The Boy in the Sailor Suit: Alexander Walter Cloke by Rhoda (Cloke) Marr
My father, Alexander Walter Cloke, was born in Maidstone, Kent, England on May 26, 1901 to Thomas and Agnes (Aldridge) Cloke. He was the youngest of six children: Gertrude, Frank, Wynifred, Sybella, Kathleen and Alec.
From listening to their conversations and reading letters from his siblings, particularly Wyn, who took a special interest in her little brother, I discovered these siblings were jolly and helpful to one another. Their mother suffered from frequent severe headaches and their father was given to drunkenness and failed to support them. As children often do they looked to each other for support.
When Alec was only five his world was suddenly turned upside down when his mother died. Just as suddenly his four doting sisters were sent to live with aunts and uncles. The auntie who would have taken Alec was ill at the time. He and older brother, Frank, stayed with their father, who more often than not, came home late and drunk. For about a year Frank and Alec carried on by themselves. Frank, a young teen, was apprenticed to a local butcher shop which he later took over and managed for many years. He left for work early each morning while their father slept off a hangover, leaving Alec to get himself off to school.
Wyn was very concerned about her little brother. She wrote a pleading letter to Barnardo’s asking them to intervene. A neighbour also reported her concerns about Alec.
Alec’s father, when confronted with accusations of neglect, signed papers relinquishing Alec into the care of Barnardo Homes. He also signed the Canada Clause giving permission for Alec to be sent to Canada if and when the Home deemed him suitable for emigration. Dad liked to tell us how his father bought him a sailor suit, of which he was very proud. He wore it for his admission to the Children’s Home. To his dismay, it was taken away and he was given a uniform to wear. Later he saw the headmaster’s son wearing what he believed was his sailor suit.
Alec was first admitted to the Stepney Causeway site and later moved to Leopold Boys Home and finally to Teighmore Home on the Isle of Jersey. Here, there was a large outdoor space, opportunity to care for animals, to learn responsibility and grow in a healthy environment.
At age eight Alec was chosen to go to Canada.
He was outfitted with a small trunk (which is still in our family). Inside were one pair of rubber-soled boots, one suit, two long nightshirts, two pairs of woollen socks, one pair of overalls, one set of light underwear, a Bible (which I have), a hymn book, a ball of wool for sock repairs, a needle, thread and boot brush.
On May 20, 1909, Dr. Barnardo himself said goodbye prayers as Alec sailed from Liverpool on the Corsican with 160 other children. Alec celebrated his ninth birthday on board ship. On May 28 he arrived in Montreal where the group was welcomed and processed before being sent to various destinations. Alec went to Lowbanks, Ontario, on the shores of Lake Erie, near the town of Dunnville. He was met there by Herb and Pearl Sider, a young childless couple who had requested a little boy to join their family.
It was apparently love at first sight because another lady at the station offered to trade boys. Herb refused, later saying, “We liked the look of him and we weren’t about to give him up.” Members of a plain church, similar to Mennonites, the Siders were a Christian couple who loved Alec and treated him as their own son. At age twenty-one, Alec became a faithful member of this caring church and remained one for the rest of his life.
Alec learned to help on the Sider farm in Wainfleet. When he’d been with them for about two years, Herb and Pearl had a little boy they named Romie. In spite of several years difference in the ages of the two boys they became good life-long friends.
Alec, whom the Siders chose to call Walter, took some training in auto mechanics, worked for a time in a local garage and also helped with the construction of Highway #3 which was built in the early 1920s. He operated a small car repair business at Sider’s for a time. No wonder he was so good at keeping his own vehicles running smoothly.
The contract between Barnardo’s and the Siders ended when Alec turned twenty-one.
Alec received the Barnardo medal for good behavior. (My mother later gave this medal to her oldest grandson.) Now free to live his life as he pleased, Alec did so with gusto. Always cheerful, often whistling while he worked, Alec set off for Buffalo, New York with a buddy. The two found employment with the Dunlop Tire Company.
In 1927, Alec met my mother at a church conference. Mom always loved to tell of their going for ice cream on their first date. They married in June 1928. A year later, I was born. In 1930 they decided to move back to Wainfleet and rented a farm in cooperation Dad’s friend, Orland Teal, and his wife, Nettie. Because the Depression of the 1930s shut down the Tire Company, Dad got a job with Hall’s Bakery as a delivery man with his own truck and route. This job meant that he was only home on weekends – Saturday afternoon until Monday morning. Much to our delight, he usually brought home goodies left over from his last bakery run. Hall’s made the best coffee cake I’ve ever tasted.
In 1933, they left the rented farm and bought one of their own on Highway 3 near the Sider farm. By this time, my little sister had arrived and two years later, our little brother came along to make our family complete.
Weekends meant lots of activity. In summer, Dad would take us for picnics to the beach or to the Buffalo Zoo and at least once a year to Mom’s family, north of Toronto. Family was so important to him. We were frequent visitors at the Sider home. By this time, Romie was married with a family of his own and shared the big two family house with Herb, Pearl and her mother, dear Granny Thompson. Going there was always such fun. We and Romie’s three children spent hours playing games on the wide front lawn while our elders sat on the verandah sipping lemonade and laughing at our antics. Christmas was especially fun because we always got together with the Siders, either at our house or theirs. Auntie Jean (Romie’s wife) and Gramdma Pearl were both great cooks so the feasts were amazing. Mom’s family lived too far away for Christmas gatherings so we looked forward to times with the family who had not only ‘adopted’ Dad, but all of us.
On weekends Dad was very involved in the church where he taught a Sunday School class of young boys. Probably because of his childhood experiences he had a special concern for the boys, once taking them to the Buffalo jail so they could see where bad choices could lead. Sunday evenings often found us at the Sider farm again where we young ones sat on the wide staircase eating Gran’s cookies and listening to the grown-ups solving the world’s problems.
When the mortgage on the farm was finally paid off, Dad left the job with the bakery. He went to work for John Deere Welland Works where he became a foreman while farming in the evenings and on the weekends. He traded his beautiful horse for a John Deere tractor and taught me to drive it.
This farm had a large orchard from which we sold apples and pears. Dad sold eggs from our big chicken house, many of them to the men he worked with. He and Mom went to Welland weekly with eggs and chickens which Mom dressed to perfection, selling them to regular customers. Dad always had something going on to increase our income as he had it in mind to make improvements to the old farmhouse.
Throughout the years, Dad’s family in England kept in touch with him. At Christmas we received cards and gifts of story books. To Dad’s delight, in 1938, his sister Wynn and her husband and son came for a summer visit. She felt comforted to meet Dad’s Canadian family and his many friends.
In 1947 tragedy struck our family. My little brother, six years younger, he who had almost died as an infant of pneumonia, was struck by a car while riding his bicycle and killed instantly. He was twelve. This devastated all of us but especially Dad who saw the accident happening but was powerless to stop it.
In 1949, Dad and Mom sailed off on the Queen Mary to be reunited with Dad’s long-lost family. They spent three months getting to know his brother and sisters and their families, revisiting the scenes of his childhood and enjoying the love of these siblings after so many years apart.
In 1953, they returned to England once more, this time for Christmas. To Alec, this felt like a return to his childhood, complete with Christmas pudding and the fun of the Christmas crackers he talked about so fondly. That was the last time Dad saw his family, though many of the next generation have come to spend time with us.
Dad retired from John Deere at age sixty-five. Not being one to sit around he carried on with farming, focussing on cash crops and he took on driving the local school bus. His own twin granddaughters rode his bus. He always loved interaction with children.
On a cold December afternoon his bus broke down near Welland after he had dropped off all his passengers. Unfortunately, he sat in the cold for hours waiting for help to come and finally got home late and thoroughly chilled. Later that evening he suffered a severe heart attack and died before the doctor arrived.
His funeral was a large one with family, church and community friends coming together. Looking back on his life, I marvel at how well he adjusted to the huge changes in his life and the kind compassionate and fun-loving man he became.
His life Bible verse, Matthew 6:33 reads, “Seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.”
Considering all he lost, and looking at all he gained – a family who loved him, a farm of his own, good jobs, good friends, the love and respect of others, I have to conclude that God honoured and took care of him.
I only wish all of Canada’s Home Children had been as fortunate as my father, Alexander Walter Cloke.
Rose McCormick Brandon is the author of Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children, a collection of 31 stories of children who immigrated from Britain. This site is dedicated to the memory Rose’s grandmother, Grace Griffin Galbraith.