A Barnardo’s Christmas in Canada: Part 2

The text of this special 1901 Christmas event for ‘Barnardo boys’ is somewhat confusing as to its location. Written by Edmund Struthers, manager of Barnardo’s Russell, Manitoba Farm Home, it first appears to have been held at the Winnipeg home but then later we read that the boys took a sleigh ride to Russell where they sang carols for the villagers. Given that the distance between Winnipeg and Russell is 352 kilometers, it seems unlikely they would have ridden that distance in sub-zero temperatures. Thus the location of the event must have been at the Farm Home.

Not many Victorian families would be able to afford a feast like Christmas more than once a year. Source: anoldfashionedchristmas.com

1. A Barnardo’s Christmas for the Boys

“The holiday season has come and gone in the Christian world, and speaking for the North West, its joys were unbounded. At the Winnipeg branch, through the efforts of Messrs. White, Davis and Heap, a happy reunion for the boys and girls within reasonable distance of the city was arranged, followed by that function so dear to an Englishman’s heart, a dinner, at which some 47 covers were laid. Games of different kinds followed the dinner, and altogether the celebration was voted a great success…”

The main house at Barnardo’s Farm School (or ‘Farm Home’) in Russell, Manitoba. Source: British Home Children in Canada

There are some breaks in the text of the Ups and Downs where the paragraphs are illegible. But it seems that Struthers was describing a special Christmas service for the children at which “…our Chaplain administered the rite of the Holy Communion, a fitting commencement for the happy day. On the stroke of 11:30 the boys, great and small, filed one by one, on the invitation of the manager, into his private sanctum and were initiated into the Order of King Edward VII… after going safely through the mysterious ordeal, with smiles on their faces, which betokened their pleasurable acceptance of the ceremonies appertaining to the rite, also of the shilling which accompanied it.

Edmund Struthers, manager of the Barnardo’s Farm Home.

“At 12:30 a tempting dinner was served to the lads in residence and their guests from a distance, in the mess room, an innovation for this year and one which the boys of 1901 will, we believe, long remember being the serving of a whole fat roast chicken to each guest, and the different methods of attack adopted by the valiant youths upon their smoking birds proved a complex set of lessons to that portion of the staff who pride themselves on their skill as carvers.

“The dinner ended, a very necessary rest was enjoyed by all who had participated, and at the hour of three the Brass Band appeared upon the scene and, taking seats in sleighs provided for the occasion proceeded to Russell for the purpose of serenading a few of their many friends in the village…” After the children had finished caroling, they were next taken to a Christmas concert featuring popular singers of the day, with  “…a beautiful selection by the orchestra, when the appreciative audience cheered to the echo the appearance of Mr. Ernest Leech, who had come to us from a ‘long way down the line’ to open the entertainment by singing ‘Father Christmas.’ This number was quickly followed by a song entitled ‘A Broken-Down Old Soldier,’ which was effectively rendered by the ‘sweet-voiced mischief,’ Samuel Taylor, always a pronounced favourite with Barnardo audiences…”

The concert is then followed by a dramatic performance of A Face at the Window, a melodramatic detective play written by F. Brooke Warren and first produced in 1897. An early take on the werewolf mythos, set in Paris and following a grisly trail of murders, it’s an odd choice for a children’s Christmas event. Struthers notes that actor Charles Edward Lanner, who portrayed the killer Le Loup, made “sanguinary attempts upon the life of nearly every person who showed up on the stage, even the scene shifter. (This) fairly chilled the blood and shook the nerves of the audience; and it was not until Mr. Warrington had graciously produced a diversion with his comical gramophone that the tension was relieved and the listeners in a mental condition to enjoy the clever rendition of a highly sentimental duet by Miss Anderson and Mr. Albert Armistead.”

Appropriately for a group of British transplants, the evening’s entertainment ends with a rousing rendition of God Save the King sung by all present.

The Girls' Village Home at Barkingside, Essex from 'Bubbles' children's magazine, 1894.

The Girls’ Village Home at Barkingside, Essex from ‘Bubbles’ children’s magazine, 1894. Source British Home Children Canada

2. A Barnardo’s Christmas for the Girls

Women in Barnardo’s organization were mostly relegated to roles subservient to men, such as housekeepers, nurses, cottage mothers, or managers of distribution homes for girls. So it’s a rare treat to read dispatches such as this one from Emilie G. Owen, wife of Barnardo’s Canadian Superintendent Alfred deBrissac Owen. Though little is known about her, she appears to have taken a guiding hand in organizing the 1901 Christmas event for girls in Toronto. 

Barnardo’s Canada gave its girls a grand Christmas celebration in 1901. Source: anoldfashionedchristmas.com

“The family was so large it was decided this year to divide our forces and have big girls one day and the little ones the next. Accordingly invitations were sent to all our big girls for the 26th December, which were accepted by a hundred; and although painfully reminded of my own insignificance, no woman in Toronto had more cause to feel proud than myself as I looked around upon—no, among my family! There was Annie Prior, a whole head taller than most in the room, with her bright face, pleasant manners and good report, and taller still was Ruth Graham. …Oh, but it would be impossible to speak of all and besides some of the smaller ones have even better records than their big sisters.”

Sadly, here too much of the text in this archival copy of Ups and Downs is illegible. Once again though, the girls were taken to an evening concert with performances of songs and poems by ‘Barnardo girls.’ “Some sang, some recited, and they all did it so willingly and readily that, even if the performances were not just equal to those of professionals, they were fully appreciated and accepted in the spirit in which they were given.

“For the children’s party the programme was varied a little, and we had two tables across the dining room; and it was a very pretty scene, with the flowers and fruit on the table and all the bright faces around. After a big feed of bread and butter, cake, fruit and candies, the tables were all cleared away and games at blind-man’s-buff, musical chairs, etc. were the order of the day. Then came ice cream and more cake…”

It’s not hard to imagine the girls groping at one another in their blindfolds, and giggling as they scramble for chairs. “Last but not least,” writes Mrs. Owen, came a game something like bobbing for apples, with a ‘bran-tub’ full of gifts to pick from. “Everyone received some little gift—a hair ribbon, handkerchief, soap doll or bottle of perfume, just to make the fun of having to dive for it; and everything seemed to be very thoroughly enjoyed.”

Source: Ups and Downs, February 1902 issue


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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