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George Higgins by daughters Dorothy and Helene

April 24, 2013
George Higgins

George Higgins

Sisters, Dorothy and Helen Higgins, sent me this touching story of their father’s life. Also mentioned in George’s story are Wilfrid and Doris Higgins. Three of the four Higgins children became child immigrants to Canada. I plan to include this family’s story, with more information,  in my book, Against all Odds. In the meantime, it’s touching to read the story as written by his loving daughters.

Baby George

Baby George

Our father, George Higgins, was born in Birmingham, UK, on May 24, 1911, the third child of Henry and Carrie (Horne) Higgins. In the early life of the Higgins family, the parents and children lived happily in a home with grandparents living nearby.

In October 1914, the father, Henry, a hardware packer, died suddenly, leaving his wife and children in deep sorrow, pain and misery.

Between 1914 and 1918, their story has a big hole. From documents received from St-Edward’s Home in Coleshill, UK, we presume that our grandmother Carrie had help from her family while she worked to support her children. Relatives kept Wilfred and George while Doris stayed with her mother to take care of the baby, Ernest. Later on, Ernest went to live with his maternal grandfather, Alexander Horne. Alexander’s second wife, Elizabeth Hill, became affectionately called Auntie Lizzie by Ernest.

A Family in Peril

By May 1918, Carrie, now living in a workhouse, had applied to the Father Hudson  Society in Coleshill asking them to look after Wilfred (9) and George (7). Doris (11) went to Nazareth House in Moseley. (Read the history of Father Hudson.)

After much research, we received the files from the society that contained letters written by Carrie requesting visitor passes to see her boys and enclosing money for their upkeep. The file also contained reminders sent to Carrie of payments missed. Reading these letters brings tears to us because our poor grandmother had only a few glimpses of her children when they were in this Home.

In February 1920, Carrie received a letter from the Home proposing to send her boys to Canada to the care of St. George’s Home in Ottawa. She was very reluctant to let them go but finally she agreed to this believing they would have better lives.

Immigration to Canada

St. George's House, Ottawa (now Holy Rosary Church)

St. George’s House, Ottawa (now Holy Rosary Church)

On May14, 1920, Wilfrid boarded the ship Minnedosa under the care of the Catholic Emigration Association from Liverpool, UK. He landed in Quebec City on May 23, 1920. From there, he took a train to Ottawa. He was accepted by Mr. and Mrs. Ovila Pajot in River Canard near Windsor. Wilfrid stayed with this family all his life. He worked for the Ford Company until his sudden passing in September 1966.

June 18, 1920. It was our father George’s turn to board the same ship. He also landed in Quebec and took the same road Wilfrid had taken. He was eager to see his brother but Wilfrid was already gone to the Pajot farm. George’s first home was with the Dunlop family in Chelsea near Hull. For unknown reasons, he was sent back to St. George’s in Ottawa.

The McIntyres             

He was placed in a second home with Mr. and Mrs. James McIntyre in Aubrey, PQ. When he arrived alone at the train station, a tall man was waiting for him. At first when this man saw George, skinny and small for ten, he doubted whether he’d be up to the rigors of farm work. With kindness in his eyes, James McIntyre told George that he would try him with the chores on the farm. So off they went travelling in a horse-drawn buggy down Northern Creek Road. James’ wife, Helen, happily received George into their home. He became part of the McIntyre family.

A Mother Pines for her Children

Meanwhile in Birmingham, Doris asked her mother to allow her to immigrate to Canada and work as a domestic. Carrie finally agreed with one stipulation. She must promise to keep in touch and try to find her brothers, Wilfrid and George. With the help of the Father Hudson Society, Doris was sent to Montreal to the home of Mrs. Rinfret as a domestic aid.

A year later, my grandmother Carrie was able to come also and work with Doris. She pined for her children and longed to re-unite her family. She married David Gunn in London, Ontario on July 22, 1922. Her goal was to get her boys back but their new families (Pajot and McIntyre) would not let Wilfrid and George go. She continued living in London, Ontario, fixated on her goal of re-uniting with her children but in 1926 she became very ill and passed away. Our grandmother, Carrie, had travelled so far to reunite her family but she was not successful. She finished her life in sickness, sorrow, and loneliness. She is resting in peace in London, Ontario.

Here in the story, let us go back to Aubrey where my father George lived. Being on a Quebec farm, he had to learn to speak French. He also had to learn farm work, go to school and attend church on Sundays. Once a year, the Ottawa Home sent a sister or an inspector to visit the children in their care. On George’s report, everything was good. The receiving family kept  him and he became the son they never had. At age 18, his indentured service completed, George continued to stay with the McIntyres. This family gave him the love and care he needed to grow into his new life as a Canadian.

James McIntyre never drove a car but he bought one for George so he could enjoy a ride, run errands and be the envy of the neighbourhood.

Thanks to his mother’s arrival and the promise his sister Doris made, the Higgins children always kept in touch with one another through letters from George in Quebec, Wilfrid in Windsor, Doris in Pembroke and Ernest in England.

A Family Finally Reunites

George & Helene

George & Helene

In 1934, after 14 years of separation, Doris and George visited Wilfrid in Windsor. In 1937, my father

George, Doris, Wilfred Higgins

George, Doris, Wilfred Higgins unite in 1934 at Belle Island

George married Helene Caron, a godchild of the McIntyres. They had eight children: five boys and three girls. George and Helene stayed on the farm, raised their children there and took care of Mr. McIntyre after his wife passed away. He became Grandfather Jim to us children. We all have beautiful memories of this man. When James McIntyre died, our father inherited the farm.

When WWII was declared, my father did not go to war because he had the farm to keep. As his family grew up, George dreamed of going back to England to see his brother, Ernest. He was able to go in 1973 with his wife, his eldest daughter, Helene, and her husband. He was sad at this time because Wilfrid and Doris had passed away some years before. Ernest was ill and the trip couldn’t be postponed.

Their reunion was like a dream come true. Dad finally met Ernest, his wife Dora Busby, and their girls, Valerie and Sheila. George’s visit revived Ernest. He came to Canada to visit in 1976. We were all glad to meet him and his family and share with them our life on the farm. Ernest died in 1979. His family kept in touch by letter.

The Stigma

George and Ernest Higgins together again after a lifetime apart

Ernest and George Higgins together again after 53 years apart

There was a stigma about being a “home child.” This stigma set George apart from others. He didn’t mingle much. Even after 60 years in the community, he was known as “the immigrant.” It made him angry to be called this.

Our father had many interests. He liked to read, fish, play cards and play the fiddle for family and friends. When we asked him questions about his young life in Birmingham, he always answered to the best of his knowledge. He was a man of peace, a kind man with a good smile, helpful to everybody, sincere and true in his heart and mind, upright and just till the end of his life, which came on March 4, 1981.

Our memories of him and the life he provided for us in Canada are good. To be together in the same old way would be our fondest wish today.

We write this story in memory of a beloved father and grandfather and a good husband.

Helen and Dorothy Higgins.

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14 Comments leave one →
  1. April 24, 2013 3:12 pm

    What a beautiful and touching story of a family affected by both tragedy and hope. I feel so sorry for Carrie and all the pain she must have felt. However, her children did so well. Thanks for sharing!!

    • April 25, 2013 11:56 am

      Ruth Ann – I too feel empathy for Carrie, the mother. What pain she must have suffered in losing her children. And she tried so hard to reunite with them. Truly sad.

  2. April 25, 2013 3:21 am

    I feel so sorry for the mother , but am happy the children lived out their years free from all the abuse so many Home Children experienced. It is also such a shame these Home Children lived their lives with the stigma of being Home Children ( or as in this story, immigrants). But, it is refreshing to read a happy story.

    • April 25, 2013 11:55 am

      Connie, it seems even those home children who received the best treatment still suffered from the stigma of the label “home child.” They also suffered from separation from their families. However, it’s still heartening to know that there were many receiving families who truly loved the children.

  3. Mélanie permalink
    April 30, 2013 4:26 am

    I love you George, my grandfather!!!!! xox

  4. Mélanie Higgins permalink
    April 30, 2013 4:32 am

    I love you too Hélène, I miss you a lot dear grandmother! xox

  5. Mélanie Higgins permalink
    April 30, 2013 4:33 am

    love you George!!! xox

    • Colleen McGowan permalink
      April 30, 2013 11:48 pm

      What a moving story of courageous mother’s struggle to keep her family together, and of the sacrifices she made for the welfare of her children. This strength and courage were reflected in her children, who fared well with a will to succeed and with hope of reunification. Your determination to write your father’s history is a reflection of this great heritage he left behind.

      Colleen McGowan

      • May 1, 2013 2:13 am

        You’re so right Colleen. The mother’s struggle to keep her family together is amazing. I’ll pass your comment on to Dorothy and Helen.

  6. June 26, 2013 9:22 pm

    Although I never met your father, having grandparents who were neighbors of the Higgins family, I had heard of his story but I did not know the details . This beautifully written essay gives me the complete history and many interesting details.ofhis life. I appreciate the fact that you took the time to research your family tree and make it known .The Irish immigrants were very tenacious and hard working people that deserve our admiration . Your father was one of those who despite all the tragedy in his childhood was able to overcome all odds and become an honorable citizen.. It is my honor to have worked and befriended his daughter Helen.

    • June 26, 2013 10:15 pm

      Pearl, such good words for the Higgins family. Thanks.

      • dorothy higgins permalink
        July 11, 2013 12:43 am

        Thanks for the lovely comment! I was glad to write his story.FROM HELEN’S SISTER dOROTHY

  7. valerie & brian jukes permalink
    September 4, 2014 1:15 pm

    A big thank you to Dorothy and Helen for sharing about my dad (Ernie’s) mom Carrie. I am glad my dad met George and your lovely family.

    • September 4, 2014 1:34 pm

      It’s such a pleasure to hear from you. It’s always heartwarming when separated siblings are able to re-unite. Carrie’s story and the story of her three children who immigrated to Canada and the one, Ernie (your Dad), who stayed behind in England, is in my book, Promises of Home.

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