Between 1869 and 1932, over 100,000 children were sent from Britain to Canada through assisted juvenile emigration. These migrants are called “home children” because most went from an emigration agency’s home for children in Britain to its Canadian receiving home. The children were placed with families in rural Canada.
Douglas G Barbour of Brockville who was sent out in 1927 on the very day he turned 16 recalled being very sick on the voyage. The journey which took seven days “wasn’t a bad crossing” he said, “but the first day out was rough. All the children were put down below to get out of the way of the waves which were just swishing over the deck.
Another lad and myself just had to see the waves so we walked out on deck. A big wave came along and swept over us and we were washed overboard. I grabbed the rail so hard I think the marks are still there on my hands and I saved myself.
His companion was washed overboard but was rescued. On the same ship was his friend John Thomson now of Gananoque who had been in a home for five years. His father was killed in an accident at the creamery where he worked and he and his four younger brothers had all been sent to live at Quarrier’s Home. He also was 16 years old.
Both boys along with the 40 or 50 others in their group were sent to receiving homes in Brockville. From there Thomson was sent to the market garden farm of Howard Keyes in Cataraqui which then was well outside the city of Kingston.
“It was all right” he said “but it was all work. If you want to eat you’ve got to work they say.”
He worked on the farm from 1927 to 1931 when he married and rented the farm next to Keyes and set up market gardening with his wife. “It turned out OK” he said with a smile, But a lot weren’t as lucky as I was to get a good home.”
Diana Thompson of Huntsville had a sizable display of family photos and documents detailing the experiences of her grandmother Margaret Watt who was with her twin sister Sarah and was sent over in 1890 when they were 14.
Their mother had died when they were three and their father, a joiner, remarried. When he was killed in an accident on a ship his wife gave the girls to their uncle to care for. However one day when he was at work his wife and her sister took the girls to the Quarrier’s Home and left them there.
Their crossing took 21 days and after landing at Quebec the twins were separated and sent to farms in the Brockville area “My grandmother wouldn’t talk about her life story” Thompson said, “She had left two older sisters and a brother behind.”
Beth Bruder, chair of the Canadian organizing committee, also touched on the theme of separation and loss – loss these children suffered going into the home loss when they came to Canada and especially loss of innocence. Many she said were shocked to find that they were viewed only as workers, not as equals in their new country.
Bruder recalled her own mother telling her of overhearing someone ask who she was on her first Sunday in church. “Oh she’s just a Home girl” came the reply- a reply whose sting was never forgotten “Today however” Bruder said “I want to focus on the success that many of these children had in a country that gave them a chance to grow and prosper.”
with files from
The Kingston Whig-Standard
British Home Children – Quebec Assoc click
Ontario East British Home Child Family click
British Home Children Advocacy & Research Association click