In the Almonte, Ontario Gazette July 2, 1897 a news items caught my eye on the front page.
Almonte, Ontario Gazette July 2, 1897
A party of young people from Mrs. Birt’s Sheltering Home, Liverpool, England, is expected to arrive in Knowlton, Que., about July 20th. The majority of children are under 10 years of age; a few boys and girls from 12 to 16.
Photos of younger ones, can be sent to parties needing children: or adoption. Applications accompanied by railway fares and minister’s recommendations will be supplied first. If possible, notice will be sent when to meet the children. Address, Mrs. Louisa Birt, Knowlton, P. Q.
If you have no idea about one of Canada’s dirtiest little secrets, the British Home Children were placed in a foster home upon their arrival from the UK, usually a farm, where some were treated no better than slaves until they reached adulthood. From 1869 to 1948 more than 100,000 children were immigrated from Great Britain to work on farms in the rapidly growing rural communities across Canada.
Most of these children were generally forbidden to leave their new foster homes and were not paid for their labours. The program was created with good intentions and the promise of a better life, but its results were often tragic. A lot of children were abused and neglected, and some never spoke of what they had endured to their future children and grandchildren.
After I read the newspaper clipping I felt overwhelmed and I composed some fictional words that maybe would be have been written by a young boy living on a farm in Lanark County after someone had replied to the the Knowlton home ad.
The Story of George
Farm life in Ontario was dreariness in itself years ago when they began to train us little orphans to lead lives of usefulness. Other children weren’t as fortunate as myself from what my mate told me and some were beaten and treated like dogs. In 1897, my brother and I were placed at separate (but neighbouring) Lanark County farms after someone read an advert in the newspaper. In Knowlton they had placed a comment beside our names stating that my brother and I should be placed near each other. In actuality, however, we were not allowed the privilege of visiting–presumably, so we would learn to accept our new circumstances.
At that time neither of us saw anything outside of our own little neighbourhood from one year’s end to the other. Each morning’s sun showed us both the same stretch of woodland and meadow, and its dying rays in setting lit up the same hills and valleys. There was no change to the monotony, nothing to give fresh zest to life, or a new stimulus to ambition and ideas for the children that no one wanted.
My range of vision has been widened since I left my servitude. Improved roads, better facilities for travel by railway, the bicycle and an increase in wealth now enable me to see a great many miles from the side line on which I now live. Minds are made more active by a change of scene; fresh ideas are developed by experience of what others are doing: ambition is strengthened by the increase of knowledge. After completing my farm apprenticeship even the old home itself reveals new beauties to faculties quickened by observation of distant localities. I am finally learning to see how others live, and no one has a monopoly on me in either of the joys or sorrows of life.
I was told of letters from my Mother begging for her sons to be returned to her as she had only agreed to leave her boys for a short time at the Liverpool Sheltering Home on the advice of her doctor. It has been heartwarming to know my brother and I were not “abandoned” by our English family, but were, instead, the unfortunate victims of circumstances beyond our control. My brother ended up dying at an early age, and today I mourn the loss of my family in England and my sibling. I still live with pain, a pain I will take to my grave. I would like to think that my Mother knew what her children went through all those years in a strange country–even if she didn’t see it for herself.
Please note that I did not make up this name “the Waifs and Strays Society” in the title. This is what the British Home Children were referred to in many newspaper articles I read yesterday.:(
Louisa Birt with some of the Knowlton children–year and children unknown–Photo Canadian Home Children
Louisa Birt was the sister of Annie Macpherson, both of whom worked with destitute children. Mrs. Birt became the head of the Liverpool Sheltering Home in 1873, the same year in which she started sending children to Canada.
From 1873 to 1876, approximately 550 Birt children were placed in homes in Nova Scotia by Colonel James Wimburn Laurie.
Annie Macpherson no longer needed her receiving and distribution home in Knowlton, Quebec, so Mrs. Birt began using the Knowlton Home in 1877. took in 4858 boys and girls between 1872 and 1912.
Mrs. Birt also brought children over from the Christ Church Homes, Claughton, Birkenhead, and various British Unions and industrial schools.
In 1910, Lilian Birt took over from her mother in Liverpool. Emigration decreased during the war years and the Knowlton Home was closed in 1915. After the war, the work of the Macpherson homes and the Liverpool Sheltering Home was combined. The Birt children were sent to the Macpherson homes in Stratford, Ontario, and after 1920 to the Marchmont Home in Belleville.
The Liverpool Sheltering Home continued with its emigration work until it was absorbed by Barnardo’s Homes in 1925. Library and Archives Canada
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