Scots Overseas – Ontario’s British Home Children

Editor – I know we have run articles on the children who were sent to Canada from Scotland before.  My own grandmother, Agnes Sellars or Sinclair, was orphaned, sent to Quarriers Orphan homes of Scotland then Maryhill Industrial School, and her brothers and sisters were all shipped off to Canada.  Why she was NOT is not entirely clear. The reason I am printing this article by retired teacher and Canadian politician Jim Brownell, is the enormous impact this emigration had on the Canadian population.  There is an extraordinary statistic – more than 100,000 British children were sent to Canada over a period of seventy years, during the time of the British Home Children scheme. . One in ten people in Canada, is descended from these children who were sent overseas…most of them never to see their homeland again. 

Mr and Mrs Lang with the boys of Cottage 13, ‘Leven House’, prior to the boys’ departure for Canada from Quarriers in April 1886

What is a British Home Child?  My grandmother, Mary Scott Pearson, was a British Home Child.  She was born in Glasgow, Scotland, the eldest daughter of David Pearson and Mary (Scott) Pearson.  Following the deaths of her parents, Mary and her sister Margaret were placed in Maryhill Industrial School, Glasgow, and Quarrier’s Orphanage, Bridge-of-Weir, respectively.  Mary left Scotland just forty days shy of her fourteenth birthday, and arrived in Canada on 28 September 1891.  Her sister arrived in 1894.  My grandmother had passed away before my eleven siblings and I were born, so we did not get an opportunity to learn of her life as a British Home Child.  My dad did not utter a word either, as many British Home Children or their immediate descendants did not wish to have this part of their genealogy profiled.  It was during a visit to my aunt’s condominium, in the mid-1990s, that Aunt Hilda Brownell, my dad’s sister-in-law, revealed that her mother-in-law, Mary Scott (Pearson) Brownell, was, indeed, a British Home Child from Glasgow, Scotland.  What a surprise, and what an opportunity to reach into her early life, through research.  

Mary (Scott) Pearson, as a widow, with her two children, Mary on the right, and Maggie on her lap
Mary (Scott) Pearson, as a widow, with her two children, Mary on the right, and Maggie on her lap

This photo shows the writer’s grandmother, Mary Scott (Pearson) Brownell, his great-grandmother, Mary (Scott) Pearson, widow of David Pearson, his great-aunt, Margaret (Maggie) Scott (Pearson) McMartin. 

As said, many British Home Children wished to hide the fact that they were sent to Canada as orphans or destitute children.  These children worked as domestics and indentured farm labourers, with many suffering abuse at the hands of those who took them to their farms.  Fortunately, my grandmother was treated with respect, as I’ve since discovered, but she learned what work ethic was all about.  This is a trait passed on to her children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. 

Photo of girls leaving Scotland on the SS Siberian in 1885
A large party of girls leaving Scotland on board the SS Siberian 13th June 1885

During debate in the Legislature in 2011, I expressed the following words in the preamble to Ontario’s British Home Child Day Act: 

 Between 1869 and the late 1940s, during the child emigration movement, over 100,000 British children were sent to Canada from Great Britain.  Motivated by social and economic forces, these orphaned and abandoned children were sent by church and philanthropic organizations.  Many settled in Ontario.  These boys and girls, ranging in age from six months to eighteen years, were the British Home children.  

The British Home Children were sent to Canada in the belief that the children would have a better chance to live a healthy and moral life.  The organizations that sent these children believed that Canadian families in rural Canada would welcome them as a source of farm labour and domestic help. 

The resulting experience faced by many of these children was not what had been expected.  With little monitoring by the organizations involved, the Home Children faced considerable challenges and tremendous hardships in Canada. 

Many of the children were lonely and sad.  Some were malnourished and others were emotionally starved working from sunrise until sunset, and children as young as eight years old were expected to milk cows and labour in the fields.  Siblings were regularly separated and never saw each other again. 

The story of the British Home Children, however, does not end with adversity and hardship.  With remarkable courage, determination, perseverance and strength, these children overcame the obstacles before them.  Most established roots in Canada and in Ontario, and many went on to lead productive lives and contribute to the economy.  

British Home Child Day is intended to recognize and honour the contributions of the British Home Children who established roots in Ontario.” 

In 2010, the Government of Canada declared 2010 as the “Year of the British Home Children”, and the postal department issued a stamp to commemorate our British Home Child ancestors.  My Private Members’ Bill was Ontario’s opportunity to recognize the contributions made to the province by our British Home Child ancestors. 

Since 2011, much has been done throughout Ontario to bring the stories of our British Home Children to light.  Several organizations have been formed and a number of authors have taken pen in hand or put fingers to the keyboards to produce new books on the subject.  I am on the Board of Directors for the Ontario East British Home Child Family (OEBHCF), and monthly meetings are held.  In addition, through the kindness of the St. Lawrence Park’s Commission, a museum operates in the Aultsville Train Station at Crysler’s  Park, near Upper Canada Village, during late August and September, by the OEBHCF.  On the weekend closest to September 28th, a British Home Child Symposium is held in Eastern Ontario, sponsored by the OEBHCF.   

On Saturday, April 23, 2016, a sunny and mild day in Ontario, with the fresh smell of Spring in the air, I, along with many British Home Child descendants, boarded a Jolly Tours bus in Cornwall, Ontario, bound for Hamilton and Toronto, Ontario, to attend the screening of Eleanor McGrath’s film Forgotten, at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.  Before the screening, the bus had made stops at Brockville, Ontario, to see William Quarrier’s  “Fairknowe  Home”, the Scottish distributing home that my grandmother first called home in Ontario, and  then on to 295 George Street, Toronto.  It was here that we met Eleanor, the creator of Forgotten, and the driving force behind the plan to have the Fegan Distributing Home for Boys, on George Street, restored and reused in the City of Toronto’s plans for the disadvantaged and marginalized. 

Photo of Fairknowe House, Brockville in 1895
Fairknowe House, Brockville in 1893

It is my hope that this quick glance of the British Home Child story will cause you to research further into the life and times of Canada’s British Home Children.  For the most part, up until a few years ago, most Canadians did not know about this part of our country’s history.  As a teacher for thirty three years, and a descendant of a British Home Child, I had not heard of this aspect of my country’s or province’s history.  Thankfully, many authors have raised its profile, and the internet has now given us the opportunity to Google our way into the life and times of our British Home Child ancestors.  It is my hope that you will explore my region of Eastern Ontario through your favourite search engine, and check us out on Facebook, too. 

Jim Brownell is a retired educator, former municipal and provincial politician, and serves as the president of the Lost Villages Historical Society, a director with the Quilt of Belonging, and the Honorary Lieutenant-Colonel of the Stormont, Dundas, and Glengarry Highlanders’ Regiment.  He holds a Bachelor of Arts (Sociology) degree, Bachelor of Education degree, and Master in Education degree from the University of Ottawa.  As well, he received an Honorary Diploma from St. Lawrence College, Cornwall, in 2013. 

Wednesday, June 1, 2016 marked the fifth anniversary of Royal Assent being given to Bill 185, a bill that declares September 28th of each year as British Home Child Day, in Ontario.  Bill 185 was a Private Members’ Bill proposed by Member of Provincial Parliament (MPP) Jim Brownell, a descendant of a British Home Child.  It received Second and Third Readings on May 19, 2011, with all party support during debate and votes in the Legislature of Ontario.   

June 1, 2011 was, indeed, an important day in my life, for this was the day that Bill 185 received Royal Assent, and it was also my final day at my desk in the Legislature of Ontario.  I had announced my retirement as an MPP in late winter of 2011, after serving the Riding of Stormont, Dundas, and South Glengarry for eight years.  Prior to my election as the MPP, I had served for fourteen years on municipal council for the Township of Cornwall and the Township of South Stormont. 

As with most news distributed from my Parliamentary Office, a press release was prepared, and sent it to my constituents.  The release stated: 

Cornwall – June 1, 2011 – On June 1st, 2011, MP Jim Brownell’s Private Members’ Bill 185. An Act to Proclaim British Home Child Day, received Royal Assent by the Chief Justice of the Province of Ontario, the Honourable Mr. Justice Warren K. Winkler. 

British Home Child Day is celebrated on September 28th of each year in Ontario. Bill 185 received second and third reading in the Legislature of Ontario on 19 May 2011, and was then sent to the Lieutenant-Governor’s office for Royal Assent. 

May we long remember and honour the courage, strength and determination of our British Home Children ancestors, and celebrate their wonderful legacies

Jim Brownell, MPP for Stormont-Dundas-South Glengarry

During Second and Third Reading debate of Bill 185 on May 19, 2011, the galleries were filled with descendants of British Home Children who had travelled to Queen’s Park, Toronto, to witness the historic event.  During debate, I introduced those from my riding and elsewhere in Ontario, as well as naming their British Home Child ancestors.  Many were taken by surprise, as they realized that the names of their British Home Child ancestors were now recorded in Hansard, and forever recognized in this important document of the Legislature. 

Jim Brownell

 Thousands of children were sent to Canada – many were not orphans at all. Often their unemployed, ill or destitute parents simply couldn’t look after them 

Forgotten is a poignant film recounting the story of the British Home Child movement through personal interviews with those who, without choice, were participants and with their descendants.  The film provides an insight into what these children experienced, acknowledging and recognising their significant contribution to Canada.  It must be seen to appreciate the huge upheaval and emotional turmoil that these children went through, the impact that it has had on their lives, and the lives of their families.  

Eleanor McGrath’s documentary Forgotten about these children and their descendants has received great attention on the film festival circuit. In Canada, one in ten people is descended from the children who came to Canada through the child migration scheme, which operated, from 1860s to 1939. Over 100,000 children became indentured to families to work as farm labourers and domestics. With three festival screenings in the span of weeks, Matt Galloway host of CBC’s Metro Morning radio programme interviewed Eleanor McGrath. Within seconds of the interview’s start, Matt Galloway shared his own personal connection to the story that his grandfather was a Barnardo child. Following the airing of the interview, Eleanor McGrath received many email inquiries on her production company’s site 

Editor:  Many thanks to Jim Brownell for this interesting contribution including his family photograph. Thanks also to Quarriers, Bridge of Weir for permission to use the photographs and illustrations. 

If you know or suspect that your relative was in Quarriers, or was sent to Canada as a ‘home child’ and you would like more information concerning the family circumstances of that relative or ancestor, Quarriers maintain a genealogy database of the children.  See ‘Quarriers Genealogy and Records’ section on their website for more, including ‘Accessing your Records’.  If you are lucky you will find a wealth of information. 

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