Nellie Page: A Mother to be Proud of by Mary Arnold
Mary Arnold writes this touching story about her British Home Child mother. The title comes from a phrase Mary adds at the end of her signature – proud daughter of Nellie Page. Nellie Page was born on November 25, 1897, in a poor house in Norwich, England. Her parents were John and Sarah Page. When Nellie was 4, the family was living in a rented room. Nellie slept on the floor beside her mother. One night her mother died in an epileptic seizure. Nellie stayed with her mother’s body until morning then she unlatched the door and went to get an uncle. It’s unknown where her father was at this time. For the rest of her life, Nellie feared being left alone in a dark room. After the death of her mother, Nellie was bounced from relative to relative and ended up begging on the street. She finally went to live with a blind uncle, also a beggar. She went begging with him. A gentleman by the name of Lt. Col. W.J. Heairside witnessed the little girl’s pathetic life and took responsibility for her. Heairside took Nellie to the Barnado Home at Barkingside in 1911, a children’s home that’s still in operation in London. There, Nellie finally found a place where she didn’t have to worry about her next meal. She had happy memories of her time at Barkingside. Her father is said to have died while Nellie lived there. I don’t believe he contributed to her well-being or visited her after the death of her mother. In 1912, Nellie was sent to Canada on the SS Corinthian, landing in St. John, New Brunswick on April 1. She travelled to Peterborough and lived at the transition home, HazelBrae, until she was placed out to work on a farm. Nellie lived and worked in the Toronto area, never knowing that her brother, John, who was sent over by Barnardo’s in 1908, lived nearby. My mother, Nellie, met and married my father, who was a widower, recently returned from the WW1. They settled in North Bay, Northern Ontario and it was there, in the early thirties, that her brother, John, found her. By then, my father was very ill, mentally and physically. He was unable to work and received a Government pension because of injuries received during the war. When John Page died in 1940, Mom was asked to take his son, Kirkwood, but my father was in the Sanitarium in Haileybury by then with tuberculosis and she was left alone to provide for me and my younger brother. Dad died in 1945, just after the WWII ended, before his 50th birthday. Life in England was deplorable for Nellie. She remained forever grateful to Barnrdo’s for rescuing her. She always wrote to them and subscribed to their magazine. She told us little about her childhood. After her death, I applied to Barnardo’s for her files. When I read the documents and notes in it, I cried for days. I imagined my sweet mother begging on the streets and living with a blind uncle. It was heartbreaking for me. Nine years passed between her mother’s death and her arrival at Barnardo’s. I shudder to think of what she went through during those years. In spite of her hard childhood, Nellie Page became a loving mother, grandmother and great-grandmother. When she died, people from all over came to her funeral to tell me of the kindnesses she had shown to them. They shared wonderful stories about her, things I’d never heard during her lifetime. Mom never stepped onto a boat again after her arrival in Canada because of the terrible seasickness she suffered on the trip from England in 1912. She said she had no desire to go home again. “You can never go back,” she said.
Mom worked most of her life as a domestic. She became Secretary and then President of the Ladies Auxiliary to the Royal Canadian Legion in North Bay, Ontario for many years. She also helped with the Red Cross during the Second World War. At age 84, my mother died in that lonely world of dementia. Nellie Page was a Barnardo Girl through and through. In her letters to the Home she mentioned a house-mother who was very kind to all the girls in the cottage at Barkingside. The happiest days of her childhood were no doubt spent there. After what she’d been through, she was grateful to arrive at a warm cottage with a pleasant house-mother. My daughters and my son still talk lovingly about Mom though she’s been gone since 1983. She was a devoted wife to my father who became ill shortly after they married and started to have a family. He was an electrician and worked at the Abitibi Paper Mill in Sturgeon falls Ontario. A short time after the depression hit, Dad had a serious heart attack. So, even here in Canada my mother’s life was a hard one. I’m proud of my mother because in spite of her challenges, she showed kindness to others. In her situation, many women would’ve become bitter, but she didn’t. And, without any role models to pattern her life after, she became a wonderful wife and mother.
Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children, a collection of 31 stories by author, Rose McCormick Brandon, is available here.