Edith Mary Pearson/Edith Pearson Pratt 1894-1967
Edith Mary Pearson knew that she was born in either 1893 or 1894, month and day unknown. She knew also that she had lived in Gateshead, England with her mother, Annie, and older brother, George, until October 22, 1901, when both disappeared from her life. A neighbor, Miss Shotton took Edith to the Gateshead Union Workhouse. Gateshead had recently built cottages to help house some of the enormous number of England’s destitute and abandoned children. Fostering programs and emigration programs couldn’t keep up with the need. The cottages at Gateshead housed up to 120 boys and 90 girls. Edith lived in Pansy cottage with approximately 35 other girls.
In 1903, Edith was sent to Barnardo’s Barkingside Girls Home in Ilford, Essex to prepare for emigration to Canada. At age nine, Edith boarded the SS Dominion with 126 other children. After arrival in Canada on October
2, 1903, she journeyed on to Barnardo’s transition home for girls, Hazelbrae, in Peterborough. From there, Edith and a girl named, Sarah Slack, went to the farm of John and Mary Ann Cox in Uxbridge, Ontario.
Like all Home Children, Edith became an indentured servant which means there was a contract between Barnardo’s and Mr. and Mrs. Cox which specified an annual wage for the child. This money was kept in trust until the end of the contract when the child could withdraw the money to begin an independent life in Canada. (see sample contract)
Many kind and loving Canadian couples welcomed Home Children into their families, not merely as workers but as cherished members. This was the case with John and Mary Ann Cox. This couple became “parents” to several Barnardo children.
Documents show that in February 1904, Edith was “healthy but has a cold at present and a sty in her eye. She is a bright looking little girl with very good conduct, truthful and a good disposition.” The inspection report mentions that things are still new to Edith and that she has not yet settled. But, she “is happy, lovable and affectionate, a sweet singer and a member of the church choir.”
Two years later, on February 2, 1906, the same inspector, a Miss G., wrote that Edith “is a healthy bright intelligent girl with very good conduct.” She mentions that Edith and Sarah Slack are both doing well in school.
On January 20, 1909 another inspector noted that “Edith is a very good girl but her eyesight isn’t good.”
Edith married Clarence Rusnell on December 6, 1911. Clarence came from a farming family in the Uxbridge area. Miss Kennedy of Hazelbrae wrote to Edith: “I was glad to have your assurances that your friend bears good character and belongs to a respectable family.”
Clarence and Edith moved to Saskatchewan where they had four sons and five daughters. The boys’ names were Barton, Elwyn, Ross and Melwyn. The girls were Bernice, Dolores, Ernestine, Mavis and Gail. In the 1950s, most of the family moved back to Ontario with their parents. Only Barton and Elwyn, the two eldest, stayed out west.
Edith had always longed to know what happened to her mother and brother. She wrote to Barnardo’s for information about her past. They wrote back on March 23, 1915.
“I am in receipt of your letter of the 22nd with reference to information required by the girl Edith Pearson regarding her relatives. From enquires which I have made, it has been ascertained that she was admitted to the Workhouse from Hartington Street, Gateshead where she and her mother were staying with a Miss Shotton.
“Owing to Miss Shotton’s complaints as to the irregular habits of the girl’s mother, the latter left Hartington Street on the 22nd of October 1901 and nothing has been heard of her since. Miss Shotton brought the child to these offices and she was admitted to the Workhouse on October 28th, 1901.
“I am sorry that I am not able to give you any further information regarding the mother. It was thought that perhaps further information might have been obtained from Miss Shotton but, it is found that she has left the address given and her whereabouts are not known.”
Between 1915 and 1965 Edith wrote many letters seeking information on the whereabouts of her mother and brother.
On July 23, 1965 a letter from the County Borough of Registration stated:
I have received a letter from Gail Rusnell (youngest daughter to Edith) of 3 Marden Avenue, Cullercoats asking for information about the death of Catherine Pratt. The Christian name is in doubt.
According to the death registers in this area, there was an Emma Pratt aged 69 years, widow of William Hunter Pratt who died December 31st, 1903 at 83 Hudleston Street in Cullercoats. Should this answer your enquiry and you need a death certificate, please forward dollar value and the death certificate will be forwarded to you, signed by R. A. James, Superintendent of the Registrar.
In July, 1965 Edith and daughter, Gail, went to England. They sent a note to the Barnardo offices requesting a visit. They hoped to receive information on Edith’s mother and brother. The request was granted but no further information was gleaned.
During their visit to England, The Northeast Journal in Northumberland
England ran a story (July 12) entitled, A grandmother’s Pilgrimage. The article stated: Seventy year-old exile risks life to seek out relatives. Edith didn’t risk her life as the sensational headline infers but she did become unwell on the plane and required oxygen.
Soon after Edith returned home from the trip to England, her husband of fifty-four years passed away. Edith lived another two years and on March 9, 1967 at age 73, she passed away without knowing what became of her mother and brother. Members of Edith’s family continued to seek answers.
In the early 2000’s Edith’s granddaughter, Kimberlee Gruenwald, contacted Barnardo’s and requested Edith’s records. One of the few memories Edith had retained of her childhood in England was of a visit to a “Granny Pratt” at a sweet shop on Dove Street in Cullercoats, Northumberland, England.
Kimberlee couldn’t match Edith’s memories of Granny Pratt with the information that was available. Over the years, she posted her story on Curious Fox and Ancestry UK. She paid for numerous searches through Tyne and Wear Archives and the Durham County Records but received only bits of information that did not lead to the identity of Edith’s mother or brother.
When Edith’s youngest daughter, Gail, and the last of Edith’s children passed away in January 2011, Kimberlee received a letter from Patricia Bronson of Peterborough. Kimberlee says, “When I opened the letter, I assumed it was from a friend in Peterborough expressing their condolences at my aunt’s passing. I was very shocked and surprised to learn that Patricia Bronson was the granddaughter of Sarah Slack, the Barnardo girl who lived at the Cox farm with Edith.”
On September 28th 2011, more than one hundred years after Edith arrived in Canada, the grandchildren of Sarah Slack, Tiny Baker (another girl who lived with the Cox family) and Edith Pearson met for the first time in Peterborough at the first Ontario British Home Children Ceremony hosted by Ivy Sucee and the Hazelbrae Barnardo Home Memorial Group.
These grandchildren of child immigrants refer to themselves as foster cousins and keep in regular contact.
In early 2015, Kimberlee posted Edith’s story to the British Home Children and Research Association (BHCHRA) site. She received an email asking if her grandmother could be Edith Pearson Pratt as this person was listed on the 1901 England Census as an inmate of the Margaret McClusky Union Workhouse in Newcastle Upon Tyne.
Edith had always been known as Edith Mary Pearson, not Edith Pearson Pratt. No wonder Edith and her family had searched in vain. The name discrepancy also explained Edith’s memory of visiting Granny Pratt’s sweet shop.
Kimberlee learned that Edith had been born to Annie Pratt on February 4, 1894 at 96 Meldon Terrace in the Sub District of Byker in the Counties of Newcastle Upon Tyne. No father is listed on the birth certificate. Since Edith’s name was changed to Pearson, Kimberlee believes this was the father’s name. Annie had been married to a Thomas Pratt who died one year after their wedding. This union produced a son, George. Four years later, Annie bore a second baby, Edith Pearson Pratt, father unknown. Illegitimacy carried a stigma and often these children were surrendered to Children’s Homes or abandoned.
The 1901 census showed that George Bold Pratt, son to Annie and the late Thomas was living with his grandmother Emma Pratt in Cullercoats. On the census, he’s listed as George Bold which hindered the search for him.
Edith’s illegitimacy explains why George’s grandmother took over his care but did not claim Edith since there was no blood relationship between them. However, Granny Pratt must have shown Edith kindness since she retained a warm memory of her. (George passed away on December 11, 1935 without seeing his sister Edith again.)
Kimberlee continues to search and would someday like to meet her relatives in England.
Edith’s name is memorialized on the Monument that Ivy Sucee and the Barnardo Home Memorial Group raised funds for and erected in Peterborough.
This prayer written by Edith Pearson Pratt Russnell expresses her love for family and her devotion to God.
Dear Lord, in that beautiful Heaven above
A home for all those who are good and loved
Save one little corner for me and dad.
Sometimes we’ve been good and sometimes bad.
We’ve raised a large family, some girls, some boys.
Shared all their heartaches and shared all their joys.
We’ve never been rich, mostly just poor
But we gave them our love and care ere o’er
We’ve prayed by their sick beds by night and by day
We asked for your guidance along the way
Dear Lord, you’ve been good loving and kind
Take care of them and those I’ve left behind
At the end of the road, we’ll be oh, so sad
So dear Lord save a corner for me and for dad
Information and photos for this story came from Kimberlee Gruenwald, daughter of Edith’s son, Ross.
Rose McCormick Brandon is the author of Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children. She writes for magazines, contributes to books like Chicken Soup for Soul O Canada, speaks at libraries, museums and genealogical societies. As well, Rose teaches Bible studies, writes articles of faith and speaks at Christian gatherings.