Beggses’ liberal views might be more at home. With the Gibsons’ encouragement, David sought out and accepted the position as a lecturer for a year at the University of Toronto.
Barbara felt confident that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement would keep any conflict in Europe at bay at least for another year and she expected they would be able to return to England without any problem. But doubts began forming when she learned their passage to Canada was transferred to the Athenia from Aurania, which had been commandeered by the Royal Navy for possible war service. The Cass-Beggses weighed many considerations for and against leaving England, but finally decided to go to Canada as planned.
It proved to be a fateful decision, as we will see in Part 2 of this blog.