William Blay, A Home Boy and WWI Veteran by Linda Jonasson
William Blay, my great-great uncle, was a Home Child. William’s father had died when he was a baby and his mother, who had sold all her furniture to pay the rent, could no longer afford to keep him. In September of 1903, she placed him in London, England’s Barnardo Home.
Dr. Barnardo believed in the commandment “Love thy neighbour as thyself”. He had worked in London’s East End hospital ministering to cholera victims. He had seen dirt, disease and death on every corner. He had toured the White Chapel rooftops with orphan Jim Jarvis and seen hundreds of street children. He had stood on a chair in Stepney, ministering to the crowds about Jesus. But when words failed to bring about change, he acted, opening Stepney House to shelter these impoverished children. When a red-haired boy nicknamed “Carrots” came knocking, he had no more room and refused him. Later, Carrots died. Devastated, Dr. Barnardo adopted the slogan “No destitute child ever refused admission”.
With Stepney House bulging at the seams, the evangelist opened other homes in the countryside; these too filled to capacity. At this point, Dr. Barnardo started a child immigration project: send the children to Canada where they would have a purpose (farm work), morals (most Canadians were regular church-goers) and fresh air (rural Canada was a healthier setting than industrial Britain). Children, like my Uncle William, who were in relatively good health, and had the “rudiments of an English education”, were placed on the “Canada List.” In some cases, their parents were asked if their children could immigrate to Canada, but in others, no permission was granted.
With parties of four hundred home children on board, ships like the S.S. Canada (with William on board) left Liverpool, England for North America. Adventures abounded on these trans-Atlantic passages. The S.S. Scotian left only two days after the Titanic, dodging icebergs en route. The S.S. Sicilian , half-filled with field guns and shells, dodged U-boats during its First World War crossing. Miraculously, though, most home children arrived safely on Canada’s shores, disembarking at Halifax or Quebec City.
Barnardo boys were sent to an old Victorian house on Jarvis Street in Toronto, until they found sponsors. Barnardo girls were sent to Peterborough’s Hazelbrae House. There were dozens of other receiving homes across Ontario, however, run by other Christians like Maria Rye, the Macpherson sisters, J.W.C. Fegan and William Quarrier.
The Barnardo Home found a sponsor for William out west in Morden, Manitoba. He was put to work immediately on a farm where the culture shock was intense: city-bred William, who had never seen a cow before, was whipped because he did not milk it fast enough. He ended up running away. Such was the case for many home boys who worked as farm hands in a country that had a high demand for labour but a low population (only 5.3 million at the turn of the last century). At least 15% of Barnardo boys showed signs of excessive abuse at the hands of their sponsors; others were neglected, suffering from malnutrition and poor living conditions (some slept out on the porch or in the barn). Not all home children were mistreated, however; some were unofficially adopted by their sponsors and were treated as one of the family.
Home children suffered not only at the hands of adults, but also children. Their peers taunted them: “Don’t play with her. She’s just a home child.” A stigma surrounded these children, who were called “the fertilizer of the Empire” and “the dregs of society”. Home children were seen as “Oliver Twist” types who could not be trusted. They were believed to possess an inferior intellect to Canadian children. My great-grandmother, Daisy Blay, who immigrated to Canada two years before William, deliberately lost her English accent so she would be accepted by her peers.
Ten Thousand Home Boys Serve in World War I
Home boys aged out of the child labour system at 18, home girls at 21. Searching for work, William enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Corps on his 19th birthday, on December 14, 1915. Canada was ill-prepared for the First World War: its army had only 3110 men. How could a nation of less than 8 million make its mark on the battlefield? Former Prime Minister Laurier called on Canadians:
“It is our duty to let Great Britain know…that all Canadians are behind the Mother Country.”
Yet, within weeks of Canada’s declaration of war, 32,000 men gathered at a training camp in Valcartier, Quebec. Later, those same men were part of the largest convoy across the Atlantic to date. In total, 600,000 Canadians enlisted. Seventy percent of the army volunteers were British born. Many felt an allegiance to their home country. For William, and many other home boys, serving overseas gave them the opportunity to see a surviving parent again, something they could otherwise ill afford. Other volunteers were simply looking for an adventure.
Once the young Canadian soldiers reached the battlefield in France, however, they realized that war was anything but fun. William served as a bugler, announcing the arrival of his troop, the 122nd Battalion. The frontline soldiers found their preparation was insufficient; they wore disintegrating uniforms and rotting boots; they battled rats and rain in primitive trenches; they used useless shovels and they operated jammed Ross rifles. How could they win a war?
Canada faced poison gas at the Second Battle of Ypres in April 1915 where John McCrae wrote his famous poem In Flanders Fields. Ypres is also where home child William Edwin Hunt fought, was wounded and had his leg amputated. He later returned to Canada, married and had three girls.
Vimy Ridge, in April 1917, marked a coming of age for Canada: it was the first time that all four divisions of the Canadian Corps fought together. They stormed the Ridge doing the “Vimy Glide”, advancing 100 yards every three minutes. After much resistance from the Germans, the Canadians took command of the crest, including Hill 145, thereby securing them a victory. The Canadians secured more guns and more prisoners at Vimy Ridge than in any other Allied offensive of the war. Canada’s Army had proven it was a formidable fighting force.
Home child, Will Maybury, helped take Vimy Ridge. Sadly, he died five weeks later on another battlefield named Passenchendaele.
The Canadian Corps arrived at Passenchendaele with the goal of ousting the Germans, a task that both the British and the Australians had been trying to do for three months. The Canadians fought in the worst conditions: because of heavy shelling, the drainage system had been destroyed and the field was reduced to a quagmire of mud. Horses and soldiers drowned in the quick-sand like conditions. But, inch by inch, foot by foot, mile by mile, the Canadians took Passchendaele. For the prize of five miles, Canada lost 15,000 men. They also suffered many injuries, including an amputation incurred by home child William Francis Mason. He would be hospitalized in France and eventually return to Canada where he married and had three girls.
The Allied Army marched across northwestern Europe, eventually breaching the Hindenburg Line and liberating most of France. The Versailles Treaty was signed at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. No longer in the shadow of Great Britain, Canada had its own signature on the treaty, earned by the formidable fighting of its soldiers.
The British Home Children, whom Canadians had thought were inferior, had proven their strength on the battlefields of Europe. Out of the 6211 Barnardo boys who served, 531 never made it home.
William Blay, however, was one of the lucky ones. He returned to Canada in 1919 and traded his military uniform for overalls, securing a position at General Motors in Oshawa. He married and had one son. Never a bitter man, he showered his family with affection, including his nieces, one of whom is my mother.
The work of the little immigrants on Canada’s farms, in Canada’s factories and on Europe’s battlefield helped build our country.
This article first appeared in Christian Courier.
Linda Jonasson is married with two children and lives in Brantford, Ontario. She teaches Grade 6 at Brantford Christian School. Her great-grandmother, Daisy Blay, was a British Home Child. She has written three articles about the British Home Children as well as a picture book I’m Just a Home Child for which she is seeking a publisher. Linda blogs daily at alinefromlinda.blogspot.ca. This story is included in Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children.