Peterborough Lights Up for Dr. Barnardo Pt.3

Putting the Poetry into Public Relations 

1. In Millie Sanderson’s vivid account of Dr. Barnardo in his native element—the boys’ and girls’ homes he has established in England—the man positively sparkles. But seldom is it in the nature of a protégé to question her mentor, much less to challenge him. Sanderson does not interview families who have been the victim of one of the Doctor’s ‘philanthropic abductions,’ where he has decided that the parents are no longer ‘fit’ and has taken the children into his custody. She does not interview families who are not allowed by Dr. Barnardo to visit their children in the homes. In his judgment unfit parents are best forgotten, and the sooner the better.

The famous image of a shipload of Barnardo girls arriving in Halifax, circa 1920. Courtesy Library & Archives Canada

The famous image of a shipload of Barnardo girls arriving in Halifax, circa 1920. Courtesy Library & Archives Canada

Nor does Sanderson speak with mothers who have not been told their sons and daughters have been sent thousands of miles away to a new country. They must understand when they sign the agreement with Barnardo’s that the Canada Clause gives the Doctor the right to emigrate their children at any time he sees fit. Naturally he builds anticipation in naïve youngsters for this land of unlimited opportunity across the ‘golden bridge.’ Once there, they will be encouraged to write letters home. But very seldom will he consent to the reunification of a family once their children have come into his care. It’s a peculiar brand of Christianity, combining charity with a patriarchal authority that brooks no dissent.

For Millie Sanderson, Dr. Barnardo is THE man. Image: public domain

For Millie Sanderson, Dr. Barnardo is THE man. Image: public domain

But for Millie Sanderson, Dr. Barnardo is “the man,” to quote her own words. She is clearly in awe of him, having seen his charisma at work on large crowds of both adults and children. Perhaps untrained in critical thinking, she is as much victim as perpetrator of the public relations material produced by the Barnardo organization. In any case she is an employee and he is the master—answerable only to himself and to God. He has made that clear from the very early days of his work, forced only by scandal to be accountable to a board of directors. As a single employee among hundreds in his organization she is unlikely to be aware of these less savoury aspects of the good Doctor’s character.

She is most likely young, idealistic and inexperienced. Her enthusiasm for the worthy cause of helping poor disenfranchised children is natural, unforced. And once again, she uses her pen to paint a moving picture of these lost little souls. To her credit, she doesn’t minimize the fact that their new life in Canada won’t be without its heartache and challenges. Her narrative in the June 26, 1884 Peterborough Examiner is testament to both her skill as a writer and her deep belief in the cause, though occasionally the cracks show in Dr. Barnardo’s great edifice.

The village green near Cairns Cottage at the Girls Village Home, Barkingside, circa 1894. Courtesy Lori Oschefsky collection

The village green near Cairns Cottage at the Girls Village Home, Ilford, circa 1894: A highly idealized image of life in the care of Barnardo’s. Courtesy Lori Oschefsky collection

2. “‘Please, Mother, may I go to Canada?’ was the question that greeted me as I entered late the playroom one evening after going the rounds upstairs, tucking in ‘the tinies’ and kissing them a last goodnight ere their wee feet pattered into dreamland. I was ‘Holiday Mother,’ and felt very matronly when my big girls, some of them inches taller than myself, gathered round me ready for a story or for a nice quiet talk, as ‘Mother’ felt inclined.

‘What of your friends, dear,’ I answered, smoothing back the soft brown hair; ‘would they be willing?’

‘Please, Mother, I’ve got no father nor mother, only an aunt, and she doesn’t care where I go.’

“How the child’s words thrilled me—no father, no mother, only an aunt who didn’t care. What a sorrowful story lay behind the half unconscious wail of that little lonely heart! I looked at the bright dark eyes and pretty features, and shuddered at thought of the terrible possibilities of her life had she not found shelter in this peaceful Home. But she had been safely folded, thank God, and my heart bounded back into sunshine.

“I hadn’t much time for either grave or gay thinking, however, for the eager voice said again, ‘Please, Mother, tell me some stories about Canada, and please do ask Dr. Barnardo if I can go.’ Nothing loath, I talked to them of my fair land beyond the sea, with its wooded hills and well-tilled plains, its beautiful streams and broad blue lakes, its mighty forests and its towering rocks, whose strange weird echoes, like woodland elves mimic the wild bird’s cry.

Peterborough Examiner, June 26, 1884 excerpt of Millie Sanderson's article for Barnardo's publication 'Night & Day'. Courtesy Trent Valley Archives

Peterborough Examiner, June 26, 1884 excerpt of Millie Sanderson’s article for Barnardo’s publication ‘Night & Day’. Courtesy Trent Valley Archives

“I told them of the gorgeous hues of the autumn leaves after the frost king’s breath has touched them, and then of the soft, white mantle that, later on, when the leaves have fallen, is spread over the earth’s brown figure by the kindly wintry sky. Then their eyes grew big with wonder as I described the curious bridges of ice built by clever Jack Frost over lakes and rivers, changing the merry flow of their summer waves into such still whiteness that the red men say, ‘The waters have gone to sleep.’

“But this was all like a fairy tale; and as I did not think it fair to hide from them the darker tintings of their emigration picture, I told them of short summers and weary winters, when all the poetry of life seems to be either parched with heat or shriveled by cold; and then I spoke to them of work—not slavery—but honest, intelligent labour, and gave them clearly to see that drones have no more chance in a Canadian than in an English hive. Good hard work is the order of the day, and commands good wages; and a girl who is active and willing, honest and true, is sure to find a comfortable home and kind-hearted friends. Her chances of success lie within herself, and will be measured by the brightness or stupidity with which she manages those ten good servants, her own young fingers.

“Some of my girls pulled very long faces as the talk grew serious; and the Arcadia of their fancy began to wear a very commonplace, everyday look; while others brightened up, as if the thought of difficulties to be met and conquered only roused their girlish ambition; and the request was made again, more eagerly than ever, ‘Mother, do please ask Dr. Barnardo if we may go back with you.’

“Such girls as these, sent out with some knowledge of what lies before them, and their young heart stirred with desires to be and do their best, are sure to do well; while the vicious and the idle are just as sure to lose all that may be left to them. Canadian sunshine is bright and Canadian air is pure, but I never yet have heard that they have power to renovate corrupt hearts or reform evil lives. If, however, you sent out lads and lasses of pluck and principle, as well as muscle, who from force of circumstances can never rise higher than common servants here, let them do as they will, and ten to one, in the years to come you’ll hear such stories of success in life as might put the plot of many a fashionable novel to the blush.”

Source: June 26, 1884 Peterborough Examiner. Special thanks to Heather Aiton-Landry and the Trent Valley Archives for this material. I’d like to have found a photograph of Millie Sanderson or even some biographical information but so far both have eluded me. 

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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