William Henry Lamb: Dying to go Back Home
On March 14, 1898, William Henry Lamb was born to Henry and Ada Lamb in Hull, England. In 1901 William’s father who had become an abusive drunkard abandoned the family. In her struggle to pay the rent and look after her little boy, William’s mother took in a boarder, a Mr. Giles. The two had a romantic relationship and planned to marry but when Ada became pregnant, Giles too abandoned her. She admitted later that Giles was a “lazy, besotted drunkard who wanted her to work and support his idleness.”
Ada was heartbroken. With two children to support her struggles increased. She earned 4p a week from charring and her rent was 3p. With little left to clothe and feed her children, she fell 4 weeks behind in rent. In desperation she reached out to Barnardo’s for help. The social worker who visited the home describes her “as a woman of good general character” who was taken advantage of by two lazy drunkards. He describes William as a “strong, healthy, pleasant little fellow.”
Without the money to hire a sitter, Ada had left William in charge of his baby sister, also named Ada. Neighbours complained to authorities. Without a welfare system to fall back on, the young mother had no choice but to ask Barnardo’s for help.
William, now 5, was sent to live with the Watson’s, a foster family. Shortly afterwards his siter Ada was sent to the same family. This home, run by the Salvation Army, not only provided food, clothing and education but kindness. Both William and Ada did well in school and thrived in this environment.
At age 8, Barnardo’s moved William away from the Watson’s and his sister to their London Home and began preparing him for emigration to Canada. It seems his mother’s situation hadn’t improved since putting her children into care and perhaps she believed sending William to Canada was best for him.
In March 1907 William sailed on the Dominion with a photo of his mother tucked into his trunk. He went to live in Dundalk, Ontario with the Carr family. Several years later, his sister Ada arrived in Canada. She was sent to live with the Reburn family in Shelburne 15 miles from Dundalk. For whatever reasons, brother and sister didn’t see much of one another but they were aware of the other’s location.
In 1916 William showed up at the Reburn farm in Shelburne.
He told Ada that he couldn’t stay in Canada any longer. Things had not gone well for him. He hated it here and had joined the army for a way out. He would soon be shipped to England where he planned to re-unite with their mother. He had come to say goodbye.
After that visit, William went to the Niagara area where he awaited deployment with the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He looked forward to once more boarding a ship that would cross the Atlantic and return him to the place of his birth. While he prepared for combat, a contagious disease swept through the military barracks.
On July 31, 1916 at age 18 William Henry Lamb died. Sadly, he was never re-united with his mother. He is buried in Ventry Cemetery. After Ada married, one of the first things she did was visit her brother’s grave and make sure it was maintained.
More than 10,000 home boys, like William Henry Lamb, joined the Canadian military. Many joined with the aim of visiting or re-uniting with their families in England. Sadly, many, like William Henry, never made it.
Thanks to Helen Cockburn, niece of William Henry Lamb, for providing photos and information.
Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children, a collection of 31 stories, by author, Rose McCormick Brandon, is available here.