Hilda Williams: Inspiration for a Musical
The following story is written from excerpts taken from an original article by Bernadette Hardaker, former host of CBC Radio’s Ontario Morning and from email conversations with Barbara Perkins. Barbara is the creator of Home Child: A Musical Journey. Make plans to see this production in January 2013 at: www.orangevillemusictheatre.com. Contact Barbara Perkins at www.homechildmusical.com
Do you have a British Home Child story to tell? Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rose McCormick Brandon
Who will love my boys,
treat them as their own…
Who will love my girls…
keep them safe and warm?”
laments Ellyn Griffyn,
the heart-broken Welsh
mother in Barb Perkins’ production
Home Child: A Musical Journey (© Barb Perkins, 2005).
Shrouded in sadness. That’s how Barbara Perkins remembers her grandmother, Hilda Williams. Widowed too soon, a life of hard work, a loving but distant grandmother. Barb always had a feeling there was something more to her Nana’s dark glasses, more than the terrible migraines she suffered and more than arthritic hands, gnarled and aching.
No one in the family talked about Nana’s childhood in Wales. No one asked the questions that might have made Hilda Williams tell her story.
Barb Learns the Truth
Then one unforgettable day in 1984, Barb learned the truth about her grandmother’s life and began a journey that has led her to write and produce Home Child: A Musical Journey. The story is loosely based on her grandmother’s life as a home child.
That day in 1984, Barb stood in the driveway at her farm outside Hillsburgh, saying goodbye to her mother who had come to visit. Barb had two toddlers at her feet and a baby in her arms. Her grandmother had been dead for nearly a decade. “We started talking about the family background because when you’re a new mom, you suddenly appreciate how much work your parents went through to raise you. I asked, `What about Nana?’ That one question began to reveal my grandmother’s story. My mom said, `It was so sad. They (Grandma and her siblings) were taken away from their family, put on a boat and sent to Canada, then separated when they got here. You should see the pictures of those poor little kids.’”
Barb could hardly believe what she was hearing. “Her life never left me after that. I just had to find out more.”
Ashamed of their roots, home children like Barb’s grandmother buried their pasts and their pain and, in the process, passed it on to the next generation. Barb’s father didn’t begin to talk about his mother’s life until a few years before his own death in 1998. In 1975, Barb’s father visited his mother’s old family home in Wales. The house was in the process of renovation with the living room scheduled for demolition the next day. Her father was drawn to a tile on the fireplace, three feet above the living-room floor. It depicted a swan swimming among reeds. Barb’s father had to have it; he was sure it was something his mother and her siblings would have touched on rainy days when they played indoors by the fire. The swan tile remains the only personal memento from Hilda Williams’ Welsh childhood.
Tragedy Separated the Williams Family
Hilda Williams was born in 1898, a middle child among the nine children of Robert and Lewsia Williams. Robert was a dockworker, not a wealthy man, but from photos it is apparent the family was clean, well-fed and well-housed. They lived in one of the many stone row houses that still line the streets of Newport, near Cardiff,Wales. They were Church of England. The children attended school.
On March 2,1906, Hilda’s father was struck by a piece of timber at the docks and killed. Hilda’s mother was 31 at the time and pregnant with her ninth child. The eldest girls were 11 and 12. There was a year-old baby girl and a little boy of about three. Hilda was eight. There were two brothers just below her in age and one sister just above. These four made up the middle children. Now a widow, Lewsia managed to keep the family together for a whole year.
Facing poverty, Lewsia sought help from Barnardo’s. She had no intention of giving up her four middle children permanently; the arrangement was to last only until she could get back on her feet. The two older girls in the family watched the youngest three while their mother worked. The Barnardo representative wrote that Lewsia Williams was “a striving, respectable woman who elicited much sympathy.” The ten shillings a week in relief she received from the parish was used for rent.
The four middle children went to a Bernardo Home. The family would never be whole again. The children, ages six to ten, emigrated to Canada with a group of orphans in 1907.
In 1990, Barb went to Wales to do more research. People who knew the family described the way the father’s death had ripped the family apart. They said Barb’s great-grandmother, Lewsia Williams, never got over the loss of her four children. Even in her old age, after she remarried and had a tenth child, she still wept for them. In Canada, as happened to most home children, the Williams children went to separate homes. One boy was shot (but survived) trying to run away. One sister faired well. The other did not. Barb learned that her grandmother had been treated roughly, passing through four different homes.
Hilda Reunites with her Siblings
Hilda eventually reunited with her siblings and for a time they lived together as young adults in Canada. Relatives in Wales remember receiving packages from them. As a young woman, Hilda went back to Wales to visit her mother. Relatives remembered how smartly she was dressed. Hilda married Arnott Hanenberg, an architect, and had two children, Vivian and Arnie Junior. Sadly, like her mother, Hilda became a young widow when Arnott passed away at 45. Barb writes: “I think that was another thing that made me feel so deeply for my grandmother. She had such a horrific childhood as a home child and then she fell in love, was married, and was widowed too soon.”
A Link Between Barb and Hilda
Barb is linked to her grandmother in another, more profound way. Barb and husband, John, were devastated when their eldest child suffered brain-damage from meningitis in 1981. “For me, raising a disabled child who became more disabled as the years went on became enmeshed with writing my grandmother’s story. As my emotions deepened, I was able to get deeper into her story. It answered a lot of questions about my childhood and how I related to my dad . . . .The more I knew, and the more I wrote about my grandmother, the more cathartic it was for me.”
Barb’s Tribute to Hilda
Barb became a music teacher. “I knew my grandmother’s story was one that could be put to music because of its Celtic roots, because it had such a Welsh flavour to it. I got immersed in Welsh music when I went over there in 1990 and came home with all these tapes of Welsh male choirs. I realized music is in their soul. I think I picked up a bit of that.”
By 1997 Barb had written her grandmother’s story in song: Home Child, A Musical Journey. It was accepted by the Charlottetown Festival in 1997 to be work-shopped as a new Canadian work. For two intense weeks it was sung and critiqued by day, while Barb reworked it at night. “Today, the piece is almost unrecognizable from what it was in Charlottetown,” she says. Characters and scenes were dropped, continuity and narration were added. The musical was pared down to the essence of the home child story: that love will lead you through almost anything in your life. “I’ve learned that this is true,” said Barb.
After Charlottetown, Barb thought a theatre company would pick up the play. But after a couple of rejections, she decided to produce it herself. Stonehome Productions was born.
Authenticity is important to Barb. She found a Barnardo trunk. It’s covered with imitation alligator skin and the name Miss Blanche Jordon is scrawled twice in pencil inside the lid. In the initial presentation of the play in 2000 in Erin, Ontario, Guelph actor, Heather Buck, appeared on stage as Ellyn Griffyn. She wore a gold watch worn by Barb’s great-grandmother. It’s all part of what Barb calls “genetic energy.” Barb’s 23-year-old daughter, Briar, played the part of Nan Griffyn. “This was not written with Briar in mind. I thought this would have been produced many, many years ago. She was too young then to be involved. But she auditioned and auditioned well. She’s got the look, the hair colouring and bears a resemblance to her great-grandmother.” Also present at the Erin premiere were two second cousins from Wales and Barb’s 86-year-old Aunt Viv (Hilda’s daughter).
“I would like to encourage as many descendants as possible to attend this tribute to the Home Children. The musical goes onstage in January 2013 at the Town Hall Opera House in Orangeville, Ontario.” – Barbara Perkins
Visit: www.orangevillemusictheatre.com and make plans to attend the play in January 2013.
Visit Barbara Perkins at www.homechildmusical.com