A Shipwreck and a Song: Isabel Hollingdale on Family History, Creativity and the Women of World War Two
In the third-year History capstone subject, students are encouraged to experiment with presenting historical research in creative formats. One student in the 2020 cohort, Isabel Hollingdale, an accomplished musician and singer-songwriter, wrote and recorded a song. In the latest of the Forum podcast series, Henry Reese spoke with Isabel about her work, which brings together music and history in a powerful way.
Isabel was part of the capstone stream called ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’, which invited students to take a deep dive into family history. Isabel took to this challenge with flair. She wrote and recorded a song based on her history research into a World War II shipwreck that had a personal connection. The song, The Western Prince, is named after a ship that was torpedoed on the way from New York to Ireland in 1940. Isabel also produced an accompanying website setting out the scholarly apparatus for the project together with additional historical context and analysis.
You can listen to the podcast episode below and read along with the transcript that follows. Song lyrics and the letter on which the song is based also follow.
Isabel, congratulations on this wonderful song! Can you tell us what the song is about and where your ideas came from?
Well, the song is about my great-cousin, Jane Bankoff, who was in a World War II ship that was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1940, and the inspiration came from a story my mum told me when I was a lot younger. I’d watched Titanic, so that also really helped form this quite vivid image of what Jane had gone through with her only three-and-a-half-month-old baby, who was her first child, and she was only 22. I’m just 21 and, so, as I was writing this, I felt very connected to Jane and the harrowing experience that she must have gone through with this young baby. And the History capstone really inspired me to take a look at some personal family history, which led me down the track of Jane’s story.
I love how all these different threads come together – the way that this story has circulated in your family but also the way that this subject offered you an opportunity to do a bit more formal historical research.
For me the most fascinating and poignant and quirky aspect of this story is that aspect that you just touched on: how your great-cousin Jane Bankoff protected her little baby by putting her in a dog-box – this sturdy-looking container. It looks almost like a suitcase.
Yeah, it was metal, and very heavy.
The safest place a baby could be, probably, during a shipwreck! It’s something that really makes the story so vivid. And that aspect wasn’t lost on newspaper audiences at the time, was it? The story of the baby in the box?
Yes, I think ‘The Baby in the Box’ was the title of the article that the Sydney Morning Herald’s women’s section wrote about it. I think the fact that Jane was travelling with such a young baby, and the fact that a baby had to be put in this box, was quite an interesting story to tell.
Can you tell us a little bit more about the Australian connection here too? Jane was married to a man in England, but she was in New York at the time, and as I understand it this dog-box made its way to the Maritime Museum in Perth, and the family also had a connection to Australia, is that right?
Yes, so Jane grew up in Melbourne. She was the daughter of Pauline Higgins (who’s related to Missy Higgins). But then she married Alexis, who had escaped revolutionary Russia and gone to Germany, and then escaped Nazi Germany. He was a well-known surgeon, and his status definitely made their name more notable.
While I was researching this project, I posted this information online, and I got an email in response from Jane’s son, who’s the only survivor of that line today. He explained that they’d moved to Australia when Alexandra, who was the baby in the box, decided to become a teacher. So they came over here and a lot of the family settled in Perth, which is where I grew up, so my mum saw them a bit – we had a bit of an in-real-life connection!
This really does have all the drama and richness of an episode of Who Do You Think You Are?, doesn’t it? Something that really interests me too is the way that this story obviously means a lot within your family, but I also like the fact that it fits in with a lot of interesting aspects of history as well.
The story makes us think about the role played by women and children in dramatic historical events that have traditionally been understood as more masculine events, like war. But more broadly, I think this also speaks to the importance of recovering ordinary events and ordinary people. The torpedo attack on this ship the Western Prince didn’t really change the course of the Second World War but it nevertheless meant the world to those involved. And as you’ve explained, it really fits into this very complicated story of migration and family, and connection across generations. So there’s an emotional and analytical richness here – and it all comes together in this story of Jane and her baby.
Definitely! When I was analysing it later, for our final Making History assignment, I was looking at different scales in history, and how Jane’s little microhistory was so huge in her own life.
Her story is also a story about the female experience of war. You never read much about women travelling during war – it’s never really represented because they’re the ‘home front’, and it’s the men who are off fighting war. So it was a peculiar story, to be coming from a safe place like America, back to war-ridden London, not for any political reason or big reasons related to the war, but just to be with her husband.
Obviously it’s a reason that means the world to Jane, as it would to you or me or anyone else in that situation. I love that. It makes me think about these amazing histories that people have written recently about mobility, and migration, and the emerging field of global migrant history, of people like Jane who moved around the world and were caught up in global movements. But it’s also a story we can tell on a very small level. I think this really speaks to so many different layers of meaning that are combined here, which is great.
I think it’s a really good point that you make as well about recovering women’s mobility at a time when women have traditionally been thought of as less mobile, or when women had less opportunity for more spectacular global journeys. But at the same time women have always been moving, and have always been making sense of themselves in the world as moving subjects.
It’s great that you’ve got this source material that offers you such a vivid entry point into this topic. You based a lot of this work on a letter from Jane herself, right, recalling her experience on the ship?
Yeah, I reached out to Jane’s niece and she sent me this letter, where Jane retells the story of her journey to her family. And it was just incredible – it’s only three pages, but I basically based the whole song on that motif of writing back to your loved ones. And it was two months later she wrote back to them! The pace of communication back then was so different. She was writing in I think early February or late January, about an event that happened on the 13/14 December. So they probably would have read about it in the newspaper before they got this letter from her!
Your song also encourages us to think about the role of creativity in history-writing. We often tend to think of history as more of an analytic process – immersing yourself in the primary sources, reading into the historiography, making an argument and presenting the findings. But making history, as you show, is also a profoundly creative and imaginative act, too. Could you tell us a bit about that process of turning your research into a song?
I had the letter, and I had a basic outline of the sort of vibe I wanted the song to follow. I was trying to figure out, did I want it to be all about the eight hours they spent on the ship, or did I want it to have a bigger message, say about wartime travel? I settled on Jane’s personal experience; that’s why I wrote it from her point of view, in the first person.
I had a few newspaper articles, mainly the ones my cousin had sent me, and a few more I’d found on Trove. But at the time I was in such a hole writing my American Politics essay, trying to edit it, because this was due just a week later; and I was starting to get a bit worried: what if I can’t write the song? What if I get writer’s block? But then I was like: okay, I’ll just take a study break from my American Politics essay, and I sat down at the piano. And then I just wrote the whole thing in literally 20 minutes!
I came up with the chorus quite early on. I repeat the chorus three times in the song, but with a different ending each time. The first time, they’ve been hit, and she’s asking: why have we been hit? We’re just a passenger ship – because they weren’t even carrying any food and rations. This is one part of the history that I’ve love to look into more – the German practice of targeting passenger ships with U-boats – what the purpose was and how they justified this.
And then the second chorus is the next part of the journey – because the journey on the freighter ship that picked them up was equally harrowing: it was five days of feeling like, oh my gosh, what if we’re torpedoed again!
And the last one is making it back to London, where they’re being bombed constantly.
So I think once I hit on that chorus and that journey, I was quite settled in it, and it sort of just came out easily, which was nice.
I’m think it’s great that focusing on the story in this way really restores quite a lot of agency to Jane in this experience. She wasn’t just a victim passively experiencing events like this torpedoing or like the Blitz in London. Actually, she was actively making sense of her experience and her situation in the present, and then actively working to protect her baby. So I think that’s a really important recognition that helps us imagine Jane’s world. Did you find that you related to Jane in this process?
Yeah, particularly when I found out that was only a year older than I was. But it was the way she wrote her letter – the letter is just really funny! She’s had such a horrible experience, but she puts a really humorous and positive spin on it. She could have been asking for sympathy, but instead she makes it into this adventurous tale.
Writing this in 2020 also I think maybe encourages us to think about the ways that global travel and movement and mobility aren’t a seamless or unproblematic process, even today.
Yes, I think before Corona, I would have been more surprised by her travelling from this safe place to England, which was going through the worst of the Blitz and everything that was happening. I’m from WA, so I’ve been locked out, I’ve been in Melbourne all year – which has been fine, it’s been tricky at times, but if I take a look at it from a Jane-style perspective, then I’ve had an interesting adventure! And I can understand why she was willing to risk a lot to get home to her husband and to be together as a family.
I love the fact that this idea came to you in the downtime when you were dealing with another assessment. It’s a great reminder of how creativity and music as a workflow is very different from a lot of other academic pursuits.
Can you give us a bit more of a sense of your workflow when you write a song? I love talking to musicians about this, because everyone has a very different approach, and you can always learn something quite fascinating. Can you lift the curtain on your song writing process a little bit for us?
I like to write on the piano – sometimes the guitar, but I’m not nearly as good at guitar, so I definitely go towards the piano to get some more interesting chords. And I usually go with one line, one line of lyrics, maybe with a bit of melody there. Then I take the time to figure out some basic chords. With this song, I started with the opening line of Jane’s letter, which is the opening line of the song: Dearest darlings, you’ve probably been wondering what’s happened – so that’s how I start the verse. So that came out pretty easily.
I did go back and change it a few times to fit the sources. I didn’t want it to sound too much like ‘a History assignment’! But I wanted to use all my sources, and it’s funny, looking at the lyrics now – I put footnotes in the lyrics! It’s actually very useful but unusual for me to do that.
There was so much content in her letter; it was just a matter of going through that and finding the bits that I wanted to talk about that I thought were important. Even though she puts a positive spin on it all, there’s no real positive part of the song! But I really wanted to show that there had been loss, and a lot of stress on her.
In the bridge, the song takes a little bit of a different turn. During the rescue, there was a motorboat, one of the rescue boats. Jane was one of three mothers, and in her letter she recalls discussing with them the fact that the babies should have been put on the motor boat, because that was the safest one, with some shelter. But then later like Jane writes kind of humorously that later on they were glad that they hadn’t been on that boat – because the swell was so high that the freighter ship that was rescuing them was bobbing up and down, quite significantly, so it was really tricky for them to board it from these little rescue boats. A lot was written about this in the newspapers – how impressed everyone was by the captain of the freighter ship. But the motorboat was unbalanced, because it didn’t have the oars that the other boats had, which balanced them out a bit, so it capsized, and a lot of the casualties were people who were in that boat, sadly. So I felt like I had to reference that and talk about some people getting to safety, but not all of them. That’s the bridge in the song.
So there was a drama and danger at the heart of this experience, even though Jane’s experience had been so, as you say, human but also cheeky and funny, as she made sense of her situation. I think the way that you struck that balance in the song is really impressive – it’s moving and powerful without being sentimental. You cover the subject matter in a way that wears the research lightly.
Even that first line – “Dearest darlings, you’ve probably been wondering” – it’s quite familiar and friendly, and conversational – it’s an invitation into this world, that benefits from the research, but as a listener you don’t need to know everything about it to be able to relate to it.
Did you produce the song yourself as well?
I was lucky that it was my birthday a few weeks before and my friends had got me this pedal, a vocal harmoniser pedal, which was really useful in making the chorus a bit bigger. I also have this other USB mike, so I didn’t need interface or any complicated cables, which was lucky, because I wouldn’t have been able to source them. So I literally just chucked that next to my amp and then plugged my keyboard and vocal mike in with pedal and recorded it live like that.
It was a bit tricky because I’m at college, and it was a Sunday night, and I really wanted to get the song finished so that I could focus the next day on the rest of the assignment. But my corridor was being so loud! I had to knock on some doors and say: guys, this is my final History project, can you please be quiet for twenty minutes? So I gave myself twenty minutes and I got an okay take, so I used that one.
It’s amazing to hear how that came together. As a musician myself, I think there’s something to be said for working quickly and so as to preserve a sense of spontaneity and sometimes mess. I think there’s something to be said for working a little bit outside your comfort zone when it comes to music.
Yeah, and it makes for expression and emotion in it, because once you record it too many times, you lose a bit of that. I didn’t want to lose any of that emotion while I was recording the vocals especially.
I think that shows. And the way that you’ve mixed it, it’s quite direct, intimate – so I think that really works.
A broader thought that comes out of this as well is that history can be a lot of different things, to a lot of different people. And one of the ways that it’s most accessible to a wide audience is as a repository of pretty extraordinary stories. So in approaching this topic, were you guided by any other creative approaches to history?
I was very cognisant of other songs and creative endeavours that had been written about people at sea. There’s a beautiful song Missy Higgins wrote, Oh Canada, about people seeking asylum in Canada, that she released quite a few years ago, when the young boy was washed up on the beach. I guess that song, which is also depicting a sad event at sea, was at the back of my head.
There’s also the song that Florence and the Machine released for the twentieth anniversary of Titanic. That was one of my favourites, especially because it doesn’t sound like it’s trying to retell this really structured story, it just sounds like a song, but then you’re like, oh wow! It’s based on the Titanic. And that’s sort of what I wanted to go for, I think; mine was a bit more obvious, but it sort of had to be given that this was a formal history assignment.
Titanic might be one of the most popular forms of historical fiction ever. It’s structured the way that so many of us think about ocean liners and the shipboard experience in the first half of the twentieth century. So you’re tapping into a pretty big lineage there.
What an inspiring and a powerful way to finish off your History degree. So Isabel, what’s next, in terms of study, music, or work?
Well, I’m planning on doing a Masters of Secondary Teaching, specialising in History, starting next year. It’s funny because that’s actually what Alexandra, who was the little baby, came to Australia to do – she became a teacher! So I’m really excited about that, and about just finding out more about other histories. And then music – I think that now that I’m back in WA, I’ll try to gig a bit over the summer holidays, maybe do a bit more recording, and just see how much I can do on the side of my study, see how that goes.
It’s always so hard to find that balance, to find the space for creativity amongst everything else that’s going on. But honestly, that sounds like such a wonderful trajectory – so I wish you all the very best for that. It’s a brilliant future ahead of you.
An audio-recording of “The Western Prince” can be accessed below.
“The Western Prince” Lyrics
(with hyperlinks to the website created by Isabel to accompany the project)
Dearest darlings, you’ve probably been wondering,
what happened on Friday, the 13th of December.
Baby and I were just laying down, I had her box there just in case,
floating 400 miles off Ireland, let me remember…
They hit us out of the night,
it was the most terrifying sight.
I thought we wouldn’t make it back to you,
baby, me and the rest of the crew.
Innocent, useless, no purpose to either side,
we were a passenger ship caught in the fight,
eight hours waiting, it was the longest night.
And I know it could have been so much worse.
I heard the mines and watched the rescue boats crushed on the deck,
but we made it back alive, baby and I were sane and whole,
just some swollen legs and hungry cries, as I remember …
They hit us out of the night,
it was the most terrifying sight.
I thought we wouldn’t make it back to you,
baby, me and the rest of the crew.
Dodging torpedos and weaving mines,
five were hit but we survived.
Telling the story sounds so wild but,
I don’t think I breathed that night
They hit us out of the night,
it was the most terrifying sight.
I thought we wouldn’t make it back to you,
baby, me and the rest of the crew
five days on beef and tea,
crammed knee to knee.
Welcomed to a land at war,
I hope baby will be safe with you and me.
Jane Bankoff’s Letter
11th January 1941
My dearest darlings,
I suppose that you are awaiting this letter with eagerness to hear about our journey and how England looks since the blitz… The Western Prince went down about 400 miles off Iceland on the 14th Dec.
Well we, me and baby Woozle [Alexandra] have been leading an adventurous life. We had a marvellous cabin de luxe with bath and had a very pleasant trip up till Friday the thirteenth. There were two other babies on board, a little boy of 2 and a girl of 10 months, one a family from Rio de Janiero and the other from Curacao, both English and in oil business. We got together and used to have quite fun as one had a private sitting room and we used to collect the babies and all meet for tea there. There were only fourteen women and about 48 men on board. I was introduced to some men before the ship sailed and sat at their table, one turned out to be Vera Brittain’s husband and the other has since turned out to be a friend of the son of a friend of Alexis – also the doctor who was quite a character. And as I said the trip passed quite pleasantly until midnight on Friday the 13th. We had had first aid lectures and were all sitting up toasting the end of that superstitiously unfortunate day, saying that it was alright now since we had got through the day and nothing had happened. This must have been our undoing because six hours later we were torpedoed.
I was just giving Alexandra her six o’clock bottle when there came out of the stillness a thud and crash and sort of scrapy noise and an awful smell. I knew at once what had happened and immediately started flinging on the clothes I had left handy, brown skirt, three jerseys, check jacket and fur coat and two pairs of oversocks. The stewardess poked her head in at this juncture and just said “Are you ready?”. I had dressed the baby who by the way was unconcernedly continuing her bottle and put her in her box, thanking God that I had brought it. The box, let me explain, which is now famous in England was a travelling dog box which I had got in New York in case such a thing should happen. I had painted BABY WITH CARE, on it. I had a pillow on the bottom and her little white one at the head and your yellowing pram cover Mums darling. It was all prepared, also a bag of her food and my passport and money. So, all I had to do was to put her in her sleeping bag and wrap the two blankets and eiderdown around her and put her in and shut the box. A seaman came down just as I had her in and I asked him what had happened, and he said, “She’s got it, it’s hard to believe”. So, he carried the baby up and I put on my coat, forgot my bag and lifebelt and followed. He was out of sight when I reached the top of the stairs and when I got to the last stairs leading to the right hand side of the deck where I was meant to go I saw water rushing down them and thought that perhaps they were not able to use those lifeboats so went out on the left side and asked, everything was very calm and I heard some of the sailors whistling, they told me that the other side was alright so I rushed back fearing that the baby might be gone without me and found my lifeboat lowered half way down to the water and baby in it so I climbed over the rial and jumped and landed on top of a couple of people but none the worse for wear.
Well they got all the lifeboats away within twenty minutes of the torpedo which was very lucky because there was a strong sea running and it was dark, and they pulled quickly away from the side of the ship until we were about half a mile away, then we waited to spot the other boats as the biggest thing is to keep together so that when another ship comes to pick you up you have not all spread out and completely lost. It was bitterly cold and every few minutes we ran into squalls of hail and it was hard work for the men to keep the boat headed into the wind to avoid getting swamped by the huge waves. You have no idea how large ocean waves seem from the lowly position of a lifeboat, it seems impossible that we could get over the tops, it seemed like walls of water bearing down on us – but we did. Everyone was frightfully seasick including most of the sailors and baby Woozle who cried for two periods in the beginning and then was silent for the rest of the time. I had her box half on my knee and half on the knee of the man next door. On my right shoulder there was one of the night watchmen who had been wounded lying with all his weight on me. After about an hour as the ship had not yet sunk we began to hope that we might get back on her when suddenly there was another explosion and a roar of flame and she was gone in 38 seconds. The submarine had waited to make sure that she sunk and seeing her still floating loosed another torpedo which must have got her in the Engine room and ripped her bottom out. The Captain blew the siren three times and went down with her, also a steward and the second mate who had refused to leave the Captain. He however was picked up by a destroyer floating on a plank also the ship’s baker and butcher who were on a raft. But a young couple on their honeymoon were lost, they went back to get some of their wedding presents and were left behind and never seen again. It had been her birthday the day before.
We were five open boats and a motor boat which had a cabin and wireless and kept ending out S.O.S. continually. I was thinking what a pity that the children had not been put in the motor boat in shelter and apparently the same thought occurred to the other two mothers, because they both remarked to me afterwards when it had capsized that it was a jolly good thing after all that we hadn’t.
Anyhow, we were there for eight hours which really passed very quickly although we were completely exhausted, and I felt if we did not get rescued soon that I could not stand anymore; my back was raw from the side of the boat rubbing my cork lifebelt on my spine and as we were sitting completely in water and our legs were bruised and numb and the weight of the man and baby to support and being so sick was very tiring. Suddenly a man said, ‘Why, there’s a ship!’ and we all came to life again and began to take a new interest. She came up oh so slowly it seemed to have stopped about half a mile or so away and we had to row to get to her, it took us two hours against the sea but at least we were along side and discovered she was a freighter of 2000 ton bound for Florida.The sea was getting rougher and rougher and the sides of the rescue ship were one minute almost below us and the next miles about our heads and there was at first only a rope ladder to climb up. When they saw that there were children they got a big fish basket and the babies and women were stuck in bottom first, hauled up the side and tipped out into a heap of coal on the deck like overgrown clams.
It was here that the motor boat came to disaster, it came along side when the wave was high on the ship’s side and when the sea fell it was swamped and overturned by the discharge coming from the holes in the ship’s side. Eleven crew and six passengers were lost, some were trapped in the cabin and others swept away and the Hon. Scott, one of the Canadian Commission came up between the two ships and his head was crushed.
On the freighter there were a crew of 30 and 132 of us were picked up. There were five cabins and we were given one, roughly the size of a double bed in which eight of us lived for five days, the babies in a row on the filthy sheets of the bunk and the rest of us taking it in turns to sit down on the seat. The heat was so great that our breath condensed on the iron bolts on the walls and water dripped continually on us and the floor was awash with water that had got in in the gale.
Poor baby had no nappies, no bottle and no food. Fortunately, they had tinned milk which baby had to drink mixed with awful looking yellow water. I was at my wits’ end to find some way to feed her. I tried with a spoon, but it gave her awful pains and she screamed so then I tried digging my finger in the milk and letting her suck, but she only got about an ounce in half-an-hour so that was no good. Eventually the doctor found a whisky bottle and an old eye dropper which he cut off the end and pinched it and stuck it through a cork and put the cork in the bottle and then we wound sticking plaster round it all to keep it together and managed very well with it. We had real seaman’s food, bully beef and salt biscuits and very sweet strong tea and the five days beat anything yet for mental strain. There were gales and we were pushed right up into the Arctic Circle. We saw five other small ships torpedoed near us and were warned to change course as a submarine was lurking on our route and the day before we got in, four destroyers were depth charging a submarine a half mile away and got it, we saw the oil patch. All the time we knew that there were life boats only for thirty and if anything happened again it was useless to do anything. The seas were terrific. Coming in to Ponrock at night we cut the corner of one of our mine fields and a mine scraped along the side of the ship as we tried to find the entrance.
It was all rather like a scene from a cinema. Every bit of floor was taken up by people sitting and lying (when lucky) and it was all rather fantastic. The watch man who was injured had an epileptic fit and lost his memory and thought he was still on the Western Prince tied up in Liverpool and kept trying to get out on the deck (“to get some beer up the road”, he kept saying). He had to be doped to keep him from walking overboard.
If it had not been for the baby, I would have enjoyed it in a perverted way, it was exciting and now that it has ended so happily I consider it worth the loss of my clothes. As soon as we arrived we were taken to hospital as all our legs were swollen and I wired Alexis my address and by the time I had had a delicious bath and cleaned my teeth with a borrowed tooth brush and got into bed in a borrowed nightie, he rang up and said that he was leaving at once and would be with me in the morning. It was marvellous to see him again and we are so happy together and I am quite sure that I did right in coming back. He worships Alexandra who is absolutely none the worse for her experience, she will be five months soon. Alexis and I left baby in the hospital and went into Glasgow for the night and to get a few things. We had an air raid but only a few bombs fell. Then next day we collected baby and took the night train to London.
The 2020 History capstone teaching team was led by Professor Andrew May. Associate Professor Catherine Kovesi ran the ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ stream.
To date, Isabel has released one EP, and several singles. You can listen to these online through the usual music streaming services if you search the name ‘Izzy Hollingdale’.
Feature image: Izzy Hollingdale. Photographer: Milly Eftos