Leslie Vivian Rogers—more commonly known by his initials LVR—is the namesake of the high school in Nelson where generations of students spent most of our teen years. Having always been a ‘round peg trying to fit into a square hole,’ I found myself in conflict with the school system during the mid-70s, not least due to its lingering remnants of quasi-militaristic discipline along the lines of old British schools. Consequently, after being expelled from school by Kaslo’s Principal JV Humphries, and soon realizing I was too young to obtain gainful employment, I found my way back into the school system via an alternative route: Nelson’s Aspire program. It was a bit of a wild card bin for misfits of all kinds but there was no pressure, a small class group, and two wonderful teachers—Perry Long and Claire Gardner. I have Perry to thank both for rekindling my love of learning and confirming my vocation as a poet after hearing him read Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas. But at the time, being a teenager, I thought nothing of the man after whom our school was named. Now, nearly 35 years later, I come full circle, only to learn that LV Rogers the man was a great light in the history of public education.
A Scholar and a Gentleman: Leslie Vivian Rogers (1886-1946)
June, 1891. Quebec City. A neatly dressed five-year-old boy clutches the hand of a matron, occasionally peering up at her for reassurance. Her face betrays little emotion. His English wool jacket is stifling hot in the afternoon heat. They stand in a crowd of nearly a hundred other boys supervised by several adults, waiting at the immigration shed. A Canadian immigration officer counts heads before examining their documentation. They are funneled through a walkway and assailed by the sights and sounds of a busy pier—men shouting, using block and tackle to lower heavy loads from ship’s holds, businessmen gathered in clumps to survey their latest stock in trade, messenger boys scampering in all directions. The little boy is too overwhelmed to speak. He is lifted into a waiting carriage, its horses snorting as if annoyed at all the commotion. Looking behind him he sees a dozen more carriages, all being loaded with boys from his ship. He looks up at the matron seated beside him. “Where we going, missus?” “To the train station, Master Leslie. Won’t that be nice—a train ride?” Though she doesn’t tell him where they’re going, their destination is the Farley Avenue Barnardo’s Home in Toronto. A tear slips from his eye—although surrounded by people, he feels utterly alone. Leslie Vivian Rogers is still too young even to understand what it means that his father is dead.
Leslie Vivian Rogers—another of what I call the Barnardo’s Poster Boys—successfully leveraged his Boer War service at the tender age of 15 into college and university training to become a teacher. He spoke proudly of being a ‘Barnardo boy,’ as did Joe Harwood, who became a successful businessman. Rogers was born November 2, 1886, the son of William L. and Emily (Vivian) Rogers, in either Cornwall or London. Little is recorded of his early family life, though his entrance papers to Queen’s University in 1907 list his father as deceased. As was often the case with British child immigrants, his mother may have been left alone to try raising a child at a time when women had few options for work. Or he may in fact have been an orphan.
Rogers was put into the care of Barnardo’s and by June 1891 he had been sent to Canada, placed with a family on a farm near Cobourg or Haldimand, Ontario. “One wonders how helpful a smallish boy could have been on a farm at age five,” muses author Leslie Drew in her booklet LVR—The Wit and Wisdom of Leslie Vivian Rogers. “Did he fetch the wood, carry milk pails, feed the chickens?” As very few ‘home children’ were ever adopted, it’s likely Rogers had been placed in Barnardo’s ‘boarding out’ program, which paid families to raise infants and toddlers. As Drew noted, “Barnardo’s kept track of him right up to 1913; if he had been adopted surely Barnardo’s would have had no reason for noting his ‘excellent progress’ so many years later.”
Leslie Vivian Rogers seems to have been among the fortunate ones who were sent to a caring family. Once again, due to lack of records, at this point we must rely on the memories of others and the inevitable element of confabulation that human memory entails. Writing in the Nelson High School’s commemorative school yearbook on LV Rogers, BC school inspector JB DeLong recalled him being sent to “a rancher a few miles north of Cobourg, Ontario,” probably Roseneath, where he attended elementary school. “The rancher died and left the ranch to his son. The son had tuberculosis, and told Rogers he was going to leave the ranch to him, and asked him to bring a lawyer to make out the will. The son died before the lawyer arrived. A family in Cobourg was interested in Leslie and asked him to live with them.”
But before he could finish high school, the Boer War sent out its call for men to fight ‘for king and country’ and although only 15 years old, Rogers signed up. Because of his age—some who knew him claimed he was the youngest soldier in that war—he was made a drummer boy. He served with the 40th Northumberland Regiment as a member of the 2nd Canadian Mounted Rifles and earned the South African medal with three clasps.
Rogers married Eva Jane Roberts in 1908, youngest daughter of Mr. and Mrs. James Roberts, of Roseneath. Even in the 1980s the bread crumb trail of clues was growing thin for Drew in her pursuit of LVR’s early years. Her research enquiries with Barnardo’s after-care agency—which cited confidentiality restrictions—were less than helpful. She wrote of “never for a moment thinking one would be refused information on someone who was in their care nearly 100 years ago and who has been dead for 40 years.”
Rogers enrolled at Queen’s University, Kingston in 1907, graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree in April 1911, taking honours in political science and completing his teacher training during this period. After a brief stint teaching in Saskatchewan, Rogers and wife Eva moved to Kelowna, BC, arriving in August, 1911. Already well liked by both colleagues and students, he was principal of the Kelowna High School by 1912. In 1916 he was induced by friends to run for a seat in the Provincial Legislature against the local incumbent.
“His brilliance, wit and charm captured a large group of followers—almost enough to win. He lost only by a mere handful of votes,” recalled fellow teacher Derek Tye. Rogers took one more shot at politics in 1920 in the same riding but was again defeated. Gerry Priest, one of his former students at Nelson High School, observed that Rogers’ gentle nature ultimately proved him unsuitable for politics: “…he had no aggressive appetite for slaughtering an opponent at the polls. The bickering climate of politics would be foreign to him.” It was enough to convince him that his true calling was education and he never ran for office again.
After teaching at King George High School in Vancouver for slightly over a year from 1920-21, Rogers accepted the post of principal at Nelson High School, starting in January 1922. From 1922 until his death in August 1946, he served as Principal at that school, leaving an indelible mark on the minds of his students and fond memories amongst the teaching staff.
When the new Nelson high school was christened LV Rogers High in 1956, the school yearbook paid him tribute. Former student become Principal Gerry Lee spoke of Rogers’ teaching as “effortless—the mark of a true artist. How we enjoyed his lessons… With what pleasure we went to the board when he asked ‘the lad’ to step forward, ‘travel light, just take your brains.’ …I can still see him standing in the hallway looking at us as he came in with that quizzical, slightly humorous look we grew to love so much.”
Considering the temper of the times Rogers was living and working in, his kindly, non-disciplinarian approach in dealing with students was truly exceptional. Rogers was “a master of words,” wrote Drew. “He had used them brilliantly on public platforms at a time when ‘oratory’ was valued in a communicator. He used them in the classroom to much more lasting effect. The ultimate weapon in his arsenal of words was a marvelous sense of humour.”
Drew speculates on just how much of Rogers’ character retained the stamp of Barnardo’s from his earliest years. He was in the habit of referring to boys in class as ‘the lad,’ or students generally as ‘urchins,’ recalled former student Gordon Fleming. “He definitely seems to have taken to heart Barnardo’s insistent advice to the young, that they be honest, hard-working Christians,” concludes Drew. “And yet, perhaps people other than Barnardo’s played a greater role. Maybe… (he) landed on the right doorsteps in Canada.”
If so, both Rogers and Harwood were among the ten percent or so of child immigrants who were blessed with a smooth ride in their adoptive country. For the other 90 percent, coming to Canada mostly meant exchanging the bleakness and toil of British workhouses for the unrelenting drudgery of farm and domestic work. Added to that was the extreme loneliness of living on isolated Canadian farms, the culture shock of going from urban to rural lifestyles, and being torn away from siblings and other family members back in Britain.
“The day started at four in the morning with the help staggering out to the barn to begin the chores—milking one hundred cows by hand,” recalled William Donaldson of Chipman, New Brunswick in Phyllis Harrison’s seminal work, The Home Children. “The barn work was usually done by six o’clock and breakfast was at seven. After breakfast we went down to the slaughterhouse to kill two or three head of beef or pork… The help would be fortunate to be in bed by ten at night.”
“You did not get out to play with other boys and girls. It was all work,” added Joseph Betts of Belleville, Ontario. “Not only that but when I came over here I left three sisters behind in England. I have never heard from them and cannot seem to get track of them.” “…there were times when I was so lonely I sat down and cried,” recalled James J. Crookes. “I hadn’t known what it was like until then not to be loved. I was cursed like a slave not knowing what to do to please and I tried so hard.”
As the science of social psychology and the understanding of children’s unique emotional needs progressed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, critics began to question the benefits of child emigration. The Director of the Canadian Council on Child Welfare, Charlotte Whitton, denounced the practice at a 1924 convention of the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire (IODE), demanding, “Why are so many children being brought to Canada? …The only fair inference is that juvenile immigrants are being sought for placements in homes and on conditions which the Canadian authorities will not accept for our children.”
Whitton described the use of children in farm work as “a cheap labour that approaches perilously near a form of slavery.” The British Bondfield Commission determined that same year that no children under 14 (the age at which British children left school at the time) should be part of emigration programs. “…the comparative helplessness of the child makes this form of migration the most liable to abuse,” they concluded in their report. “There is the possibility of the loss of certain educational advantages. There is the danger of overworking. There is the further drawback that… persons who have taken such children are allowed to employ them without paying them any wages, till they reach the age of eighteen…” In fact, despite the contracts drawn up with farmers by Barnardo’s and other agencies, many ‘home children’ never received the wages they earned.
It’s become increasingly apparent that the child emigration program has had lasting psychological effects. Roy Parker, Professor Emeritus of Social Policy at the University of Bristol, in his 2008 book Uprooted—The Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867–1917, explains. “Together with a minority of upbeat accounts… there were those that were deeply sad and where that sadness and distress had persisted through to retirement and beyond. Those who wrote about such distress tended to do so in some detail. Typically, they emphasized their feelings of loneliness, of being unloved, of being stigmatized as a ‘home child’ and of feeling a deep sense of psychological damage.” This stigmatization arose from being perceived by many as the ‘scum of Empire’; according to Jane Cole Hamilton the Canadian press routinely called them ‘guttersnipes.’
Having been denied affection in their formative years, many found as adults that they were incapable of relating emotionally to their spouses and children. As Kenneth Bagnell wrote in The Little Immigrants, “If, as psychiatry has told us, the years of our childhood are the years that shape our inner lives forever, then the practice of child emigration—the act of uprooting children and sending them, alone, across the ocean to work in a strange land in a strange occupation—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 difficult even to imagine.”