75 years Remembered!

A good friend and fellow church member Bill Huinink wrote the following report to record and remember the journey for those who travelled on that very first post-war immigrant ship from the Netherlands to CANADA! check the passenger list here!

DE S.S. WATERMAN – 75 Years ago

On May 5, 1945 the Canadian Army finally drove the Nazi occupiers from the Netherlands. The occupation had produced economic ruin to the country. Many people lost their lives to repressive actions by the Nazi forces, but the worst had been the seizure of most food products from the Netherlands and sending them to Germany. The western part of the country saw the literal starvation of thousands of Dutch citizens during the ‘Hunger Winter’ of 1944/45. Following the euphoria of the Liberation, the country still suffered from a lack of basic necessities for living. Many industries, and particularly farming, had lost most of their equipment to the Nazi war effort, either for the equipment itself or for the need for steel in the armaments supply.

The following 2 years saw little relief from this loss with only a small amount of Importing equipment being possible due to all countries working to recover from the war losses. The other major problem of the time (pre and post war) was the lack of land for agricultural expansion and the Dutch government policies of strict control over passing on real estate within a family. The existing farms/industries seemed to offer little opportunity for young people in the foreseeable future. Many Dutch people were actively looking to other countries that appeared to be offering much more promise. Many thousands had made enquiries and registered for emigration to foreign countries including Australia, Canada, and the U.S. In the meantime, the Canadian economy was healthy and particularly the agricultural industry suffered from a labour shortage. In March 1947 the Canadian and Dutch authorities came to an agreement that Agriculturists willing to work as farm laborers would be admitted to Canada. A sponsor must be in place and this sponsor was obligated to pay the workers $75/month for family men, $45 for single men, plus free housing.

Notifications went out to many families who had registered, that the boat – the SS Waterman – had been pressed into service and would sail on June 17, 1947 from Rotterdam. In the space of about 10 weeks final decisions had to be made. Visas were dependent on health and security checks, businesses had to be transferred/closed down, employers notified and personal effects had to be packed, sold or given away and separation from families/friends all needed to be dealt with. Many were afraid that they would never see their loved ones again. (A number never did, for various reasons.)

On June 17, 1947 the ship was ‘ready’ for boarding. The previous day it had dropped off a load of Dutch soldiers returning from Indonesia. The decks had been hosed, garbage unloaded and the new crew was at the stations. Otherwise, it was still a troop ship – ill-suited to being a passenger liner. Sufficient good food and supplies were loaded. The boat was not docked, but anchored out in the harbour. A tender was used to ferry the passengers to the ship (50 people at a time) and a ships ladder was used for boarding. Families with young children struggled to carry babies and toddlers up the long steep stair that swayed to the movement of the water. Once on board, you can imagine the shock of seeing the accommodations. The men and older boys were sent to one section where the beds were cramped bunk beds stacked 4 high with thin pads as mattresses, a sheet, a single blanket and a small pillow. The women and girls along with the children under the age of 10 went to separate areas of the ship where conditions were similar to the men’s. Some of the families (minus the men) were lucky to be assigned to a cabin and some even shared a cabin. Boys over 10 were housed with the men while girls over 10 shared the bunk accommodations with the women who had no children. Approximately 70 single women – most of them, war brides – were on board. 160 single men came along to scout out the new land’s suitability for their parents and siblings, and prepare for them to come later. The families were on average a couple with 3 children but there was one family with 13 children and another with 11.

The Groenewegen family had 5 children and the Dam and Huinink family had four each. Tess’s parents (de Jong) had been married only shortly before the voyage, but were already expecting her (without their knowledge at the time). Coincidentally, the Groenewegen and Dam families were right beside each other in their quarters. Nellie Schuurman (Groenewegen) recalls that Mrs. Dam often looked after both family’s children while Mrs. Groenewegen had to get on deck for some fresh air, away from the cabin fever conditions in the barracks. The families soon found out that the troop ship conditions extended to the meals. Although there was plenty of good food, all passengers had to stand in line – cafeteria style – with a plate being handed to each, even the little ones. The plate had several divisions in it to keep the types of food separate – but on one plate. The food was to be eaten at long tables. This requirement was soon dispensed with.

As soon as the ship exited the English Channel it hit a storm on the open ocean. That evening many of the passengers became sea-sick and a good number of family members were confined to their beds. Those who were not sick would bring some basic food down to the barracks so that the bed-ridden ones might try to eat at least a little bit. Leda Vanderkruk (Dam) remembers helping here Dad carry food down the stairs into the lower sleeping quarters – a difficult task for a 4 year old on a swaying ship. With so many being sick, people were vomiting at very inconvenient places. Eventually open barrels were placed on the decks and they tried to aim the projectiled food into them. In the men’s quarters, the urinals were made of steel tanks cut in half and hung from the walls with drain pipes leading out to the open sea. They were a handy place to vomit into but a lot of food got stuck in the drains. The urinals started to fill up and with the swaying of the boat, the contents started sloshing from end to end and flooding over onto the floors. Needless to say, the sanitary conditions were far from ideal. The storm abated the following day but some people were sick for the duration of the crossing. Those who were not, started to wander on the open decks and many of the children spent hours playing with their siblings or finding new friends. Older siblings looked after younger ones while their mothers were busy with babies or even confined to beds because of sea-sickness. Nellie Schuurman (Groenewegen) recalls that her 6 year old brother (Ted) would push the younger 2 ½ year old brother (John) around the deck in a folded high chair that had wheels on it. She noted another activity that fascinated her. Her Dad would lift her up to look out the porthole and watch the waves surging by during the storm.

During the day, fathers were allowed into the women’s quarters to help their wives with the chores of dressing and feeding the little ones. One day, as they were approaching land, someone spotted an iceberg. Anyone who could, got on deck to watch the new phenomenon. One of the passengers, while standing at the railing, saw an object floating at some distance from the boat. He recognized it as a sea Mine – a remnant from the war 2 years earlier. He could see that the boat was in no danger of hitting it, so he did not draw attention to it in case it might cause a panic. Then land came into sight. Newfoundland on the left and Labrador on the right. As they passed between they could observe green hills, even low mountains. This was their new country. The next blessing was the calm waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence (no more sea-sickness) and plenty of sunshine. The voyage now became a pleasant adventure for almost everyone on board. But surprise, surprise – they sailed a whole day and were told it would be another day before they would reach Quebec City.

At Quebec City the boat was held up for a number of hours while immigration officials boarded and other affairs were taken care of. Late afternoon they sailed again and at about 10:00 AM on the morning of June 26, 1947 the ship docked in Montreal. The whole harbor appeared to be aware of the special arrival. There was a cacophony of ships horns from all over to welcome the newcomers to Canada. On the dock stood the Dutch ambassador to Canada and a Canadian official in charge of immigration. Speeches of welcome were made by both to the waiting crowds on the deck. It took most of the day to unload the travelers and transport them all to the Central Station – several blocks north – in the city. Red Cross workers were on hand, both at the dock and the Station with food and drink and other treats. Most of the passengers knew where they were going already, but some just got to know this as they came to the station. A special train was making the run to Toronto (5 – 6 hours away). The coaches had been assembled specifically for the migrants and turned out to be the oldest, most dilapidated cars that could be in service. The ride was hot – 30/31deg. C – and stifling. Some tried to open the windows but the soot from the steam engine would be sucked into the coaches. The view though, was exciting; there were lots of trees and green farm fields for most of the trip. A few families – hired by sponsors in Eastern Ontario – were dropped off along the way. In Toronto’s Union Station there was much chaos. Due to language problems a number of families were
sent to the wrong trains.

Nellie recalls that the Groenewegen’s were supposed to go to Bradford but ended up being put on a train to Brantford. During the stop in Hamilton where a good number were being sent, they happened to talk with Peter Spoelstra who was assisting the ones coming to Hamilton.

Part of Hamilton Spector front page news of Immigrants arriving at the CNR Station, Hamilton in June 1947

He helped them in arranging a train passage back to Toronto and on to Bradford. The Huinink’s were to go to Thamesford and when they got off there, their sponsor was nowhere to be found. The stationmaster got to thinking – many people coming to Thamesford would take the train to Woodstock (different rail line) and arrange to be picked up there. He got on the telegraph to the Woodstock station and, sure enough, their sponsor was waiting there and wondering where his migrant family was. He then drove the 25 km back to Thamesford, only 6 km from his home, and picked them up there.

Many sponsors were fair and well intentioned to the immigrants. Among our 4 families there were no major problem or abuse of the workers. There were, however, many stories of families being housed in chicken coops or other dilapidated structures with no reasonable sanitary facilities; stories of wind howling through the wood siding while trying to keep a young family warm; outhouses to be used in freezing weather; lack of windows for ventilation in one of the hottest summers on record – it was not easy for them. The minimum wage left little for saving to cover the transition from the sponsor farm to other employment. It was a difficult time for most and we can’t go into much detail on that, but definitely the majority of immigrants, having already gone through a depression and the WWII occupation, were thrifty enough and had the determination and FAITH to get through this as well. 75 years later, we are ‘celebrating’ the fact that our families have done well – even extremely well – in the years that have gone by.

Bill Huinink’s NOTE: I acknowledge the information gleaned from the book ‘To All Our Children’ by Albert Vandermey, the passenger list for the boat, the diary of Tryn Snyder (one of the passengers on De Waterman), inputs by Nellie Schuurman and Leda Vanderkruk (Dam), and word of mouth comments by my own parents and other passengers I have met over the years.
W. (Bill) Huinink – June 12, 2022


So on that 17th day of June 1947 the S.S. Waterman slipped out of the Rotterdam harbour into the Nieuwe Waterweg, and so out to the North Sea, headed for Montreal, PQ Canada with 1,100 Dutch immigrants on board who were full of excitement for the new adventures that would await them. They all had visions of a new starts and prosperity for them and their families; to a bright future in a welcoming land. O Canada!

Many of these pioneers have now passed away and their children and grand-children and great grand children are remembering the joys and the hardships of their parents bold venture, so many years ago from a war-torn Netherlands, to a new country full of future hope and new beginnings.

Here is a poem written by J. Bergwerff, living in Rozenburg, at the occasion of the Cor & Sjaan Groenewegen family’s departure to Canada via the S.S. Waterman. (Translated in 2005 by Mrs. Benna Nicholai)

As the ship comes sailing by, and we, filled with sadness, with a sigh 
Stare at the fading silhouette; we know a full stop has been set.

The tie with Holland has been cut, you'll travel another country but
Our poor little Nederland is it no longer your fatherland?

Our country's little, that is true yet you earned your living, didn't you?
We're wondering and we'd like to know what possessed you to decide to go.

Couldn't your children and your wife prevent this sad parting in your life?
Didn't you think of your mother dear, who now must carry this sorrow year after year?

Or were you thinking of your children's welfare? to oppose, in this we would not dare.
In this battle how did you fight? We trust that you did pray for light.

That you didn't stand alone, of course, you know. What thoughts and questions through your mind did go?
Were you careful to bend your knees to pray, as every possibility you did weigh?

There's still something I truly want to know. You won't forget our Holland when you go?
That little spot of treasured ground where years ago your cradle was found!

O Nederlands, your best sons and daughters no longer want to live within your borders.
To unfold their talents is their wish, strong and sure, in this place they no longer can endure.

They'll spread their wings in a land so wide, far from here on the other side.
Here they cannot build a future and grow. Should we then hinder them and say, "Don't go?"

There goes the ship. It's done you see. How endless the distances will be.
O Lord, what pain.........  there goes my child, to each one give Your comfort so mild.

Long ago a mother stood by the cross, her son was going home. To her it seemed a loss.
Dear Mother and Father remember always, that Son our Eternal Great Shepherd will stay.

After we travel our tiresome earthly road, we'll arrive with joy in our heavenly abode.
Whether in Canada or in the Nederlands, we're all on our way to our eternal homeland. 

June 26, 1947 – Netherlands Ambassador Dr. J.H. van Roijin and Mrs. van Roijin greeting Dutch immigrants arriving by ship in Montreal. Photo by George Hunter: National Film Board of Canada

Was your FAMILY ON-BOARD? check the passenger list here!

for more info about Immigration, ships etc see: goDutch.com

Published by

Opa JanS

Retired; Octogenarian; Husband, father and Opa; interested in celebrating/contributing and distributing the blessings we have as Christians in Canada's fair land.