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William Francis Conabree

July 22, 2014

William Francis Conabree

William Frances Conabree arrived in Canada in 1904 at age fourteen. He was sent by the Catholic Emigration Association and accompanied by Mr. Tupper. William enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and fought in WWI. He was a horn player and stretcher bearer for the 49th Loyal Edmonton Regiment. He lived through gas attacks and was a prisoner of war in the same camp as Con Smythe, the famed owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

After the war, William lived near Shawinigan, Quebec with his wife Rose, also a Home Child. Later in life, in 1952, William put pen to paper and wrote the following account of his life in Canada. Few Home Children wrote their stories which makes William’s account precious. Special thanks to Gerry Lauzon, great-grandson of William for realizing the importance of William’s writing and for sharing it.

Gerry writes: “This story was found on the original piece of paper it was written on in a drawer in my grandmother’s (William’s daughter)  room after she had passed. We knew about his background but never in great detail. It was amazing to find this document and to be able to share with the world through the web. How he would be astonished today at all of this technology used for good.”

William Francis Conabree’s account of his life in Canada is presented exactly as he wrote it. R.M.B.

Believe me my friends, it’s the truth

by William Francis Conabree

I came out to this country from England in July 1904. I was 14 years old at the time, being of the poor class, I came with the Catholic Emigration Society; their headquarters at the time on St. Thomas street in Montreal. I was sent to work on a farm as a hired man at a rate of $1.00 per month, this being sent to the society. I was tagged for a place in Ontario, Bulger by name. If I ever struck it bad in my life, it was there. One could not imagine how people could ill treat another person to such extent.

Well, the boy who I replaced was sent back immediately after my arrival, a walking skeleton. Knowing as I do now, I wonder if he made the trip alive, poor fellow. I knew him very well; he was in the same school as myself in England. If he did make it alive, he must have died a short while afterward, as he was too far gone to last very long.

How is it that they did not immediately call me back once they saw this boy’s condition? I remained there about a year unwillingly of course and if decent people only knew what I went through they would be shocked, but there I was without a soul to turn to for help, no writing paper, no money even to buy a stamp. I was forbidden to go outside the front gate by this farmer, for if I did he said he would horse whip me to death, and meant it. For I often had the home strap lashings, my body was marked and my arms and wrists had blisters marked by this home strap. And that was done by the woman herself, he himself used the whip. This home strap the woman had it hung up in the summer kitchen, as it was handy for her to use it on me, for no reason at all. I can swear to this. Her only invented reason at all: I was a dirty Englishman.

I worked from sunset and most of the time in the fields and at night after a hard days work outdoor she would make me wash the dishes having piled them up so there would be plenty. They would go to bed and she would often tell me to wash the floors, bake the bread in the oven, and she would say “pity help you if you let it burn”. I had no bed; I slept on an old sofa in the kitchen with the dog. I had no clothes except the old working clothes that the poor sick boy left. The good clothes I came out with were taken away from me, in fact everything I owned was not much but it was taken away. All letters I was keeping were destroyed, my clothes were distributed amongst their own boys, they had three, two about my age.

After I was there three of four months, a visitor called to see me. He called me outside and asked me how I was getting on. I explained to him that I would like to be taken away from there. He could see for himself the condition I was in. I could hardly talk as the people were in hearsay of what I said. Well after he went I had hope of being taken away, but no. It happened that this visitor’s father was a neighbour of this farmer’s brother about five miles away. That I did not know at the time, in fact I was not allowed to know anybody. The neighbours were very far away.

The only time I saw the neighbours was when they had a “bee”. I was the one sent to work at the bee, and I got instructions before going to work at the bee that I was not to say a word to anyone, for they would hear of it and pity help me if I spoke. They seldom cut my hair. It use to lay on my shoulders like a girl, and I was swarmed in lice. I did not know what clean clothes was, always the same old clothes. I got my both feet froze right in their yard, there was no weather cold enough but that they would make me work outside. The socks I was wearing were full of holes; they were discarded by the farmer too far gone for repairs. They were given to me to wear is reason my both feet froze. They froze “white” all over. Here’s the treatment they made me take for them.

They made me put my feet in ice cold “well” water until my feet got all coated with ice and after that they swole up so big I had to go to work with rags wrapped around my feet. No question of trying to put the buckskin moccasins on, my feet split open in several places and did not heal for months afterward, all of my toenails came off. When my feet got a little better I began to wear the moccasins again. I was sent to a wood sawing “bee” for some neighbour away down the road. As usual the warning that I should not say a word. It happened as we were finishing up that night, it was a way back in the woods, a sleigh drove up and asked for me. It was another visitor to see me, not the same as previous. He bide me to jump in the sleigh with him, and immediately on the way back he told me who he was, and starting questioning me about the treatment I was getting. I told him how I was treated, my feet were still very sore. He had me take off the old buckskin moccasins after my arrival at the farmer, and what he didn’t tell them. He even said he was ashamed of his own nationality after they told him of their own nationality.

I expected to be taken away immediately, but no, he said. He had to make his report first. The next day the farmer and his wife had me write a letter to contradict anything this fellow would say. So there I was again still no hopes. The next Spring, a boy working for his brother came over to give us a hand with the stoning and it was through him that I got an address to go to if I decided to run away. I bide my time to do so, seeing it was my ownly salvation and only cha nce of getting free from this ill treatment. So one day in the spring or early summer, the sewing of crop was through. He was going to Egansville to the races. Before going he had a couple of sandwich of bread and butter only made up for me, and took me back in the woods to cut wood alone. I carried the axe, saw, etc., and small lunch with me. He showed me what he wanted me to do, and then left me alone. I started cutting up the wood and I was getting thirsty, nothing to drink. I was told to come home only when the sun was going down and to bring home the cows for milking. The flies were eating me alive and nothing to quench my thirst. I decided now’s your chance, so I walked through the bush to the road and started away. Every time I saw a horse and rig coming, I hid laying down flat inside the fence. That is the way I got away.

I walked five miles to Mr. B.’s place and I stayed there for a week until the association ordered my return. I went to another farmer after that, of the same nationality. It was a little better, the farmer’s wife hated the English. So you see it was pretty hard going when your nationality is hated where you have to stay. The treatment was much better than the previous place. The farmer had a bad temper. After being there about a year, he was in bad humour one day and knocked me down. I got up and told him it was too bad that I was not a bit older. I would try hard to defend myself. He then gave me an awful punch in the face and knocked me down. And the the brave fellow put the boots to me. I was black and blue from the armpits to the knee on the right side. I had a hard time to walk about, so I kept away from the house, slept in the stable that night and walked 15 miles to Ottawa the next day. What a sight I was in my old farm clothes on the streetcar. A lady gave me 5 cents to pay my car fair in Ottawa.

I then went to work for a French Canadian farmer and stayed there three years. He was an elderly man. I got on fairly well there, a little close on the table, but seeing what I went through, I easily overlooked that.

I then got a job in Montreal with the firm of Frothingham and Workman wholesale hardware. I stayed with them for seven years working my way up from labourer in the yard to express and letter order department, of which I was in charge. I left there to enlist in the Canadian Army for overseas C.E.F. [Canadian Expeditionnary Force] March 1916. When I was in the trenches in 1917, my wife in Montreal had the misfortune of having my home taken away from her by a landlord for a months rent of $18.00 which my wife said was promised her for the cleaning of the flat. It was her first month in that flat and it was the understanding, but she did not have it in writing. So she was put out on the street with her two children, one four years old and the other eighteen months. When I came back, we started up again, got things together, got myself a job.

I started travelling for a firm and moved to Shawinigan Falls. I was doing fairly well by now, but I got roped in on an accident deal in 1920. This was certainly a rotten deal. The party who did this was not right, his wife was against this deal. I was mislead all along and didn’t think it possible such a rotten deal could be let through. I found out so and believe me it has shaken my faith in certain people, for which I can never forget until the day I die. I had so much faith in righteousness that I did not think such a thing possible. Why even the clergy remarked about it as being not just. It is really too bad such things are allowed. It does not do them any good. They all lose out in the end. But it hurts the poor hard working law abiding citizen who works honestly to earn a living and keep his family going. I feel so peeved when I think about that nasty deal, and the ones who were responsible for it. It is understandable that the atomic bomb is now here.

Yours Truthfully,

W.F. Conabree Ex. Pte 841681 C.E.F.

P.S. When I went back to England with the C.E.F., I met some of my relatives. I did not tell them of my ill treatment on the farm, as I did not want them to feel bad about it. I just kept it to myself. My wife was a slave too, came to this country with the same organization at 8 years of age [1893]. She was put on a farm as a working hand. They never sent her to school. She did not know to read and write. She tells me she always worked in the field.


To purchase your copy of “Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children,” click here.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. Mary Arnold....proud daughter of Nellie Page a Barnardo girl.... permalink
    July 22, 2014 2:26 pm

    Rose this is such a sad, horrific story of not only this young man but so many others. To think Canadians and especially farmers of those times, could be so cruel to other humans and children, at that !!! Thank you for sharing this story, there are no words that can express my thoughts of England, or of Canadians, most of them farmers. Nor a single “sorry” to all those children that have gone, but were the backbone of this Country, could ever wash away the fact that our methods let them down . . I am just so grateful that the descendants of these poor lil ones are beginning to find out what our ancestors went through and realize that the Country we live in and the people of that time were definitely far from perfect. Mary

  2. July 22, 2014 4:34 pm

    I am so impressed with William Conabree. It took courage to write an account of the treatment he received. Most home children just walked away and did their best to forget about it because it was just too painful to recall it all.

  3. July 23, 2014 11:42 am

    Such courage indeed to write the account, but it’s good he did. Sad to hear how ill he was treated, but it’s good to hear that there were some better experiences for some of those children too.

  4. July 23, 2014 1:30 pm

    Yes, it is sad. I thought his P.S. told what a kind, humble human he was. He didn’t want his relatives to know he had suffered because they would feel bad.

  5. July 27, 2014 1:49 am

    I couldn’t help but cling to one sentence he wrote at the beginning of his story. The young fellow he replaced was so weak and sick, that he wondered if he made it back alive. He also wrote, he wondered why the authorities didn’t check on him once they saw the condition of the previous fellow. What was wrong with these people, my goodness; it was for the almighty dollar I guess; at the price of these innocent kids. It makes my blood boil.
    He certainly was a bright young fellow though, and I am sure this helped him make it out alive. What an awesome story.

  6. July 27, 2014 3:55 pm

    Connie – I found this story heartbreaking too for the same reason. William hoped and believed that someone would recognize the danger he was in and rescue him. No one did. “What was wrong with these people?” Good question.

  7. September 19, 2014 2:43 pm

    My grandfather, Daniel Claydon, was sent to Canada by the same organization (Catholic Emigration Society) when he was 10 years old. He and his brother, James (who was 13) were sent aboard the Corsican in August, 1913. They, along with a third brother, Walter, who was a year younger than Daniel, had been in St. Vincent’s Home, Mill Hill, London after their mother died and their father had reportedly previously abandoned them. Walter was sent to Canada in June, 1914 aboard the Victorian. I don’t believe any of the brothers ever saw each other again. My grandfather Daniel was sent to the farm of a man named Alex D. St. Louis in Tecumseh, Essex County. Of his time there, he would almost never speak. Later, an aunt of mine visited with the widow St. Louis, and she confirmed that my grandfather was terribly mistreated, seemingly considered more like one of the livestock than a member of the family. The woman said she felt she could do nothing about it. One of the only reports my grandfather relayed to his family was about how he was only given ill-fitting, ragged clothing discarded by the farmer’s own sons. Daniel somehow was finally able to run away from this man, and made his way eventually across the Detroit River into the U.S. in Detroit. He never told his family about how he accomplished this journey. I have a copy of a birth certificate he used that gave his birthplace as Pennsylvania and parents’ origin as Illinois. However, when I scanned it into my computer, the scan revealed faint but legible writing UNDER what had been written as Daniel’s information. So it seems that Daniel was a resourceful young man. He was able to find work, even had a social security card, and participated in early union activity in Detroit as a worker in the auto industry with Briggs Manufacturing. He married my grandmother in 1926 in Detroit, and had a family of 5 terrific, smart, loving children, including my dad, the youngest. Daniel did not emerge unscathed, though, from the trauma of his childhood, and he sadly died in 1949 as a result of a long battle with addiction to alcohol, when my dad was 17. Daniel’s brother James ended up on a farm in Ellaton. He volunteered and served with the Canadian Expeditiary Forces in WWI, and according to his military records, sent money out of each paycheck he earned to his brother Daniel in care of farmer St. Louis. I don’t believe Daniel was ever aware of this, however, and that St. Louis intercepted these before Daniel could see them.

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