Johnny Moon: A Bracebridge Legend
In 1883, give or take a couple of years due to discrepancies, Johnny Moon was born into a London, England family. His father, James Moon, a printer by trade, was employed with the firm, Waterlow & Sons. The printing firm provided its employees with a yearly outing. In his diary, Johnny recalled two of these excursions. One to the seaside at Brighton and another to Epping Forest where he saw from a distance Queen Victoria’s hunting lodge.
Johnny’s family moved often. While living in East Ham, his mother, Mary Bolham Moon, became sick and went to her brother’s house to recuperate. Johnny pined for his mother, a gentle woman, who taught her youngest son to read and write before he entered school at age seven.
After a year away, Johnny’s mother returned to the family. But, her health failed again.
In 1893, she died.
After his mother’s death, Johnny’s father continued his habit of moving from place to place. Three years later, his father also died as a result of an accident on his way home from work.
An orphan of about thirteen, Johnny worked for a short while as a messenger boy for Waterlow & Sons. When his employment ended – it seems Johnny had a tendency to unreliability – his brother, Fred took him in. When this arrangement collapsed, Johnny was taken to one of Thomas Barnardo’s Homes for Children.
Years later, Johnny wrote: “This event marked the first turning point in my career.”
It’s likely that Johnny’s brother, Fred, signed the Canada Clause that allowed Barnardo’s to send Johnny to Canada. No doubt, Fred thought the move would improve Johnny’s chances of a better life.
In his diary, now in the care of the archives in Bracebridge, Ontario, Johnny wrote about crossing the Atlantic on the Labrador:
“Port Rush and the calm waters of Lough Foyle were left behind, and the ship rose and fell to the billows of the ocean as we rounded the shoreline of the rugged north coast. Two priests were standing at the bow of the vessel, when the spray from a heavy wave, striking the ship, head-on, dashed over the deck, wetting both of them; they laughed and stood further back. Before long, the deck was almost deserted; most of us retiring below. The previous night’s experience (seasickness) had been bad enough; this was worse.”
Johnny arrived in Canada on October 2, 1897. Documents list him as eleven but in his diary, Johnny writes that he was fourteen.
Like most newly arrived Barnardo boys, Johnny went to the receiving home on Farley Avenue in Toronto. An incident occurred while he was there:
I remember two boys who had been together a few years at some place, on a Muskoka farm, I think, and had become attached to each other. After a short stay at Farley Avenue one of them, the eldest of the two, I think, was told that a new place had been found for him, and that he would shortly be sent away. When the other heard of it, he broke down and cried; and tears were in the eyes of the other one also, when they parted. This incident, so clearly remembered by me now, took place in the small school room which was a part of the Farley Avenue lay-out.”
In early December, Johnny and another young immigrant boy, Willie Price, were put on the train to Bracebridge. The Adolphus brothers met the two boys and took them deep into the countryside, to Monsell.
This was my first sleigh ride. It was a cold, bright moonlight night. We travelled along a winding road over a rocky, hilly country. Seeing it for the first time, the country seemed a wild one to me. After a few short hours ride, we arrived at Byron Booth’s farm at Monsell, where Willie Price was to stay.”
Johnny’s journey ended at Fraserburg about three and a half miles from Monsell. There, Johnny was indentured to work on the Stonehouse farm. A year and a half later, Johnny, described as a poor worker, was sent back to the Toronto Barnardo Home.
Rejection by placement families was a common occurrence, often happening many times to the same child. In his book, The Little Immigrants, Kenneth Bagnall writes, “so many returned broken in spirit after one of the inspectors removed them or after some farmer somewhere decided he no longer wanted them.”
Next, Johnny went to a dairy farm near Toronto. Unhappy, and suffering from homesickness, Johnny began devising a way to return to England. One morning in the summer of 1899, Johnny rose early as usual and headed for the back pasture. Instead of bringing the cows back to the barn, he kept walking to the Don Valley and found his way to Yonge Street.
In Toronto, Johnny convinced someone to hire him to accompany cattle, first on the train to Montreal, then on a ship to England. Coming to Canada had been a mistake and he couldn’t wait to see his homeland again.
In England, restless, and unable to hang onto a job, Johnny Moon tramped from village to village. He spent some time with his brothers and a friend, but relationships often ended badly for Johnny.
By June 1901, Johnny was back in Canada. After a series of jobs and endless walks, he arrived in Bracebridge. One job after another ended in what he describes simply as “trouble.” Johnny spent some time with a family in Toronto, then walked back to the Muskokas. Walking, walking, walking, sometimes taking the train when he could afford it, Johnny traversed the miles between Toronto and the Bracebridge area.
After a time in Toronto, he wrote:
City life was wracking my nerves. It seemed certain that unless I got into the country, I was due for a complete breakdown. Muskoka, I reasoned, was the logical place for me.
He walked back to Monsell, the location of his original placement. At loose ends, Johnny was arrested for vagrancy. James Stonehouse, his old employer, showed up in court to give a good word on Johnny’s behalf. Charges were dropped.
Until 1904, he worked for a member of the Stonehouse family. It appears they had a soft spot for Johnny but it was impossible to keep him from wandering. He went from hamlet to hamlet, living in abandoned cabins and out in the open.
I was almost in despair, and utterly dejected. I trudged along through Uffington and reached Reay (Township) that evening; a short distance from which place, I laid down upon the roadside, and slept the best I could that night. The next morning I started on again toward Gravenhurst, which was not far off. But as I neared that town, a young fellow driving a milk rig, stopped and got me to go with him, to his people’s place, just as short distance along a side road.
Soon, Johnny walked back to Toronto. Then returned to Bracebridge where several concerned citizens provided help and employment. Again, he was fired from a job, “without cause,” he notes in his diary. Johnny seemed to misunderstand both work and personal relationships.
Johnny acquired land near Bracebridge and built a shack by the river. From this location, he went into town, working at various places, each one ending in a disagreement with the boss.
“I was thoroughly exasperated,” he wrote.
Finally, Johnny had a home – his cabin in the woods. Loneliness threads its way through all of Johnny’s writings. At some point he became legally blind and lived out his last days in an institution in Peterborough. This living situation may have suited him better. He didn’t have to work and he was cared for.
Many child immigrants found stability in employment, marriage and family life in Canada. Johnny Moon didn’t. He remained until his death in the 1950s that small boy who lost both his parents and couldn’t find his place in the world. In spite of suffering from loneliness and homesickness, he had a reputation for kindness. Johnny would be shocked and pleased that his diary is being read and appreciated. His story is an important part of our country’s history. – Rose McCormick Brandon
Thank you to Muskoka Historian, Ted Currie, who allowed me access to his research on Johnny Moon. You can read Ted’s complete story of Johnny here. An interesting side note: While researching Johnny’s story, Ted discovered that his grandmother was a Barnardo girl and is now researching her life. When Johnny’s cabin was torn down, his diary was found. It is fittingly in the care of the town of Bracebridge.
For your copy of Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children by Rose McCormick Brandon, visit here.