William Matthew McCormick by Rose McCormick Brandon
Since approximately 4 million Canadians can trace their roots to a British Home Child, it’s not surprising that ancestry buffs are finding child immigrants hidden in their family trees. But, I didn’t expect to find another one in mine. This time, on my father’s side.
A Common Home Child Tale
I started to suspect my great-grandfather, William Matthew McCormick, was a home child when I read Sean Arthur Joyce’s story about his grandfather. Cyril William Joyce, told his family he got on a ship at 16 and sailed to Canada. No one thought to question his courageous story. It wasn’t until after he died that Sean discovered the truth. His grandfather was a British Home Child.
In reading Joyce’s story, and others, I realized this brave adventurous tale of jumping on a ship in England and taking off for Canada is a common one, concocted to cover up the painful truth of abandonment and poverty. These tales also helped home children establish new lives amongst people suspicious of their morals.
The McCormick Tale
There is a tale on the McCormick side of my family – great grandfather William boarded a ship in Ireland. His mother, who sent him to Canada to escape poverty, stood on the shore waving goodbye to her son. He watched her until she disappeared in the distance. The story is likely true, as far as it goes, because William was 17 and his mother was still living in 1871 when this event took place. And, the two corresponded until her death. But, the tale has the ring of folklore. And it doesn’t answer the question why. Why would a mother loving enough to wave until her son was out of sight put him on a ship for Canada? Part of the answer is extreme poverty. No mention is made of William’s father. The rest of the answer is most likely buried with him.
A simple search of immigration records at the Canadian Library and Archives confirmed what I suspected – William came to Canada as part of the Child Immigration Movement. Rev. Styleman Herring, the vicar of St. Paul’s Clerkenwell, London, England, accompanied this group of boys, aged 16-18.
The Scandinavian left Liverpool on June 29, 1871 (June 29 happens to be my wedding anniversary). It sailed to Londonderry in Northern Ireland, where Rev. Herring’s group picked up several boys, including William Matthew McCormick. Unlike other home children, William didn’t become an indentured servant to strangers. He went to his uncle’s farm near Montreal.
William Had Pioneer Spirit
Two years later, William and his new bride moved to Collingwood. Shortly afterwards, she and their baby died. William then married Sara Anne Osborne. When the two heard the government was selling land on Manitoulin Island to new homesteaders, they bought 100 acres in the central part of the Island for $50.00. With a yoke of oxen and 1 cow, they journeyed on a newly blazed trail to what became the settlement of Brittainville.
William and Sara endured all the hardships of pioneer life – isolation, lack of supplies and the backbreaking work of removing rocks from the fields. But this family was never too busy for church and music. Somewhere on his journey, whether in England or Canada, William experienced a spiritual awakening and became a devoted follower of Jesus. When other farmers, like the Sloss family, moved into the Brittainville area, William parceled off a portion of his land and donated it for a place of worship. William had a gift for public speaking. He often acted as emcee at community events and filled in for the minister at the little church. His daughters played piano, his son Jack, the violin. Matthew’s grandson and namesake, my father, remembers reciting poetry to the congregation in the little white church at Christmas.
This church became a gathering place for local farm families. Today, it’s an art gallery. My sister, Brenda Gilchrist, and I, visited the gallery this summer. (See photo)
To supplement their farm income, William took the job of postmaster. He did this for 44 years. In 1933 he was presented with a silver medal by King George V as the longest serving postmaster in Canada.
William and Sara had four children. The youngest, John (Jack), was my grandfather. William never returned to Ireland or saw his mother again. At a McCormick Reunion a few years ago, Alice’s daughter shared a photograph of William’s mother, taken in Dublin and mailed to her son in Canada. Our family hadn’t known the photo existed. Now we each have a copy.
A Living Connection
This summer I met an old family friend who said he remembered my great-grandfather. Williard Sloss owns the farm across the road from the one William McCormick pioneered in Britainville, on Manitoulin Island. “I went to visit him with my Dad,” Williard said. “I’ll never forget his long, white beard. It sticks in my memory like it was yesterday.”
William Matthew McCormick died before I was born. I was delighted when Sloss, who has lived in the same house since birth, shared his memories of my great-grandfather. These first-hand memories made William more than an obscure figure lurking in my family tree.
I think William would say that coming to Canada was, overall, a good thing for him. But, he told the story of his mother waving from the shore with a tear in his eye. Loss of family and homesickness – all child immigrants suffered from these. Many never recovered. I think William did. Still, he made sure his children and grandchildren knew he had a mother back home in Ireland who loved him.