British Home Children: The Story of an Investigation (episode 3)

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The Marchmount Home (Belleville, Ontario) in 1873

Who Were the British Home Children?

While waiting for the Barnardo's file, I gathered some information about the Home Children, these young British immigrants.

From 1869 to 1930, more than 100,000 children left England and immigrated to Canada where they hoped for a better future. They are said to have been orphans, however, two-thirds of them had at least one parent still alive in England, but too poor to take care of a child. During the Industrial Revolution era, England had to face severe social issues: poverty, pollution, and inequities. Hundreds of thousands of people were living in horrendous conditions. Children were particularly vulnerable. Some were being left on their own on the streets—just think about Charlie Chaplin's The Kid—others will be employed in workhouses, these awful institutions for the poor. People were working 18 hours a day in precarious conditions, worse than the most badly paid labourers, as the less eligibility principle was applied.

It is for sparing them from these miserable life conditions that thousands of children were sent to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Most of them were between the age of 6 and 15, but some could be as young as 6 months old.

Children were sent to Homes before being assigned to families who applied for a child, looking for a farm labourer or a servant. Some children found a loving family; still, lots of them were rather considered slaves and were abused. They were not provided with any education as they were replacing those who went back to school in the fall. Bullying, such as teasing and name-calling—they were known as street rats—, was their daily lot. When visitors came to the house, they had to hide, they were taught to be ashamed of being Home Children. For several of them, the feeling of disgrace was so deep that they would never talk about their origins during their lifetime.

More than ten percent of Canadians today have Home Children in their ancestry. The shame their ancestors felt would result in many of them not having a clue about their origins.

Based on this information, I am starting to understand Lilly's secret. She preferred to tell about a difficult but legitimate past rather than confess about shameful origins.

Some references available online:

On Library and Archives Canada, numerous documents may be found on British Home Children, such as passenger lists, correspondence files, immigration inspection reports, private collections, as well as indexes on a few documents that are kept in Great Britain. British Home Children in Canada, Canada’s History and British Home Child Group International websites also offers helpful information.