This Week in History


Red Cross Trailblazer in Newfoundland

For the week of Monday, October 3, 2016

October 5, 1940, was Mona Gordon Wilson’s first day of work as Assistant Commissioner for the Red Cross in St. John’s, Newfoundland. Since Newfoundland had no Red Cross branch, Wilson had to start from scratch. Having already served with the Red Cross overseas and as a former Chief Public Health Nurse in Prince Edward Island, Wilson was the woman for the job.

Portrait of Mona Gordon Wilson (date unknown)
© PEI PARO / Acc.2320 / Series 8 / File 42

During the Second World War, the Newfoundland Escort Force with the support of the Royal Canadian Navy guarded convoy ships travelling from Newfoundland to Ireland. German military submarines, called U-boats, still managed to sink vessels. Rescue ships brought survivors to St. John’s and to Wilson, who was responsible for their physical and social well-being. Although hundreds of survivors might arrive on any given day, Wilson personally welcomed each one at the St. John’s wharf, regardless of the hour. Those requiring medical attention were taken to one of five hospitals managed by Wilson and staffed by 300 dedicated volunteers. Three hospitals were in St. John’s, one in Botwood, and another in Gander.

Wilson was an executive member of the St. John’s War Services Association. During Christmas 1940, the Association opened a hostel for survivors and servicemen on Water Street in downtown St. John’s known as the Caribou Hut. Guests were greeted with a hot meal, a shower, a shave, and a clean bed.

Mona Gordon Wilson (right) meeting the Queen Mother in Prince Edward Island during the 1967 Royal Tour to Canada
© PEI PARO / Acc.2320 / 29-12

Since survivors always arrived with limited possessions, Wilson arranged for a steady supply of comfort bags filled with clothing and toiletries that were handed out to each of them. Volunteers from across the Island made endless piles of sweaters, socks, mittens, and windbreakers. Volunteers also planned picnics, arranged movie outings, and led handicraft workshops in hospitals. Patients took part in these activities with enthusiasm. In her autobiography, Wilson noted the amusing sight of naval officers leaving the hospital proudly holding a long-necked giraffe or a pink elephant that they had made for their wives or children.

Mona Gordon Wilson, 1894-1981, was honoured with the Florence Nightingale Award, the highest international award for nursing. She also received the King’s Silver Jubilee Medal. She is commemorated as a national historic person for her tremendous contributions to the war effort.

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Second World War and October is Women’s History Month. To read more about women in the war, see Making Waves: Women in Uniform, “None is Too Many”: Cairine Wilson’s Fight to Liberate Canadian Immigration Policy, and We’re in the Navy Now! in the This Week in History archives.

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