Ada Lamb Stinson: A Life Hidden in a Trunk by Rose McCormick Brandon
Helen (Stinson) Cockburn remembers her mother’s small wooden trunk always being in their home. “We were forbidden to look in it,” she said. But one day Helen did open the lid of that trunk. And what she found astonished her. School certificates from England with her mother’s name on them. It took Helen many years to figure out that her mother was a child immigrant from one of the Barnardo homes in London.
The quotes from Ada are taken from a short biography she wrote for a Women’s Institute meeting.
Ada Lamb was born in 1903 in Hull, District of Kingston, England. She lived with her mother, also named Ada, and her older half-brother, William Henry Lamb. Ada’s mother left her in the care of Willy, about 4, while she went to work in a factory. A neighbour reported that the children were left alone day after day. Authorities removed both Ada and Willy. When Ada arrived at Barnardo’s Home for Children she was one. She stayed at the home until she old enough to join her brother at Watson’s, a foster home, in Brandenham, run by the Salvation Army. William was sent to Canada at age 8 in 1907. At age 9, Ada was sent back to the Barnardo Home and, one month later, sailed to Canada.
Before leaving the Watson home, their twin daughters, Rose and Violet, gave Ada a little Bible which she kept in her trunk. Ada recalled being taken to visit Queen Victoria’s monument before leaving England.On ship, Ada suffered from seasickness.
Ada remembered the ocean voyage as a rough one. “One day, I thought I would be brave and go on deck but when I got to the railing, my tam blew into the ocean. One very sick boy died. A funeral service was held at which the body was lowered into the ocean.”
On June 25, 1913 Ada arrived in Canada. She was first sent to Hazelbrae in Peterborough. From there, Ada and 2 other girls, Nellie and Sarah Graham, boarded the train to Toronto. There, she was asked if she’d like to be near her brother who was at Dundalk. “It was then that I was told I’d be going to Shelburne. Nellie and Sarah were going there also. When we boarded the train, the conductor put tags on us. When we reached Shelburne, we were like lost dogs. We didn’t know who was going to meet us. However, Mr. Reburn was there with his Democrat. He took us to his brother’s on Owen Sound Street for dinner, after which Nellie and Sarah were taken to their homes and I went home with Mr. Reburn. There were lots of tears shed that night.”
The Reburns had no children. Ada wrote – “After a few days, Mrs. Reburn made me a nice blue dress. Oh! I thought I was the belle of the ball. The first gathering I attended was at Clark’s farm where the Anglican Church held their garden party. I was very shy and it wasn’t much fun.” When Ada went to school, one of the boys who came over on the same ship was in her class. Helen, Ada’s daughter, says that her mother felt close to Mr. Reburn who treated her like a daughter. However, she always called them “Mr. and Mrs. Reburn,” a fact I find a bit sad. I suppose since Ada was 10 when she came to the Reburn household, she couldn’t call them Mom and Dad and it was taboo to call adults by their first names.
John Reburn enrolled Helen in piano lessons and drove her by horse and buggy to her lessons in Dundalk, 15 miles away. One Sunday, when the organist was late for church, he suggested that Ada play the first hymn. She was 16. “I felt I couldn’t play well enough but he took me by the arm and stood beside me while I played, ‘How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.’
Ada worked hard on the farm. She learned to milk cows, can vegetables and fruit, split kindling, make maple syrup and cook. “Mrs. Reburn taught me to crochet, knit and quilt and everything had to be done right.” Ada became a master quilter.
Ada finished school and stayed with the Reburns until she married Lester Stinson on April 8, 1931. They purchased a house in Orangeville. Both daughters, Helen and Isabel were born there. In 1937, Mr. Reburn passed away. Mrs. Reburn refused to leave the farm in Shelburne and asked Ada and Lester to come and live with her.
It seems that Ada didn’t know how to contact her brother Willy and didn’t realize he was in Dundalk, even though she had been asked if she wanted to go to a home near him. This part of her life is unclear. When WWII broke out, Willy enlisted. When his battalion was about to leave, he went to visit Ada. He told her he didn’t like Canada and that he had joined the military to get back to England. This was Ada and Willy’s only visit in Canada. The camp where Willy waited for deployment was hit with typhoid fever.Willy and several other soldiers died. He’s buried in Dundalk at Ventry Cemetery.
During WWII, Ada received a letter from her mother who was still living in England. She wanted to come to Canada. Ada refused to bring her over. Helen remembers the day the letter arrived. She heard her mother say to her father, “She didn’t want me, why should I want her now?” Helen says her father was a gentle-hearted man who tried to make Ada see that her mother didn’t have choices.
Ada Lamb Stinson was community-minded. She and a friend started the Women’s Institute in Whitfield, Ontario She remained a devoted member of the W.I. her whole life. Helen tells how one evening there was a snow storm and her father refused to take the horses out to drive Ada to her meeting. “Mother donned a pair of skis and skied across the farm fields to the house where the meeting was being held. Nothing held my Mother back,” she said with a smile. “She could’ve been lost in a snow storm but she didn’t consider that.”
Ada received her piano teacher’s certificate and taught piano lessons in her home for many years. She hosted an annual family dinner for her students and their families. “Everyone looked forward to that dinner,” said Helen. Ada served as choir director and organist of the Whitfield Anglican Church. Helen purchased a stained glass window for the church in honour of her mother. Previously, Ada purchased a large window in the church to honour Mr. Reburn.
Ada and Lester worked the Reburn farm and looked after Mrs. Reburn until her death in 1964. The Reburns had always intended for Ada to inherit the farm. Their stated their wishes in a will. But relatives contested the will, saying that Ada wasn’t the Reburn’s biological daughter, “just a home child,” and had no right to inherit their estate. Since Ada wasn’t formally adopted by the couple, the courts awarded the farm to the contesting relatives.
Ada didn’t give up easily. She had lived most of her life on that farm, put her “blood, sweat and tears into it,” and she was determined to have it. In the end, she bought out the relatives and stayed on the farm. “My mother was a determined woman,” says Helen Cockburn. “There was no way she was giving up that farm.”
“My mother never talked about being a home child,” says Helen. “I found out she was one by snooping into her trunk. And she was pretty upset that I knew.”
Helen pressed her mother to send to Barnardo’s for her files. She refused. Helen felt so concerned that she’d never really know where her mother came from that she tricked her into signing the Barnardo form. She slipped the Barnardo form under income tax form and unknowingly, Ada signed both. A few months later, a file that contained documents almost 100 years old, arrived with Helen’s mail.
Helen says, “Mom wasn’t happy that I tricked her but she got over it.” Today, Helen has an entire binder of material on her mother’s life. She’s also saved many newspaper clippings about British Home Children. “I knew Mom was a home child for years,” she said, “but I couldn’t talk to her about it until after the file came from Barnardo’s.” Helen says her mother always remembered the kindness of the Salvation Army home. “That was the only charity she’d give to.”
When Ada was 99, a woman from Barnardo’s in England came to visit her. Ada told her, ‘what’s in the past is done, let it stay there.'” This attitude prevailed amongst British Home Children. They seemed not to want people to fuss over their misfortunes.
The Reburns were kind to Ada. She landed in a better position than many others. She remained life-long friends with one of the Graham sisters. No matter how painless people try to make it, uprooting a child, causes pain. Helen says her mother was never able to show affection. This too is common amongst home children. Broken relationships in childhood cause trauma that seldom mends completely.
Ada died at 101. Her husband Lester passed away in 1981.
Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children, a collection of 31 stories by author, Rose McCormick Brandon, is available here.