Today marks 107 years since Dr. Barnardo died. I’ve found in my genealogy research that there seem to be two sorts of researchers – those that know a lot about British home children and those that don’t even really know the term. For those that don’t know, a plan was created that had the dual goals of giving British children new lives in new lands and (not coincidentally) removing them from Britain. They weren’t solely orphans, but also children who had been removed from their family homes for whatever reason. The contemporaneous literature is fascinating to read from a social history perspective, as it (for example) portrays Canada as a land free of the cholera that had been ravaging many parts of England. Canada did, of course, have cholera, but it and the other destinations for home children – the other most common one being Australia – were seen as places where children would start over in a physically and psychologically clean environment, away from physical diseases and what was seen as the moral disease of poverty. Dr. Barnardo, mentioned in the first sentence, was one of the chief proponents of this plan.
My great-great-great-grandparents James and Henrietta (Burch/Burtch/Birtch) Brown were farmers and extremely religious Baptists in rural Ontario, Canada. James’s father, uncles, and aunt had been some of the principal people involved in establishing a local Baptist church in their rural area. James and Henrietta raised six biological children to adulthood. After the last one left home, they adopted a home child. I suspect that their religious beliefs were part of the impetus to them, but that’s just speculation. They adopted Louisa Cligg/Clegg, who had come over on the Parisian with her sister, Elizabeth. Louisa and Elizabeth had been brought over by Miss Annie MacPherson, one of the other major players in the home child movement besides Dr. Barnardo. As was standard at the time, Louisa and Elizabeth lived in Miss MacPherson’s Stratford, Ontario, group home until placements were found for them.
At age 10, Louisa was very lucky to be just below the cut-off point for adoption. Elizabeth, age 12, was not so lucky; 12 was considered a fine age to be working, and she was sent to another household to work as their youngest servant. I have no evidence that Louisa and Elizabeth ever saw each other again, though I certainly hope for their sakes that they did. I’ve tried to imagine what it would have been like to come from an urban environment in England – one adult record indicates Louisa was born in London – to a rural Ontario farm to live with two fairly elderly farmers, and I really just can’t even conceptualize what a shock it would have been. On the census where they were living together, Louisa is recorded as James and Henrietta’s “adopted daughter.” I don’t know if that was James and Henrietta’s term or if, being in such a small community, the enumerator knew the story and it was their choice to term it that way.
While the young children were technically supposed to be treated as adopted sons & daughters, many of them were really treated as free labor, especially on farms, and there was very little oversight of the children’s welfare after they were sent out as adopted children or workers, so abuse was also fairly common. I can’t say for sure what Louisa’s life was like with the Browns, but as an adult she gave two of her own children their first names as middle names, so hopefully that means that she at least had some good experiences living with them. Louisa married young. Since Canada has a 100-year disclosure policy for many of its records, much of what I know of the rest of her life is through having located one of her descendants, so I won’t share that here. I still don’t know when or where she died, but hope to find that last piece of the puzzle someday.
Some Starter Links for British Home Children
- “Highway of Shame, Highway of Hope” (article)
- Home Children section of the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa’s website
- The British Home Children / British Child Migrants Database
- The British Home Children Registry
- Young Immigrants to Canada
- Library and Archives Canada’s Home Children Database