Emily May Ashby by Rose McCormick Brandon
On May 6, 1910 in Kentish Town, St. Pancreas, London, a baby girl was born to Emily Constance Selway Ashby, 24, and John William Ashby, 39. They named her Emily May.
The Ashby family lived at 17 Peckwater Street where they occupied one room of a house. In 1912, a baby boy, Walter, was born.
Emily’s home wasn’t a peaceful one. Her father, John, terrorized the neighbourhood, robbing local shopkeepers and generally causing mayhem.
A violent man, John killed a policeman by heaving him through a plate glass window. After this incident, he disappeared and nothing else is known about him. It’s believed he died soon after this event because Emily’s mother remarried, to Frank Williams, a Canadian soldier, in 1914.
This union produced another son. In 1920 Emily’s married again. Three years after this third marriage, Emily May Ashby, immigrated to Canada through Dr. Barnardo’s Homes for Children. She arrived on the Melita on April 7, 1923 at age 12. As thousands had done before her, Emily went to Hazelbrae, the Barnardo girls transition home in Peterborough. Hers was one of the last parties to stay there as the Home closed that year.
Like all British Home Children, Emily May became an indentured servant. During her first year in Canada, she worked for five employers: first, with a dressmaker in Norwood, then with families in Langton, Guelph, Campbellville and Smithville.
In June of 1924, Emily was sent to the Barnardo Home in Toronto – Hazelbrae had ceased operation – and there, waited for another placement.
After leaving Barnardo’s in Toronto, Emily’s string of placements continued. She worked for ten consecutive employers, at the rate of ten dollars per month. Her last placement, in August 1927, landed her back where she started, in Peterborough.
By her seventeenth birthday, Emily had worked for sixteen employers. In each case, she was deemed to be of good character and to have served satisfactorily.
While in Peterborough at her last placement, she met a Barnardo boy, Robert Henry Beecher, and the two married on December 31, 1927 when she was 17 and he 27.
Robert Beecher had worked on the Carr farm in Simcoe area. At sixteen, he had shot and killed a handyman who had abused and humiliated him for years. A trial ensued. Robert was found guilty of manslaughter and given a suspended sentence. (Read The Tragic Life of Robert Henry Beecher.)
When Emily filled out their marriage license, in place of her father’s name, she wrote her brother’s name – Walter John Ashby. Back home in England, Walter was only fifteen. Her reason for not listing her father may have been his criminal past.
Emily May Ashby kept close contact with Barnardo Homes. She made donations and sent photos and news about herself. The marriage of Emily and Robert was reported as follows in the March 1928 edition of Ups & Downs.
The marriage of Emily Ashby and Robert Beecher, one of our boys, took place recently at Peterborough. The Rev. Mr. Gordon performed the ceremony. The bride wore a pretty brown crepe dress with hat, shoes and stockings to match. The bride received many very pretty presents. The evening before Emily’s marriage, one of her friends gave a shower. She was presented with many useful and pretty gifts from her girlfriends of whom she had many in Peterborough.
In 1930, Ups & Downs reported that Emily, now Mrs. Beecher, was the proud mother of a baby boy born the previous summer. She sent a photo of herself. About this time, her husband, Robert, was deported and sent back to England. Reasons unknown.
In 1934, Emily wrote again to Barnardo’s and sent another photo.
Emily’s nephew, John, son of her brother, Walter, remembers that while he was staying with his grandmother in the 1950s, that letters arrived from Emily in Canada. One time, she sent John a watch. Emily’s mother didn’t keep the letters or pass them on to her nephew or niece so no one else knew where Emily was living in Canada.
Emily’s mother said that Emily had re-married after Robert’s deportation, to a Canadian Mountie.
Little is known about Emily’s life after Robert left. Thanks to her niece, Jean Constance Ashby, for providing the information about Emily’s early life. Jean is seeking more information about her aunt.
Rose McCormick Brandon is the author of Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children. This book is now available in Kindle as well as soft cover and can be purchased here.