Barbara Cass-Beggs expected to spend a year in Canada with her husband, David, and their 3-year-old daughter, Rosemary, when they boarded Athenia in Liverpool on the afternoon of Sept. 2, 1939. David had accepted a position for the coming academic year to lecture on electrical engineering at the University of Toronto, and Barbara saw it as an opportunity to test the waters of Canada’s egalitarian society. They planned to return home to Oxford, England, when the year ended, but World War 2 would change all that.
The threat of war seemed a long way off when Barbara and David initially planned to go to Canada. As tensions on the Continent mounted in the summer of 1939, they had second thoughts, but resolved to go anyway, in part to escape the rigid class distinctions of Great Britain.
Class consciousness had not been part of Barbara’s upbringing. Born in Nottingham, England, in late 1904, Barbara Cass was the younger of two daughters. Her father, Bingley Cass, was a Church of England minister, and the family moved frequently as he sought positions of greater responsibility in churches with ever larger congregations.
Barbara grew up loving music and became an accomplished pianist as a teenager. A generous 21st birthday gift from her godmother gave Barbara the opportunity to leave home to 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 a more philosophical Christian.
Afterjoining the Student Christian Movement, Barbara attended a summer camp and met David Beggs, an electrical engineer with a similar liberal outlook. Although nearly 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. They adopted the married surname of Cass-Beggs to indicate each would be an equal partner in the marriage.
The first few years of their marriage they commuted on weekends from the Midlands, where David taught electrical engineering, to London so that Barbara could perform as a soloist with The Charterhouse choir. When David took a position as a lecturer with Oxford’s School of Technology, the couple moved to the university town.
Their small home soon became a popular gathering place for liberal-minded students, with discussions around their dinner table often lasted well into the night. The routine changed very little when, in August, 1936, Barbara gave birth to a daughter, Rosemary, who seemed comfortable in the presence of so many different adults 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.
Coming aboard Athenia on that Saturday afternoon, Barbara had no idea of the central role her daughter would play in a drama that was about to engulf them all. More about that in Part 2.