When Victoria Crosby immigrated to the United States in the early 1960s, she was taken aback by a man next to her on line at the supermarket who casually struck up a conversation. In her hometown of Cheshire, England, people were far more reserved.
Christina Morris had adjustment issues of a different sort when she came here in 1956 from Motherwell, Scotland. She had trouble with the thought of eating corn because, back home, it was called maize and was fed to cows.
Over the years, Crosby, Morris and Youngwall, who are now all longtime Long Island residents, adjusted to life in America and grew to love their adopted country, but their emotional connection to their homeland remains strong. "I feel both American and British," Crosby said.
As members of the Long Island-based Westminster Abbey chapter of the Daughters of the British Empire, a national nonprofit organization founded in 1909 for women of British birth or ancestry living in the United States, they have found friendship with other expats and a common philanthropic cause.
The 36-member Westminster chapter (dbeny.org) is a social organization but it also raises money for Victoria Home, a skilled nursing home in upstate Ossining. Victoria Home is one of four retirement and/or nursing facilities in the United States supported by the national DBE, which also raises funds for the British Home Community in Brookfield, Ill.; the Mountbatten House in Highlands, Texas; and the British Home in Sierra Madre, Calif.
Westminster members, whose ages range from the 30s to 80s, also raise funds for the Queen Elizabeth II Sept. 11th Garden in Manhattan's Hanover Square, which honors the 67 British subjects who perished during the 2001 terrorist attacks.
"When you have lived somewhere else, you have a connection to your old country and culture, and you don't want to lose that," said Crosby, of Glen Cove, who came to this country when she was 19, drawn to the American culture. Crosby is "regent" of the Westminster Abbey chapter, a title commonly known here as president, as well as president of New York State's group of six DBE chapters, and poet laureate.
Members of the Westminster chapter, founded in 1938, are from all parts of Britain and the Commonwealth of Nations. Some came to the United States seeking adventure; others, to work; many are married to American citizens. For many, adjusting to life here was challenging. "It was a big culture shock -- I couldn't understand what people were saying," said Youngwall, now 73, of Glen Cove. "And the food portions were huge. I was brought up during the war years. We were taught not to leave food on our plates."
Misunderstanding the ads
Some learning experiences were humorous. Joan Simon, 79, of Great Neck, recalled, "I kept hearing radio advertisements for Castro Convertibles." She thought they were cars and wondered why she never saw any on the streets until someone explained that Castro Convertibles were sofa beds. Simon, who came from Wimbledon, England, was recruited to work in the United States as a nurse in 1961 by a British employment agency. Her first job was at a hospital in Hoboken, N.J.
In 1968, Elizabeth Barratt moved to Morristown, N.J., from Somerset, England, with her husband and two young daughters. She joined a New Jersey chapter of DBE, became president, moved back to England and then returned to the United States in 1999. When she and her family settled on Long Island in 2007, she joined the Westminster group. "It was difficult to leave family behind," she said of the initial move here. "American women spoke with different pronunciations and used unfamiliar expressions," said Barratt, who now lives in Cutchogue. "Joining the DBE reminded us of home. Older members were war brides who had married American GIs. 'We'll show you around,' they said and welcomed us new girls into the club. It was like a sisterhood. The DBE bridged the gap and helped us make the transition from British to American."
Years ago, the DBE held elaborate fundraisers at the Biltmore Hotel in Manhattan. At the 45th annual fair in 1965, Simon recalled, a three-day gala was opened by Princess Margaret. While the DBE is less formal today, certain traditions prevail. At monthly meetings, the annual Christmas party and summer luncheon fundraisers, members wear the organization's badge, decorated with a royal crown above the Union Jack.
Always have something British
Even at small gatherings, an effort is made to perpetuate the culture they left behind. "When we have a luncheon at somebody's house or a fundraising event, we try to have something British [to eat], like a Victoria sponge cake," Crosby said. Sharing news from back home or comfort foods, like cucumber sandwiches and afternoon tea, helps members to preserve the best parts of their British heritage, she said at her waterfront home, where meetings are often held. Serving tea to a visitor, she used the replica of a tea set used by Queen Victoria.
The significance of tea is never lost on Westminster members. "Tea is so much more," said Morris, 75, who lives in Manhasset.
Simon added, "It is our national drink -- if something happens, sit down and don't cry, I'll put the kettle on. The kettle is always on -- it's nice and soothing."
When members get together, conversations center on the royal family, who were always a presence in their lives growing up, or British TV shows like the BBC's "East Enders" and "Downton Abbey," the PBS period drama.
"Americans definitely have a love affair with the British," Crosby observed. "They fought a war to get rid of us, and now we're back."
A new division of the organization, "Friends of the DBE," allows Anglophiles who have no British connection to be a part of the group, she said (see box).
There is a strong bond among the women from across the pond. "We go to each other's weddings, parties, or visit if people are sick," said Simon. "When it was the Queen Mother's 100th birthday, one member threw a party, and we all wore hats. We care about each other -- we have ties in common."
Together for the cause
Youngwall said, "In England, we probably would never have met. Our common denominator is we're all British and our common interest is doing philanthropic work."
The Victoria Home is a favorite cause, Youngwall said. Originally intended to be a retirement home for British expats when it opened in 1916, the residents there today represent all races, nationalities and ethnicities. Afternoon tea is served there on Fridays and for special occasions; croquet matches are held in summer. "For every holiday, the home is beautifully decorated, and each resident gets a present," Youngwall said.
Last year, the Westminister chapter raised money for an aromatherapy machine and herb garden to benefit Victoria Home residents with cognitive impairments and Alzheimer's disease, Crosby said. "The families appreciate not just our support but the presence of DBE members."
Crosby and the other members hope to attract a new generation who will carry on the Daughters' tradition of fellowship and philanthropy, and follow its motto, "Not ourselves, but the cause."
To Barratt's delight, her oldest daughter, Jackie Breen Compitello, 51, of Locust Valley, has recently joined the group. Barratt said, "It's a wonderful organization."
Interested in joining?
For information on becoming a member of the Daughters of the British Empire, go to dbenational.org and click CONTACT US. Annual membership is $40.
If you love all things British but don't have the background needed to be a full DBE member, you can join the Westminster Abbey's "Friends of the DBE." For an annual membership fee of $25, Anglophiles have access to some chapter functions such as fundraising luncheons. "Friends" can also attend the luncheon and cocktail party at the DBE's National Convention, May 10-12 in Manhattan. (The cost of the tickets for special functions is additional.) For more information, email westminster firstname.lastname@example.org