A Silent History: The British Home Children
I keep asking myself the same question: How is it that I worked for 30 years in immigration in Canada and overseas, with my first posting in London, England, and yet I never heard about the movement of 100,000 children from Britain to Canada, as indentured labourers, over a 70-year period? In fact, I never heard of the British Home Children until I read a book called Little Immigrants published by Kenneth Bagnell in the 1980s; but I still didn’t really understand the importance and scope of this movement.
My father had mentioned coming to Canada from Scotland with his brother to work on farms in Canada. He said his mother had died and his sister had been left behind because she was sick. He did say that his father had remarried and his new wife didn’t want the children. It seemed a strange story and I was puzzled by it, but my father evaded further questions. He seemed upset by my probing.
After my father’s death in April, 2002, my sister, Sandy Joyce, became determined to write a book about his life. She began to research his Scottish origins and visited Scotland in 2007. I already had the ship’s manifest from Pier 21 showing the names of my father, Robert Joyce, aged 15, and his brother, Thomas, aged 11. It listed their occupations as farm workers and their sponsoring organization as Orphan Homes of Scotland. The date of landing in Nova Scotia was April 4, 1925.
In April, 2008, I accompanied my sister on her second trip to Scotland to help with her research and in September, 2009, we found out at the last minute about a trip organized especially for descendants of Scottish Home children sent by an organization known as Quarriers. Even though my sister was at the time undergoing treatment for cancer, she insisted that we make the trip. It was only then that we both came to realize the full extent of the British Home Child movement, as well as the long journey my father had taken to get to Canada and why he didn’t want to talk about it.
In total, some 100,000 Home Children came to Canada from Britain, and their descendants are now in the millions. Yet they are scarcely mentioned in general histories of immigration to Canada. When Kenneth Bagnell wrote his book, he was told by a friend that there would be little interest in it. Yet it became a best seller and republished in 2001. Canadians increasingly want to know more about their heritage and as more information becomes available, the silence is being broken. In the past, Home children would not talk about how they came to Canada because they felt ashamed. Now in 2010, the Year of the Home Child is being officially celebrated in Canada and the stories are being brought to light.
“Home Child” was an epithet hurled at the newcomers who spoke with strange accents and were rumoured to be young criminals taken from the streets of London. The Home Children were urban-dwellers, and initially had to be taught the business of working on a Canadian farm. They were perceived as slackers, lazy, and useless, the discarded of the mother country. They were often not physically strong, small for their age and some had disabilities. When my father in his 90s was sent to a Veteran’s nursing home from the hospital his question was “Am I to be discarded?” I heard the silent “once again.”
The origins of the British Home Child movement
In the mid-1800s many children in the United Kingdom lacked adequate care. They were hungry, sometimes resorting to stealing, and many were living on the streets — think of the works of Charles Dickens. Even children living with their parents in the workhouses were not much better off, often worked 14-hour days or more with little food. Many died before they reached 20.
Independently, several people of different religious backgrounds came to the same conclusion: the problem could not be solved in Britain. These children had to be removed from the streets and given food and clothing. They had to be taught to read and write, given work skills and solid religious training, then sent abroad where farm labour was desperately needed. They had no future in England, Ireland or Scotland.
Two women became particularly involved, but had very different approaches. The first was Maria Susan Rye who arrived in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, in 1869 with a group of 68 children taken from the poorhouses of London and Liverpool. They were initially housed in a converted jail which Maria had bought with her own money and renamed Our Western Home. Maria Rye brought 5,000 children to this home over the years, mostly girls, to work as domestics. Her practice was to assign the children to farmers and never to see them again, trusting in the employer’s good will.
Her colleague, Annie MacPherson, was in London studying when she became concerned about the poor children of London’s East End and, with her sisters, set up homes for these “waifs and strays.” In the summer of 1869 she sent 500 children to Montreal and from there they were distributed to farms in Quebec and near Belleville, Ontario. The next year she sent 100 boys. They came from her homes, from workhouses and from reformatories; others were gathered from the streets and put straight on the ship. It was this mix of origins that led to perceptions in Canada that the Home Children were “tough.” She opened receiving homes in Belleville and Galt, Ontario, and in Knowlton, Quebec, and Halifax, Nova Scotia. In total, she and her sisters brought some 14,000 children to Canada. She did carry out some follow-up visits, but the size of the movement meant they were infrequent.
In 1882, a first party of children was sent by Thomas Barnardo, an Irish would-be missionary who met Annie Macpherson while in London to train as a doctor. Instead of opening a practice, he opened a boy’s home, followed by the Babies’ Castle. He sent a few children to Canada with Annie and then began to send children on his own. He stipulated that the children sent to Canada had to be of good character and healthy and that they were to be evaluated on a regular basis. Nevertheless, the case of a Barnardo boy who died in Owen Sound in 1896 of severe neglect raised serious questions about their vulnerability.
In Scotland, William Quarrier, who had been brought up by a single mother and who had as a result suffered considerable hardship before becoming a successful businessman, started to help poor street children by training them to be a shoeshine brigade. Subsequently, in 1873, he opened a Night Refuge House in Glasgow for children and adolescents. He realized, however, that this was only a stopgap and, with advice from Annie MacPherson, he started to raise funds to establish a village to prepare children to go to Canada. This village gradually became a reality at Bridge-of-Weir where he had bought a 40-acre farm. Instead of one huge building, he built 37 individual cottages, each sheltering 30 children and a married couple (for the boys), plus a school, a church called Mount Zion, a building to prepare clothes for the children and a hospital and sanatorium for those ill with tuberculosis and epilepsy. At one point a training ship was cemented to the ground to house and train 30 children who wished to join the navy. At any time, about 1,000 children lived in the village. Scottish school children, widows, former Home Children and wealthy Christian families sent donations to further the work of Quarriers, which still exists as a respected charity today, albeit with a different focus. At the Canadian end, each child was sent to a staging centre where farmers completed a Form of Indenture. These forms set out their responsibility to pay the older children, while children under 12 were to be treated as members of the family. A “Visitor” inspected the homes, but one Visitor had responsibility for seeing over 2000 children spread over all of southern Ontario in one year.
The reaction to the arrival of the Home Children in Canada was initially favourable and demand in Canada for farm labour seemed inexhaustible. However, as the number of organizations involved in obtaining the children, transporting them to Canada and sending them to farms expanded, concern began to arise about the need for some form of supervision for the children after their placement.
In 1874, Andrew Doyle, previously an inspector with the Poor Law Board, was sent to Canada to investigate the children’s circumstances once in Canada. He first visited the ship on which Maria Rye was escorting a group of 150 children, on her sixth trip to Canada, before its departure. Later he sailed to Canada to visit the distribution centres and some of the children who had been placed. His report, which was made public, criticized the organizers for their lack of supervision of the children after their placement and for sending children of mixed backgrounds as one group. While the Doyle report was not viewed favourably in Canada it still resulted in a lower number of children being sent the next year.
However, the number of children soon began to rise again. In fact, the number of agencies sending children to Canada increased dramatically. They are detailed in Marjorie Kohli’s book, The Golden Bridge, which is a fascinating account of the organizations involved, including one set up by James William Condell Fegan. Fegan established Fegan’s Homes to bring older teenagers to Toronto. He also started a training farm in England to introduce the boys to Canadian-style farming prior to their departure for Canada. Barnardo’s sent 1,700 children to Canada, and Quarriers 7,000. The Salvation Army and the Church of England also became involved.
In 1897, a Canadian reported on the plight of the Home children. J.J. Kelso, the founder of the Children’s Aid Society in Toronto and a former journalist, was not against bringing children to Canada as farm work was deemed a healthy alternative for them, but he was concerned that adequate supervision of their circumstances was necessary to prevent abuse, particularly of the female children. In December of 1897 he submitted “A Special Report on the Immigration of British Children,” in which he concluded that “child immigration, if carried on with care and discretion, need not be injurious to the best interests of this country.”
The experiences of Home Children varied greatly; some of the younger ones became full members of their adoptive Canadian families and given opportunities they would never have had in Britain. For most the food on Canadian farms was far better than they had experienced before. Others were worked extremely hard over long hours and severely punished for minor transgressions. A few committed suicide and some were sexually abused. It is hard to judge at this distance in time, especially when it is probable many Canadian-born children were in similarly poor circumstances at the time.
In March, 1897, the Ontario government passed an “Act to Regulate the Immigration into Ontario of Certain Classes of Children,” which was designed to license homes and keep track of the children after arrival. Quarriers reaction to this law was not to send children the following year. However, the numbers again rose until the movement was stopped between 1916 and 1919 because of the First World War. The program resumed for a time after the war, with an emphasis on older children, but in 1933 it was stopped permanently by the Canadian Government; some children nevertheless continued to be sent right up to 1938.
My father, Robert Joyce, was the middle child of his family. His sister, Emma Beatrice, was the eldest, born two years before him, and his brother, Thomas Lampard, was born two years after. His father, also called Robert, was a miner, and his mother, Helen Thomson, a domestic. They married on July 5, 1907 (aged 19 and 20) in Kirkcaldy, a small town, across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh.
Around 1915, like many young men in Scotland, my grandfather went off to the Great War, leaving his three young children with his wife. When he returned, everything had changed. He could no longer work in the mines and trained in Edinburgh as an apprentice tailor, eventually working in a kilt shop. He divorced Helen in February 1919, leaving her again alone with the children, and married the daughter of a ship builder, Isabel Lamont. He also adopted a new name, Robert Barrington Joyce Lamont. They lived together in an apartment in Edinburgh, which is now a rooming house for international students. During a visit to Scotland my sister and I were able to get a glimpse inside purely by chance, when a Canadian student entered the house as we stood outside. He was living in our grandfather’s apartment.
Helen lost interest in the children, and they were taken from her. She had no relatives, being an orphan. Robert had a sister, but she had too big a family herself to be able to help, while his father, William, was already in the poorhouse. The children, therefore, were also put in the poorhouse, a big grey building near the water and the railway, surrounded by farmer’s fields. Today, the building has been made into condos – people say they can still hear children crying at night.
Conditions in the poorhouse were basic. There was no education for the children, the food was meagre and it was crowded and cold in the winter. My grandfather, Robert, on hearing that his children were in the poorhouse, retrieved them from that institution and took them to Quarriers village, where he signed over his parental rights so that they could go to Canada to a better future.
This occurred in 1921 but Emma was not there. She had been sent to the hospital, possibly with tuberculosis, and so he took just the two boys to Quarriers. Emma, when she was released from hospital, and on finding her brothers no longer in the poorhouse, ran away. Through our research, we found that she married and had four boys, our unknown cousins. She died in 1995.
My dad believed that his mother had died, but we found that she lived until the 1980s and had another son. Home children were often told that their parents were dead so that they could break their emotional ties more easily.
On the day that my grandfather brought his children to Quarriers on April 15, 1921, he was assured that he would still be able to communicate with them and that they would have access to pen and paper to write to him. The boys were not in good condition. They were small and thin and had a condition known as the “itch”, which was a skin condition probably produced by the less-than-sanitary conditions of the poorhouse and poor food.
The boys spent four years in Quarriers before being sent to Canada. They lived in the same house with 28 other boys, where they attended classes and lived a very regimented life. The children performed all the necessary chores to run the village, including doing the laundry, cooking, looking after animals and cleaning. My father never spoke of his days in Quarriers, except to brag about how his teacher had told him he was the best at math in his class and to mention that after the church service on Sunday, he was often punished for bad behaviour, with little effect, except that in later life he had no use for religion.*When the boys were sent to Canada in 1925, it was a long journey. The Narrative of Facts for the year 1925, available on the Quarriers website, states that 41 boys were on board the Athenia. They left Scotland on March 27, and arrived in Halifax on April 3. My father did remember being terribly seasick on the trip: I am sure many others were likewise unwell. The boys were sent in April and the girls in the fall. Each boy had a trunk containing boots, clothing and a bible. Whether they were able to keep the contents of that trunk depended on the farmer. They were not prepared for work on a farm, or for the Canadian weather. They spoke with thick Scottish accents that were almost unintelligible in Canada.
After the arrival in Halifax and immigration inspection, they were loaded onto the immigration train to go to the distribution centre in Belleville, a building known as Fairknowe, which still stands today and is now an apartment building. Groups of boys were often led in procession through town with a small marching band to church and thence to the centre where they would only spend a few days before being sent to their assigned farmer. Children were seldom placed with their siblings. Robert was sent to a farm with a mean farmer who did not feed him well and left him to eat alone, apart from the family. My father remembered this individual angrily and painfully .When he reached the age of 18, he was quick to find another farmer, and then to move to Toronto.
His younger brother Thomas was sent to a farm that was more like a garden. The boys were able to visit each other occasionally on their bicycles. Thomas, however, was not happy in his situation and wrote to his father in Scotland who then wrote to Fairknowe House asking that the situation be investigated. An inspector was duly sent out and wrote back saying that the situation was satisfactory. Thomas, when he reached the age of 18, moved to Ottawa. He subsequently joined the Great Lakes Steamship Lines, then did some threshing in Alberta and finally went to Kamloops, British Columbia, to a logging camp. From there, he wrote to Fairknowe to find out the whereabouts of my father; however, my father had not informed Fairknowe of his address, and so the brothers lost all contact.
My father did make the trip back to Scotland during the Second World War when he, like his dad, joined the army. While stationed in England, he took leave to visit his father in Edinburgh; he knocked on the door and when it opened, he said “I am your son.” His father just acknowledged him, and then shut the door. He never tried to contact his father again.
While I was working in London in the 1970s, my father came to visit twice. The first time, he planned to go to Scotland on his own. He arrived with a broken arm having had a window fall on it the day before. In spite of this, he journeyed up to Edinburgh. The next day he phoned me at work to say that he was in the hospital, having broken his leg. I immediately took the train up to Edinburgh to collect him, not having a car or a license yet! He spent the rest of his trip in my 3rd floor walk-up apartment, but still managed to take the train on his own to visit his former barracks in England.
I had not realized until now how emotional this trip must have been for him. The next year, he returned and I took leave to travel with him to Kirkcaldy, where he showed me how his brother and he had collected crabs on the beach. We saw his old school and the place where his house had been, then visited the Highlands which he had never seen. What we didn’t know was that his mother and sister and nephews were all alive and living in Scotland at the time! A missed opportunity.
On our last day in Scotland, visiting a pub, my Dad started chatting up the locals. He had not a good word for Scotland. “This country gave me nothing,“ he said. I dragged him out of the pub before he got a thrashing but I realized that, to him, the. motto of the Home Children was true: “Our Hope is in Canada”. He was a very proud Canadian, driving on his own to the Atlantic Provinces, to British Columbia and even arranging in his 70s to be dropped off by plane for a week on a remote lake in Ontario to do some fishing. He had a nervous moment or two when the plane showed up a day late!
After he turned 18 and was released from his indenture, he would still visit Fairknowe to let them know how he was doing. It was obvious that he viewed Fairknowe as home. On his first visit in March, 1930, just before his 20th birthday, he was in bad shape and asked to stay the weekend. A wonderful social worker called Mrs. C.A Winters gave him some of his savings, clean clothes, sent him to the doctor and admonished him to do better. The next year, he came back to report that he was doing well. What would have happened without the wonderful support that social worker gave that year?
In this year of the British Home Child in Canada, I want the stories of my Dad and other Home Children to be known. There should be no more secrecy or shame. A commemorative stamp has been issued and the CIC website contains a special section on the Home Children under the Multiculturalism link. Ontario MPP Jim Brownell, who is also a descendant of a Home Child, introduced a bill in March to make September 28 the Day of the Home Child in Ontario. Regardless, my sister and I will honour the Home Children on this date, this year and every year, by telling their story—a very important part of Canada’s immigration history, and the story of our family.