Fairbridge Farm Schools—the Failed Eden? Part Two

Part Two: Stocking the New Eden: British Columbia 

Kingsley Fairbridge, who had established his first farm schools for migrant children near Perth, Australia in 1912, had a global vision. “I have long thought that the Child Emigration Society should establish our second farm school in British Columbia,” he wrote in the fall of 1914 to his Oxford friend Harry Logan, a Professor of Classics at UBC. “From what I saw there, you have room for towns of thousands of budding farmers. …Training otherwise homeless youngsters to be fine, upstanding and honourable men and women can in its way be quite as fine as the Parliament House in Victoria.”

Although Fairbridge himself did not live to see one of his farms in BC, his legacy continued to inspire even royal patrons. As historian Helen Borrell explains, “During the Great Depression, the plight of Britain’s unemployed always had the concerned sympathy of Edward, Prince of Wales (the future Duke of Windsor). In 1934, he and Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin campaigned for funds to establish a Farm Education school in British Columbia. They received $500,000 of which the Prince of Wales donated $5,000.” Fairbridge’s Child Emigration Society used the money to purchase the Pemberlea estate on Vancouver Island in March, 1935. Another Empire Loyalist, author Rudyard Kipling, left $775,000 to the Society upon his death in 1936.

A Fairbridge navy man on leave poses at the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School in Duncan, BC. Courtesy The Homeroom

The Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School was thus established at Cowichan Station near Duncan on Vancouver Island in January 1935. The first child immigrants arrived in September and by 1937 there were 190 boys and girls living there. One incident became not merely legendary but useful fodder for the press. A Fairbridge matron, when meeting a party of children disembarking at Vancouver, spoke in glowing terms of the lovely fields, forests and meadows they would find at Duncan. One of the children, confused, inquired, “But please, ma’am, if there aren’t any streets, where do we play?”

Meanwhile yet another benefactor had his eyes on the Fairbridge Farm Schools. This was wealthy Scottish aristocrat Captain James Cameron Dun-Waters, who had purchased the spacious peninsula known as Short’s Point on Okanagan Lake near Vernon, BC. Known as ‘the Laird of Fintry,’  Dun-Waters “took an interest in the Fairbridge scheme quite early,” notes historian David Dendy, “and in 1936 presented the Prince of Wales farm with a starter herd of Ayrshire cattle.”

By 1936 Dun-Waters was terminally ill but had no heirs to pass on his 1,174-acre estate to, nor was he able to find a buyer. On July 6, 1938, he announced the donation of his Fintry estate—except for a small portion for his estate manager—to Fairbridge for the establishment of another farm school. According to the January 29, 1942 Vernon News the gift was then valued at $1 million. Dendy writes that the Society decided to use Fintry as a ‘finishing school’ for the older boys, who would come for the last year or two of their training. “As it worked, this meant detachments of boys came up from Duncan for the summer and returned there in the fall after the apple crop was harvested.”

Of the 329 children sent to Fairbridge Duncan, 97 were girls, who took care of domestic duties. Courtesy British Home Children in Canada

The 1939 contingent arrived in June and consisted of 28 boys and four girls, aged 12-16. The boys were set to work in the Fintry orchard, “learning about spraying, thinning, picking and packing, while the girls, under the direction of two Farm School cottage mothers, did the housekeeping,” writes Dendy. “It was thoroughly organized in regime, with each boy doing six hours of work daily in the orchard, following a schedule by which they rose as 6:30 a.m. But time was available for free play and the experience of the natural beauties of Fintry.” An idyllic portrait of the new farm school published in the October 5, 1939 Vernon News speaks of the boys learning to pick and pack Macintosh apples for shipment to Fairbridge patrons in England, using their own distinctive Fintry label.

Marie Harrop, who worked at Fintry, recalls not so much the work as the social life at Fairbridge, noted the 56th Report of the Okanagan Historical Society. “There were cricket, lacrosse and baseball games. The boys lodged at Dun-Waters’ house and slept on cots out on the screened-in verandah. Each night the people living at the ranch were invited down for applesauce and fresh homemade bread, which was a nightly treat. Bill Garnet instructed the boys in their prayers while the visitors were present. The boys then quietly disappeared to their cots out on the verandah.” Captain Dun-Waters’ famous trophy room was converted to a playroom, though still presided over by the fearsome Kodiak bear he’d shot. But now there was a ping-pong table and shelves of British children’s magazines such as Chatterbox and Boy’s Own Paper joining the Captain’s hunting trophies.

Captain James Cameron Dun-Waters, whose donation of his Fintry estate near Vernon, BC was a major addition to the Fairbridge Farm Schools. Courtesy Fintry Provincial Park Society

Captain Dun-Waters died October 16, 1939. The obituary published in the Vernon News noted that, “he expressed his pleasure, more than once, at the fact that he had been spared to see the first group of young lads come to the new school…” The affection Captain Dun-Waters held for these ‘waifs of Empire’ was obvious. One day during summer before he died, he took the Fairbridge boys and girls to dinner at the National Hotel in Vernon, with the rare treat of ice cream for dessert. Under each ice cream dish was placed a silver dollar. The summer of 1939 left an indelible impression—“the best time of our lives,” according to the Vernon News.

However, the highly successful apple export scheme could not be repeated the following year due to submarine warfare in the Atlantic. The August 1940 edition of the Fairbridge Gazette published at the Duncan farm school tried to downplay the threat. An editorial by F. Todd first noted the arrival of two parties of children and the departure of one of them to the farm school in Molong, Australia. Todd concludes that the shipment would never have been allowed either by Fairbridge officials or the British government “if there had been the slightest doubt as to their safety.” This bravado was soon to be brutally shattered.

“As the volume of air attacks on Britain increased, the governments of the British Dominions and the United States of America were keen to show support and participate in an evacuation programme,” note British historians Roger Kershaw and Janet Sacks. The Children’s Overseas Reception Board (CORB) was thus established by the British government in 1940 to remove children from harm’s way by sending them to Canada for the duration of the war. More than 11,000 children had already been sent abroad through private means between 1939 and 1940, with Canada taking in 6,000 of them. But the CORB program itself was soon to become another casualty of war.

The SS City of Benares was torpedoed and sank in September 1940 while carrying 90 children bound for Canada. Courtesy Newport's War Dead

Disaster struck on the evening of September 17, 1940. The SS City of Benares was torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic, resulting in the death of 70 out of 90 children bound for Canada. Total deaths amounted to 134 of the 197 passengers (including the children) as well as 131 of the 200-member crew. The disaster put a permanent chill on the CORB program, and the SS City of Benares was one of the last CORB ships to sail. Naturally the suspension of CORB couldn’t prevent parents from sending children to Canada on their own initiative. But soon after the war’s end, it would claim yet another casualty—both Fairbridge Farm Schools in BC.

Coming up: Part Three:  Sunset Over BC’s New Eden 

Sources: A History of Fintry, by David RB Dendy, monograph, 1983, Kelowna Public Archives; The Fairbridge Farm School, Helen Borrell, BC Historical News, Winter 1995/96; Story of the Founding of Fairbridge, The Vernon News, October 5 & 16, 1939 and January 29, 1942; Fairbridge Gazette, August 1940; 56th Report of the Okanagan Historical Society, 1992; New Lives for Old, Roger Kershaw and Janet Sacks, National Archives UK, 2008.

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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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