Stories of the British Home Children brought to life

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Are you a descendant of a British Home Child? More than 10 per cent of Canadians are estimated to be, although many are unaware of this part of their family history.

Karen McAuley-Smith is one of those Canadians. Her family has a long history in Huntsville that dates back to the 1870s – her parents lived here as did her grandparents, all except Joseph McAuley.

The British Home Children were children living in institutional ‘homes’ across the UK because they had no home of their own. Some were orphans, others were destitute, relinquished by parents who had run out of options. In a vast emigration scheme, hundreds of thousands of the children were sent throughout the British Empire as indentured workers. More than 100,000 – perhaps as many as 130,000 – were sent to Canada. Joseph was one of them.

“I knew Joseph was a Bernardo home boy,” said McAuley-Smith, referencing the home he came from. “I was very curious so I started asking questions and started writing letters. I think I was about 13 when I wrote my first letter to this relative in England asking about my grandpa and that’s what got me started.” Since then she has researched the history of both her and her husband’s families and has helped others do the same.

Sandra Joyce of British Home Child Group International has been an advocate of British Home Children since learning that her father was a British Home Child. Unlike McAuley-Smith, she didn’t learn this part of her family’s history until much later in life. She has since written three books on the subject and has given hundreds of presentations to Canadians wondering if they, too, might be a descendant of a home child. She’ll be at the Huntsville Public Library on October 29 to do the same.

“It surprised me that I didn’t know anything about it, yet my family was directly involved in it,” said Joyce. “Knowing this information about my own father helped me heal, I guess. (My father) was a very solitary person and had trouble showing his emotions and being involved in family activities. It made sense to me, knowing this information, why he was the way he was. So I said to myself, more people need to know this, because if it happened in their own families, it helps them to understand their families better.”

Joyce noted another important part of learning about this history: the reunification of families. “We found out we had an aunt that (my father) had never talked about. She remained in Scotland and the two boys came to Canada. We were able to find her sons which are my first cousins and meet up with them. It was a real pleasure to meet them the first time and notice some similarities in the way we look and maybe the way we act. Our families were separated for almost 90 years. The reunification of families is a big, important part of this. A lot of people grew up not knowing about family they have.”

McAuley-Smith did know some of her overseas family – she corresponded with a cousin for many years but in 1990 she decided to look farther. “I put a letter to the editor in this newspaper in Ireland and found first cousins of my grandfather in the same town he was born in.”

Joseph seemed to have had a reasonably happy life as a home child, although, like most, he didn’t talk about it. There were nine children in his family. The oldest six remained in the UK after their mother died, continuing to live and work where they already were. The youngest three – Joseph and his sisters – were sent to Bernardo’s, the girls eventually heading to indentured service in the UK and Joseph to Canada at just nine years old, first to a farm in Omemee near Peterborough and then on to the Huntsville area.

McAuley-Smith knows that Joseph received Christmas presents from the family he lived with, although not the same as the other children in the family. Later in life, he worked at the Union Garage, played the drums and had a band, and was a square dance caller. “My one aunt told me he loved to dress up and play Santa Claus and be the life of the party. He seemed like a happy individual from what people tell me.” She now has letters that Joseph sent back to Bernardo’s, always signed ‘one of your boys’ along with a medallion issued to children for good conduct and length of service.

Not all of the home children were treated as well, unfortunately.

There are three groups of stories. One of them is quite good where they were treated well, taken into the families they were made to work for, and allowed to go to school. Then you have the other end where they were treated horrifically. And then you had a large group in the middle who were treated like workers and not as children, so they lost their childhood. When you think about the sheer numbers of children coming over here and having to work like that and then integrating into Canadian society, it’s important for us to all know about this part of our history.
Sandra Joyce, British Home Child Group International

One of the ways those stories have been shared is through quilts. There are several across Canada that depict home children and the British Home Child Group International has just completed one that Joyce along with Karen Mahoney, who organized the quilt, will offer a sneak peek at on Saturday.

Canada’s 150th British Home Child 2017 Memorial Quilt was created to coincide with Canada’s sesquicentennial in 2017 and includes 36 images of home children – some on their own, some in groups – accompanied by a book of submitted stories about each image. The quilt was pieced by Kim Cowieson.

“People love looking at the quilts,” said Mahoney. ”You’ll see the quilt and then be able to look at the book and read the story behind the picture. For example, my piece is a picture of Herbert – he worked on my husband’s family farm and was killed at Paschendale in the First World War. It’s a picture of him in his uniform and just a brief history of him.”

Joseph is on the quilt, too. McAuley-Smith is pleased that she can share this part of her family’s history and hopes that others will seek out information about their own family history. She co-authored a book, Ravenscliffe and its Early Settlers, and in the course of research made note of any families where there was mention of a home child on their census record. So far, she’s identified 174 local families, some that she’s been in contact with and some that are unaware of their history. Perhaps you are one of them.

Joyce and Mahoney’s presentation, Leave No Stone Unturned, is on October 29 from 12-3pm at the Huntsville Public Library. Contact the library at 705-789-5232 to reserve your spot.

For more information on British Home Child Group International visit britishhomechild.com or their Facebook page here.

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