Barnardo’s Poster Boys in the West: Part One


Mention the term ‘home children’—the 100,000 poor British ‘orphans’ emigrated to this country between 1869–1939—and most Canadians will give you a blank stare. Yet by official government estimates, 12 percent of Canadians are descendants of British child immigrants—up to four million of us. Once it’s explained, however, the response shifts to, “Oh, I had a grandfather (or great aunt, fill in the blank) who was one of those!”

The topic seems to have flown below the radar of even well-qualified museum archivists. Often they reply to my enquiries with, “We don’t have any files on that subject.” Given how little the ‘home children’ history has been cultivated in this country until recently, that’s understandable. Yet Kenneth Bagnell’s benchmark history The Little Immigrants and Joy Parr’s academic study are now more than 30 years old. Bagnell’s book hit the Canadian bestseller lists upon its release and has been reprinted several times. And still, after all this time, the topic has the cachet of a newfound historical phenomenon.

As part of my continuing research I spent some time this fall in the archives at Kelowna, Vernon, and Nelson BC. To my delighted surprise, I discovered that the latter two of those communities each had prominent citizens in their history who were ‘Barnardo boys.’

Part One: Joe Harwood in the Land of Opportunity

The SS Parisian was just one of many ships used to transport British child immigrants to Canada.

August 10, 1882. Liverpool. The SS Parisian stands ready to receive passengers, its single funnel and tall masts soaring over the docks. Onlookers are surprised to see a group of 51 boys, dressed exactly alike in their overcoats and standing by their steamer trunks. Once these are loaded the boys march in orderly file up to the ship. They are greeted there by Dr. Thomas John Barnardo, the renowned philanthropist known for saving thousands of ‘street urchins’ from starvation or death by exposure on the hard streets of Britain’s major cities. Though not a tall man, he is impeccably attired in dress coat and top hat, a walking stick held loosely in one hand. He greets each of the boys in turn, offering a hearty handshake and a few well-chosen words. “Work hard, my lads, be honest and truthful as good Christians ought, and a credit to your British blood.”

Adults overhearing Dr. Barnardo are already familiar with his work operating his orphanage at Stepney Causeway, London. Discipline is strict, the children are worked hard, but they are fed, clothed and taught basic literacy and manual skills. In fact, many of Dr. Barnardo’s charges aren’t orphans—many come from broken homes and the common denominator with all of them is poverty. Fourteen-year-old Joseph Harwood—a genial boy by nature—is eager for the adventure to begin, even as others are struggling to choke back tears. For weeks in the boys’ dormitories at Stepney the talk has been ablaze with Canada—its vast lakes and forests, its wild animals, even Indians! Now, leaning over the railing of the Parisian with the other boys, he joins in the chorus of “God bless you!” to the waving figure of Dr. Barnardo on the docks below.


Dr. Barnardo as he would likely have appeared in his send-off to the boys embarking upon the SS Parisian.

Dr. Barnardo was in the habit of promoting his work using before-and-after photographs of destitute children transformed by the training and care they received in his Homes. The creation of such ‘poster boys’ (and girls) proved a successful—if controversial—public relations tool for promoting Barnardo’s work. Dr. Barnardo was fond of calling his child emigration work “the golden bridge” to Canada—a fast-developing country the children were led to believe was a kind of Promised Land brimming with opportunities. What was not publicized was the ‘Canada Clause’ in the agreement signed by poor families turning their children over to Barnardo’s care, allowing the agency to emigrate their children at any time without parental consent. 

 Joseph Harwood (1868-1950) and other Barnardo’s Homes wards were among 100,000 such ‘home children’ exported from the UK to Canada between 1869-1939 through various philanthropic and church agencies, including Barnardo’s, Middlemore Homes, Fegan’s, Quarrier’s, Church of England, Catholic Church, Salvation Army and many others.

Through a combination of hard work and lucky breaks, ‘Joe’ Harwood and many other poor British children would grow up to become highly successful Canadians. They were among that select few of child immigrants to Canada who became ‘poster boys’ and girls for the movement—those whose lives can be counted as true success stories. As journalist Jane Cole Hamilton wrote in a 1984 Toronto Star article, “The Barnardo Homes’ own records show that at one time the mayors of 14 Canadian cities were ex-Barnardo boys. More than 6,000 joined the Canadian armed forces in World War II. Many… were decorated or mentioned in despatches.” The reality, however, for most ‘home children’ was a consistent strain of loneliness, isolation, lack of love, and all too frequently abuse.

Photos like this were used to help Barnardo's raise sympathy—and funds—for the plight of poor homeless children.

As is often the case where vested interests are concerned, often the image portrayed in the media of the day represents only a tiny fraction of the whole picture. Joy Parr’s groundbreaking thesis on child immigration to Canada (1980) noted that only 12 out of 105 cases she surveyed could be classed as ‘occupationally successful’ as adults. This was due in no small part to the fact that, despite contracts stipulating a minimum amount of schooling for indentured ‘home children,’ this clause was seldom respected or enforced. Consequently most Canadian child immigrants grew up to work in menial occupations, though many benefited from the early development of mining and logging. Few remained in farming, as already by the 1930s, the economic depression and increasing mechanization were reducing work opportunities on farms.

Harwood, who worked his way West from his term as an indentured farm labourer near Brandon, Manitoba, found himself in Vernon, BC within a year of that town’s incorporation in 1892. The ‘low-hanging fruit’ of economic opportunity was everywhere for the plucking in the fast-developing West. Starting as a CPR contractor hauling goods, he opened his own livery business in 1898 with a single horse. That same year Harwood was awarded the post office contract—in those days, a 50-year tenure. Gradually he expanded his business and, adapting to changing times, eventually built up a fleet of trucks. A hard worker, his motto was ‘nothing too big or too small.’ Known locally as ‘Sunny Joe,’ he used his status as a well-liked, successful businessman to run for a seat on the Vernon School Board and served as a trustee for 28 years as well as 20 years on Vernon’s Jubilee Hospital Board.

A Barnardo's ad. Children this young were usually 'boarded out' with foster families until old enough to be emigrated.

Yet his beginnings were hardly promising, as a May 3, 1923 Vernon News article explains. “Leaving his Hertford home when but a boy in his teens, a shilling in his pocket, his clothes in a bundle under his arm and a railway ticket clutched tightly in one hand, ‘Joe’ Harwood set out for London…” Once in London he came under the care of Barnardo’s Homes, and was sent to Canada in 1882—a highly significant date in the history of child immigration. Although Dr. Barnardo had already shipped some 900 children to Canada through Annie Macpherson and other agencies, 1882 was the beginning of his highly successful career as a child emigrationist. His organization alone would contribute 30,000 of the 100,000 child immigrants eventually shipped to this country.

The famous 'before and after' photos used by Barnardo's.

Arriving in Canada illiterate left a deep mark on Joe Harwood. In later years he felt it was his duty to encourage public education in any way possible. He had a natural love of children and it was said he was the only trustee in the board’s history to visit the school every day. “He envisioned equal opportunities for all children, be they rich, poor or middle class,” writes Okanagan historian Mabel Johnson. Harwood was one of those rare individuals who lived to see the fulfillment of his hopes for change—a public education system open to all regardless of economic status. This was quite unlike the British system, where a ‘public school’ traditionally meant its opposite—an elite boarding school for the rich.

Harwood’s optimistic nature gave him an innate advantage that not all ‘home children’ shared. His experience on the farm in Manitoba may have been more positive than those of the many child immigrants who were worked mercilessly, inadequately clothed and fed, often made to sleep in barns or unheated attics, and severely beaten in the name of ‘discipline.’ Yet despite having come from an economic class system that spat him into the world with only Barnardo’s to offer a helping hand, Harwood remained loyal to the British Empire. His obituary notice in the May 25, 1950 Vernon News noted that he had returned to Britain twice, once for the coronation of George V in 1911 and again in March 1937 to attend the coronation of George VI that May. Perhaps the amiable among us truly are blessed by lacking a sense of irony—that these same monarchs perpetuated the very system that had made hundreds of thousands of British children so desperately poor they were exported to become indentured servants.

In his own lifetime, Harwood became a ‘poster boy’ for the child emigration movement. During his 1937 trip to England, he was given unprecedented access to Canadian and British immigration officials, three members of the British cabinet, the Commissioner of the Salvation Army (Joe and wife Mary were staunch supporters) and members of the aristocracy—all of them eager to hear his story and entertain his views on immigration to Canada. Harwood spoke as an avid supporter of continued child emigration.

“Pointing to the fact that emigration from the Old Country to Canada is tapering off,” noted the July 1, 1937 Vernon News, “…that the United States is continuing to exert an ever-greater influence on Canadian life, that emigration from mid-European countries has become a very vital factor in the Dominion’s growing citizenry… ‘Joe’ was able to stress… the need for Britain’s strengthening its ties with Canada. ‘And what better way could there be,’ Joe asked, ‘than to send out your young British men and women, properly trained, to take their places in a growing country?’”

Joe Harwood poses in front of the Vernon school, c.1940s. Courtesy Vernon Museum Archives

Harwood spent much of his visit to England visiting Barnardo’s institutions, including the massive one near his birthplace in Hertfordshire, capable of housing and training 750 boys, and fully outfitted with modern machine shops. He was “given a royal welcome” and introduced himself as “a Barnardo boy of 50 years’ standing.” His inspection tour included other similar institutions, where the same Vernon News report notes him finding “a fine type of technical training is given hundreds upon hundreds of youths who once would have been homeless and desperate.” Clearly, real progress was being made compared with Barnardo’s earlier focus on mostly obsolete manual and farming skills. He was also invited to speak at an ‘Overseas Meeting Day’ at the Barnardo school at Barking Siding, which housed 1,500 girls.

In Mabel Johnson’s view, Harwood “could have been a prime minister, or a great leader,” quite aware of the extreme disadvantages the poor must battle in order to succeed. “He had the type of rugged, kindly, frank personality not too often met. He felt everything keenly. He used to admonish boys and girls, many of them unknown to him, to go to school—to learn all they could—for as long as they could.” His greatest success came just a few weeks before his death in May 1950, when one of Vernon’s new schools was named in his honour.

Web References

British Home Children database:

British Home Children Descendants website:

Pier 21 Museum of Immigration at Halifax collection of ‘home children’ stories:

Official Canadian government British home child website:


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!
This entry was posted in History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s