The story of the British Home Children 0
Between 1869 and 1930, over 100,000 children were sent to Canada from Ireland, Scotland and England. They were known as the "British Home Children" - children orphaned, abandoned, seized from over-crowded workhouses or from parents unable to provide for them, who were sent to the new world "for labour," and placed with farms and families, from Halifax to Manitoba.
"The Workhouses were being overrun, and criminals were taking over the children," Karen Mahoney told a capacity crowd at the January 21 meeting of the Innisfil Historical Society. "Some philanthropists thought they ought to do something for the children."
Among those philanthropists were Amy MacPherson and her sisters, and Dr. Bernardo. They and as many as 50 other organizations funnelled thousands of children taken from almost Dickensian poverty, to Canada - far from family, friends, and everything that was familiar. Children as young as 3 arrived with little more than a pair of shoes, a change of clothing, and a bible.
What they found in Canada was indentured servitude, prejudice and often horrible conditions.
Mahoney was drawn into researching the stories of the British Home Children when she inherited mementoes and letters written by Herbert Blackall - a British Home Child who had found a happy home with her husband's family, and had kept in touch while serving in World War I. He died at Paschendale, a decorated war hero.
Starkly different was the story of 15 year old George Everett Green, found dead in his room on a farm in Owen Sound in 1895. The subsequent investigation found that his death was due to "starvation, abuse and neglect," but no charges were ever laid.
British Home Children were supposed to be allowed to attend school and church, and paid for their labour - but often were kept from classes, and given the worst of jobs. Many children kept silent out of fear and shame, or escaped by running away.
The sense of shame persisted, years after the indentured servitude ended. "They were so embarrassed. They were treated horribly - they just didn't speak," Mahoney said - a silence that has persisted to the present. One in 10 Canadians may be a descendent of a Home Child, "but it's a hidden history," she said. "It's part of Canada's past - it's a bit of a black eye."
When Mahoney asked the audience to put up their hands if they had a British Home Child in their family, only two hands went up initially.
But as stories were shared, there were more reminiscences: a family who took in a Home Girl as a domestic servant, who became a beloved part of the family; a Home Boy who ended up marrying the farmer's daughter; a Bernardo Boy who was housed in an unheated room and had to make up the fire every morning, before the family came downstairs.
Information is available for anyone researching British Home Children in their family tree. The Bernardo records are well kept, Scotland's People offers "awesome records"; and there is a Home Child database at Library & Archives Canada, Mahoney noted.
And although there has never been a formal apology to the children or their descendants, for the conditions that were endured, September 28 is now British Home Child Day in Ontario and Nova Scotia.