Wednesday, April 15, 2015

World War Wednesdays: British Home Children in Elgin County and Beyond

World War Wednesdays: British Home Children in Elgin County and Beyond
     Before jumping into this week's post I wanted to thank both the regular followers and new readers for the astonishing view count on last week's post! It more than doubled the old record and I am very excited that so many people have renewed access to these stories. I also checked with my dad before writing this to make sure that he hadn't just read the post that many times, and he assures me that other people helped reach that number-- so thank you!
      This week's post is a bit of a stretch of our parameters but please bear with me because it's a subject that I think cannot be discussed enough. It's another one of the little things that come up in conversations with my grandpa that make me want to do some investigating!
      A while back he talked about a group of kids that he knew growing up who had come over as part of the British home children program. As a kid myself, one of the first historical books I ever read was on the subject. For this week, I decided to do a bit of digging and see what this concept really entailed.
A group of young home children with their belongings
     Between 1869 and the late 1930s, a program begun by Scottish Quaker and philanthropist Annie MacPherson facilitated the emigration of over 100,000 children were sent from the United Kingdom to Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. Motivated by social and economic forces, churches and philanthropic organizations sent orphaned, abandoned and pauper children to Commonwealth countries with the belief that these children would have a better chance for a healthy, moral life in rural areas, where families welcomed them as a source of cheap farm labour and domestic help. According to these conditions, Canada was the ideal location for them to be sent.
     Over fifty sending agencies in the UK were established to organize the groups of children, some of the more well known names are Rye, Macpherson, Fegan, Quarriers, Barnardo, Middlemore, Catholic Emigration Society, Salvation Army, Church of England Waif & Strays.After arriving by ship, the children were sent to distributing homes, such as Fairknowe in Brockville, and then sent on to farmers in the area.
     Although many of the children were poorly treated and abused, others experienced a better life here than if they had remained in the urban slums of England. Many served with the Canadian and British Forces during both World Wars.It is estimated that 12%, over 4 million, of the Canadian population is a descendant of a Home Child. Home Children Descendants now live worldwide.
     With numbers like that and our area being an ideal rural location, Home Children are no doubt a part of our history. When I looked into records of Home Children in Elgin County, I found a number of names and stories. There are numerous message boards and societies which seek to reunite descendants of the children with their UK relatives, and I found instances of people from all over the world looking for information on Home Children who had lived and been buried in places like St. Thomas.
    I happened to come across many cases connected to Elgin, but I will share just one example of a local child placement in Port Stanley. Johanna Stilwell, aged twelve, travelled from Bristol, England aboard the SS Prussia on July 9, 1870 and was placed as a servant to a family in Port Stanley. On April 7, 1891, she penned an affectionate letter to the operator of the home in which she had stayed in England:
Dear Miss... I was very much pleased when I received your letter. I am glad you enjoyed your holiday. I have heard where my sister lives, and have written to her this week. She lives at Mr James Law, a farmer, only one son, at Thorald (Thorold). I thought you had letters from all the girls that you had asked to write you, and I think it very ungrateful of them not to write to you. I am very glad to hear that you received a letter from M. A. Cambell. I am very sorry indeed to hear of the death of Mr Greatorex. Give Miss Emma my kind love, and also Mrs Greatorex and master Eddy and Robert. I have enjoyed the winter very much. It has not been very cold. There has not been very much snow. I believe there never is much snow just here, because we are so near the lake. Please give me the names of some of the girls who are coming out to Canada with Miss Rye, who you can best recommend, for a lady in Port Stanley wishes to get one - one who is kind and gentle to children. Dear Miss ..., give my kind love to Miss Jane and to Mrs. ... I hope Mrs. ... has been well this winter, as she generally has a cold. Give my love to Mr. Spring, and tell him I have not forgotten the sermon which he preached to us before we came to Canada. I hope Miss Bessell was pleased with my letter to her. We have lately had a new library in the Sabbath school, and the books are very pretty ones. I hope Mrs Greatorex is mistress of the house still. Give my kind love to the guardians. I will write to you as often as I can, and let you know how I am getting on. Please accept my kindest love, I must soon write to Mrs .... Please write to me as soon as you can, for the lady is anxious to hear about the girls. I am, your affectionate and grateful friend, J. Stillwell
Census records indicate that Johanna remained in the area, and she appears to later have moved to Woodstock. She is just one of many examples of children who found themselves living in the area which some of us now call home, and may even be sharing with the descendants of children like Johanna.
If you have any information related to Home Children in Elgin, I would love to hear it! It is stories like this that make us realize how much more interconnected we are than we really think.
Thanks for reading,
Delany Leitch

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