Category Archives: British Home Child

Little Emigrants

Up until recently, I had a vague awareness of the history of child emigration from Great Britain to Canada, Home Children as they were called, but took little interest. I am not descended from a home child so it had nothing to do with my family.

Until I learned that it did.

Shortly after I sent my DNA sample to Ancestry.com, I heard from Shirley Joyce of Toronto. We share the same great, great grandparents, John Angus and his wife, Rachel Martin, from Tulliallan in Scotland and through them there is a home child connection.

John (b. 1813) and Rachel had three children: David (b.1842), Ann (b.1844) William (b.1847). The 1841 census documented John as a labourer and his wife as a homemaker 1.

David, their first born, became a shoemaker in Partick near Glasgow and married Anne Rankine. They had nine children, including my grandfather James Rankine Angus, who emigrated to Canada as an adult in 1901 2.

William, the youngest, became a rope and sail maker. I know little of him.

Shirley Joyce told me more about Ann, the middle child, who became a domestic servant. She had six children between the years 1865 and 1886 fathered by three different men. She only married the father of her last two children, Hugh Stein, in 1881, at age 37. Ann’s daughter Rachel, one of the twins born in Largs in 1876 to Ann and an unknown father, became Shirley’s grandmother. 3

Ann’s mother, Rachel Martin Angus, great, great grandmother to both Shirley and me, cared for the children while Ann worked. Not an uncommon practice. However, Rachel at age 36, found herself widowed in 1880 4 . One can only imagine Rachel’s financial and emotional situation at that point as she tried to raise four grandchildren on her own with little or no income. According to Shirley, in 1882 Rachel gave up on the youngest, the six-year old twins Rachel and James, abandoning them to an orphanage in Glasgow, the Glasgow Union Workhouse.5  Two months later they were put on a ship and sailed to Canada, destined for a home child distribution centre, Marchmont Home, in Belleville, Ontario. 6. 

Why did Rachel feel she must abandon her grandchildren? Why did the orphanage accept them so readily? Did Rachel receive counselling on possible options? Did she know they could be sent to Canada if she left them? Did the orphanage contact the mother of twins about the situation and ask her to take responsibility? Shirley tells me that, according to her grandmother’s records from Quarriers,  Ann’s new partner knew nothing of her previous children.7.

Did no one in the extended family step up to help?

In the defence of my great grandfather, the shoemaker, the twins’ uncle and the father of nine children himself, how could he take on two more mouths to feed. Did he even know of his mother’s and sister’s predicament?

Glasgow (and Par-tick), rough and dirty at the time, suffered particularly poor air quality from industrial pollution and coal fires.  Hundreds of multi-story tenement buildings had been erected to house the workers flooding into the city to feed the rapid expansion of the ship building industry. Overcrowding and primitive plumbing contributed to rampant disease. Life expectancy was low 8. It is understandable that the various agencies responsible for abandoned children would see Canadian farms as a healthier alternative to life in the Glasgow environment.

Between the years 1869 to 1939, an estimated 100,000 children were sent to Canada to be used as indentured farm workers and domestic servants. Believed by Canadians to be orphans, only two percent truly were. Most simply came from destitute and desperate families such as that of twins Rachel and James.

Some of the Home Children were welcomed into their Canadian placement homes and even adopted. Consequently, they thrived. Most lived outside the family circle in sheds or barns and were treated simply as hired labour. If they did not satisfyIMG_3791 the owner, they were returned to the distribution home and sent out again to another placement.

The children were often poorly clothed, overworked and under fed. Few received the education for which they were entitled under their contracts. The agencies responsible for them, such as Quarriers for Rachel and James, provided little or no oversight.

Public opinion too often shunned these children. Canadians needed their labour but they were seen as diseased urchins, riff-raff, even thieves. They grew up marginalised, lonely and ashamed. As they grew older, they hid their home child background and rarely, if ever, spoke of it. Yet for all of that, most became hard working Canadian citizens as did their descendants.

Today I look at two names on the British Home Child Registry: Rachel Ann Angus and Robert James Angus, twins age 6, and I am appalled. Yes, childhood was not seen then as it is today. Children were viewed as little adults and expected to work. But they were also expected to remain with their families. How frightened these two small children must have been as the ship pulled away from the dock taking them far from anything they had ever known. They were not even kept together in Canada but placed on separate farms.

IMG_3794IMG_3793

Footnotes:

  1. Angus family tree. Owner Barbara Angus (Tarrant). Ancestry .ca
  2. Ibid
  3. E-mail correspondence with Shirley Joyce
  4. Angus family tree. Owner Barbara Angus (Tarrant). Ancestry .ca
  5. E-mail correspondence with Shirley Joyce
  6. British Home Child Registry. https://www.britishhomechildrenregistry.com/
  7. E-mail correspondence with Shirley Joyce
  8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Partick

 

Background Information:

https://www.britishhomechildren.com/

https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle-2-15039/the-15-000-scots-children-shipped-to-canada-1-4616584

British Home Children: Their Stories. Global Heritage Press, 2010.

Joyce, Sandra. The Street Arab: the Story of a British Home Child. Welldone Pub., 2011

Pettit, Mary. Mary Janeway: the Legacy of a Home Child. Natural Heritage Books, 2009.