Peterborough Lights Up for Dr. Barnardo Pt.1

Part 1: Hazelbrae: Home Away From Home—Almost

In 1890s London, the poverty rate was as high as 30 percent, leaving many children with few options. Source: public domain

In 1890s London, the poverty rate was as high as 30 percent, leaving many children with few options. Source: public domain

INTRODUCTION: It’s the biggest open secret in Canadian history—the 100,000 poor British children sent to this country to work as indentured servants on Canadian farms between 1869 and World War II. They became known here as the ‘Home Children’ because many of them had been in orphanages or workhouses in Britain prior to being emigrated. However, most were not orphans but came from families fallen on hard economic times or where one parent had died, leaving the other unable to earn enough to support the children. There were no social support systems such as welfare programs or unemployment insurance, leaving only parish relief or private charities to help out. 

This is where private philanthropists, many of them evangelical Christians, stepped in to provide day schools and eventually boarding ‘homes’ for these neglected children. But demand soon outstripped supply and by 1869 Annie Macpherson had hit upon the emigration solution. She coined the term ‘the golden bridge’ to describe the opportunities she expected would open up for the children in Canada. But sadly, for many of these children, the ‘golden bridge’ would turn to straw as they encountered the harsh realities of being juvenile workers in a foreign land, far from home and help. For far too many boys and girls this meant abuse, overwork, lack of proper schooling and in some cases even an early death.

With this series of articles I return to the theme I’ve explored in previous blog posts and in my forthcoming book from Hagios Press, Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest ( These excerpts from the Peterborough Examiner of the 1880s provides a fascinating insight into the excitement in that community over the opening of Dr. Barnardo’s new distribution home, Hazel Brae. I am indebted to Heather Aiton-Landry, archivist with the Trent Valley Archives, for copies of these historic news reports. 

The Hazelbrae Home in Peterborough in its heyday. Courtesy Peterborough Museum & Archives 2000-012-000853

The Hazelbrae Home in Peterborough in its heyday. Courtesy Peterborough Museum & Archives 2000-012-000853

Like the launching of a great ship about to set sail, the opening of Barnardo’s Hazelbrae Home in Peterborough, Ontario is given plenty of advance promotion. With the announcement of a contingent of 60 boys arriving at the Toronto home in April 1884, the Peterborough Examiner reports on the opening of Hazelbrae. Peterborough millionaire George Albertus Cox, an avid supporter of Dr. Barnardo, donates his substantial home on Conger’s Hill to the cause.

George Albertus Cox, a 19th century multi-millionaire and Parliamentarian, donated the house that became Hazel Brae. Courtesy:

“Mr. George A. Cox has very generously undertaken, at his own cost, to provide and fit up the Home in Peterborough,” reports the April 24, 1884 Examiner. “The management of the Canadian work will henceforth be under the care of Mr. and Mrs. Duff, who are coming out in June with a contingent of 150 girls. They will also be assisted by a staff of visitors and correspondents, so that there is every guarantee that the work will be conducted in the most thorough and efficient manner, and that the children will be carefully looked after until they are fully able to provide for themselves.”

Newspaper ads like this one from 1931 had become common by the 1930s. Source: public domain

Newspaper ads like this one from 1931 had become common by the 1930s. Source: public domain

Among the Hazelbrae staff is Millie Sanderson, who has been hired by Barnardo’s as its local press secretary. Her poetic prose in the Peterborough Examiner has helped lay the keel for this Canadian vessel of Dr. Barnardo’s operations. The Examiner notes that Dr. Barnardo’s organization now provides for “upwards of 1,300 boys and girls, who are wholly maintained and educated by the free will offerings of Christians in nearly every part of the world.” The article builds anticipation by announcing that a visit by Dr. Barnardo’s to Peterborough is imminent, possibly in June.

No less than the Reverend Frederick Fielder, one of Dr. Barnardo’s top staff members in England, writes the Examiner on May 8, 1884, noting that support for Hazelbrae comes from many other prominent Peterborough citizens, including General and Mrs. Haultain. Reverend Fielder had accompanied the first shipment of boys sent by Dr. Barnardo to Canada in 1882. Although the Doctor had been sending small groups of children through Annie Macpherson since the 1870s, the 1882 contingent marked the beginning of his full-scale child emigration program.

Fielder explains to the citizens of Peterborough that Hazelbrae will have “always in residence about 50 bright little girls, who, as call may be made for them, will be drafted off to Christian households for adoption. The house will be arranged as to accommodate at least 120 children, but so large a number would not remain longer than a week or a fortnight as the demand for these children has hitherto proved so great… These of course will have their training and education carried on just the same as though they were in the Homes in England.”

A group of girls poses outside Hazel Brae, later renamed the Margaret Cox Home. The home took in primarily girls; boys were distributed through the Toronto Barnardo's Home. Courtesy Peterborough Museum and Archives

A group of girls poses outside Hazel Brae, later renamed the Margaret Cox Home. The home took in primarily girls; boys were distributed through the Toronto Barnardo’s Home. Courtesy Peterborough Museum and Archives

Reverend Fielder is indulging a half-truth here: ‘adoption’ is less the goal than providing domestic servants for farms in the Trent Valley region. Sanderson’s article is closer to the truth, noting that the girls can expect “Good hard work is the order of the day.” Very few of these children will be adopted by their host families. “Destitute or orphan children in Peterborough itself will be eligible for admission; none such will ever be rejected, provided of course that there is a vacancy,” Fielder continues. Volunteer Emilie Morecroft will act as ‘lady visitor’ (inspector) to the girls in their farm placements while Alfred deBrissac Owen, superintendent of Barnardo’s Canadian branch office in Toronto, will personally visit the boys.

But Fielder’s “guarantee” of thorough inspection fails to hold up. By 1902, when there are five visiting agents employed, they are covering all of Ontario, Manitoba and Saskatchewan (then known as Assinaboia territory). “We have had to ‘hustle’ to keep ourselves up to the mark in the Visiting Department,” admits an editorial in the February 1902 Ups and Downs newsletter published by Barnardo’s.

Many girls were raised from infancy at the Girl's Village Home at Ilford, England prior to being emigrated to Canada. Courtesy Lori Oschefsky collection

Many girls were raised from infancy at the Girl’s Village Home at Ilford, England prior to being emigrated to Canada. Courtesy Lori Oschefsky collection

The Examiner publishes an article on July 17, 1884 giving readers a written tour of Hazelbrae Home. “The house, an elegant brick mansion of three stories, occupies a commanding position about midway between the heads of Aylmer and George streets, standing in grounds of five acres in extent. These consist of lawn, orchard and flower and vegetable gardens. These will, to the London waifs, many of whom have never seen a green blade of grass ‘on its native heath,’ seem a paradise, while from the windows of the Home, the view will take in on one side the wide area of clustered roofs comprising the town, on the other a charming landscape of billowy reaches of woodland, alternating with tilled fields ‘with verdure clad,’ or yellow with the deepening gold of the ripening harvest.”

Although the article is not attributed, it’s hard not to see Millie Sanderson’s hand in such poetic prose. In an era long before video links on news websites, it would have evoked a vivid image of the place.

“In the second story are the sleeping rooms of the staff and a portion is used for a dormitory. This, together with the third story, is fitted with neat little single cot beds, sufficient to sleep 150 children. Each cot is neatly made up, the covering being a grey blanket with spotless pillows, etc. To a lad or girl whose memories go back a few months to the time when their softest couch was under a cart or archway, in a coal bin, or in the more sheltered but more repulsive squalor of a lodging house, these comfortable beds will be the incarnation of princely luxuriousness…”

The writer is frank enough to admit that routine domestic duties at Hazelbrae will be handled by the girls. “The staff of servants required is only two girls, a large share of the work being done by the orphans who are thus practically initiated into the mysteries of housekeeping. Hazel Brae is only a temporary home for the orphans. As soon as possible they are placed in situations or adopted, and thus make room for fresh arrivals. For the first detachment… there have already been applications in excess of the number.”

Readers of the Examiner will soon get their chance to see the home up close when the first party of children arrives on July 22. The article announces a reception tea for the children on July 23. As with all of Dr. Barnardo’s operations, it will be a masterpiece of public relations—girls dressed in white Victorian dresses, all lined up along the curving driveway to the home, welcoming visitors with song.

It’s a brief, idyllic interlude in what will likely be a long, hard road ahead of them.

Sources: April 24, May 8 & July 17, 1884 Peterborough Examiner. 

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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2 Responses to Peterborough Lights Up for Dr. Barnardo Pt.1

  1. Ivy Sucee says:

    Hi Sean glad to hear from you what you have printed so far has been printed many times in articles about Hazelbrae in fact I have another meeting coming up next week and a good deal of it relates to what you have written. Have you been able to find some little known facts about Hazelbrae that would be great . In some ways I have very often thought not enough has been said about Hazelbrae. Good luck on the upcoming book I look forward to reading it and helping out if needed Ivy.

  2. Great to hear from you Ivy! Wait ’til you see the other articles I’ve got coming in this series. There’s some wonderful stuff. Not necessarily “new facts” but an interesting insight into the Barnardo’s homes and the man himself by Millie Sanderson, who was employed at Hazelbrae. I look forward to seeing you in Peterborough next May or June!

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