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Little Immigrants – their contribution to Canada is significant

December 6, 2011

Bernardo girls leaving England, Liverpool quayside 1905

From 1869-1930 approximately 100,000 British children emigrated to Canada. It’s estimated that 11% of the Canadian population can trace their roots to a home child. As a group and individually, home children contributed to making our nation a great one. This blog is my attempt to honor their sacrifices and acknowledge their hardships.

Today, no one would consider sending an 8 year-old to a foreign country to work as a live-in mother’s helper. But, my grandmother, and thousands of other girls were placed in Canadian homes to do just this. Boys, although most had probably never met a cow face to face, became farm hands. A few entered apprenticeships.

In return for their labour, host families deposited money into an account that the child could access at 18. In some cases, the money wasn’t there and the child began adult life with nothing.

This year, 2012, marks 100 years since Grace Griffin Galbraith, my grandmother, and her two siblings, Lillian and Edward arrived in Canada. After the death of their mother a stepfather took them to one of Annie MacPherson’s homes for children. They stayed there until all three left for Canada.

Waving Goodbye 1938

During the period of child immigration, Britain was in a poverty crisis. The Child Migrant Scheme was seen as a practical solution. Canada would get much-needed workers and poor children would be given opportunities their homeland couldn’t offer them. Although in today’s mindset, the plan seems barbaric, the religious and charitable organizations who housed thousands in overcrowded orphanages were motivated mostly by concern for the children.

Despite good intentions, many children became victims of abuse, neglect and over-work.  One of the conditions placed on host families was that children would receive an education. This didn’t always happen. Children experienced loneliness, isolation, shame and despair. Most, like my grandmother, great-aunt and great-uncle, were separated from siblings and didn’t reconnect until adulthood. Many never reconnected.

A large percentage of Home Children left their British past behind them. They lost their accents, buried their pasts and seldom talked of life before Canada. My grandmother’s story is known, not because she shared it – she never uttered a word about it – but because her husband knew her background when they married as did everyone  in their small community. For that reason, her children knew and passed her story on to their children. Also, her brother, Edward Griffin searched for and found her and he was more open about their past. Later, our family learned much more through reconnected relatives from England. Through them, we received copies of letters my grandmother wrote to a step-sister  in England. My mother and aunt travelled to England to visit my grandmother’s younger half-sister, Winnifred. In one of my grandmother’s letters she mentions this sister and writes that she hadn’t known this sister existed until the step-sister Edith wrote and told her.

Some gaps exist in our information – this is normal for British Home Children. Our family always believed that Grandma ended up in an orphanage because her mother died but new information leads us to believe that she, Edward and Lily were taken to the children’s home while their mother was living. This explains why Grace wrote in one letter that she had no recollection of ever seeing her mother. She was at least 6 or 7 when her mother died so she would have remembered her if she’d been living with her mother.

This blog is for home children stories. Some sad, some heartwarming. And photographs. Dr. Thomas Bernardo, founder of Homes and The Ragged School, kept decent records, often accompanied by photographs of the children. He remains the most well-known of all British Home Children Immigration organizers.

If you would like to share your family member’s story on this bog, please contact me. As their offspring, we can honor their contributions and add significance to their lives by sharing their stories.

15 Comments leave one →
  1. Anne Laidlaw permalink
    January 10, 2012 1:41 pm

    A fascinating and gripping account.

  2. June Aitken permalink
    January 10, 2012 2:02 pm

    Well done Rose. Left me in tears especially the part about God making up for a difficult childhood – I believe this is true. She sounds like a wonderful person – would have liked to have known her.

    • January 10, 2012 6:41 pm

      June, the part about making up for a difficult childhood came from Rev. Frank Haner who conducted Gramma’s funeral. You’ll remember him. It seemed to come to him through years of observing life.

  3. January 12, 2012 9:05 am

    What a truly wonderful read not to mention a call to reality of a story that touches the heart in a way that so very few stories in our time does. Having come from Newfoundland to Canada many moons ago as a young man I know the feeling of wanting to fit in and belong to an unknown society and people. Grace Lillian and Edward I bow to you and to Rose who has shared their story with the world. This is what dreams are made of. Thank You.

    • January 12, 2012 2:48 pm

      Roderick – thanks for your encouraging words. You can identify with the feelings of the home children – it’s hard to be a stranger. Stay tuned, more good stories to come.

  4. Kimberly (Legge) Bone permalink
    January 15, 2012 6:03 pm

    Thanks so very much for writing this and as a great granddaughter of Grace’sI must say that I knew some of this information but I had no idea what Great Gramdma went thru when she was a young child and women!
    I am in tears as I write this and feel for her so much that life had to be so hard and lonely, but but I am thankful for her being such a strong women who no matter what moved forward with her life and loved her family so very much!
    She was truly and still is a n insperation to all of her grandchildren and great grandchildren and now great great children.
    As a women I thank her for being the stregth in the family that raised such strong women as my grandmother Evelyn and my Aunts!!
    Thanks you so much Rose for this it truly is an amazing thing your doing!!!
    Love Kim

    • January 15, 2012 8:24 pm

      You are so right Kim. The more we know about the difficulties Grandma went through, the more we find strength to face our difficulties.

  5. Ken Ardington permalink
    January 16, 2012 7:06 pm

    Thank You for this blog!
    My father was one of the home boys, and from the Bernardo homes and came here in 1924. I have some pics and info etc and will submit in the near future.His name was William Ardington
    I am not a pro writer but was told many stories over the years up to his passing in 1999.
    Their stories need to be told, they were a very large part of Canadian history, and are poorly recognized.
    I look forward to participating in this site, and thank you again

    Ken Ardington

    • January 16, 2012 8:19 pm

      Ken – I look forward to receiving your Dad’s story – you’ll notice most stories come from grandchildren so it will be special to receive one from a son. Also because you said he told you many stories, so unlike many home children. No need to be a pro-writer, just tell the stories to us in your own style and words. Readers will eat them up. I await your submission – Rose McCormick Brandon

  6. Brenda McCormick Gilchrist permalink
    January 18, 2012 2:41 pm

    Well this true story about Gramma is hard to read without feeling sad for her, yet what we saw as we grew up was a generally happy women with five healthy children who have contributed a whole lot to their communities. I want to focus on the happy part of her life and Grampa was the perfect husband for her and they had a good marriage. Although she had some unusual coping skills especially after Grampa died, my good memories are visiting them and playing crib for two hours at a time. We all laughed alot. They enjoyed their grandchildren. Always had to offer us lots of candy and cookies for the “kiddies”. She sure was strong and so is our mother. Thanks for the research and writing her story Rose. Love Brenda

  7. January 30, 2012 4:43 am

    Amazing strong people grew from these children.

    • January 30, 2012 2:59 pm

      So true. Now, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren are learning about the courage of their British Home Children ancestors and through their stories, realizing that they too can exercise the same courage to face whatever their daily challenges may be.

  8. BFarrow permalink
    March 17, 2013 12:53 pm

    We somehow have the WWI medals of a young man, William Campbell, who came to Canada in 1912 from a Quarriers Home in Scotland and are trying to piece his life together. This lad had a terrible start in life, illegitimate and born into the slums of Glasgow. By the time he was 11 he was an orphan, seperated from his brothers. He seemed to end up in Inkerman, Ontario and then enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He left for England in October 1916, then onto France where he was killed in action in August 1918. His medals were sent to his brother in Glasgow who we cannot trace. Somehow the medals ended up in Hull, East Yorkshire, England, with my husband’s grandfather. There is a hint of scandal from his grandmother who hated the Campbells for some unknown reason – was there an illicit liaison along the way, so William’s medals ended up with the Coupland family. The people who would know are long dead, but we are trying to piece together William’s sad life before heading to France to pay our respects at the Vimy memorial where his name is engraved. Any help in uncovering the Canadian side or more about the journey from Scotland to Canada would be greatly received. We know he was on the SS Scotian in April 1912.

  9. J Coward permalink
    March 28, 2014 8:42 pm

    regarding William Campbell
    from the facts given above, I’ll give the web sites of the records I perused:

    LAC, Home Child: (re William Campbell, via Quarriers Homes, April 1912 emigration on the ship Scotia, Glasgow to Halifax), could be:
    destination Brockville,
    which corresponds with residence in nearby Inkerman On,
    however, there are 3 William Campbell’s, with those criteria, 2 of which were on the same ship,all similar in ages.

    With the LAC CEF collection under digitisation, I was unable to locate the “old” attestation-only site, from which to get his regimental number, so I turned to, free search
    where he comes up as the first entry of a long list: (more info in the subscription version)
    gives his DOB 10 Feb 1899,
    Regimental # 633330
    Relative James Campbell, Brother

    Using his Regimental #, I searched the
    which confirms the details of death:
    27 Aug 1918
    serving in the Canadian infantry, memorialized at Vimy Ridge, having served with the 21st Battalion
    it mentions the names of his parents: James & Jessie Campbell, (source uncited), but if true
    ==perhaps giving other names/facts to search for

    Using the excellent 21st Battalion website: (with whom my Gt Uncle Archie Harrison also served & died)
    the Tribute page to William Campbell, with several items: eg.Circumstances of Casualty card
    pointing out the unusual: his being accepted into the CEF while under age
    & the interesting history of the to & from delivery of his medals re his brother James, with a 1923 address & the name “Forbes”,
    ==perhaps other facts to help with a search eg Glasgow directory, 1921 census Glasgow

    Using that Regimental #, I returned to LAC, WW1 records, to the new site:
    There is his entire CEF file, digitized:
    (including several pages of yet a different Pte W Campbell)
    Giving: His attestation was with the 154th Bn, in Winchester, On, & when doing a search, there are numerous links to pursue
    Giving: his physical description
    Mentioning: both parents are deceased
    on page 42 of those scanned, a mention of his brother: to whom he sent $15./mo of his army pay “Mr James Campbell, c/o Mrs Thomas Campbell”, at the same address,
    ==perhaps another family member’s name clue

    I know of no source on-line sources for his earlier home child history: for
    the Quarrier records,
    any possible microfilmed records at LAC
    So I must assume you or someone has been successful , or will be, in getting a copy of them, from which to extract more facts, if there are more to glean:
    DoB, parental family information, address info, date of ship departure from Scotland, the circumstances of his going into care, care/ inspection reports
    (data mentioned: illegitimate, in the slums of Glasgow, orphaned age 11, separated from his brothers, entered a Quarriers home)

    And lastly, I see no other Ancestry family tree other than the one put up, I presume by you: maybe someone will respond yet. You have been most thorough. Best of luck.

    J C

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