Daisy Blay and the Gold & Pearl Necklace by Linda Jonasson
On July 11, 1992, inside her Stoney Creek,Ontario bungalow, my sister Laurie helped me put on an ornate 18-karat gold and pearl necklace. It looked breathtaking with my white satin gown and matching shoes and gloves. Excited about walking down the aisle, I wondered where this family heirloom had come from. I had to travel back a century to find out.
Pigeons squawked on the St. Pancras Workhouse rooftop on May 19, 1894, the day my great-grandma, Daisy Blay was born. The workhouse, located 2 ½ miles northwest of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, England, was an overcrowded four-storey building where inmates cooked, washed dishes and did laundry. Meals were meagre: breakfast consisted of gruel, often with bugs. Diseases spread quickly. Daisy’s mother, Elizabeth, longed to escape the walls of the workhouse.
Although the Blays later left the workhouse, they found that life in a boarding house was not much easier. Despite toiling long hours as a charwoman,Elizabeth could barely put food on the table.
Daisy’s father, William Powell, a house decorator, lamplighter and a journeyman, had married another woman with whom he also had a child. Daisy was illegitimate and had no relationship with her father. However, Elizabeth filed an affiliation proceeding, securing 4 s a week from Mr. Powell in child support.
Tragedy struck when Daisy’s father succumbed to liver cancer in 1897. The following year, Daisy’s baby sister Alma died of rickets. Despite having sold all her furniture, save one broken chair to pay the rent, Elizabeth could no longer afford to care for her children. Daisy would often stay with younger brother William while their mother was at work since Elizabeth couldn’t afford a babysitter. Their neighbours threatened to call the N.S.P.C.C. (Children’s Aid) knowing the children were home unattended. William, blessed with a wry sense of humour, used to cheer his sister up when times were tough. The siblings forged a strong bond.
Enter Dr. Thomas Barnardo, a bespectacled 5-foot-3 inch man wearing a suit and sporting mutton chops and a moustache. Preaching from a chair in Stepney in the 1860’s, the evangelical pleaded withLondon’s slum dwellers to give their lives to Christ. He had first discovered their plight while training at an East End hospital, treating cholera victims. As Dr. Barnardo walked the city’s smog-filled alleyways, he discovered hundreds of “street arabs” and purchased an old building on Stepney Causeway in 1870 to shelter these boys.
Six years later, Dr. Barnardo opened Barkingside Village for Girls in Essex, just outside London, where 8-year-old Daisy went in January 1903. Staff took a “before” photograph of Daisy, her hair tangled, her clothes ragged, her look forlorn. Dr. Barnardo had limited space for London’s destitute children and drafted a Canada immigration list for which Daisy qualified, being in “good” health, of good character, and possessing the “rudiments of an English education.”
In April 1903, the 3-foot-10 inch Daisy boarded the massive ship, the Kensington, at Liverpool with 400 other home children, and dozens of Barnardo matrons. Never having left the confines of London, she was now sailing to Canada. Although Daisy was nervous, the ship made a safe passage across the Atlantic. Admiring the icebergs off the coast of Newfoundland, Daisy marvelled at the Chateau Frontenac, as the ship dropped anchor at Quebec City.
At the train station, Daisy, with dozens of other home girls, was herded into a railway car headed for Hazelbrae House in Peterborough, Ontario, where Barnardo girls stayed until they found sponsors. Soon, Daisy moved to a Myrtle, Ontario farm north of Whitby where she worked as a domestic servant for a family. Her sponsor discovered that Daisy did not know how to bake and introduced her to some Canadian recipes like butter tarts. Besides baking, Daisy learned how to do laundry, feed the chickens, and care for young children. She later moved to Bracebridge where she worked for three different families. The children she cared for at one residence were so disrespectful that Daisy wrote to Hazelbrae, begging to be moved. Granted her request, she moved to a fourth home, to a loving family. Needless to say, she found it hard to put down roots and her schooling suffered.
Canadian adults whom she met were often suspicious of Daisy, assuming all home children were Oliver Twist types. In April 1904, her first sponsor claimed that she “took money out of the boys’ [her sons] pockets.” This comment, however, does not correspond with the London Barnardo staff who called her “hard working and honest.” Canadian children could be cruel; Daisy often heard the refrain: “Don’t play with her. She’s just a home child.” Trying to fit in, she deliberately tried to lose her English accent.
Her accent was not the only thing she lost. Daisy longed to see her brother again. William followed her to Canada in 1905 via the S.S. Canada. Daisy finally discovered that he was living in Manitoba and they started corresponding by mail. Those postcards were a lifeline to Daisy. She would scold William if he did not write for a while. She feared for her brother, knowing that if he didn’t milk the farmer’s cows fast enough, he was whipped. In winter, he had to walk barefoot across the frozen stubble fields. He ran away more than once.
In time, however, William went to work for a decent farmer. He developed a passion for horses and dreamt of becoming a jockey someday. Daisy dreamed of a reunion with her brother. Finally, in August 1908, she took the train through the Muskoka’s granite hills to Bala,Ontario. There, she reunited with William, his hands thickened from farm work, his frame several inches taller.
Back in Bracebridge, Daisy was being courted by a kind gentleman named Charles Fenn. During this time, her sponsor family asked her to relocate with them to Halifax to help care for their new baby. With Charles dragging his feet about marriage, she agreed to go. Her beau followed her and proposed. As the seagulls squawked above Bedford Basin, the couple said “I do,” three weeks after the outbreak of World War I. Daisy wore Charles’ wedding gift, the gold and pearl necklace. The newlyweds returned to Ontario to settle.
William enlisted in the Canadian Army on his 18th birthday. He sailed where his sister had wed the year before. Serving as a bugler in France, he was one of 11,000 home boys to fight in World War I. As a soldier, William was able to visit his mother Elizabeth briefly when he arrived in England on June 9, 1917 aboard the S.S. Olympic before he went over to France. William returned home safely to Canada after the war. He was hired by General Motors in Oshawa where he worked until he retired. He married and had a son. He maintained close ties with Daisy and her family.
Daisy raised three girls and one boy, showering them with the love that she had never received in childhood. Never one to be bitter, to dwell on the past, she counted her blessings.
Daisy polished the gold and pearl necklace when her daughter wed in front of her parlour fireplace in 1938 and the following year Daisy’s first grandchild was born. My mom, her second grandchild, has fond memories of visiting Daisy in Niagara Falls, where she lived for the last five years of her life. A highlight for mom was eating her grandma’s famous butter tarts. Although Daisy passed away in 1949. The gold and pearl necklace reminds us of a courageous little girl who forged a strong Canadian identity.
Linda Jonasson is a writer. You can read her blog A Line From Linda at http://alinefromlinda.blogspot.com. This story by Linda is published in Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children.