Barnardo girls leaving England, Liverpool quayside 1905
From 1869-1939 approximately 100,000 British children emigrated to Canada. It’s estimated that 11% of the Canadian population can trace their roots to a home child. As a group and individually, home children contributed to making our nation a great one. This blog is my attempt to honor their sacrifices and acknowledge their hardships.
Today, no one would consider sending an 8 year-old to a foreign country to work as a live-in mother’s helper. But, my grandmother, and thousands of other girls were placed in Canadian homes to do just this. Boys, although most had probably never met a cow face to face, became farm hands. A few entered apprenticeships.
In return for their labour, host families deposited money into an account that the child could access at 18. In some cases, the money wasn’t there and the child began adult life with nothing.
This year, 2012, marked 100 years since Grace Griffin Galbraith, my grandmother, and her two siblings, Lillian and Edward arrived in Canada. After the death of their mother a stepfather took them to one of Annie MacPherson’s homes for children. They stayed there until all three left for Canada.
During the period of child immigration, Britain was in a poverty crisis. The Child Migrant Scheme was seen as a practical solution. Canada would get much-needed workers and poor children would be given opportunities their homeland couldn’t offer them. Although in today’s mindset, the plan seems barbaric, the religious and charitable organizations who housed thousands in overcrowded orphanages were motivated mostly by concern for the children.
Despite good intentions, many children became victims of abuse, neglect and over-work. One of the conditions placed on host families was that children would receive an education. This didn’t always happen. Children experienced loneliness, isolation, shame and despair. Most, like my grandmother, great-aunt and great-uncle, were separated from siblings and didn’t reconnect until adulthood. Many never reconnected.
A large percentage of Home Children left their British past behind them. They lost their accents, buried their pasts and seldom talked of life before Canada. My grandmother’s story is known, not because she shared it – she never uttered a word about it – but because her husband knew her background when they married as did everyone in their small community. For that reason, her children knew and passed her story on to their children. Also, her brother, Edward Griffin searched for and found her and he was more open about their past. Later, our family learned much more through reconnected relatives from England. Through them, we received copies of letters my grandmother wrote to a step-sister in England. My mother and aunt travelled to England to visit my grandmother’s younger half-sister, Winnifred. In one of my grandmother’s letters she mentions this sister and writes that she hadn’t known this sister existed until the step-sister Edith wrote and told her.
Some gaps exist in our information – this is normal for British Home Children. Our family always believed that Grandma ended up in an orphanage because her mother died but new information leads us to believe that she, Edward and Lily were taken to the children’s home while their mother was living. This explains why Grace wrote in one letter that she had no recollection of ever seeing her mother. She was at least 6 or 7 when her mother died so she would have remembered her if she’d been living with her mother.
This blog is for home children stories, some written by me, some by other authors. Some sad, some heartwarming. And photographs. Dr. Thomas Bernardo, founder of Homes and The Ragged School, kept decent records, often accompanied by photographs of the children. He remains the most well-known of all British Home Children Immigration organizers.
If you would like to share your family member’s story on this bog, please contact me. As their offspring, we can honor their contributions and add significance to their lives by sharing their stories.