Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest Part 2

Last week Anne and I travelled to the East Kootenay, where I gave a series of talks on the history of Canada’s home children, titled Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest: Honouring Canada’s Child Immigrants. I spoke to audiences at the museums in Creston and Invermere, the Public Library in Kimberley, and had a date scheduled to speak at the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel in Cranbrook, but despite publicity no one showed up. We met some wonderful people and what was fascinating is that everyone who had a ‘home child’ in their family history seemed to be at about the same stage of research—very preliminary.

One retired gentleman we met in Kimberley, Ron Evans, had only learned five years ago that his father was a ‘home child.’ He had the most documentation so far of anyone I’ve seen—correspondence and other documents from the Barnardo’s agency and even a letter written by his father as a teenager shortly after arriving in Canada. Absolute gold! Another woman named Lynda Tutty whom we met in Invermere had similar documentation, again from Barnardo’s. So it would seem that organization has opened its doors wide to enquiries and is actively assisting ‘home child’ descendants to get access to their documents. A refreshing and long overdue sea change.

Museums seem to bring out the very best people that our society has to offer. As a career choice for museum curators and archivists it often means many unpaid hours far beyond the call of duty. For the volunteers, their only ulterior motive is in preserving the histories of their communities. I’m grateful to Creston Museum Director Tammy Hardwick, Kimberley Librarian Karin von Wittgenstein, Canadian Museum of Rail Transportation Director Garry Anderson, Windermere Valley Museum Director Dorothy Blunden and archivist Marg Christensen.

Given that I only discovered my grandfather Cyril William Joyce was a ‘home child’ five years ago just like Ron Evans did, it would seem that this rather sad chapter in Canadian history is finally divulging its secrets. In part we can thank TV documentaries such as Telefilm Canada’s Childhood Lost: The Story of Canada’s Home Children and The Forgotten Children by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC), as well as the recently-released feature film Oranges and Sunshine by British director Jim Loach. And in part we have serendipity to thank: that phenomenon of historical events meeting in confluence like rivers emptying into the same delta. It’s time. My own article, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest Part Two, follows.


2. Echoing Down the Generations

Myself about age 16 near LV Rogers high school, 1975—the same age my grandfather was when he was exported to Canada in 1926.

It has struck me as more than mere coincidence that, like my grandfather, I left home at age 15—he was 16 when he was shipped to Canada. Family systems psychologist John Bradshaw would say it wasn’t strange at all but practically to be expected that I’d replicate my grandfather’s experience of leaving home as a teenager. Unlike him, however, I had a choice.

What I learned in the course of my research was that Cyril’s father George Ochiltree Joyce was a ‘commercial traveller’, British parlance for travelling salesman, selling clothing. He had married Nelly Firman, a North London railway stationmaster’s daughter, and with her started a family in East Ham, deep in London’s poorest quarters. My Dad has inherited only three photos of his grandparents. One of them shows the sense of hope and promise that likely brought George to London from his English countryside origins. It shows George and Nelly proudly strutting in fine clothes while a group of ladies looks on, as if some minor royalty were passing. Whether it was a case of the Joyces enjoying their salad days before misfortune struck, or a case of maintaining appearances, is impossible to know now. We know this much: trying to eke your way out of poverty with a sales job isn’t exactly a cakewalk. In his between-the-wars novel Coming Up for Air, George Orwell’s character George Bowling describes the dreary lifestyle lived by travelling salesmen. Having had some of these dead-end jobs myself, it’s not hard to see my great grandfather in these lines:

“It was a queer time. The cross-country journeys, the godless places you fetched up in, suburbs of Midland towns that you’d never hear of in a hundred normal lifetimes. The ghastly bed-and-breakfast houses where the sheets always smell faintly of slops and the fried egg at breakfast has a yolk paler than a lemon. And the other poor devils of salesmen that you’re always meeting, middle-aged fathers of families in moth-eaten overcoats and bowler hats, who honestly believe that sooner or later trade will turn the corner and they’ll jack their earnings up to five quid a week. And the traipsing from shop to shop, and the arguments with shopkeepers who don’t want to listen, and the standing back and making yourself small when a customer comes in. …There are chaps who can’t even walk into a shop and open their bag of samples without screwing themselves up as though they were going over the top.”

Cyril with his father George Ochiltree Joyce about 1920, East Ham, London. George at about 52 looks 72.

Then the Joyce family is plunged into crisis. George is gone—whether cut short by an early death or doing the classic ‘gone for a smoke and never came back,’ we don’t know. All we know is that George disappears from the records without a trace—no death certificate, no burial records, nothing. The older children by now had left home but that still left Nelly alone to care for Cyril and his sister Hilda. She’d already raised five children in cramped row housing—cold, dirty brick monuments to Victorian social planning. As a railway stationmaster’s daughter her options were limited. Lacking higher education, she would be limited to doing laundry, cooking, and cleaning at near-starvation wages. It’s not hard to understand why Nelly would have turned to the Church of England for help once her husband was gone. Its Council for Empire Settlement had only just been established in 1925, the latest in a long line of child emigration schemes that were both profitable and politically expedient.

Nelly may have heard of the farms springing up on the Canadian prairies, and a vast province named Alberta. The children were to be paid a stipend for their work, saved up until they reached legal age. They were to be allowed to attend school. And with land cheap and the country desperate for good British stock, Cyril could do very well for himself as a young man.

Nelly Joyce (left) and George and Nelly strutting their stuff during their salad days.

It’s not hard to imagine a slow blue flame eating away what love was left for his mother in Cyril’s heart. In fairness to Nelly, her options were only slightly west of ‘between the devil and the deep blue sea’. The harsh realities of East London wouldn’t have offered Cyril much in the way of a future. An East End cholera epidemic in 1866 killed 3,000 people in a week. Many were probably already so weak from hunger and malnutrition they were practically walking corpses. It was this very epidemic that caused Dr. Barnardo to set up his first ‘ragged school’ to house the ‘waifs and strays’ in 1867. It was also the crisis that motivated child emigrationist Annie Macpherson to devote her life to helping poor children. It’s estimated that there were 30,000 destitute children in London alone during this period. Even today, London’s East End has the fifth highest level of unemployment in Britain and seven out of 10 children there are from low-income families.

Cyril Joyce in East Ham, about age 12.

Still, Cyril’s soul must have screamed at the injustice. Just a few years short of legal age and he had absolutely no say in his own future. He would emigrate to Canada whether he wanted to or not, as thousands had before and would continue to do after him. Canadian customs records show Cyril travelling from Liverpool on the CPR steamship SS Montclare, arriving at Montreal July 31, 1926, with his destination the Anglican Church hostel in Edmonton. He traveled with three other boys, Laurence Sachs (age 16), John Dollery (16) and Thomas Jones (12), and Ellen Burns, listed as a “companion.” The only name for next of kin on the customs form is Cyril’s mother Nelly. They arrived in Canada with all of three or four pounds Sterling each in their pockets. From the Anglican Church hostel he was sent to work on various northern Alberta farms. The report cards used to grade child immigrants’ performance show that he was moved three or four times to different farms. Given his slight physique, it’s likely he simply wasn’t up to the heavy labour. Many younger boys suffered the same upheavals—unable to cope either physically or emotionally with the workload and isolation, they were repeatedly returned to the distribution homes. Rejected over and over again.

As if his luck hadn’t been bad enough, Cyril comes of age in 1929. He’s free at last, but set free in an era of intense hardship. The Great Depression had hit the Prairie provinces hard and survival for farmers there was even more of a life or death struggle than usual. Not long after he married my grandmother Marjorie Maynard, they packed up the chickens, cattle and her parents and moved everything in a railway boxcar to the West Kootenay region of BC. On the shores of Kootenay Lake, pristine and shimmering in the sun, the side of a mountain could be had for a dollar an acre. And all the sweat and gristle you could muster to clear it of trees and coax out a living. My grandmother recalls being pleasantly shocked “at how green everything was” there compared to northern Alberta. You could easily grow vegetables and fruit and trade with neighbours for dairy and meat. Marjorie’s parents settled on a small farm in Balfour, near Nelson.

By the end of the ’30s industrial production was gearing up again for the next world war. When Cyril heard that a mining company called Cominco was calling for men at its smelter in Trail, just south of Nelson, he didn’t hesitate. Thirty-five years of work at the smelter wipes Cyril to a soft shadow, a quiet, gentle existence barely known even to his wife Rose and my Uncle Rob. When I asked him for letters and photos from Cyril he said that few of such documents had survived. Rob recalls letters being disposed of as soon as they were read, and even family photos being thrown away. Once again, it seemed that Cyril was erasing his own past, as if he thought his life didn’t matter.

Cyril Joyce about 1990, age 80, his smile remarkable for its openness.

When I told Uncle Rob about the British PM’s apology, he wrote, “It is a great day. I wish we could be reading this with Dad now; that would have made it even better. I understand Dad better now than I ever did, and why he was sad at times for reasons I never knew. An understanding that, like the British Government’s apology has come, sadly, much too late.”

But better late than never. Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was the first head of state to offer a national apology in November, 2009. This was followed by Prime Minister Brown’s apology February 24, 2010 and the establishment of a £6 million fund to help child immigrants retrace their families. Meanwhile, Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said the Conservative government had no plans to apologize. Perhaps Australia and Britain have recognized that only by acknowledging the sins of our collective past can we begin to heal as a nation, to lay the children’s ghosts to rest. Canada is still unable or unwilling to do so.

For the Conservative government to disavow responsibility for the home children is disingenuous. As historian Roy Parker explains, “Subsidies were paid by the federal government and by some of the provincial governments,” and critics of child emigration complained about the large sums being spent on the various programs. Clearly, the Canadian government was deeply invested in the scheme, because farms were chronically short of both workers and cash. What the governments of both Britain and Canada failed to spend much money on was monitoring of the children once they disappeared into the Canadian hinterland. It was a system begging to be abused, as many of the children were.

How many of these exported children had to live with the emotional scars of being unwanted—in the words of 19th century social revisionists, the ‘residuum’ of society? As historian Kenneth Bagnell concluded, “…the act of uprooting children and sending them, alone, across the ocean to work in a strange land… must be regarded as one of the most Draconian measures in the entire history of children in English-speaking society. Its impact on the life of a sensitive child—even one who was placed in reasonable circumstances—is difficult to measure, sometimes even difficult to imagine.”

We are walking history. Like it or not—believe it or not—we carry its burdens. As individuals or as a nation, we either lay the ghosts of family past to rest or remain haunted by them—and pass them on to our children to deal with. It seems to have fallen to me to heal the wound I inherited, the same as if it had happened to me. “Ancestors are calling out to me in dreams / Howling for me to right their wrongs…” I once wrote in a poem.

And so Cyril comes full circle in the footsteps of a grandson he barely knew. Home again—at last. Despite being wrenched from his family roots in England, he accomplished the most simple yet profound achievement for an ‘orphaned’ child—a home, and roots as a Canadian. The elders of the Native American Siksika/Sauk Blackfeet Nation say there is great healing power in the acknowledgement of past wrongs, and that healing goes both forward and backward in time. The children’s ghosts are waiting. Let the healing begin.

About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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1 Response to Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest Part 2

  1. Fascinating story, and great photo of your grandfather as a boy. You may be interested in the children’s book, “Charlie, a Home Child’s Life in Canada” by Beryl Young (Ronsdale Press 2011).

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