Fairbridge Farm Schools—the Failed Eden? Part Three

Part Three: Sunset Over BC’s New Eden

The casualties of war number far more than the killed and wounded. They include cherished values and institutions, however wrong-headed or well intentioned. By January 1945 the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School at Duncan had only 100 residents—half the total capacity of the cottages. The effect was even more pronounced at Fintry. In 1940 there were 18 boys and two girls there from June to October. By 1943 only seven boys aged 15–18 were there. Records show the final groups of boys and girls arriving at Duncan in May 1948. During its 13 years of operation a total of 329 children lived and worked at the farm—97 girls and 232 boys.

Promotional photo of Fairbridge Fintry showing agricultural awards won by the farm school. Courtesy Fintry Provincial Park Society

Two policy changes in Britain in the postwar period put the final nails in the Fairbridge coffin. Advances in the field of child psychology had helped put an end to the migration of children overseas without their families. And, with the British Isles financially exhausted after six years of war, restrictions were put on the flow of cash outside the country. Although British contributions to Fairbridge remained strong during 1946-47, a report filed by Fintry’s sub-committee chairman P. Walker in 1948 made it clear that it was still far from enough: total losses at Fintry from 1938-48 were nearly $43,000. The board of directors turned down an offer of $55,000 for Fintry in the fall of 1947 (the land had been valued at $1 million when Dun-Waters bequeathed the estate in 1938). A plan to have the CPR lease the land for the use of British farm families displaced by the war failed to materialize. In October of that year a realty firm finally sold the vast estate for $65,000 to a private owner.

Then in May 1949 BC Provincial Secretary George Pearson told a visiting chairman and general secretary of the Fairbridge Schools Society that the main school at Duncan should be transferred to the jurisdiction of the BC Department of Education, with a continuing annual subsidy of $12,500. The London officials agreed. But the ongoing slump in postwar finances prevented the Fairbridge parent organization from sending any further children to Canada. In March 1950 the Prince of Wales Farm School lands were rented by the dairy firm Stevenson and McBryde, inheriting 70 head of purebred Ayrshire cattle—a final legacy of Captain Dun-Waters.

The book was closed at last on child emigration to Canada.

~§~

This picture says it all: by the time of the Great Depression, even farm jobs were scarce.

The Canadian branch of the Fairbridge Farm School scheme was partly the victim of history, coming late in the era of child immigration. With the massive societal and economic upheavals brought on by the First World War and then the Great Depression, Kingsley Fairbridge’s original vision had become untenable in barely more than 20 years. As historian David Dendy points out, its training scheme “was a laudable ideal, but it meant that the boys were being trained to be farm labourers and the girls to be farm domestics or farmer’s wives, at a time when mechanization and the Depression were sending unprecedented numbers of rural Canadians to the cities.”

But Dendy’s conclusion that the Fairbridge Farm Schools “did much more good than harm” is debatable. The experience of the Fairbridge Farm Schools in British Columbia was far more mixed than the glossy wartime propaganda would have its readers believe. And despite the ‘stiff upper lip’ presented by ‘Old Fairbridgians’ in the decades since the closures at Duncan and Fintry, not all former residents of the farms recall their experiences with pleasure.

Australian Fairbridge farm school boys learn about farming a little too late. Courtesy Half A World Away

Patricia Skidmore, daughter of ‘Fairbridge girl’ Marjorie Arnison, and an editor of the Fairbridge Gazette, puts it this way: “Of the 329 children sent to the school there are 329 different stories—and yes, they range where some state that being sent to Fairbridge was the very best of luck; but there are many, many stories of neglect and abuse and emotional trauma.” Skidmore explains that although 95 percent of Fairbridge boys and girls were not orphans, many were told they were. “Being an orphan was used as a very derogatory term and confusing to my young mother, because she was not an orphan. Thus, many children such as my mother never really got over losing their families. And to be treated horribly at the school, and to be told over and over by your cottage ‘mother’ that you were ‘British trash,’ and an orphan was a difficult way to grow up.”

Skidmore said British Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s apology in February 2010 was the watershed moment in finally beginning to heal her mother’s lifelong wound. “It wasn’t until my mother and I were invited to British PM Gordon Brown’s apology that she was able to finally shed the shame of being removed from her mother’s care in 1937. Possibly it was the first time in her life where she felt she had nothing to fear, and it took her years to speak out against her treatment at the farm school.”

Fairbridge girls in Australia enjoy some swimming time. Courtesy Radio Netherlands Worldwide

For Tom Isherwood, Fairbridge sometimes felt like a labour camp. Isherwood arrived at the Prince of Wales farm school in May 1947—one of the last groups to arrive. He was just eight years old. “The regular chores might be running the tin dishes to the mess hall; it might be polishing the cottage floors ’til you could see your face in it. Everything to do with that complex, the kids did it,” he recalls. “They didn’t put anything heavy on you that your age couldn’t handle. Little boys like me got to pull the weeds from endless rows of food stretching as far as the eye could see. If it was not weeding, we piled firewood for the cottage and other buildings after the older boys split the cords. Saturdays, we worked ’til noon, then we were free. We used to swim the Koksilah River; they’d dam it up every year for the kids.” But if there was cruelty, it wasn’t all coming from adults. He recalls being pinned under wet blankets by older boys almost to the point of suffocation. To this day he is claustrophobic. The smaller boys learned to work together to protect one another from older bullies.

What may come as a shock to many are the persistent effects of a childhood deprived of family life, as child emigration researcher Andrew N. Morrison discovered. “You see, this stuff is generational,” one respondent told him. “I don’t know if people understand this or not. Trauma does not go away, abuse does not go away. You get a successful life, you can have families, but those things are passed on. The rules and rites of passage of how to live a life and family systems get passed on to the children and the grandchildren.”

Patricia Skidmore recalls growing up as the daughter of a child migrant as a “shameful and often worrying experience for me. As a schoolgirl, I used to tell my classmates that I was from Mars. They seemed to think it was funny, and quite likely some thought I was peculiar. For me, it gave a moniker for my feeling of difference.” Like me, Patricia as a child never felt she fit in, even though she grew up with a family of her own. “I felt apart from the rest. I didn’t belong. I had no sense of family. No roots to ground me to my place of birth. My mother’s background, her past, her childhood, her family, was missing. She would not tell me why. It worried me deeply. She rarely spoke of her five years at the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School or why she was sent there as a little girl. She rarely spoke of her family in England. The little she told me left me with more questions than answers.”

Former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown followed Australian PM Kevin Rudd with a public apology to child migrants.

Once again, we see how a public apology by a head of state can often unlock feelings that have been kept in a vault for decades. When Patricia and her mother attended Prime Minister Brown’s apology in London, a reporter asked Marjorie where she felt she belonged. In recent years she had become close to her English relatives, rebuilding family ties that had been lost. “She had to think about it, and with determination said, ‘I belong in Canada with my children.’ It took her 73 years to be able to say that and it was Brown’s apology I believe that allowed her to move forward in this way, and accept her past.”

Acceptance is at least a step toward healing. But to those traumatized at an early age, a hole is opened in their psyche that may never fully heal. “I have struggled over 50 years with no help or understanding from the people that did this to me,” says Isherwood. Although he has had much to say about what he calls the “crime of being robbed of my childhood and family forever,” a poem he wrote, First Christmas in Canada, 1947, expresses it best: “Man is born equal so it’s said; / Tell that to the orphan in the iron bed.”

Sources: Andrew N. Morrison, thesis paper, Thy Children Own Their Birth; Interviews with Patricia Skidmore, January 9, 2012 (email); Interviews with Tom Isherwood, January 30, 2012 (emails); Pier 21 Immigration Museum, http://www.pier21.ca/; 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, January 29, 1942.

Links: The little-known story of Dutch children sent to Fairbridge was broadcast on Radio Netherlands Worldwide: http://www.rnw.nl/english/radioshow/fairbridge-farm-school  See also Pier 21: Canada’s Immigration Museum: http://www.pier21.ca/research/collections/the-story-collection/online-story-collection/child-migrants

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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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5 Responses to Fairbridge Farm Schools—the Failed Eden? Part Three

  1. i am from the original fairbridge family and wonder if there are any others

  2. susan says:

    Hello, I am doing some research on this subject and would like to connect with you with regards to your sources and where this was published, if anywhere else than online here. Thanks!

  3. Hi, my is Ida.

    I’m writing my Dad’s life story from the time he arrive from England to Canada. He is now passed away and for many years we have tried to find out where is he was born, and now we have birth certificates and would like to share the happy times we have had with our father for the use of the Fairbridge Farms.

  4. Thanks you for accepting my posts.

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