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Published October 13, 1998

British Home Children in the Maritimes
By Sandra Devlin

Recent news [1998] from parliament in London, England holds promise for researchers with home children connections.

Home children were orphaned or destitute English children unceremoniously shipped to live with new families in far-flung parts of the globe in the 19th and early 20th century. Thousands were sent to Canada, many to the Maritime provinces. Many of the children never saw or heard from their families in England again.

Earlier this year, a report to the British parliament in London encouraged governments in affected countries, including Canada, to expedite and encourage family research and reunions. In addition the report requests the Canadian government to consider giving financial support to organizations which represent the interests of former child migrants.

The most encouraging and strongly worded recommendation reads: “We urge those governments to take any steps open to them to waive or amend legislative restrictions on access to records (for instance, arising from Freedom of Information Acts or Privacy Acts), and to negotiate changes in any agency policy which limits the provision of information to former child migrants or their descendants ... if necessary compulsion should be used to elicit relevant material.”

Other recommendations of the report include:
  • A central database be established which contains basic information to direct child migrants or their descendants to detailed sources.

  • Former child migrants or descendants should have immediate access to all files containing information concerning their history and background.

  • Sending and receiving agencies should make available help with tracing families on request.

  • The British government should establish a travel fund with the intention of giving former child migrants the opportunity to visit the country of their birth, attend family reunions or visit sites of personal importance.
Home children, so called, began coming to Canada as early as 1833 and were still arriving as late as 1930. Estimates of how many young children were shipped in third-class passage from England to Canada vary between 90,000 and 125,000.

The vast majority of the young immigrants were orphaned, destitute or wayward children whose overseers in England decided they would benefit from being shipped to the colonies to be placed with families.

As unthinkable as such a scheme would be today, these do-gooders were probably well-intentioned. Some were religious crusaders, others were social workers. All were working within the framework of their time in industrialized England were slum poverty and hardship was commonplace. Barnardo Homes of England is the best known, but there were many others. Many home children wound up in the Maritimes, as well as other locations in Canada, noteably: Knowlton Que.; Peterborough, Toronto, Hamilton, Brockville, Bellevile, Stratford and Guelph, Ont. or Winnipeg and Russel, Man.

Read between the lines of a passage from this letter sent home to England by Henry Potter, a youngster placed with a family in New Brunswick in 1835: “According to your request, I write to inform you that I like this place well, and Mr. Dunkin is a good master. After a passage of six weeks and four days, we landed all in good heath, at Chatham (New Brunswick), about ninety miles below this place and walked up.”

The use of the word “master” hardly suggests a father-son relationship; and being forced to walk 90 miles suggests these children were handled with haphazard indifference right from the beginning. Reports of the era by the principal organizers spoke in glowing terms of the success of these programs. But subsequent stories reveal another, not-at-all rosy side where children were treated no better than slaves; some badly abused, mistreated and even killed.

In a 1996 address to the senate in Ottawa, well-known advocate of family issues, Anne C. Cools used Barnardo home children as an example of Canada’s poor historic record in handling child abuse. Senator Cools said: “Between 1880 and 1930, Canada imported from England our littlest immigrants. Some 80,000 children were imported from England to Canada. Of these, 30,000 were sent by Dr. Thomas John Barnardo, of Barnardo's homes for boys and girls. The expressions ‘Barnardo's boys’ and ‘Barnardo's girls’ were then part of the lexicon of emerging child welfare. “

...There were many success stories, but there were some tragic ones.

One tragic story is the death of the little immigrant George Green at the hands of his female caretaker Sandra Findlay in 1895 in Owen Sound, Ont. where Coroner, Dr. Allan Cameron, testified that the 15-year-old boy died of neglect, starvation and physical brutality. He testified that the state of George Green's body, and the condition of the room where he died would haunt his memory forever, and that in his 40 years in medicine, including his days in the slums of Glasgow, he had seen nothing as terrible.

“Sandra Findlay was charged with murder, later reduced to manslaughter. Her justification was that little immigrant Green was a sickly child, disabled, defective from head to foot, cross-eyed, humpbacked and quite useless. Sandra Findlay went free and suffered no penalty in George Green's murder.”

Not all home children were so horrendously treated; but most were under valued. Nor were they all waifs.

One correspondent in Prince Edward Island tells of how her great-grandmother came to Canada. She was the daughter of a wealthy Englishman who, after his wife’s death, had no use for his female children. The father kept the son, but discarded the daughters by shipping them to Canada.

Home children were housed in interim farms and homes across Canada to await placement.

One such interim facility was in Fairfax, N.S. from where children were placed in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and P.E.I. An estimated 550 children were sent to Nova Scotia between August of 1873 and the end of 1876.

Maritime holding homes or work farms, besides the one in Fairfax, were in Rothesay, Lower Gagetown and several at Saint John, N.B. Moses H. Perley, immigration agent at Saint John, N.B. was placing children from the Poor Law Unions as early as 1852, when he requested 100 males and 100 female children. This was followed by a request for a total of 249 males and 176 females of which 62 males and 43 females were to go to King’s County; 58 males and 47 females for Carleton County. These “transactions” were never completed because Perley did not meet some unspecified demands of the Poor Law Unions.

In the Daily Telegraph in Saint John on Aug. 29, 1887 an article published about yet -another group of home children notes that 17 girls, ages of 10 and 20 had all been successfully “placed” in Albert and Kings counties, New Brunswick. “Seventeen Scotch girls whose ages range between 10 and 20 years were at the Bangor House yesterday. With the exception of five, they all came from Maryhill school near Glasgow where they have been trained as general domestics and educated to the fifth standard. Last eve they attended service in St. David’s Church, Saint John.” Further in the article it states: “Mrs. McKenzie of Nerepis was in town yesterday and took a little girl 10 years of age home with her last eve as an adopted daughter.”

The names given were: Maggie Wason, Maggie McCallum, Mary Logie, Mary B. Henderson, Minnie Logie, Mary Gillies, Katie Duffy, Robina Mitchell, Jessie Paul, Agnes Ross, Lizzie Mills, Agnes Stewart, Katie Reid, Maggie Gow, Agnes Francis and Jane Watson.

Near Rothesay in the early 1900s, Ellinor Close was granted 200 acres of land by the New Brunswick government to operate Ellinor Farm Home. Her plan was that 20 children be raised at her farm and sent to local schools. After leaving school they would be placed on local farms to gain experience.

In 1910, Dr. George Carter Cossar of Scotland purchased a 600-acre farm near Lower Gagetown, N.B.. Cossar had another farm in Scotland where he wanted to train boys before bringing them to his New Brunswick farm. This scheme was active between 1911 and 1928.

Many genealogy buffs with Maritime roots will find connections through these child immigrants called home children and hopefully be able to more easily unravel their ties if the proposed legislation in England gains wide-spread acceptance.

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