Promises of Home—Stories of Canada’s British Home Children
by Rose McCormick Brandon
Who will love my boys, treat them as their own… Who will love my girls, keep them safe and warm?
—Barbara Perkins, Home Child: A Musical Journey
In our rush to popularize Canadian icons of politics, sports, medicine and the arts, we too often forget that the ‘Greatest Canadians’ are usually the most humble. These are the ‘salt of the earth’ types who quietly laboured to build the country at the cost of hardship and trauma that would leave a lifelong scar. Most of them would probably prefer to stay anonymous—itself a great testament of character in a culture dominated by celebrity-addled media and the ‘Look at me! Look at me!’ social media phenomenon. In that sense, Promises of Home by Rose McCormick Brandon is a welcome addition to the growing canon of literature on the theme of Canadian history’s best-kept secret—the 100,000 British Home Children sent here to work as indentured labourers. This practice—begun in earnest with Maria Rye and Annie Macpherson’s first emigration parties in 1869-70—only ended in Canada when the last Fairbridge Farm Schools boys and girls arrived in British Columbia in 1948.
As I write in Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, “If indeed there is such a thing as a hero—and I mistrust the very idea—then these children deserve the name. …Often it’s their capacity to endure ordinary trials, not die in battle, that mark people as heroes. The Home Children may not have discovered a new medicine or saved someone from drowning but they entered the burning house of spirit and—mostly—emerged alive.” Certainly in the conventional sense—that of the war ‘hero’—there are many in the history of the Home Children. McCormick Brandon estimates that 10,000 of these children served in the two world wars. Yet in an age before mechanization, when tilling crops meant walking mile after mile after mile behind a horse-drawn plow, just getting through the day would have been heroic enough for many of the Home Children. The lonely, iconic image of a boy tilling a field that appeared on a Canada Post stamp in 2010, though a poor token of the national esteem they deserve, says it all. “But perhaps even more than those Home Children who survived, we must honour the spirits of those who did not make it,” I write in Children’s Ghosts, among them George Everett Green, profiled in Promises of Home.
Add to that their social stigma—well outlined in Promises of Home—that kept them apart from other children. “Oh, I’d never take a child like that into my home, I have heard ladies say,” Cecilia Jowett recalled. “You never know how they will turn out. And there was I, a graduate nurse in their homes, rendering skilled assistance, perhaps saving or helping save a life. Yet they didn’t dream I was one of those children.” Add to that the fact that many were made to sleep in the barn with the pigs and horses, like William James Lemmon: “After a long drive, the farmer pulled into a laneway. ‘Grab your gear and follow me.’ Billy’s new master showed him a place in the barn, up in the hay mow. …With perseverance, he adapted to the awful smell and to the mice that scampered over him in the blackest nights he’d ever seen. When winter came, cold such as he’d never known, descended on the barn. It creaked the rafters with ghostly sounds and sprinkled white frost on his blankets.” And you begin to appreciate what boys and girls from Britain’s poorest quarters endured to break ground in Canada at a critical juncture in its history. There are many such ‘heroes’ in McCormick Brandon’s book.
As with any such story, the emotional effects on the Home Children are complex and continue to resound to this day in their descendants. The characteristic attitude of many was voiced by William Edwin Hunt: “I never look in the rear view mirror. I just look forward towards the future.” But the truth is, that is far easier said than done, when epigenetics enters the picture, and grandchildren begin wondering why they seem to have inherited an emotional void, a well of sorrow they can’t explain. No wonder it’s the grandchildren’s generation in Canada that seems most eager now to uncover this past and learn its stories. Throughout Promises of Home we hear the subtle shadings of these emotional consequences of past trauma. A trunk full of letters from the family of origin is kept sealed until the Home Child is near death. An adult Home Child pretends she has no family in the world beyond her husband and children. Later her children discover she has living relatives in England. This certainly happened to me when I began researching my grandfather Cyril William Joyce. In some cases Promises of Home tells the story of joyful reunions of siblings, though too often it was too late for this to happen. And as if to illustrate how human emotions can create ambiguous reactions, Lori Oschefsky’s mother Olive June got as far as the gate to the family cottage in England but turned back. It would take many more years to muster the courage for that threshold to be crossed.
McCormick Brandon writes in a straightforward discursive style rather than a literary approach, resulting in a kind of folk history or compendium of remembrance. In that sense it belongs to the worthy tradition of Phyllis Harrison’s groundbreaking 1978 book The Home Children, written entirely in the words of the Home Children. These kinds of books may not provide the basis for blockbuster movies but they are an absolutely vital component of Canadian history. And all the more so given that the stigma of shame allowed many Home Children to go to their graves having never told their stories at all, much less recorded them. This element of mystery also threads through the book, with Lizzie Poole and the Mystery of the Poisoned Porridge, which remains an unsolved police file to this day. Another brief chapter, Isobel (Isabella) Remembered in Photos, leaves only photographic evidence of a bright-faced young girl with an Ontario farm family. And then there’s the World War I medals of William Campbell, which inexplicably were inherited by John and Barbara Farrow. Graciously, they visited Campbell’s inscription on the Vimy War Memorial and continue to steward his medals. But they have yet to locate his descendants. For thousands more Canadian Home Children and their families, the mystery remains.
McCormick Brandon also does the reader a service by adding to our awareness of the many other childcare and emigration agencies involved in the scheme. While Barnardo’s has certainly become the most famous of these agencies, there were probably hundreds more if you add church parishes emigrating children. Mentioned here are Quarrier’s Homes of Scotland, the Clerkenwell Emigration Society, The Father Hudson Society, the Irish Church Missions Homes for Homeless Boys and Girls, Plymouth Scattered Homes, the Church of England Empire Settlement Council and of course Reverend Bowman Stephenson’s National Children’s Homes.
The book is rounded out by Home Children stories from eight other authors, including my own. Once again due to the deep mystery surrounding the fates of some boys and girls, such as Carolyn Wilker’s Joe ‘Little Joe’ Tomes and ‘The Little Buggas,’ these are fragments, a riddle awaiting more clues before the full story is known. Another mystery surfaces in Ruth Holloway Adams’ story of Charles Holloway, who drowned in the Trent River near Peterborough. I explored just such a mystery in my own book with the unsolved death—most likely suicide—of George Evans on a lonely Alberta back road. But for some like author Sandra Joyce (no relation) the mystery was the one I shared with my grandfather—the complete absence of any stories of the hardships they suffered. We will always wonder and have to imagine what their lives were really like.
But that at least is a start, a beginning of the end of the silence that has for too long enshrouded this vital story in our Canadian past. It’s as real today as it ever was.
Visit Rose McCormick Brandon’s blog at: http://littleimmigrants.wordpress.com/promises-of-home-stories-of-canadas-british-home-children/