By William Crooks
Local Journalism Initiative
A wreath was laid at Brome Lake Museum Sept. 28 for Eastern Townships’ “home children”, children sent from the United Kingdom (UK) between 1869 and 1948 across the Commonwealth. The Record attended and spoke with museum curator Rachel Lambie. Around 25 gathered for the occasion.
“It is to commemorate the British home child program and all of the children that came over,” Lambie began, referring to the wreath-laying event. Almost 100,000 children came from the UK to Canada. Many went to Ontario, but some came to the Eastern Townships. There were two official distributing homes in the area, one in Knowlton and one in Sherbrooke. There were a few unofficial homes as well, like the one in Melbourne.
The children were destitute or orphans that were sent to a sheltering home in the UK. Everyone that arrived in the Eastern Townships was from Liverpool or London. Non-orphaned children were often expected to return but never did. Nearly 5,000 children came through Knowlton. Many, but not all, of the children settled in Brome County came through the Knowlton home.
“The homes weren’t always happy,” she explained. Sometimes the children were “welcomed with open arms” and treated like an adoption, other times their new home was abusive, and they were treated like indentured servants.
Every year, since 2019, a wreath-laying and commemoration has been done on or near Sept. 28, which has been deemed by the government as British Home Child Day, she continued.
The sending of children across the seas to new homes was due to Irish immigration into England after the famine. There were many children on the streets. Several different charities instituted the program; for this area, it was primarily Annie Macpherson. Initially, the children were put in sheltering homes in England. The Liverpool sheltering home filled up almost immediately, so the extra ones were sent abroad to Canada, Australia, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). While the program continued overall until 1948, children stopped arriving in Knowlton in 1915.
Some children’s parents in the UK fell ill, so the children were sent to a sheltering home. “If the parents got better, I think the idea was that the children could go back to [them],” Lambie said. But that often did not happen, she repeated. In many cases, there were families of five or six children. The eldest were sent away, partly to work and send money back to support the younger children. But sometimes they were not paid at all.
Families that took the children in and the children themselves had contractual obligations. The children worked for pay, room and board. “In some cases that worked out really well and in some cases it didn’t.” When homes heard of mistreatment, they often made interventions. Children could be moved to a different family and some children moved between many different families. Part of the contract, if the child was old enough, was to attend school and church on Sundays. The boys tended to work as farmhands, the girls as mother’s helpers.
“We’re really honoured to be the location of the wreath-laying this year,” Lambie insisted. It is an important part of the history of the Eastern Townships as a whole, but also Knowlton’s in particular, she noted.
The wreath-laying was preceded by a presentation by Lambie. She welcomed everyone to the gathering and spoke, detailing the history and significance of British Home Child Day.
After Lambie’s presentation, the museum’s Executive Director Denis Piquette said a few words. He said he received a nice message from Home Child Canada congratulating them for the wreath-laying event. Eleanor McGrath’s related documentary ‘Forgotten’ is “really worth seeing”, he added. The head of Home Child Canada is going to be helping the museum develop a registry of all the home children that came to Quebec. Over the next few months, they will be contacting people to get more information and fill the registry out.
Lambie then asked the gathering if anyone wished to tell their home child-related story.
“Well, I’ll step forward,” said a man. His grandmother arrived in Canada at the age of five. He urged everyone to imagine a five-year-old child leaving what she knew and her family on the Isle of Man, through the port of Liverpool, and eventually landing in Canada. “She was fortunate,” he explained, and was adopted by a family nearby.
Her brother, he recounted, who came over at the same time, was used as cheap labour and after three years “voted with his feet” and ran away to New Jersey. Later, the brother returned and was reunited with his sister. Imagine a twelve-year-old child, the man said, in a situation so intolerable that he decided that anywhere else would improve his lot.
“There are some happy stories and some sad stories,” he continued, and he is sure the home child programs were well-intended, but social systems then were not as strong as they are now. “It must have been an incredible challenge… and I take my hat off to all of them,” he concluded.
A woman then spoke at the urging of her husband. “My grandmother also came over at the age of five from Liverpool,” she said. One thing her grandmother told her, the woman went on, was that she remembered being terrified of the man that picked her up from the train. The man and his wife eventually adopted the girl legally.
The woman’s grandmother lived to be 93 and felt very obligated to her adoptive parents; her mother was blind. The grandmother took a nursing course to take care of her mother into old age. Eventually, three of the grandmother’s sisters came over and were reunited with her.
The woman knows of home children who were not so fortunate. One young man that she encountered while working as a nurse near Oakville, Ontario, “hadn’t been socialized”. He feared women, and I was trying to give him a shower, she said. The man ended up eventually reuniting with his family in Belleville, Ontario. “It is a sad story, but we were lucky to have a good ending, like you,” she concluded, gesturing to the man who spoke previously.
Brome Lake Mayor Richard Burcombe and his wife Susan then laid the wreath at the museum’s front door. They are both descended from home children. The wreath will stay in front of the museum for the day and then be moved inside until Joel Barter, a local historian who was instrumental in getting the commemorative wreath, takes it away to await its next location.