Through the Eyes of A Child Migrant—A Review

A Review of Patricia Skidmore’s Marjorie Too Afraid to Cry

It’s the best-kept secret in Canadian history—the 100,000 or more children sent from the slums and orphanages of Britain to work as indentured servants on Canadian farms and in our cities. Roughly 1 in 8 Canadians are their descendants—some four million of us. You will be hard pressed to find a chapter on these ‘home children’ in any public school history textbook, yet they are as quintessentially Canadian as hockey and maple syrup.

Described variously as 'waifs and strays,' 'gutter trash,' and even 'sewage,' these poor children in the 19th century had few options.

Described variously as ‘waifs and strays,’ ‘gutter trash,’ and even ‘sewage,’ these poor children in the 19th century had few options.

Although destitution was typically cited as the cause of children ending up in the arms of relief agencies, often it was simply a case of families fallen on chronically hard times. Based on the Victorian ethos of judging families by their moral fiber or perceived lack of it, philanthropists like Dr. Barnardo often took it upon themselves to perform ‘philanthropic abductions’ to remove children from ‘unfit’ parents. This unprecedented power to intervene in family affairs was buttressed by legislation as early as the 1890s, giving these private agencies the right to emigrate children to British colonies with or without parental consent. Yet in areas such as Newcastle, Birmingham and the North, devastated by chronic unemployment rates between 30–50 percent, a family’s ability to feed its own was limited at best. This is why Britain created the welfare state in the post WWII years—it was an essential service and an appropriate response to the volatile fluctuations of an industrial economy.

Until the late 1970s the only historical texts that dealt with the subject at all tended to be written from the perspective of the agencies that sent the children—most of them biographies or hagiographies of Dr. Barnardo, whose agency alone was responsible for sending 30,000 boys and girls to Canada. With the publication of Phyllis Harrison’s The Home Children in 1979—a compendium of experiences reported by surviving ‘home children’ themselves—the tide at last began to turn. This new approach began to coalesce with Kenneth Bagnell’s quintessential The Little Immigrants in 1980. Joy Parr broke further new ground with her academic work Labouring Children the same year. At last we were beginning to read about the home children from their perspective rather than that of the agencies.

Dr. Thomas J. Barnardo: It took nearly 75 years for more honest portrayals to appear.

Dr. Thomas J. Barnardo: It took nearly 75 years for more honest portrayals to appear.

Curiously, although Bagnell’s book was a Canadian bestseller at the time and has never been out of print, it would take another 30 years for the trend to become general. Even Barnardo’s historians began to realize that the redoubtable Doctor wasn’t the paragon of virtue his biographers would have us believe. By far the most gritty, realistic and honest portrayal of Dr. Barnardo came from Gillian Wagner’s Barnardo—interestingly, published the same year as The Home Children. June Rose followed with For the Sake of the Children (1987) in a more apologist yet still frank vein. Things went mostly quiet during the 1990s except for Margaret Humphreys’ seminal book Empty Cradles (1994). Humphreys established the Child Migrants Trust in the UK and would finally win recognition for Australian child migrants.

Then in the 2000s a fountain of books began to erupt on the subject—Canadian historian Marjorie Kohli’s The Golden Bridge (2003), New Lives for Old by Roger Kershaw and Janet Sacks (2008), and the excellent Uprooted by Roy Parker (2008), Professor Emeritus of Social Policy at the University of Bristol. Parker’s research made the financial imperatives for child emigration abundantly clear. And this doesn’t even scratch the surface of the books privately published as memoirs by the home children or their descendants, and children’s books such as Beryl Young’s Charlie—A Home Child’s Life in Canada (2009).

Patricia Skidmore’s book tells the story of being a child migrant from the perspective of the child—her mother Marjorie Arnison. Courtesy Dundurn Press.

Consolidating this compassionate approach to the history of child emigration is Patricia Skidmore’s book, Marjorie Too Afraid to Cry (2012). Skidmore has had the good fortune of having access to several surviving aunts and uncles who were deeply affected by having four of their siblings taken away. Three of them—Marjorie, Kenny and Audrey—were sent to Canada to reside at the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School near Duncan, BC. A fourth, Joyce, was deemed ‘too old’ to be emigrated to Canada at 13 and ended up in the Middlemore Home in Birmingham. I say good fortune because many descendants of home children were never told their parents’ or grandparents’ stories. Shamed as ‘British gutter trash,’ many went to their graves with their stories untold.

Skidmore uses a novelist’s skill to write her mother’s story from the perspective of the 10-year-old girl she was when she was sent to Canada with her younger brother Kenny. Her ability to imagine herself into the emotional turmoil such a wrenching change created is impressive. For example, when the children are placed on the train that will take them to Liverpool, their port of departure, we hear the flood of anxious questions so typical of young children: “The master coughed; the bread suddenly felt very dry in his mouth. He surveyed the group and took note of the looks on the children’s faces. The expressions varied. He could see excitement, fear and panic. He tried to answer only the questions from the children who appeared excited, but this quickly became impossible: ‘How will we get there?’ ‘When will we be coming back?’ ‘How long will we be gone?’ ‘But what about my sister? She is not here! I want her to come!’ ‘How will we get back?’”

Kingsley Fairbridge: his vision was grand but ultimately failed. Courtesy Migration Heritage Centre Australia

This last question would haunt many of these children just as it haunted Marjorie, whose overriding concern was to get herself and her siblings back to their mother in Whitley Bay. The tragedy was that—like most other home children—this would have to wait literally a lifetime. Skidmore explores the guilt that Marjorie’s mother must also have felt, having to give up her children. “A neighbour had accused her of not wanting them. Horrid woman! Of course she wanted them! They were her babies. By then Winifred knew that having your children taken from you could happen to any family. …As she stood waving goodbye something in her heart caved in. However hard she’d tried, she could not erase the look of betrayal that passed across her children’s eyes when the train pulled away.” Skidmore graphically portrays a heartrending scene at the Liverpool docks when a distraught mother must be physically pried away from her daughter. “Now that the Fairbridge Society had guardianship over the children, she no longer had any say in their care. There was no way to get them back.”

Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s apology finally brought some closure to the families of child migrants. Courtesy Wikipedia

This separation angst would leave a deep mark on both mother and children. Marjorie would blame her mother and—most tragic of all—Winifred would die before they could reconcile. It would take the official apology by British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in February 2010 for Marjorie to finally begin to heal. That and the Family Restoration Fund established by Brown’s government to help families reconnect with lost relatives. By the time we read Brown’s apology, Skidmore has done such a thorough job of establishing the emotional trauma that we can’t help but be deeply moved. The poignancy of this cathartic moment is brought home by one of the adult home children at the apology: “It took me 20 years to find me mum. Twenty years.” Skidmore acknowledges the courage it must have taken for Brown to face a roomful of former child migrants. If there was a misstep in his apology it was his emphasis on the experience of the Australians, when in fact the vast majority of children were sent to Canada. Marjorie when she meets Brown gently reminds him of this fact.

Fairbridge girls outside one of the cottages at Prince of Wales farm school near Duncan, BC.

Fairbridge girls outside one of the cottages at Prince of Wales farm school near Duncan, BC.

If there’s a flaw in Skidmore’s book it’s that she entirely skips over Marjorie’s day-to-day experiences at the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School. The Fairbridge Society has placed onerous restrictions on the publication of certain files from the farm school. This combined with their training and peer pressure not to speak negatively of the school has kept the full story from emerging even now, more than 60 years after the school was closed. Skidmore reminds her mother that, “anybody trying to stop her story from coming out was quite simply continuing the bully system so prevalent at the farm school and contributing to the silence that has plagued the migration of children for centuries.” (As the author explains, child migration didn’t occur for just 50 years in English culture but for 350 years, although it became institutionalized only in the mid-1800s.) While some Fairbridgians claim the farm school was the best thing that ever happened to them, this was far from universally the case. As Skidmore so aptly points out, all the stories need to be heard “to give a balance and provide a true picture of life at the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School: the good, the bad, and everything in between.”

As the former prime minister admitted, child migration was “less transportation and more deportation.” The social and psychological impacts continue to reverberate down the generations. For Skidmore, growing up as the daughter of a homechild left her feeling rootless and alien and created discord between herself and her mother. In Brown’s words, “Some still bear the marks of abuse; all still live with the consequences of rejection. Their wounds will never fully heal, and for too long the survivors have been all but ignored.”

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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4 Responses to Through the Eyes of A Child Migrant—A Review

  1. Sebastian De Carss says:

    The British child migrant stolen children came to an 1974.. for Australia :
    A child migrant bonfire survivor of last child migrant slave preparation camp in Ripon Uk
    An Old Bishop’s palace..

  2. Val Humphreys says:

    I think that Gordon Brown may have given more emphasis to the Australian dimension of child migration rather than the Canadian aspect because he was speaking to the survivors. In the postwar period, there was only one agency involved in Canada and hundreds of children but there were several agencies involved with over 3,000 children in Australia. Of course, from 1875 to 1925 the balance was tilted very much towards Canada.

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