Cecilia Jowett: A Little Girl With a Big Dream by Rose McCormick Brandon
A woman at a Bible Study I attend told me that she had known someone I might be interested in – Cecilia Jowett, a British Home Child. Cecilia had lived with a branch of this soman’s family, the Partridges. When I mentioned the name to other BHC descendants, I soon learned a lot more about Cecilia’s fascinating life.
In July 1901 Cecilia and her sister, Ethel, sailed for Canada with a group of Barnardo children on the Parisian. She was only five but the memory of this journey stayed with Cecilia for life. In her autobiography, No Thought for Tomorrow, she recalled “a rainbow of colours that glistened from icebergs, green billows of angry water and a whale that blew water high in the air.”
On arrival in Canada, Cecilia and Ethel went to Hazel Brae, a transition home in Peterborough. To little Cecilia, the home seemed like a castle. Her view from the top floor looked out across the city and took in Nicholls Hospital. It was there, at Hazel Brae, that she pledged to one day become a missionary nurse and show kindness to people like the nurses at Barnardo’s and Hazel Brae had shown kindness to her. A big dream for a five year-old.
From Hazel Brae, Cecilia was put in the care of a train conductor. She traveled to her Canadian home, a farm in Shanty Bay on Lake Simcoe. When she arrived at the Partridge family home, the aroma of dry, sweet hay greeted her. “I can still taste the St. Lawrence apples which grew in the orchard of that enchanted farm,” she wrote. “It was a good, Methodist home. On Sundays, a red damask cloth was spread on the table and we would gather about the cottage organ, Enid and Lexy and I, to sing, Lord, we come in our childhood’s early morning.”
At school, Cecilia became the object of teasing. The other children called her an orphan. At the time, many Canadians thought the British were dumping their unwanted children into the good homes of Canada. Some viewed the children as incurably flawed and undesirable. This attitude was passed down from parents to children and because of it, many home children were made to feel ashamed.
According to people who knew her, Cecilia didn’t sit and quietly suffer. A spunky girl, she always had the last word. On one occasion she told her tormentors that she wasn’t an orphan, that she had a mother back in England who wore a black silk cloak with lace on it. I think this was the only memory she had of her mother. In her book Cecilia doesn’t say how she ended up at Bernardo’s but it’s believed her mother died after the father had abandoned the family.
From a very early age, Cecilia had an unshakeable faith in God. It’s evident from her autobiography that she maintained a child-like faith in God throughout her life.
Cecilia graduated from the Orillia General Hospital thus fulfilling her dream of becoming a nurse. While in Orillia, she met the city’s most famous citizen, Canadian writer, Stephen Leacock. Later, he became her close friend and encouraged her to write her story. No Thought for Tomorrow was published in 1954.
A quote from Cecilia’s book:
“Oh, I’d never take a child like that into my home” I have heard ladies say, “You never know how they will turn out.” And there I was, a graduate nurse, in their homes, rendering skilled assistance, perhaps saving or helping to save a life. Yet they didn’t dream that I was on of “those children.”
Cecilia nursed in Toronto and Hamilton before joining her brother, Ernest, in a remote area near Cochrane, Ontario. More than anything else, Cecilia longed for family. Some of her happiest days were spent in Ernest’s northern shack. She expected he would have the same affections for her as she had for him. But he was a semi-hermit who preferred to live alone. When Cecilia built a cottage large enough for the two of them he refused to live in it. His less than brotherly response grieved Cecilia but she stayed on in the north nursing its residents without pay. During her 7 years there she earned only $40.00.
Cecilia had many friends in southern Ontario from her nursing days who sent food, seeds and other supplies. She shared them with the immigrant families who had become her friends. While in this northern cottage, Cecilia began to write. She wrote letters to the government asking for them to fix the roads. She wrote to magazines telling them about her life in the north. Many people became interested in Cecilia. One of these was Count Nicholas Ignatieff, a Russian immigrant, and a relative of Canadian politician, Michael Ignatieff.
Cecilia also wrote letters to England asking for information about her father. Cecilia was delighted to find him and the two began corresponding. When one of her private nursing patients died and left her some money, Cecilia decided to travel to England and meet her father. Thomas Jowett and his sister met Cecilia’s ship. The sister immediately expressed regret that her wandering brother had not informed his family that he had children. Until Cecilia had written to them, Thomas’s family hadn’t known she existed. He had left home at 16 and didn’t see his family for 30 years. During that time he’d met Cecilia’s mother with whom he had 3 children, Ethel, Ernest and Cecilia, then took the sea and abandoned them.
The saddest part of Cecilia’s story takes place after her landing in England. She had expected to stay with her father but he took her to a room in a private home. This is her account of that first night in England:
“That night as I sat in that bedroom with its shining linoleum floor – I hated linoleum; it was brown too, a colour I dislike – all the loneliness of forty odd years seemed to break like waves over my heart and I cried as though my heart would break. The effects of lost home and lonely years seemed to gather to its climax.”
It seems Thomas Jowett had always been and remained a selfish man. Cecilia had hoped to make a home in England with her father. She wanted to take care of him in his old age but he had made a satisfactory life for himself and there was no room for his daughter in it.
Cecilia headed back to Canada. She’d sold her cottage because the harsh northern life had become too difficult for her. With no home to call her own, she remembered the people of Rama Reserve where she had worked as a young nurse during the Spanish Flu epidemic. She bought a humble home in Longford Mills on Highway 69. She settled there with her faithful dog, Prince, and dedicated the rest of her years to the poor in the area.
A sad lonely child grew up with a selfless kind heart. Cecilia Jowett lived as sacrificially as anyone has ever lived. She would be surprised and pleased that today her story is being shared at exhibits in libraries and museums across Canada. A humble woman, I suspect she’d wonder why all the fuss. If I could speak to Cecilia I’d thank her for baring her soul in her autobiography, for being brave enough to say who she was and where she came from. She refused to let disappointment and loneliness define her life.
The woman who told me about Cecilia was a child when she met her but etched in her memory is the vision of a ‘profoundly sad person.” But photographer, John Reeves, who took this photo remembers her as “a gem.” Like all of us, Cecilia had more than one aspect to her personality.
For more of Cecilia’s story, read Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children by author, Rose McCormick Brandon, available here.