Skip to content

The Home Children, an important piece of Canadian history

This site is dedicated to raising awareness of the British Home Child Movement and to recognizing the contributions these little immigrants made to Canada. Their stories inspire others who face loneliness and exile from their people.

“Forgotten” at the Art Gallery of Hamilton ILOVEFILM Series

April 12, 2016

 forgottenDon’t miss the screening of “Forgotten” at the Art Gallery of Hamilton on Saturday, April 23, 2016 at 4:00 p.m.

Forgotten is about the yearning to know one’s history — what began with a fire at 295 George Street in Toronto becomes the catalyst to share the story of over 100,000 children who came to Canada as indentured farm labour and domestics. This is the forgotten history of many Canadians, both of the children themselves and their descendants.

Jim Brownell, grandson of a British Home Child, will be the special guest at this event. Jim was the MPP for Cornwall and responsible for introducing the bill that made September 29 British Home Child Day in Ontario.

Jim wrote an introduction to Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children.

Read more about the film and its creator, Eleanor McGrath here.

To view the trailer and purchase tickets visit the Art Gallery of Hamilton.





Forgotten: A Movie by Eleanor McGrath

March 30, 2016

“I can never regret coming to Canada. I have had to work hard, but I don’t mind that, for I love to work.” My grandmother, Grace Griffin Galbraith, who arrived in Canada at age eight in 1912, wrote these words when she was twenty-five. As a child, she endured several years of hardship. I wrote the book, Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children, for her. It’s my way of saying thank-you to her, and to the tens of thousands of child immigrants who arrived in Canada between 1869 and 1939. They entered into the rhythm of Canadian life. They made our country greater. It wasn’t easy. Their stories, and what became of them, beg to be told.

I’m happy to introduce you to someone else who is telling the stories of the children – Eleanor McGrath. I’ll be attending her movie, Forgotten, at the Art Gallery of Hamilton, 123 King St. W., Saturday, April 23 at 4:00 p.m. If you would like to attend, visit the Art Gallery to purchase tickets.

The film will be shown again in Toronto, Saturday, September 26 at Commfest: Rainbow Cinema Market Square, 80 Front Street East.

— Rose McCormick Brandon

A Word from Eleanor McGrath about her movie, Forgotten:

forgottenWhen I turned 45 years old I left a full-time job, bought a video camera and with the full support of my husband and children, I decided to follow my dream and tell stories of people who had come to Canada, often facing many hardships they persevered and helped to make our nation what it is today.

In October 2011, I walked south on one of Toronto’s toughest streets, George Street. Once the home of the 19th century wealthy it is now a forgotten street of Toronto’s homeless and marginalized. I knew it was significant architecturally but when I came to 295 George Street surrounded by construction hoarding I realized that an important part of Toronto’s heritage might be lost. After calling the Heritage Board and beginning a campaign for its preservation, two days later on October 19th a 3-Alarm fire gutted the “Fegan Home for the Distribution of Boys”.

This story found me — I couldn’t walk away.

The journey to uncover what was the Fegan Home of 295 George Street and the Boys that were “distributed” took me across Canada and to Ireland in search of the history of the over 100,000 children that came to Canada from 1850s to 1939 as British Home Children. This is the forgotten history of Canada, the lost memories of these children that are only unleashed after they are gone and discovered by their descendants. This is a story that should not be forgotten.

Forgotten captures some of the stories of the last remaining British Home Children in Canada. The men interviewed are now in their 90s, sadly two of the interviewed subjects have died since I met them. However, it is the children of these British Home Children who are left searching for who their parent was and the burning question of WHY? were they were sent to Fegan’s or Barnardo’s and other institutions before they were shipped to Canada. These descendants are in need of answers and many now struggle with the knowledge of the hardships that was endured by their parent. Some descendants are seeking an apology from the Canadian government which has alluded Canadian British Home Children for years despite both the British and Australian Governments providing restitution and official apologies to their citizens.


book coverA band of child pilgrims in mass exodus, numbering 100,000, spanning seven decades (1869-1939), arrived in Canada.  Like seed, they were scattered from Atlantic to Pacific, not in handfuls as would have been appropriate for children, but in singles, one here, another there. Hampered by the derogatory label, Home Child, severed from their familial connections, against the odds, they took root and became grounded and sturdy enough to change the landscape of our young Dominion.  It’s time to cry over the abuses they suffered, to applaud their successes and to say, as a nation, “thank you.”


Ronald Chamberlain, WW2 P.O.W.

November 11, 2015
Ronald Chamberlain, age 5

Ronald Chamberlain, age 5

At age five, Ronald Chamberlain was admitted to the Barnardo Home along with his older brother, Reginald. Both boys were illegitimate. Ronald’s father, Jack Bradshaw, was expected to marry Ron’s mother, Maud, when he returned from the war. Sadly, Jack lost his life in battle.

Maud Chamberlain, and her two sons, lived with her father at 13 Victoria Place, Biggleswade. The boys’ grandfather was unable to work and Maud took odd field jobs when they were available. The family lived in extreme poverty. In spite of his home circumstances, Ronald’s teacher noted that he was a “good boy.”

When Maud was deemed an unsuitable parent, her sister, Martha, stepped up and offered to raise Ronald and Reginald as her own but they were removed from her and taken to Barnardo’s Home for Children. Martha left a warm and lasting impression on her nephews. Both boys kept in touch with her throughout their lives.

Reginald Chamberlain, age 10

Reginald Chamberlain, age 10

Ronald Chamberlain arrived in Canada on the Moonclare, April 4, 1925. As often happened with British Home Children, the brothers were separated, but in this case, Ronald’s brother Reginald, was sent to another country, Australia. (Approximately 30,000 children immigrated from the U.K. to Australia. Child immigration to Canada ended in 1939 but continued to Australia into the 1960s.)

Ronal Chamberlain (Sr)

Ronald Chamberlain, Canadian soldier

On arrival in Canada, Ronald worked as an indentured servant on several farms. One of these farms was in Georgetown with a family that didn’t treat him well. One of his memories with this family is that they would take him to town with them every week but they didn’t include him in the family’s visits to the ice cream parlour. He waited outside while they went inside. On this farm, Ronald suffered from sores on his feet as a result of wearing rubber boots without socks. This family failed to provide Ronald’s basic clothing needs.

Another family, the Pettmans, of Ingersoll, Ontario, gave Ronald his first true home in Canada. Ron’s children grew up calling them Aunt Elma and Uncle Fred. He remained in contact with this loving couple until their death.

For a time, Ron worked for a spinster, Mary Mitchell, and her father in Port Sydney. Ron did well in school when he lived on this farm and Miss Mitchell offered to send him to college but Barnardo’s refused to allow Ron to accept and moved him from this farm.

Ron and Beatrice Chamberlain

Ron and Beatrice Chamberlain

Ron maintained several friendships from his days in Port Sydney. One was with his teacher, Mrs. Watson, whom he visited until his seventies. Other friendships included the Mulvaney family and Barney Oldfield, a local boy who worked on the Mitchell farm when Ron was there. After he married and had children, Ron returned to that farm often for vacations.

In 1937, Ron met and married Beatrice Laura Demman in Kitchener, Ontario. They moved to Toronto where they lived and raised their family of six children, three boys and three girls. They eventually had seventeen grandchildren.

Aunt Martha with husband, Albert Brown

Aunt Martha with husband, Albert Brown

Ron joined the Royal Canadian Air Force and went to war in January 1940. He served as a Wireless Operator and as Air Gunnner on a Halifax bomber which was shot down April 22, 1944 while on a bombing raid over Germany. Ron parachuted out but landed on railroad tracks injuring his hips and back. He was taken to a prisoner of war camp where he remained until May 8, 1945. The injuries he sustained caused him constant pain in later life.

Because Ron’s life had been saved by a parachute, he became a member of the Caterpillar Club. His Aunt Martha, (Mrs. A. Brown) received a letter from the Caterpillar Club which contained Ron’s membership card.

Ron experienced heart problems and poor circulation and underwent at least three heart

Ronald Chamberlain

Ronald Chamberlain

operations. His daughter, Doreen Young, wrote, “Although Dad suffered many hardships in life, he was a wonderfully loving, kind and caring husband and father. A gentle soul, he rarely had a bad word to say about anyone.”

Ron and Beatrice were happily married for fifty-one years. until Beatrice’s death.

Ron, who had lived in Canada since age ten and fought in World War Two discovered late in life that he didn’t have citizenship. Finally, in 1976, he received his Canadian citizenship.

During the war, Ronald and his brother Reginald from Australia happened to be in England at the same time. Both visited their Aunt Martha. The story is told that they missed seeing each other by five minutes. After leaving England, the brothers never saw each other again.

Ronald Chamberlain died on June 1, 1996. His brother Reginald died in Australia in 2006.  (Doreen Young, daughter of Ronald Chamberlain, provided the information and photos used in this story.)


book coverPromises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children by Rose McCormick Brandon, is a collection of 31 stories. Together, the stories give the reader a good understanding of the history, times and the people involved in the child immigration program that spanned the seventy years between 1869 and 1939. The book is available here.

Remembering Home Boys of WWI

November 4, 2015

poppyIt’s estimated that as many as 10,000 men who arrived in Canada as child immigrants from Britain enlisted in WWI, almost all those of eligible age, and some who weren’t.

With Remembrance Day around the corner, let’s remember a few young immigrants who did more than their share to make Canada the great country it is today.

(It wasn’t until I finished putting this post together that I noticed that every single person has William either as a first or second name. Just goes to show how popular this name was during the times.) — Rose McCormick Brandon

William Francis Mason (Frank)William Francis Mason

Born April 1894 in England. Following the death of his mother, William and several brothers and sisters were placed at the National Children’s Home in London. On March 21 1908, William Francis Mason arrived in Canada with a party of 62 boys. Dr. Stephenson, founder of the National Children’s Home led this group to his transition home on Main St. E. in Hamilton, Ontario. From there, William was placed on a farm in West Flamborough. At age 21, William enlisted and was assigned to the 86th Machine Gun Battalion. He saw action at Ypres, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele where he suffered a major wound that led to amputation. After rehabilitation, William returned to Millgrove in West Flamborough township where he married Ellen Mitchell in 1926. William passed away on November 17, 1977 at Joseph Brant Hospital in Burlington at age 83. He is buried in the Millgrove Cemetery.

Corporal William MayburyWilliam Maybury

William Maybury, a Barnardo boy, was wounded on October 28, 1917. He never recovered from his wounds and died on Dec 1, 1917. He was 25. William is buried at No. 2 Stationary Cemetery in Abbeyville, France.

“It is hard for anyone today to imagine the horrors of the 25th year of his short life. He commanded a small group of men who fired mortars from the heart of battle. In the spring of 1917, he helped take Vimy Ridge. In summer, he fought in the Battle of Hill 70. In the fall it was Passchendaele. By then he would have known his luck was running thin, if not altogether out.” Roy MacGregor (read the rest of MacGregor’s story about Maybury here.


Jack Bean

Jack Bean

John (Jack) William Bean

Jack Bean was born January 1895. Nothing is known about his life before hecard from Jack Bean to Isadora Thompson 001 entered Barnardo’s. He arrived in Canada at age seven on May 25, 1902. He went to live with Sandy & Isadora Thompson in Franconia (near Dunnville, Ontario). Jack enlisted at age twenty in 1915. He sent this photo of himself in uniform to Mrs. Thompson with this inscription on the back: For dear mother from your loving boy, Jack. At the time of his enlistment, Jack’s birth mother – Mrs. E. J. McCallum – was still alive and living in Oberland Cottage in Guernsey. Jack must have corresponded with her because he named her as his next of kin. After the war, Jack returned to Canada and moved out west.

William Frances Conabree

William Francis ConabreeWilliam Frances Conabree arrived in Canada in 1904 at age fourteen. He was sent by the Catholic Emigration Association and accompanied by Mr. Tupper. William enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force and fought in WWI. He was a horn player and stretcher bearer for the 49th Loyal Edmonton Regiment. He lived through gas attacks and was a prisoner of war in the same camp as Con Smythe, the famed owner of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Read William’s stirring account of his early life in Canada here.





William Edwin Hunt

William Edwin Hunt

William Edwin Hunt

An Irish boy who immigrated through Smyly Homes for Children, William Edwin Hunt suffered wounds that resulted in the amputation of a leg. Undaunted, he pursued a career in government office, wrote poetry and made music. He spent his early years in Canada in the Hespeler/Guelph area and his adult years after the war in Sault Ste. Marie. (Smyly boys went to the Hespeler receiving home called The Coombes.) William wrote the poem, The Little V.A.D. (Volunteer Aid Nurse). Recently, a reader of my book, Promises of Home, contacted me to say that he found a copy of this poem, hand-written by William, in the archives at Trent University. The nurse the poem was written for left her letters and memoirs to the university. Read more about William Edwin Hunt here and here.

William Blay with niece

 William Blay

William’s father died when he was a baby and his mother, who had sold all her furniture to pay the rent, could no longer afford to keep him.  In September of 1903, she placed him in London, England’s Barnardo Home.

Upon arrival in Canada, he was put to work immediately on a farm where the culture shock was intense:  city-bred William, who had never seen a cow before, was whipped because he did not milk fast enough.  He ended up running away.  Such was the case for many home boys who worked as farm hands in a country that had a high demand for labour but a low population. Read William’s story, written by his great-niece, Linda Jonasson, here.

book coverPromises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children is a collection of 31 stories, including a few more about WWI veterans. To purchase a copy, visit


The Wright Connection by Margaret Roper

July 22, 2015

Margaret Roper’s soon-to-be-released book, The Wright Connection, follows the life of her grandmother from a secure family in Scotland, to a home for destitute children and, ultimately, to a new life in Canada.

Margaret Roper writes:

I feel a strong connection to her. In the 1990’s, one of her daughters, my Aunt Dorothy, began searching for information and wrote many letters to various places. She found some dates and facts. After Aunt Dorothy’s death in 2000, I resumed her search.

Here is a preview of The Wright Connection. —- Rose McCormick Brandon


Margaret’s Journey

Sisters: Margaret, Jeannie and Magdeline Wright

Sisters: Margaret, Jeannie and Magdeline Wright

In 1909, my grandmother, Margaret Loudon Wright said goodbye to her sister Jeannie and boarded a ship for Canada. An orphan girl of seventeen she immigrated through Quarriers, a Scottish home for children in Glasgow. She wondered if she’d ever again see her younger sister and two brothers who also entered the home for destitute children.

On Monday, July 5, 1909 Margaret arrived in Montreal and her Canadian life began. The trip across the Atlantic on the Grampian had taken eight days. Two hundred and twelve passengers disembarked from steerage, including sixty Quarrier children. What were her first impressions when she stepped off that ship? Was she frightened by all the activity? Afraid of being lost?

Margaret Wright's sailing party 1909

Margaret Wright’s sailing party June 1909

Margaret Wright arrived in Canada with the usual kit given to child immigrants: a Bible, a copy of Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan (a Christian allegory published in February 1678), writing materials, a brush and comb, a work bag with needles, thread and worsted for darning. All this was packed into a wooden trunk along with a nicely trimmed dress and hat for Sabbath wear and a wincey dress (made of a plain or twilled fabric), a dark hat for winter, a liberal supply of underclothing for summer and winter, three pairs of boots, four pairs of stockings, gloves, collars, aprons, pinafores and a warm hood.

My mother, Margaret’s daughter, has a ring that belonged to Margaret, but other than that, our only possessions of hers are two photos. I imagine she brought photos with her from Scotland of her family, particularly of her sisters Jeanie and Magdeline, but we don’t know what happened to them.

The photo (above) of the three Wright sisters, taken in 1902, which shows Margaret, age ten, Jeanie, age nine and Magdeline, age twelve was discovered by Karen Wright, a cousin in Solihull, England.

How did a girl like Margaret, from a caring family, end up in a home for destitute children?

Margaret Loudon Wright was born on March 7, 1892 in Glasgow, Scotland the

Margaret Louden Wright, Margaret's mother

Margaret Louden Wright, Margaret’s mother

sixth child of my great grandparents Margaret Loudon and James Marshall Wright. At the time of her birth, the family’s address was 228 Dalmarnock Rd. Glasgow, an industrialized area with many tenement buildings. By 1899 my great-grandmother had given birth to twelve babies however, one died at age two and two died at birth.

On June 13, 1899, Margaret’s mother died in childbirth. The family struggled after the mother died with the older siblings looking after the younger ones. The eldest daughter, Jessie, eighteen at the time of her mother’s death and Agnes, seventeen had six children to care for, ranging from ages one to eleven. Life was tough for the two sisters.

James Wright, Margaret's father

James Wright, Margaret’s father

About this time, James Marshall Wright, Margaret’s father, who was born in 1855 in Lanark, Scotland and had worked in the coal mines, was out of work. He set sail for Johannesburg, South Africa to work in the gold mines. In 1906, he was stricken with black water fever and died. The eldest of the twelve children, John Wright, went to Johannesburg when he was about twenty-one to care for his father and he also worked in the gold mine.

Without father or mother, the Wright family found themselves in need of assistance. The Quarrier Society was operating an orphanage at the Bridge of Weir, Renfrewshire, Scotland. There, they prepared destitute children for employment, girls as maids and boys as farm hands. When request was made by a parent or relative to have their child admitted to the Orphan Homes of Scotland, the agreement sometimes covered immigration to Canada, if the child was thought suitable.

Mrs. and Mrs. William Quarrier

Mrs. and Mrs. William Quarrier

William Quarrier, founder of Orphan Homes of Scotland was a successful shoemaker but is best known for his charitable work. In 1871, he opened a night refuge for homeless children in Renfrew Street, Glasgow.

On December 24, 1906, five of the Wright children went to Quarriers’ Bridge of Weir Village for interviews. They returned home, spent Christmas together and then on December 28 the five – Magdeline, Margaret, Jeanie, James and Thomas – entered the Quarrier orphanage. There they remained to prepare for immigration and employment as indentured servants in Canada.

A note in the Quarriers file states, “Margaret has been working in laundry since leaving school.”

After arrival at Montreal, Quebec on July 5, 1909 Margaret boarded a train to Brockville, Ontario, the location of Fairknowe Home, Quarriers’ Canadian receiving home.

Margaret and Jeannie Wright at Coney Island, NY 1914

Margaret and Jeannie Wright at Coney Island, NY 1914

Four of the five Wright children who went to Quarriers ended up in Canada. These four kept close contact and at one time all lived in Toronto. Unfortunately, none of them shared their histories with family. It wasn’t until 2004 that we discovered how they came to Canada.

On January 5, 1940, at age forty-seven, Margaret died. My mother, only thirteen at the time, retained few memories of her. One of Mother’s favourite memories is of Margaret dancing the Highland Fling using two brooms on the floor. She also recalls her mother holding her hand while walking to church.


Author, Margaret Roper, lives in Grimsby, Ontario. For more information on her book, email Margaret at


book coverRose McCormick Brandon is the author of four books, including Promises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children, available here.



Ernest Dixon 1891-1986

May 28, 2015
Ernest Dixon, second from right seated. William Edwin Hunt, standing back left

Ernest Dixon, second from right seated. William Edwin Hunt, standing back left

Sharon Moore of Ireland dropped in to Promises of Home to say that one of the boys in this photo that appeared with William Edwin Hunt’s story is her great grand uncle, Ernest Dixon. Ernest is believed to be the one second from right. Sharon’s family recently discovered that Ernest was a British Home Child. Sharon has found relatives in Canada, descendants of Ernest’s sister, Ellen.

Sharon writes, “I truly believe that history and ancestors have a way of taking us places in order to find them, My sister emigrated to Canada in 1988 and lives in the Halton Hills, not too far from where Ernest was sent and lived as a young man.”

Thanks to Sharon for sharing the information used to write his story.

Like many child immigrants, the event that led to Ernest’s coming to Canada was the death of a parent. He was born on May 25, 1891, into a hardworking, successful Irish family, the youngest of six children. When Ernest was ten, his mother died. By this time, all the Dixon children, except for Ernest and one sister had grown up and left home.

Ernest’s father struggled after the death of his mother and ended up living at a home for destitute men.

Ernest was sent to Smyly’s Homes for Children.

Ernest Dixon

Ernest Dixon

Fifteen year-old Ernest Dixon arrived in Canada on May 3, 1906 on the S.S. Tunisian. He was employed as an apprentice by Clarke & Demill, a manufacturer of woodworking machinery in Hespeler. They reported that Ernest was “a quiet, good lad doing well and learning his trade as a lathe turner.”

After he reached the legal age of eighteen, and officially left the care of Smyly’s, Ernest continued to work for Clarke & Demill. He boarded with his employer but spent most evenings at the place he considered his Canadian home, The Coombe. There, he played and socialized with other Irish boys.

At age twenty, Ernest enrolled in a drafting course at Galt Business College where he joined the football and lacrosse teams. An inspector from Smyly’s described him as “quiet and steady, careful of his earnings” and noted that he was “thinking of buying his own home.”

Smyly’s continued to monitor Ernest’s progress long after his eighteenth birthday. In 1916, he married Ethel Hodgeson and settled in Hespeler where he lived until 1924 when he moved to Detroit to work as a machinist in an auto plant.

Ernest and Ethel had no children. Ernest died on June 15, 1986 in Grosse Point Farms, Michigan.

Ernest’s niece, Bertha, immigrated to Canada in the 1940s and visited him in Michigan often. He was fondly known to her and her children as Uncle Ernie.


Note: Smyly’s introduced children to Canadian life more gently than most other organizations. Some stayed at the transition home in Hespeler, The Coombe, for months to allow them to integrate into the community gradually. Smyly’s usually placed child immigrants in homes and farms within easy monitoring distance.


book coverPromises of Home – Stories of Canada’s British Home Children by Rose McCormick Brandon is available here.

Kindle edition available at  Amazon.

I have really enjoyed this book. I think it’s wonderful how many positive stories there are in it about the Home Children and their experiences. Ivy Sucee, Founder and President, Hazelbrae Barnardo Home Memorial Group

My Grandfather, James “The Calm” Miller Dudgeon, 1866-1953 by Carol Dudgeon

April 17, 2015
James Miller Dudgeon, age 12

James Miller Dudgeon, age 12

I remember very little about my grandfather, James Miller Dudgeon. My earliest memory of Grandpa is him sitting peacefully on the porch of his home in a rocking chair. He had suffered a stroke, the same disease that had taken his father, Joseph Dudgeon, in 1879 in Lanarkshire, Glasgow. The death of his father set my grandfather on a journey that took him from an orphanage in Scotland to a Canadian home filled with love and a family of his own.

James begins his journey.

The world was reeling from and enjoying the benefits of the Industrial Revolution. From the early nineteenth century through to the mid-twentieth century Scotland’s towns and cities grew. Most people endured appalling standards of housing. Overcrowding and poor sanitation were widespread.

The Industrial Revolution transitioned the world into new manufacturing processes. This included going from hand production methods to machines. Being the first to use modern production methods, the textile industry dominated the Industrial Revolution in terms of employment. This marked a major turning point in history; almost every aspect of daily life was influenced. The average income and the population exhibited unprecedented and sustained growth.

This was the world in which Joseph Dudgeon (born 1836), a twenty-one year old Cloth Lapper married the girl two doors down, Jane Miller, a Fringe Maker (born 1839). They began their life together on October 16, 1857. Joseph and Jane were the parents of my Grandfather.

Their first child, George, was three when a sister, Helen, was born. Before she reached her first birthday, Helen died, bringing sorrow to the Dudgeon home. Two years later, another child, Barbara, was born and before reaching the age of one, she also died. More sorrow. However, in 1866, after losing two children, the Dudgeons, on November 7, gave birth to another child, a healthy boy, James Miller Dudgeon (my grandfather). Sadness again struck the Dudgeon home when, in 1872, another baby was born and died without being named. The next year, a girl, Mary Miller, was born. This child lived for five years.

My Grandfather, James, was only ten when his mother, Jane Miller, passed away at the age of thirty-seven, succumbing to diarrhea and debility. I can only imagine the searing pain of loss he experienced when his mother, once the centre of his life, was no longer there to comfort him, to encourage him and support him. But she had instilled a love in James that he never forgot, a love that would carry him through the years ahead.

Joseph Dudgeon, now a widower with three children, soon married another woman, Grace Whitelaw. Within a year of that marriage, she died. The next year, Joseph married again to Mary Anderson and it was during this time that little sister Mary Miller Dudgeon passed away. It would appear that the grim reaper plagued this home. In 1879 death strikes one final blow. The father, Joseph Dudgeon, passed away of Apoplexy (stroke) at forty-three. This left my grandfather James with one blood relative, his brother George, who according to records was twenty-two years old and ill in the Royal Infirmary.

James’ step-mother, wife number three, following her husband’s death, surrendered James, twelve, to the Macpherson House of Industry on July 25, 1879 from the Glasgow Union (workhouse). This was the beginning of the journey that brought James to Canada.

Did James feel more hope than despair, more joy than sorrow, more acceptance than rejection as he ventured on in this journey? In his few years, he had faced so much death, so much sorrow and loss. Now, he would leave the home for ‘destitute’ children where he had felt some security, and some love, where he was fed and provided for and travel to a place unknown to him – Canada.

James’ identity became composed of: Orphan Boy, Emigrant No. 22, Passenger No. 45 aboard

Dudgeon family homestead in Selby, Ontario (Napanee)

Dudgeon family homestead in Napanee

the SS Buenos Ayrean. He sailed away from his homeland of Scotland toward a new land and a new future on May 14, 1880.

As he looked out over the endless Atlantic Ocean I’m sure tears filled his eyes as he thought of what might have been and fearful of what lie ahead. As he reminisced the good times, he remembered the losses of his siblings, his mother, his father, and wondered about the condition of his only brother back in Scotland. He carried only the memories of their faces, their smiles, their tears, and a little wooden chest that every child immigrant received containing a winter coat, boots, shoes, a hat, a jacket or sweater, underwear and toiletries, a suit, a few shirts, two ties, and a couple of pairs of work trousers. To encourage children to follow the correct moral path in their new homes, they also received uplifting books that included a Bible, a Sankey hymn book and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Lastly, the outfit included instructions on how children should behave in their placements and stationery so they could remain in contact with the home.

According to document, narrative of facts 1880, the voyage across the Atlantic consisted of some bright sunny days, however, storms and sickness took their toll. Perhaps, in a way, the weather was indicative of the life the children had already experienced. During the trip, it is recorded that they played, sang and had services; with several days of sickness on the rolling ship the children showed hope and encouraged each other by singing hymns. They experienced many sights as they neared their new world. They saw ships on route to New York and Boston, whales and passed many great icebergs.

As they neared the Gulf of St. Lawrence the ship’s speed slowed because of all the ice. The ship arrived in Quebec on the Queen’s birthday, May 23, 1880 and the children sang “God Save the Queen.” Treats of sweets and raisins made a very pleasant day for them. Upon arriving in Quebec, the children sang a parting hymn and gave three cheers for the captain whom they had grown to love. He had won their hearts by his fatherly interest in them throughout the voyage. His attention to their spiritual as well as temporal welfare had been constant.

Marchmont in Belleville

Marchmont in Belleville

After landing the children were given a plentiful supply of tea, bread, butter and eggs before the rail journey for Montreal. Unfortunately, the train ride was very long because the superintendent of the Grand Trunk Railway didn’t allow them to go on the express train but had the carriages attached to a special freight train and this made the journey three hours longer. The party finally reached Marchmont, the MacPherson Home in Belleville, Ontario. Miss Bilbrough and her sister were waiting to give all a hearty welcome. James no doubt felt tired and hungry but he anticipated a new life, a new family, and hoped for kindness. No one could replace his mother but perhaps someone would love him again.

James Miller Dudgeon was now 3400 miles away from what he had known as home. Just twenty days earlier he had watched his homeland fade to a speck in the distance and then disappear. Now he faced the prospect of another home in this new country of Canada. Soon after the arrival at Marchmont, people began to arrive to collect their Home Child. Many of the children were indentured (a contract by which a person is bound to service) as farm workers. In a perfect world no child was placed without a proper inquiry into whether this would be an appropriate placement and the organization always held the power to remove the child if the conditions agreed upon were not carried out. Monitoring the children became very difficult and was often neglected. James’ ledger recorded that he received seven visits from 1880 -1896, a period of sixteen years.

Nothing is recorded from his arrival on May 24 until August 21, 1880. I can only imagine little James as he anticipated what was ahead. Who would claim him? Did hope arise in his heart? Did loneliness grip him as he said goodbye to friends he had made in the Orphanage in Scotland and on the ship’s crossing?

Mr. and Mrs. Wm. Metcalf of Richmond, Forest Mills arrived in Belleville to pick up Emigrant 22, James Miller Dudgeon, age thirteen. They travelled thirty-two miles to his new home. It appears from reports that this placement was indeed a kind one as he is welcomed to the Metcalf home. The Metcalfs themselves had emigrated from Ireland some time following the potato famine. They too, no doubt, experienced horrific conditions, perhaps causing them to be more sympathetic to the plight of this little boy from Scotland.

The ledger, which was a copy of the original notes made by the monitors to describe his progress in the early years briefly states on August 21, 1880, “Got an excellent report of James.”

James wrote to Miss Bilbrough, July 1880:

I write to let you know that I like my place well, and am well myself. As soon as you get a letter from my brother, send it as soon as you can, please ma’am. I was at the Church twice since I came to my place and any time that any friends come in I have to sing a hymn to them. Dear Miss Bilbrough, I feel very content and happy and only hope the rest of the boys have just as good a place as I have. I got my box home all right. Please Ma’am, tell David Gardner that I was asking for him and hope his is well, also all the rest of the boys in the Home. I have nothing more to write at present so I bring this to a close by sending my love to you and all the rest of the boys, also give my kind love to little Mary Ann M’Aulay.

Miss Bilbrough, write soon and let me know how you are, as I would be glad to hear and the next letter I write I will try and do better, so good-bye, and may God bless you all from   James Dudgeon”

The following letter is from the master of this boy, Mr. Metcalf:

Miss Bilbrough-Dear Friend—I write you these few lines to let you know that Jimmy has been a very good boy since he came to us. He is very willing to do my bidding and tries to learn to work as well as he can but he feels very much afraid of the horse yet. If he can only get used to them, I think he would be along all right, but as long as he does what I tell him I will not find fault with him. My wife and daughter think an awful lot of him. I hope he will continue to be a good boy. This is all I have to say at present so I will conclude by sending my kind regards to you and all the rest who are interested in the welfare of the orphan children. Wm. Metcalf

A visit was made to the Metcalf home on July 28, 1881: “At work in harvest field. Thin – growing fast. Heard from his brother and needs his father’s photo.” It must have been such a comfort for James, now fourteen, to finally hear from his twenty-four year old brother, George.

The glowing reports continue: “Exceedingly good boy, obedient, attending school during the winter, and does fairly at his studies 2nd book.”

In 1883 another visit was recorded: “Is a very good boy much liked in his house. A good worker, friendly and obedient in 3rd Book at School. Fond of study, attends church regularly. Had a letter from his brother in Glasgow this morning it was there Sept 13.”

The visit in Feb. 1885 (in his 19th Year): “James is growing quite tall and strong and keeps his good character; they can’t speak too highly of him. He is bilious at times but otherwise healthy. Is in 3rd Book at School. His master is very ill at present and James has entire charge of the stock.”

June 1885: “Mr. Metcalf brought James to see us. Could not speak too highly of him”.

It appears from the ledger report that James indeed was accepted into the Metcalf family who were very fond of him.

Unfortunately, disappointment struck again. James had lived in this home for five, happy, years and had just celebrated his nineteenth birthday when the ledger records this devastating report:

Dec 29/85 “Mr. M daughter called, gave a very bad account of James and his conduct with his little grand daughter. James has left him and gone to a very bad house near.”

It appears betrayal came from someone within the family, the home where he had experienced support and care. He had faced more than his share of traumatic struggles and once again the feeling of rejection and abandonment overtook him in a place he called home. Was James’ conduct worthy of such an attack? How does one go from glowing ledger entries such as, “can’t speak too highly of him” to “a very bad account of James and his conduct.” As more and more information is gathered about James, a flawless character emerges with no earlier problems hinted at. I believe that with his gentle, kind nature, James walked away from the situation rather than defend himself. James would have fulfilled his indentured contract by this time as he was now nineteen. It is curious to note that this ‘little granddaughter’ that he supposedly displayed poor conduct towards either became his wife or a sister in law nine years later.

There is silence in the ledger for two long years before we catch another glimpse of James in his new environment. On July 4, 1887, an entry was made which stated, “Mr. M. called said James been in two places doing pretty well.” (Mr. M is possibly Wm. Metcalf still keeping in touch with James.

Nina Tucker, a granddaughter, recalls hearing stories of him in this new setting, having to sleep over the woodshed where snow would come through the boards. From the warmth of a family home to the stark, cold, damp woodshed, life for James had changed. He was paid very poorly. Paul Dudgeon, a grandson tells the story of James realizing that he had only received 30 cents of his promised 35 cent wage. Upon questioning the man, he was told that a nickel was placed in the offering plate on Sundays on his behalf. I guess the man felt James, being such a man of integrity, would appreciate his generosity to the church or perhaps this simply eased the man’s guilt.

Life for James took a blissful change. Love once again filled his heart and on April 18, 1894

James and Elizabeth Dudgeon

James and Elizabeth Dudgeon

James Miller Dudgeon, 27, and Elizabeth Schermerhorn, age 22, were married. The final entry in the ledger on June 4th 1896 reads: “G.M. called at James- married Miss Schermerhorn, granddaughter of Wm. Metcalf – farming.”

James and Elizabeth settled on a farm west of Selby, near Napanee, Ontario, where together they raised eleven children, three sons and eight daughters. With the memories of his parents still lingering with him, he named my dad after his father and his mother: Joseph Miller.

James had experienced devastating loss over and over again, throughout his childhood; however, by this time, having so many children, there was probably never a dull moment. He never buried one of his children during his lifetime. His wife, Elizabeth

James and Elizabeth and their 11 children

James and Elizabeth had 11 children

Schermerhorn, was one of twelve children, so there were many members of the extended family as well. He no longer carried the identity of “Orphan Boy” or “Immigrant No. 22” or “Passenger No. 45.” As a husband, father and grandfather, he was surrounded by those who loved him very much. James was an affectionate parent with unbending integrity, principles and moral virtues.

Elizabeth passed away a short time before James but even then he was never alone; he lived

Gravestone of James and Elizabeth Dudgeon

Gravestone of James and Elizabeth Dudgeon

with his son Ross for a while and then with his daughter, Greta, who looked after him until his death in the same year as his wife, in 1953.

Not having had my own relationship with my grandfather I drew from my relatives who had the privilege of spending time with him.

Gerry Varnes, a grandson, now living in Winnipeg, spent a few summer weeks on the farm each year in Selby. He recalls – “When I was with grandpa, I felt like I was in the presence of God; he was a wonderful man, he never complained.” Gerry recounted asking him if he would have done anything differently. Grandpa reached down, took some soil in his hands and replied, “God made me a steward of this soil and I am trying to take care of it.” Gerry said, “It must have been tough coming to Canada, leaving Scotland.” Grandpa answered, “I had a roof over my head, clothes to wear, and food to eat, I wouldn’t have had that in Scotland.” Gerry’s mother, Maude, when she spoke of her father always remarked, “If anyone deserved a medal it was my father.”

On the lighter side, two of James’ daughters, Vera and Audrey, were playing baseball on a team. Vera was called out at second. Grandpa came out of the stand and took Vera back to second base. The umpire objecting to the action intercepted Grandpa and Vera. Grandpa gently replied, “Everyone makes mistakes, you made one, she is safe.”

Paul Dudgeon, a grandson, lived across the road from the Dudgeon homestead. Paul regrets not sitting down more and talking with grandpa; however, he remembers him as being very quiet, never raising his voice. Grandpa suffered a stroke and was unable to walk without assistance. After Grandma passed away he went to live with his son Ross, Paul’s dad, just across the road. Paul often cultivated the potatoes for him with the horses and Grandpa was always so grateful. Maybe he never got over his earlier fear of horses.

When it came time for James to set up his own homestead, Howard Dudgeon a grandson, tells the story that he remembers hearing: ”When it was time for him to receive the money for his indentured period there was no money, however, he was given a promissory note for the amount. On his way to a bank, a good hearted lawyer took the note and gave him the cash. With that he was able to purchase a wash tub, a churn and a cow.”

Again on the lighter side, when everyone got together, there was much laughter. I remember his daughters laughing as they recalled their parents. They referred to their mom as “the storm” and their dad, James, as “the calm.” These names described how each parent dealt with situations. Grandpa James was always the gentle one. His experiences moulded him to take life as it was given, to embrace the good times and gently and calmly deal with every situation.

I started my story with, “I remember very little about my grandfather” as I was only seven when he passed away, however, this research has brought me heart to heart with a man, whose bravery, love, gentleness and calmness, a life well-lived, has made me proud to be his granddaughter and to carry his name. All of his children and grandchildren could say the same.

I wish I could sit on the porch, or the stoop, as they called it, and rock alongside of him andJames as Grandpa Dudgeon say, “Thank you. Thank you for enduring the hurts, the losses, the heartbreaking conditions. Because you came, this family continues to make a positive contribution to our communities and to our country.” James Miller Dudgeon, my grandfather, never accumulated many treasures on earth; he instilled the best treasure ever in his family, that of love.

I am sure that Jesus said to him, “Well done James, my good and faithful servant.”




  1. The Golden Bridge, Child Migration from Scotland to Canada 1869-1939, Narrative of Facts 1880.
  2. A brief that traced the Dudgeon family back in time undertaken by Val Wilson
  3. Research conducted by Valerie Smith, Archive and Administration Officer

Carol Dudgeon is a teacher and musician/singer from Hamilton, Ontario. She grew up in Napanee and has remained close to her large extended family.




%d bloggers like this: