Cyril William Joyce (1910-1998), A Western Canadian Home Child by Sean Arthur Joyce
January 24, 2012
When Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered a public apology February 24, 2010 on behalf of the 130,000 child immigrants sent to the various British colonies, he unwittingly raised the specter of the child ghosts who inhabit the Canadian landscape.
Ghosts whose names until recently had been stricken from our history. Today there may be 2–4 million descendants of Canadian ‘home children.’ Yet not once in all my years of public schooling in this country did I learn this fact. What was even more shocking to me was learning in my middle age that I am one of those descendants.
My father used to wonder aloud why his father, my grandfather Cyril William Joyce, came to Canada as a lad of 16. “It just wasn’t like him to do something adventurous like that,” he says. “When I asked him why, he’d just say, ‘Oh, it seemed the thing to do at the time.’” Yet my grandfather never spoke of his family, and took what knowledge he had of them to his grave. I used to wonder if there had been some terrible family rift, something awful that he refused to talk about.
About all we knew about Cyril was that he grew up in London, England and had arrived in Canada in 1926 on his own. We knew he’d been sponsored for emigration by the Church of England, but not why. We had no idea what ship he’d sailed on, or what port he sailed from. Cyril spoke only of the backbreaking work on a northern Alberta farm, when he spoke about his past at all. He was a man of modest stature and build, more suited to office work than the rigours of farming. Although an uncle from England occasionally wrote him letters, Cyril made little effort to re-establish contact with the family. It was as if he was trying to erase his own past. I wondered what could make him want to do that. About five years ago I decided it was time to find out.
What I learned in the course of my research was that Cyril’s father George Ochiltree Joyce was a ‘commercial traveler’, British parlance for a traveling salesman, selling ladies’ corsets. He married Nelly Firman, a North London railway station master’s daughter, and with her started a family in East Ham, deep in London’s poorest quarters. George likely spent long hours stamping the pavement—peddling garments from street to street, town to town. By the time 10-year-old Cyril had his picture taken with his father in the back garden of their East Ham row house, George was haggard with exhaustion. At 52 he could be mistaken for 72—grey, sad and utterly drained. Then George disappears from the records without a trace—no death certificate, no burial records, nothing.
Cyril’s mother Nelly raised five children in cramped row housing—cold, dirty brick monuments to Victorian social planning. With George gone, the burden of caring for the remaining children—probably Cyril and his older sister Hilda—fell to her. As a railway station master’s daughter Nelly’s options were likely limited to doing laundry, cooking, and cleaning jobs. It’s not hard to understand why she would have turned to the Church of England for help once her husband was gone. Its Council of Empire Settlement had only just been established in 1925 and Cyril was to be among its first shipment of boys. Still, he must have smarted at the injustice: barely short of legal age and he had absolutely no say in his own future.
Canadian customs records show Cyril traveling from Liverpool on the CPR steamship SS Montclare, arriving at Montreal July 31, 1926, with his destination the Anglican hostel in Edmonton. He traveled with three other boys, Laurence Sachs (16), John Dollery (16) and Thomas Jones (12), with Ellen Burns listed as a “companion.” They arrived in Canada with all of three or four pounds sterling each in their pockets. The only name for next of kin on the customs form is Cyril’s mother Nelly. To my knowledge he never spoke of his mother again.
A report card for Cyril filled out by Anglican Church staff show him being sent to work on at least three farms in the Westlock area north of Edmonton. Other than this cursory report, which under ‘progress and character’ contains only the scribbled notation, “no complaints,” we have nothing of his life from this period. Fortunately he met my grandmother Marjorie Maynard either while working on her parents’ farm in Clyde,Alberta, or at one of the many barn dances held during that period. Marjorie’s brother Bud was a musician who taught square dancing and for a while Cyril played drums in his dance band.
The Great Depression hit Alberta farmers hard, with farms being erased in a cloud of dust and bankruptcies. In 1936, not long after Cyril married my grandmother Marjorie Maynard (about 1935), they packed up the chickens, cattle and her parents and moved everything in a railway boxcar to the West Kootenay region of B.C. On the shimmering shores of Kootenay Lake, the side of a mountain could be had for a dollar an acre—and all the sweat you could muster to clear it of trees and coax out a living. Marjorie’s parents settled on a small farm in Balfour, near Nelson. Here during the Depression no one went hungry—you could grow plenty of food and trade with neighbours for dairy and meat.
But then, with the outbreak of war in 1939, suddenly there were more jobs than men. Cyril heard that a mining company called Cominco was calling for men at its smelter in Trail, just south of Nelson. He soon learned the comforting click of the time clock marking off his days in a smelter office. Thirty-five years of work at Cominco wipes Cyril to a soft shadow—a quiet, gentle existence barely known even to his second wife Rose and my Uncle Rob. When I asked Rob for letters and photos from Cyril he said that very few had survived. Letters in the Joyce household were disposed of as soon as they were read and photos not kept. Once again, it seemed that Cyril was erasing his own past, as if he thought his life didn’t matter.
The psychic dislocation of shame echoes down the generations like a gunshot, a bullet tearing through the heart.
It seems to have fallen to me to heal the wound I inherited from my grandfather, the same as if it had happened to me. When I told Uncle Rob about the British PM’s apology, he wrote, “It is a great day, I wish we could be reading this with Dad now; that would have made it even better. I understand Dad better now than I ever did, and why he was sad at times for reasons I never knew. An understanding that, like the British Government’s apology, has come much too late.”
Sean Arthur Joyce is a poet, journalist, author, photographer and book designer – a man of many pursuits in an age of monoculture. Contact him at http://chameleonfire1.wordpress.com
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