Bert Edwards 1902-1994
Thanks to Patricia Bronson for her diligent research and for this story of Barnardo boy, Bert Edwards. Her story also contains information on Bert’s brothers. Several stories published here have resulted in more information, even family members reuniting. Perhaps some of Bert’s family, still living in England, will read Patricia’s account. Rose McCormick Brandon
I remember it well. Sitting at the kitchen table talking to my Uncle Bert Edwards. We’d had many conversations, but this one would be our last. The next day Uncle Bert was moving to a local nursing home. He did not want to go and we hated to send him, but everyone in the family was exhausted from providing him with around-the-clock care for months.
Like everything in life, Uncle Bert accepted his fate with courage and grace. “It’s the right thing to do,” he said. The next day he entered the nursing home. Two weeks later, on October 31, 1994 he died at the age of 92. In spite of his humble and difficult early years, Bert Edwards would be the first to say that he had had a good life.
Bert Horace Edwards was born March 27, 1902 at Leytonstone (Forest Gate), Essex, England to John Arthur Edwards (b.1852 King’s Lynn, Norfolk) and Sarah Jane (Luxton) Edwards (b. 1870 Aller, Somerset). Bert had two sisters Mabel and Tilley and two brothers Arthur and Fred. On July 6, 1908 John Edwards died at the age of 56.
The father was not insured and the mother was left in very destitute circumstances. She has hitherto supported herself and her children by charring but work has now fallen so much through removals that she has now only one day’s work weekly. After gradually disposing of her goods she applied for parish relief, which was granted to the extent of 3/- a week in food. Our officer saw many persons who had known her for two or three years, all of whom, as well as the relieving officer, spoke of her as a very respectable and willing woman. If the three boys are to be taken she proposes to go into service. The children are said to be healthy and intelligent. The mother in very poor circumstances applied for the admission of three of her children – Arthur (8), Bert (6) and Fred (4). (from Barnardo’s file on the Edwards brothers)
Arthur, Bert and Fred were admitted to Barnardo’s and boarded out in England. Arthur went to the home of Miss H. S. Chamberlain as a protégé mate at the Palace, Hampton Court; Bert to Mrs. Marion Archer, Norfolk and Fred to Mrs. Ellen Leaver, Cranbrook, Kent.
While the boys remained in England, their mother wrote to Barnardo’s requesting information and visits with. She was granted visits with Arthur and Fred while they were still in London but was denied a visit with Bert as it was against policy for a parent to visit a child once they were boarded out or until they had spent at least three months with their foster family. Sarah Jane Edwards wrote to Barnardo’s from December 1908 until the last of her sons Fred, left England in 1914. Each time she was provided with reports regarding the boys and photos of them.
She was not able to visit with her sons before they were sent to Canada because she couldn’t afford the fare
and there was no provision for this from Barnardo’s. In addition to this barrier, the letters sent to inform her that the boys were being sent to Canada ended up in the Dead Letter Office. Barnardo’s provided her with the boys’ Canadian addresses and she wrote to them until 1916, perhaps longer. It’s not known whether the boys communicated with their mother after arriving in Canada.
Sarah Jane (Luxton) Edwards remarried in 1911 and, sadly, died of cancer in 1918 at age 44. Giving up her sons must have been heartbreaking for Sarah. It was not a case of neglect or desertion; it was the result of intense poverty, common in early 1900’s Britain.
The boys left England at different times – Arthur, age 10, on July 28 1910, Bert, age 9, on September 23, 1911, Frederick, age 9, on March 14, 1914. From Bert’s records, we know that he made attempts to contact his brothers as early as 1925. The brothers did connect with each other and visited over the years. Despite their separation as young children in England and the separation of distance in Canada, brotherly bonds remained.
The boys had different life experiences and, while I know what happened to Bert, I only know a little about Arthur and Fred. Arthur and Fred developed a close relationship because Arthur moved in with Fred after the death of his wife, Maud. Fred and Arthur had another bond – both experienced abusive treatment at their placements in northern Ontario. The harsh treatment he received and the separation from his mother and family at such a young age had a profound effect on Fred. His family of five children said that while they loved him dearly, he was a very quiet and sad man. He was musically gifted and shared this gift with his family. Fred died in 1976 at the age of 72. The family lost touch with Arthur and do not know what happened to him. We know he enlisted in WWI, married, and had a son and a daughter and his last known location was the Oshawa/Toronto area. His son, Ronald, a talented pianist, was visually impaired. Arthur’s last correspondence with Barnardo’s was in 1935 when he was working in the mines in Timmins. Fred’s last contact with Barnardo’s was in 1925 when, he too, was living in Timmins. Their last contact with Bert was in 1929 while he was living in Peterborough.
Bert’s first placement in Canada was with a Mrs. Robert Peters in Forestville, Ontario (near Simcoe). It is here that he met Charlie Beecher (BHC 1909) and perhaps even his brother Robert (BHC 1909). The story of Robert Beecher is well known (The Tragic Life of Robert Henry Beecher – December 30, 2013 Promises Of Home). Robert was accused of killing a Mr. John Simmons. Mr. Simmons had been known for his abusive behaviour towards Robert. At the trial, Beecher was found not guilty of murder but guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter. The judge gave him a suspended sentence. This is a unique connection with a photo of Charlie William Beecher and Bert Edwards found among Bert’s personal photo collection.
After leaving the Peters farm, Bert was sent to work on farms in Emily Township, Victoria County (Lindsay-Peterborough area). Bert was a good worker and a pleasant lad. Although, he never said that he became a part of any family he lived with, he said he was treated well and did not experience harsh treatment. He knew of other Home Children who did.
Bert maintained contact with Barnardo’s through letters and requests for books from their lending library. He read in the Barnardo newsletter, Ups and Downs, that he could take out books on loan and requested – The Sky Pilot, Highland the Air and Laddie. He received The Treasure of the San Philipo as the others were not available. Books were to be returned after three weeks to: 50 Peter Street, Toronto, Ontario. In his notes to Barnardo’s, Bert always signed off “one of the boys” or “one of the Barnardo Boys.”
When Bert completed his indentured service typically at age 18), he road the rails west but later returned to Peterborough, where he married Violet McFarland and had four children. The death of his three year old daughter Eleanor in 1945, the result of a car accident, was a very painful chapter in his life. Bert retired from Canadian General Electric in Peterborough, in 1967. Bert and Violet had purchased a farm in Emily Township in 1945 and this farm became the centre of our family life, the gathering place for all family events – joyful, sad and in between. They were a generous, kind couple who opened their home to everyone. They attended Bethel United Church, the same church Bert had attended since moving to the area as a young British Home Boy. They sold the farm in 1985 and moved to Peterborough. Four years later, Violet passed away.
Bert Edwards never complained about his lot in life. He said he was better off coming to Canada. If he’d stayed in England, he thought he might have been forced to steal food to survive. Bert was respectful, intelligent, well-read, and highly regarded by all who knew him. He had a ready laugh and was always willing to lend a helping hand. Bert had his share of sadness and hardship, but he was not bitter about anything that happened in his life. While there were some negatives – he was very short, had turned up toes from wearing boots that were too small, smoked fat cigars and chewed tobacco – he focused on the positive aspects of life.
If I knew then what I know now, I would have asked more questions, but at the time, I only had a vague understanding of what it meant to be a British Home Child. I knew about Barnardo’s because my grandmother was also a Barnardo Home Child. It wasn’t until years later that I researched family history and delved into the British Home Child immigration scheme. However, Bert provided enough information for me to find his mother’s family in England. He gave me the names of his father, mother and siblings. And while I did find some statements in the Barnardo records which conflicted with what he told me, his material provided key information. Barnardo’s helped me connect with Fred’s family. The most significant piece of information that Bert gave me, was that he thought his mother’s maiden name was Dean. It turned out that she had been first married to a Henry Dean who died one year into the marriage. The Dean name resulted in a connection to that family in England. They had been searching for Sarah Jane (Luxton) Dean and knew nothing about her marriage to John Arthur Edwards. There was an “aha” moment on both sides of the Atlantic when they realized we were both searching for the same woman.
I shared with them photos and the story of the three Edwards brothers and they provided me with the picture of Sarah Jane as well as her family history. When I look at her picture and read Sarah’s family history, I am left wondering why she didn’t reach out to her family in Somerset. Likely all branches of the family were suffering from poverty.
I am awed that Bert had such great recall of his early life, considering he was so young, only six, when the family broke up. I’m happy that I took notes. Thanks to him, I have been able to piece together a great deal of his family history, including some information about his father’s family. I am still looking for Arthur and his family and the two sisters Mabel and Tilley.
I wish Uncle Bert was here today sitting at his kitchen table. I’d tell him that I found some of his family. However, I can honour him and his brothers, Arthur and Fred, by telling their story. (Bert and Violet Edwards are both buried at Emily Cemetery.) —- Patricia Bronson
Rose McCormick Brandon is the author of Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children, a collection of 31 stories. To contact Rose, email her at : firstname.lastname@example.org.