Ethel Parton Crane, 1898-2000 by Diana Holvik
Award-winning Canadian author, Jean Little, adds this to Ethel Crane’s story:
I have written a fictional historical novel in the Dear Canada series published by Scholastic called ORPHAN AT MY DOOR which is about the lives of a couple of home children. It won the Canadian Library Children’s Lit medal for the best book in the year it was published. Ethel Crane was a woman I interviewed for my book. She was 102 years old when I spoke with her and she was not feeling well. She died a couple of weeks later. Her picture and some of the bits she told me are in the back of the book.
I was particularly interested in these kids because my great grandfather, Robert Mellis, who was a blacksmith in Kippem Ontario took one of the “Barnardo boys” in and taught him to be a blacksmith. The boy, who was known as Tom, did not know his surname and asked my great grandfather if he could take his name since he had been so kind to him. This favour was granted, of course, but I have tried in vain to trace the adult Tom and see if he has any memories of those days. He would have died by now I am sure since I myself recently turned eighty. I am fascinated by the lives of the children. Some were so sad and some did well and were happy here. You can find ORPHAN AT MY DOOR in any library or bookstore. I am blind so doing research was not easy then and is next to impossible now. Thanks, Jean Little
Ethel Parton Crane wasn’t related to me but I feel connected to her.
I met Ethel at the retirement/nursing home she lived in at Guelph,Ontario, in 1993. I was the charge nurse there at that time. Ethel was a diminutive woman with a big spirit. She was recovering from a hip operation and using a walker. She could not wait to get about without that contraption. She was 94.
Ethel always had a smile and a gentle word, yet her determination and strength of spirit shone through. That strength must have stood her in good stead eight decades earlier when she came to this country as an orphan during the British Child Immigration movement.
I am not an orphan but I was an immigrant. I came to Canada in 1965 at age eleven, along with my mother and siblings. Everything was different. The trees, the birds, the people. We spoke English… theoretically… but Canadians kept saying they didn’t understand my accent.
When I immigrated, I had my family with me but Ethel Parton had to fend for herself, a stranger in a strange land.
Ethel Annie Parton was born to parents Alfred Ernest Parton and Clara Ward in July of 1898 in the town of Ipswich, Suffolk, England. She was followed two years later by brother, Ernest Alfred. In 1904 their sister Hilda Florence was born. There is no record of what became of their father. Some time after Hilda was born their mother died of what Ethel believed was smallpox. Ethel, also stricken with the disease, survived but it left her face scarred. After their mother’s death the three Parton children lived in an orphanage in Ipswich.
The town of Ipswich is one of the oldest towns in England. Its history dates back to the seventh century. It was a busy river port bustling with commerce and bristling with churches. Life at the orphanage would have been regimented and at times difficult, but the three children had each other, and they had their friends. They were never alone. Outside the door of the orphanage were busy streets. The children were surrounded by familiar faces and places.
As the song says, you don’t realize what you’ve got until it’s gone.
Ethel was asked if she and her siblings would like to go to Canada. They knew nothing about the country except the rumours that it was “a lovely place.” And that sometimes orphans sent there were adopted into families. The thought of possibly having a family and a “real” home was wonderful. Ethel said yes, they would go.
They were transferred to a Barnardo Home. Some time later, with about two hundred other orphans, they boarded the SS Corinthian at London, England and set sail for Canada.
I also came to Canada on a ship. I had a comfortable feeling about my world until I went up on deck and stood looking at blue ocean stretching as far as the eye could see. I slowly turned, able to see almost three hundred sixty degrees. Ocean and sky. Nothing else. I was a speck, a nothing. Did sixteen year old Ethel feel the same? Did she begin to feel fearful about this huge step she had taken? She was responsible for her younger siblings and intended to take care of them.
The Corinthian docked in Quebec on July 1, 1914. The orphans were herded onto a train. Then, at Belleville, disaster struck. The children had not realized the girls would be separated from the boys. Fourteen year old Alfred was sent to the Boys’ Home in Toronto while Ethel and Hilda went to the Girls’ Home in Peterborough. I can only imagine the pain of being separated.
Ethel must have felt thankful to have eleven year old Hilda with her. They settled in uneasily at Peterborough. Three weeks later Ethel was informed she was to go to a farm near Orangeville. Hilda would not go with her.
Once again, Ethel was on a train. This time, alone. I’m sure she was terribly worried about Hilda, alone at eleven. To city-bred Ethel, Orangeville in 1914 must have seemed at the edge of civilization, if it could even be called that. It got worse. She, like all the other orphans, had a piece of paper pinned to her dress stating her name. A man claimed her and she clambered into a horse-drawn farm wagon with this strange man. He drove her into the back of beyond.
Harry Babe had a farm near the small village of Mono Mills. Mrs Babe was a harsh woman with two small children. Ethel was undoubtedly responsible for the drudge work on the farm. She was a city girl, unused to farm life, now she had chores like milking, gathering eggs, dumping chamber pots, scrubbing laundry by hand, and anything else the Babes deemed their Home Child’s tasks. Mrs Babe was abusive. One day she shoved her own children aside roughly. Ethel said, “Don’t do that. They’re just children.” Enraged, Mrs Babe grabbed a wash-pot of hot water and threw it over Ethel, drenching her from head to foot.
Some time later, Ethel developed quinsy (abscess of the tonsils) and her throat was so swollen she could not swallow even water. The Babes ignored the feverish and seriously ill girl.
Two years after Ethel arrived at the Babe farm, Mrs Babe died. The Barnardo Home assigned Ethel to a different farm in Guelph Township. While there, Ethel was able to arrange for her siblings to be transferred to farms nearby.
At age twenty-two Ethel married thirty year old James Crane who lived in the area. They lived with James’ mother, but unfortunately Ethel and her mother-in-law did not get along. When the situation became intolerable for Ethel, she moved to the city of Guelph and found work there, returning home to visit her son and husband on weekends. James joined her when he obtained a job at the Ontario College of Agriculture (Guelph University), but their son, Alfred (named for Ethel’s brother) chose to stay with his grandmother. Once again, Ethel suffered the pain of separation from a loved one.
When I knew Ethel she was happy, despite the harshness of her early life.
A few years after I met Ethel, I bought a book titled “Orphan at My Door: The Home Child Diary of Victoria Cope,” authored by well-known Canadian writer, Jean Little. I had never met Jean Little (my daughter did) but I knew a lot about her as she lived in Guelph and we had lived in Erin,Ontario for twenty years. (Erin is not far from Mono Centre, where Ethel lived). Jean writes fiction for young girls (ages about8 to 12) and I had read a few of her books and liked them, so I picked up Orphan at My Door. It is fiction but heavily based on the experiences of Barnardo Home Children. Imagine my surprise when I read in the historical notes at the back of the book a little note about Ethel Parton Crane. I’m not sure if Ethel was Jean’s inspiration for the story but the two crossed paths. Ethel’s life story had moved the author just as it had moved me.
Anne of Green Gables gives us a picture of what it was like to be a Home Child at the turn of the 20th century. Orphans were considered barely second-class citizens – nobodies. Not to be trusted. And Jean Little’s book, Orphan at My Door, gives us another picture, similar, yet different. (I highly recommend the book. It’s in the kid’s section of the bookstore)
I know what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land, where nothing is recognizable, and even the names of places…Toronto, Niagara, Ontario… are a foreign language. But I had my siblings. And I was not made to slave in a barn or a kitchen.
We can imagine the loneliness and pain of being a child alone, a stranger in a strange land.
I am honoured to have known Ethel Parton Crane and to have seen her strength and her optimism. Such strength and optimism is part of Canada’s heritage, my adopted heritage. Thank you, Little Immigrants, for being a part of the Canada we know today.
Diana Holvik is a writer. Visit her here.
Next story: Edward Griffin by Rose McCormick Brandon