First Christmas in Canada: One Boy’s Experience

The author with the cairn that commemorates the 1,000 acre Fairbridge Farm School  at Cowichan Station near Duncan, BC.

The author with the cairn that commemorates the 1,000 acre Fairbridge Farm School at Cowichan Station near Duncan, BC.

Tom Isherwood was among the last groups of boys and girls sent by the Fairbridge Juvenile Emigration Society to Canada prior to the demise of the program in 1949-50. Isherwood was sent to the Fairbridge Farm School at Cowichan Station near Duncan, BC, on Vancouver Island. In many respects it was an idyllic setting—1,000 acres of prime farmland in the lush Cowichan Valley. Much like the Girls’ Village Home at Barkingside, Essex and Boys’ Garden City at Woodbridge, Essex—both self-contained ‘villages’ operated by Barnardo’s Homes—Fairbridge Farm School at Cowichan Station was designed to simulate a family situation in a small community. Its founder Kingsley Fairbridge envisioned it as a kind of live-in agricultural college for children as young as 8, leaving for the workforce at age 16.

Sadly the enthusiastic promise of the ‘golden bridge’ to Canada didn’t prove true for all children brought to Canada by Fairbridge. Source: National Archives of Australia

Unfortunately for Tom and some of the less happy residents at Cowichan Station, it didn’t work out to be quite the idyllic childhood its founder had envisioned. The financial stresses of the wartime years left Fairbridge strapped for cash to fund its operations after WWII. Conditions gradually deteriorated and the BC government investigated the farm school in 1943-44 due to complaints it received. The crisis came to a head with a mass resignation of ‘cottage mothers’ in late 1943, protesting the conditions. These conditions included lack of maintenance on buildings, insufficient facilities for bathing and laundry, problems with hygiene amongst the children, and a lack of contact with the outside world. Low wages made it difficult to attract competent staff. A pedophile scandal a few years earlier had caused one longtime worker to resign in disgrace.

Partly Fairbridge was the victim of changing times. The field of child welfare had made major strides during the war years, culminating in the Curtis Commission in the UK in 1947—the very year Tom Isherwood was sent to Canada by Fairbridge. The Commission re-evaluated the condition of all children’s homes and facilities throughout Britain in light of new understanding about childhood developmental needs such as the need for affection and a more homelike atmosphere. The Curtis Report would revolutionize childcare in Britain, calling for a shift to a foster care system and doing away with orphanages entirely.

Charlotte Whitton was a driving force in the reform of child welfare policies in Canada from the 1920s. Source: The Canadian Encyclopedia

In Canada, the Canadian Council on Child Welfare had, under its longtime administrator, social reformer Charlotte Whitton, begun to press for changes to the regulation of child immigration since the 1920s. In BC this modernization of childcare was moved forward during the mid-40s by Isabel Harvey, director of child welfare for the BC Provincial government. It was she who responded to complaints with a visit of inspection to the Fairbridge Farm School at Cowichan Station followed by a full investigation. Unusually for this early period in childcare, Harvey’s investigation employed the services of a psychiatrist.

In BC the counterpart to the Curtis Report was the Marsh Report prepared in 1948 by Leonard C. Marsh, a phD with the Department of Social Work at the University of British Columbia (UBC). Marsh specifically studied conditions at the Fairbridge Farm School near Duncan and made recommendations for improvements. His advice was considerably more moderate than Harvey’s. Her report essentially concluded that Fairbridge was an obsolete approach to caring for parentless children and should be replaced by the foster care system advocated by the Curtis Commission.

Although the 1940s had seen a giant leap forward in the understanding of childhood emotional needs, the proposed solution—fostercare—has since proven nearly as problematic as the solutions employed by 19th century philanthropists like Dr. Barnardo. A November 25, 2012 report in The Telegraph by Roger Graef noted that in Britain’s modern fostercare system, there are plenty of victims. “On average, a child in care moves ‘home’ every 11 months—think what damage that does to their chances of building the trust vital to creating successful relationships,” Graef writes “And after the age of five, a child’s chances of being adopted successfully go down exponentially.”

This unfortunately was the sad experience of Tom Isherwood. As with many families who sent children to Fairbridge Farm Schools, Tom’s mother may have been lured by recruiting posters put up by the organization. His father had been killed in the war and Tom’s earliest memories are traumatic recollections of the bombing raids over Britain. For families living in deep poverty, struggling to feed hungry mouths, Fairbridge seemed like the perfect solution. Not unlike the promises given child migrants to Australia, they were promised a land of sunshine and promise. Their children would be fed, clothed, housed, educated and given training in farming. In May 1947 Tom was sent to Canada with Fairbridge. He was 8 years old. Officially the Canadian government had put a stop to the immigration of children into the country during the war, but had made a special exception for Fairbridge.

Fairbridge boys enjoy time off from work and school at their favourite swimming hole on the Koksilah River near Duncan, BC. Source: Fairbridge

His experience at the Cowichan Station farm school was fair, if tightly disciplined and filled with hard work. As in any schoolyard situation, there were bullies who preyed on younger boys like Tom. These boys had to band together for protection. Thankfully both boys and girls were allowed time to explore the ample acreage and the nearby Koksilah River with its swimming and fishing hole. Occasionally the boys would head to nearby Duncan without permission for a visit to town. “We were disciplined severely the time we did get caught out of bounds, but it was worth it,” he recalls. “When we did speak, I believe the people loved our English accent but were for the most part glad to see us head back out of town. If they had only known, we were not Fagin’s vagrants, pickpockets or thieves.”

It was when the farm was forced to close in 1949-50—mostly due to deep debt—that things really went off the rails for Tom. He was shuffled from foster home to foster home over a dozen times in five years. A stint in a strict Catholic school in Vancouver attempted to crush his individualistic spirit. He recalls thinking of one of his foster mothers, “How could Mum know what we did at Fairbridge where we were growing up with little hearts of stone and feeling that were stretched like elastic bands, ready to snap at any time. I was to be seen and not heard, and harsh loveless discipline was normal to my way of life.”

One of the cottages at Fairbridge Farm School, Duncan BC as it appears today as a private residence. Photo ©2012 Sean Arthur Joyce

One of the cottages at Fairbridge Farm School, Duncan BC as it appears today as a private residence. Photo ©2012 Sean Arthur Joyce

A series of special BBC News reports in 2005 noted that more than one in four British children today suffer from the disadvantages of poverty. “Poverty is the single greatest threat to the well-being of children in the UK,” wrote Neera Sharma, Policy Officer with Barnardo’s. In ‘inner London,’ including the East End where so many ‘child saver’s got their start in the 1860s, the poverty rate today is still as high as 54 percent. In British Columbia it’s somewhat better, but not compared to Canadian national averages. BC has the second-highest rate of childhood poverty in Canada at over 14 percent, or about 1 in 7 children.

As with so many of the British Home Children, it was the utter lack of love and affection that scarred Tom for life. “My young life would hear of no more tears and for a while my heart turned to stone. Nothing came in and nothing went out. I was on a journey to become a survivor—happy outside but very sad inside. Whoever said the past could come back to haunt you was dead on the money.” He wrote the poem First Christmas in Canada 1947, recalling his feelings those first frightening days in this country. It’s a good reminder in this festive season that even after a century of progress in childcare, not all children are blessed with a safe, secure family home.


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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