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Arthur Theodore Clarkson: The Rest of the Story

May 22, 2012


Arthur Theodore Clarkson

In January 1911, newspapers across Canada published articles about a 13 year-old Barnardo boy who was severely abused by a farmer in Tilbury, Ontario. People were appalled when they read the child had been whipped, his feet frozen to the point that amputation was considered and that he slept in a barn without protection from cold and snow. When Inspector Kinder arrived at the Flaherty farm, he found the boy fevered and covered in bruises. Charges of cruelty to a child were laid against Flaherty. The boy, Arthur T. Clarkson, proved more resilient than his oppressor. He went on to find lucrative employment, marry and raise a large family. The following story is based on information provided by Arthur’s daughter, Linda Clarkson Pagnani.

Arthur T. Clarkson’s father, Arthur W. Clarkson, was an engineer who helped design the first railway system in South Africa. He came from an upper middleclass English family that included lawyers, ministers and military officers. When he married Annie Maude Baker, the daughter of a Norwich postal worker, Arthur W. was disowned by his family.

Arthur T. was the second child born to Arthur W. and Annie. Their first son died in a tragic accident. Arthur T. was born on December 23, 1897 in Bloemfontein, South Africa. In 1907, Arthur Sr. contracted malaria and died. Annie was left alone in a strange country. She returned to England in a fragile emotional state. Nine year-old Arthur became responsible for the wellbeing of his mother and a younger brother.

Back in England, Arthur often left school to check on his mother. His poor record of attendance caused school authorities to label him as incorrigible. This label carried frightening consequences. Arthur was sent to a reform school. From there, he went to one of Dr. Barnardo’s homes for children in Surrey. Arthur’s family doesn’t know if his mother signed a release for him to be sent to Canada. Considering her fragile state, she may have done this.

On February 25, 1909 eleven year-old Arthur Clarkson boarded the S.S. Dominion and sailed for Canada. In September of that same year he was placed with a farmer, David S. Flaherty, of  Tilbury,Ontario. The only information Arthur passed on to his family about the Flaherty farm was that he slept in a barn with an opening that allowed snow to blow onto him while he slept. Arthur’s feet froze. He couldn’t get his boots on so Flaherty gave him a pair of his, several sizes too large. The oversize boots chafed his feet raw.

Newspaper reports of the actual abuse suffered by Arthur painted a much worse picture than the one he shared with his family. On January 6, 1911, the Chatham paper reported:

“With his feet so badly frozen that both may have to be amputated, his back covered with blue and red welts, a young immigrant boy working for a farmer of Tilbury East, was brought here by Inspector Kinder. Charges of cruelty to a child will be laid against the farmer. When Inspector Kinder visited the farm, he found the boy out in the cold doing a man’s work on a cross-cut saw. He was working with his feet frozen in No. 10 shoes and every step he made the big boot rubbed the raw flesh off his foot.”

Arthur’s feet were badly deformed but doctors managed to save them. By August 1911 he had recovered and went to work for another area farmer. This man sent good reports to Bernardo’s about Arthur. In 1913, he went to the farm of Francis E. Brown of Tweed. His employment with the Browns gave him a chance to realize one of his goals – to save enough money to bring his mother and younger brother to Canada to join him.

In 1914, Arthur learned his mother had died of an overdose of Laudanum. He never shared with his children how he felt when he learned of her death but his daughter Linda thinks he blamed himself for not being there to protect her.

Arthur remained with the Browns until 1916 when he enlisted in the Canadian Army Signal Corps. He served 10 months in the trenches in France before getting sick with appendicitis. After emergency surgery on the battlefield, without anesthesia, he convalesced in England. A few months later, the army sent Arthur back to Canada.

Before Arthur left for the war, he had met Lily Ivy Agnes Wood, also a British home child. She worked for a local family, the Newtons. After returning to Canada, Arthur proposed to Lily and they were married on March 7, 1919 at Sydenham United Church in Kingston. Arthur upgraded his education through correspondence. He was hired to work at the power facility in Kingston Mills. He and Lily moved into a tiny rented house overlooking the Rideau Canal. By 1922 they had three children.

When Arthur heard the Ford Motor Company in Detroit was paying five dollars a day, he moved his young family to the U.S. With hard work and frugal habits, it wasn’t long before he had bought a lot in a Detroit suburb. He built a small house and a fourth child was born. Immediately, he began building a much larger house on the property. It was completed just in time for the birth of their fifth child.

As the world descended into a major depression, another child came along. Arthur found himself without a job, mortgage payments and six children to feed. He sometimes juggled three or four jobs. A wise man, Arthur wrote a letter to the person who held his mortgage. He asked the man to accept interest payments only until he could afford to make full payments. Arthur explained that if the house was repossessed, they would both be losers. The mortgage holder agreed.

By the time their seventh and youngest child, Linda, came along in 1941, Arthur had a

Two of Arthur & Lily's daughters and two granddaughters

Two of Arthur & Lily’s daughters and two granddaughters

secure job at Detroit Edison Co. as an electrician. He remained there until 1963 when a heart attack forced him to retire. Arthur kept busy with amateur radio, gardening and socializing with his many friends. In September 1973, a few months shy of his 75th birthday, he passed away.

Arthur’s children are proud of their father. He found little love in his early years but he gave love freely to his wife and children. Arthur and Lily’s 7 children and their families still live in the Michigan area, most of them not far from the family homestead their father built.


book coverPromises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children, a collection of 31 stories by author, Rose McCormick Brandon, is available here.

Below are a few of the newspaper stories that were published about Arthur Clarkson.


9 Comments leave one →
  1. May 23, 2012 1:54 am

    They were both truly wonderful and sterling examples of how we can rise from the ashes of a terrible beginning and be even stronger for the experience. Knowing that complete strangers have heard about my Dad and care enough to take the time to do further
    research about his life, is just an amazing, amazing gift. Thank you.”

    And excerpt from a letter written by Arthur’s daughter Linda. We can’t thank Linda and her family enough for the gift of sharing this touching and inspirational story with us. Arthur and Lily are hero’s to us all now.

  2. May 23, 2012 9:49 pm

    In 1929 there was an orphanage built here in Chatham On. by Francis Moore. He & his wife had no children of their own, but when he died he left 12 acres of land for this building. I was fortunate to live in it from 1940 until 1952. It finally closed in 1953, & my children & grandchildren & my self still put flowers on this kind gentleman’s gravesite @ the Maple Leaf Cemetery as he knew there was a need for Compassion for children & it was due to him that many other children over those years had a roof & 3 mals a day also an education.It would have been a very charitable idea of this other cruel man, if he had enough sense to find out about this place I am referring to, then this young fella would not have had to suffer so. God Bless the Children, & Arthur for his tenacity to make something out of his life, & not use it as a crutch.

    • May 23, 2012 11:46 pm

      Margaret – what a story you have to tell. It’s inspiring to hear about people like Francis Moore and his wife. Were you born in England and came to Chatham? Probably not since by 1940 the British Home Child Immigration movement had stopped. What you say is so true – if Arthur Clarkson had only met with the same kindness that you received in the orphanage, how much better it would have been for him. I’m always amazed when I meet someone, or hear a story of someone, who has suffered a lot that so often they turn out to be some of the strongest people, and not the weakest, as we might expect. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Rose

    • May 24, 2012 3:07 am

      Arthur had no choice of any orphanage to be placed in. He, along with about 100,000 other British home children were shipped to Canada for the soul purpose of ‘labour’ … there were few lucky to be actually wanted and adopted. Arthur was handed over to a farmer with no regard to his well being, and was only looking for a labourer. As for the orphanage here in Chatham (where I too live), it also sent children out as farm labourers during the summer months. My father in law lived in the orphanage during the 1940s and was sent out 2 summers in a row to a farmer who ended up keeping him. Not sure what happened to the other young boy that went to work there too. They never adopted my father in law (Henry), and he never felt it to be home, it only ever felt like a job in the end. Wonder if you knew him?

      • May 24, 2012 1:12 pm

        A note about orphanages – few presently exist, if any. But, there’s a school of thought that believes it’s much better for children to live in an orphanage than to be sent into foster care. Usually siblings remain together in orphanages. House mothers give a semblance of family to units of 10-12 children. No program succeeds for everyone. But, Margaret’s tender feelings toward the couple who started the Home she grew up in testifies to the fact that orphanages can work well. They are working right now in Africa. Orphanages educate children, another plus.

  3. May 24, 2012 3:46 pm

    Absolutely orphanages can and do work for some children. The Moore’s intentions were good, and for some, the place/experience is a good memory. For my father in law (and others there), he was a home child of Canada in the meaning of ‘home child.’ I am happy Mrs. Horne has such respect for the couple who left land for this building to be built and eventually become her home when she needed one. And Arthur certainly would have faired much better there, but, as a British child he didn’t have that opportunity. As for foster care, I was a ward of the court for years, and experienced a Girls’ School, and a few foster families, and I have good memories of all. 🙂

  4. Linda Clarkson Pagnani permalink
    May 29, 2012 4:34 am

    I’ve always known my Dad was a very special man. Now thanks to your wonderful story, many others will know it too. I’ve shared this with all the members of our large, extended family and had many grateful responses from everyone. Many of the grandchildren and great-grandchildren have contacted me to say “I never knew any of this, I am so glad I know now and I’ll make sure my children know when they are older.” Thanks to you and Lori and Dawn and all of the others who are working so hard on this issue. I know we cannot change history or reverse the suffering that so many of these children endured, but thanks to people like you, this will not be something that is conveniently swept under the carpet, and these children will not be forgotten. With deepest gratitude to all of you.

    • May 29, 2012 7:57 pm

      It’s so good for the grandchildren and younger offspring to know about your mom and dad, where they came from, the hardships of their youth. People really need to know where they come from. Their identity comes from knowing about the people who cleared a path for them.

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