British Home Children – review

Sandra Joyce
by Robert Lansdale

Toronto. Our April 2018 business meeting had two very interesting speakers of wildly different talents. After Clint recapped our excellent 43rd year, our first speaker, Sandra Joyce, took the podium to talk of British Home Children (BHC). Sandra earned a degree in Journalism from Ryerson and is no stranger to public speaking (she asked us to consider offering a thesis award to Ryerson’s top journalism students as well as our current award to photography students). She is an author and has appeared on the TVO television documentary about British Home Children entitled Forgotten and is the founder of the British Home Child  Group International. She has a personal link to the subject of her talk: Her father was a British Home Boy … 

British Home Children were destitute orphans shipped off to the Dominions (Canada was closest). Since the BHC migration began in the late 1800s, some 100,000 children (from about 1869 – 1948)  have been sent to Canada alone. In the late 1800s, Dr Barnardo, based in London’s east side slums, recognized the value of photography to gain funds for his homes. He used before and after photographs on postcards (shabby, dirty ragamuffins became clean working children contributing to the country). The postcards were sold to Victorians to raise funds (20 postcards for 5 shillings). In 1877, Barnardo was taken to court and accused of staging his wards for photos. The court was shown many sample postcards to show  how his wards were manipulated. Barnardo was given the benefit of doubt and let off with a warning.

The Industrial Revolution is thought to have initiated the migration of rural families to urban areas. Once there, if an illness or death of one of the parents occured, they had no extended family to rely on.  For example, if Spanish Influenza killed one or both parents, younger children often went to orphanages as did children born into poverty. Canada, mainly rural, was short of farm workers and wanted more British nationals. Being closest to the UK by sea, it was the Dominion of choice. Shipping these children to Canada had the additional benefit of placing more British in the colonies as well as ridding Britain of the poor – thought to be genetically unsound.

Once shipped off to the Dominions, the children were not always supervised. Some were treated well, others terribly. 55 organizations in Canada accepted the children, including the Catholic church. Most Catholic families at the time were rural, French speaking Quebecers. Hence any Catholic Home Children were sent to Quebec, usually to farms where they had to learn rural ways, farming, and a new language! Sandra recited the story of one boy who would walk to a nearby native reserve just to hear English spoken. 

Dr Barnardo alone sent over 30,000 children to Canada to work on farms or as domestics. Some episodes of CBC’s popular Murdock Mysteries are based on the less savoury aspects of the BHC movement. Sandra heads the British Home Children Group International. There are some 30,000 names to date in their database. You can join for her Facebook group: Families of British Home Children, if you think you are related to a Home Child.

Sandra visited the Pier 21 museum in Halifax after the death of her father (the Canadian National Immigration museum – as most immigrants entered Canada via Pier 21). A research centre encouraged visitors to look up ancestors. Entering her father’s name into a computer, she was given a date of entry that didn’t make sense. It was earlier than his time as a Canadian soldier in WW2. Fortunately, Sandra’s sister was an immigration officer who followed up on the date to discover their father was in an orphanage in the UK and sent to Canada as a British Home Boy. It turned out her grandfather had dropped his sons off at an orphanage after WW1. She discovered that her father had a brother in Western Canada and also a sister!

In the long run, Dr Barnardo’s photographs proved to be beneficial. A record of 500,000 plus photos were kept in England and appropriate photos are made available upon proof to any direct descendant. On February 16, 2017, the Canadian House of Commons passed a motion to apologize to those children still alive and their descendants. National British Home Child day is held in Canada each September 28th. Sandra printed a group photo from the BHC Group International website but could not identify her father who she felt was in it. 

Sandra started out with no family on her father’s side. With persistence, she discovered her father had also had a sister who had children as well – her cousins. She wrote an address in Scotland believed to belong to a cousin. No answer. On a trip the UK a serendipitous meeting in a pub resulted in finding her Scottish cousins plus one cousin, Moira, who was the first female Beefeater in the history of the Tower of London!

Sandra brought copies of the books she has written plus one written by a friend in Calgary. All copies were for sale to the audience.

After her talk, Sandra held a Q&A session with many interesting questions, most of which she answered in detail – no notes needed or used.

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