Gypsy Simon Smith: 1875-1943
One of the most unusual British Home Child stories is that of Gypsy Simon Smith. Simon was born to Bartholomew and Susan Smith in a gypsy camp in the middle of Epping Forest in England on July 25, 1875.
Simon’s father, Bartholomew, and his father’s brothers, Cornelius and Woodlock attended an evangelical meeting at a Plymouth Brethren church. At this meeting, the brothers made a decision to become followers of Jesus Christ. They were the first in their community to commit to Christianity. Their decision impacted many gypsy families.
As a child, Simon spent considerable time in church meetings listening to his father and uncles preach and sing. For a time, they worked with William Booth in Portsmouth.
When Simon was eleven, his forty-eight year-old father suffered a heart attack and died. It’s likely that, because of their strong evangelical connections, Simon’s family knew Dr. Thomas Barnardo. They definitely knew about him because Simon went to Stepney Causeway and told Barnardo his father had died and that he wished to go to Canada “to work on a farm so that I can send my wages home to my mother.”
“God bless you, my boy,” said Barnardo. “you shall go.”
Simon wrote how he felt superior to the other waifs and strays who entered the Home at the same time. “They were ragged, dirty and half-starved,” but Simon wore a decent suit and had been well-fed. All boys received equal treatment which meant that Simon gave up his suit and donned the “uniform” of a Home boy.
As an adult, he related this story in his sermons, using his experience to illustrate that even good people need to place their faith in Jesus Christ. “We may think we are more respectable, better than some folks, but our self-righteousness is as filthy rags. We must dismount from the pedestal of pride, humble ourselves, confess our sins . . . then we shall receive the robe of righteousness.”
In April 1889, twelve year-old Simon arrived in Canada. He soon learned that it was not to be his “promised land.” His placement household consisted of a farmer, his wife, a sister and a hired man.
Coming from a loving home, Simon was unprepared for this vile-tempered, hard-drinking farmer who showed no appreciation for a boy’s hard work. In drunken rages, the man would chase Simon with a horse whip. To avoid the man, Simon hid in the barn and often slept there even on cold winter nights.
Simon attended Sunday School every Sunday afternoon. There, he heard the hymns he was accustomed to hearing at home. When intense homesickness overcame him, he would retreat to a seldom-used porch at the farm and sing those hymns. “I would sometimes be compelled to leave off rather suddenly,” he wrote, “owing to the tears that would come unbidden.”
Simon’s hymn singing led to a special friendship with the farmer’s sister who was dying of cancer. “I have heard you singing those hymns,” she said, “and they have brought peace and comfort into my life.”
When the farmer’s sister died, Simon lost his only friend in Canada. Years later when writing of his Home Child experience, Simon estimated that ninety-nine percent of Barnardo’s placements in Canada had proven successful. “Of course, occasionally undesirable places and people are found,” he wrote. There was no way for him to know that many other boys also suffered at the hands of cruel farmers.
After only two years, Simon returned to England. Did he send a personal request to Barnardo? Had the original plan been for him to return after two years? The answer isn’t known but it was not normal procedure for a boy to return home to his mother.
Several times Barnardo’s published updates on the life of Gypsy Simon Smith in their magazine, Ups and Downs. They were proud of his accomplishments.
After returning to England, Simon worked as a horse trader. This career took him to Texas, Mexico and Central America. He again returned to London, England and worked for a while as a cab driver. It was during this period of his life that Simon became a committed follower of Christ.
After this life-changing experience, following in his father’s footsteps, Simon went to work for a London Mission where he became known for his wit and beautiful singing voice.
Dubbed the “silver-tongued tenor from the woods,” Simon composed several hymns, including The Shadow of the Cross and At The End of the Trail.
For forty years, Gypsy Simon Smith, travelled and preached. His cultured and quiet style of preaching, amusing sermons, charm, gentleness and musical talent drew large crowds. He’s famous for saying, “It’s not perspiration that counts, but inspiration.” Sometimes in the middle of a sermon he would burst into song.
He and wife, Blanche, left England and lived in Halifax for a while, then Cobourg in Ontario and finally in London, Ontario.
The Montreal Gazette, reporting on a series of meetings Simon Smith held there, wrote that audiences laughed and wept as he shared his personal story, “From Gypsy Camp to Platform.”
Of prayer, Gypsy Smith said, “Some people do not think me sincere because I object to long prayers. I say, ‘pray a little more when you are alone and less in public for Jesus never made long prayers in public.'” He also believed in short sermons.
Smith wrote several booklets including: The Adventures of a Rolling Stone and The Adventures of a Gipsy Boy and Other Stories. Smith wrote of his early life, his calling to the ministry and expounded on the scriptures.
Simon Smith died on August 12, 1943 in London, Ontario. The London Free Press reported that, “Simon and Blanche Smith are buried in the historic Woodland Cemetery. May they never be forgotten.”
Simon’s first cousin, Rodney Smith, also preached world-wide. Both were known as “Gypsy Smith” and are often confused.
It’s notable that by 1937 thirteen offspring of the original three Smith brothers were preaching, singing and doing mission work on five continents.
Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children by Rose McCormick Brandon is available for purchase here.