Isaac Foskett (1885-1979), An Orphan of His Times – by Lisa Hall-Wilson
I was raised with a clear understanding of my identity. My mother’s family on both sides are United Empire Loyalists. My dad’s family were Irish immigrants who arrived in Canada during the potato famine, at least that’s what I’d been told. However, it turns out that my paternal grandmother’s father and grandfather were both part of a darker, less publicized wave of immigration, the British Home Children – connections no one wanted to talk about. Learning more about these relatives has proven difficult.
Most of the following is gleaned from the file sent by the Barnardo Home who kept record of Isaac Foskett until 1940 and research generously shared and compiled by Isaac’s granddaughter, Elaine Clendenning.
Isaac was born into a family of 12 children, one of the younger children born in his father’s second marriage. Isaac was only 5 years old when his father passed away, leaving his mother to care for the youngest children in the house, including a newborn son.
His mother struggled to feed and clothe her children on meagre wages until illness forced her to seek the charity of the local vicarge. When it became apparent that her health would not allow her to provide for all her children, she presumably made the most difficult decision of her life, and sent the youngest children too young to work outside the home to orphanages, with census records showing she kept the infant with her.
Isaac was admitted to Leopold Orphan House in 1893 at 9 years of age as child 14622. Named for the youngest son of Queen Victoria, Leopold House was one of the larger homes run by Dr. Barnardo. It was only in the photos of Isaac sent from the Barnardo Home that we could trace the genetic eye problem my father inherited.
Isaac left for Canada aboard the SS Sardinian and arrived in Quebec in 1894. (This same ship took Guiseppe Marconi and his equipment to St John’s, Newfoundland to set up a radio station in 1901.) The records from Barnardo’s apparently state that Isaac was given the necessary stamps and supplies to continue communication with his mother, so I assume he already knew how to read and write at that time.
For the next 8 years, reports state Isaac was boarded out to no less than 4 different farms to do chores, care for horses, and in one case run the farm while the owner returned to England for the cold snowy months. These were remote, isolated locations in Central Ontario, and the life Isaac faced was likely not what he’d planned or been promised before landing in Quebec. If Isaac’s experience was typical of others at that time, we can assume it was a very hard, lonely life with little affection, although it’s believed Isaac visited the first home he boarded at later in life—so perhaps this home held a few fond memories for him.
Isaac returned to England for a short time at 17, but wrote to the Barnardo Home and requested another placement in Canada, hoping for better opportunities. He returned, worked for a short time in Barnardo placements until he struck out on his own as a blacksmith – the trade he’d learned as a teen. By 23, reports show Isaac married, a regular church attender, and expecting his first child. A success story for child migration.
That child was my great grandmother, Marion. His wife died in childbirth leaving him with an infant daughter. Isaac left his daughter with her maternal grandparents, relocated and started up his own blacksmith shop. Isaac went on to remarry and have other children.
This is where the Barnardo records leave off. I’m unable to report the unfortunate situation during Marion’s childhood, only to say that several family members who knew her well describe her as bitter, angry, and difficult to deal with. Her own son banned her from his home. Marion was raised by her grandparents, and told everyone both her parents were dead – which leads me to wonder if Isaac and Marion had much of a relationship at all. Marion never mentioned her father’s other children until very late in life, even though she must have been aware they existed earlier – perhaps she even met them.
Isaac’s other family reports he was a good man, a stable provider, and a devoted husband. Marion’s attitude towards Isaac suggests she never saw that side of him – not while she was growing up. Marion and her father must have reconciled at some point because when I was 3 years old an effort was made to have a family portrait taken of the 5 generations, me being the youngest, but the scheduling – or whatever, never worked and that portrait didn’t happen. The request for a photo came as a complete shock to my family (who didn’t even know Isaac was alive). Isaac passed away shortly thereafter at 94 years of age, with my family never having had opportunity to know him though he lived less than an hour away all that time.
I’m sure Isaac did the very best he could with the circumstances life handed him. The injustice he endured – forced to be self-reliant at a young age on the remote Canadian farmscape of the early 1900’s with only a child’s understanding to sort through the confusion, should be remembered and documented, because these regrettable experiences have shaped the fabric of our society, rippled through four generations of my family.
Only when we understand the past, shed light on the wrongs done to these children, can we understand how their experiences shaped our present. When we understand our past, our family history, we can work toward healing old wounds and destructive patterns for lasting positive change.
The author of this story, Lisa Hall-Wilson, is a freelance writer specializing in social justice. Contact her at http://www.lisahallwilson.com
Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children, a collection of 31 stories, by Rose McCormick Brandon, is available here.