Manitoba·Point of View

Shame, secrets and dark histories: Remembering the legacy of British home children

Over a family dinner, Barb Janes's grandmother unwrapped a secret that she'd hidden for decades

Barb Janes, granddaughter of a home child, sees parallels between that scheme and Canada's residential schools

Louisa Annie Elizabeth Pike shared her long-held secret with her family at a dinner — she was one of 100,000 children 'rescued' from poverty in Britain, and shipped to Canada, between the late 1800s and the mid 1940s as part of the British Home Children program. (Submitted by Barb Janes)

When CBC Manitoba created a form for our audience to "pitch a story,"  Barb Janes was one of the first to ask to share hers. Or rather, her grandmother's story — and how, during a family dinner, she told the rest of her family the truth behind it.

Below, in Barb Janes's words, is that story.

"It was the cook on the ship who saved my life." 

This was the opening salvo dropped at a family dinner by my meek Nana, as she unwrapped a secret that she'd hidden for decades. 

"I was all alone on the ship, and so seasick the whole way over. The cook gave me a glass of water, or I surely would have died," she said to us, a shocked audience of her loved ones.

My Newfoundland-raised Grampa, well-schooled in ships, tried to interject with a sea-faring story of his own. But my father, who had never heard his own mother's story, deftly turned the attention back to Nana.

You see, my Nana, Louisa Annie Elizabeth Pike, was a British home child — one of some 100,000 destitute children, who were sent to Canada from England, between 1869 and 1948. 

At the time, I knew nothing about the British home children. Or that our own family was a part of that history. 

Until now. Until this fateful dinner, when Nana decided to tell us.

Barb Janes in front of the Hazelbrae Monument in Peterborough, Ont. The names of all the children who passed through that Barnardo Receiving Home are engraved on the monument. (Submitted by Barb Janes)

It was July 28, 1910, Nana said. She and 133 other children set sail aboard the SS Tunisian. In her dinner table story, she is all alone on the ship — and so it must have felt to her. 

She never saw her parents again, and never spoke of them, except to say she was orphaned when her father was trampled, trying to stop a team of runaway horses. 

A noble story, but (we later learned) untrue. 

The public story was that these children were orphans. The truth, however, was that 98 per cent of them had at least one living parent, and all of them were poor. 

She was met by a farmer who greeted her tersely: 'We wanted a boy.'- Barb Janes

Stigmatized in Britain as "street Arabs," some of these children were adopted, but most were indentured servants — domestics and farm hands.

Some were kidnapped in benevolent abductions by "child rescuers" — Christian philanthropists who earnestly believed they were saving children from lives of poverty and vice. These Christian philanthropists set up shelters, ragged schools, and trades training for the children. 

Among the most famous was a man named Dr. Thomas Barnardo. A canny social entrepreneur, Barnardo realized it was cheaper to export children than to keep them.

At a time when Britain was in dread of its empire's decline, sending these children to one of the colonies was a win-win: save a child, build the empire. 

Canada's federal government actually paid these charitable organizations for each child sent.

'The dregs of London'

My grandmother's parents, according to documents from Barnardo's, had a "drink problem," trapped in a cycle of unemployment and evictions from their various East End London flats.

They were homeless and penniless, and — here the story gets murky — somehow became separated.

My grandmother was "rescued" by a church worker from St. Saviour's Mission, who sheltered her for three weeks. 

Then, on Oct. 25, 1907, my Nana, described as a "nice child," was placed at Barnardo's Girls Village Home, 14 kilometres outside the city.

Barb Janes points to her grandmother's name on the Hazelbrae Monument. (Submitted by Barb Janes)

There, she was schooled in domestic arts and told about new chances for a fresh life in rural Canada.

In my Nana's case, she was sent to Guilford, Ont., and met by a farmer who greeted her tersely: "We wanted a boy."

Once here, she and the other home children were stigmatized, just as they were back home; Canadians called them "guttersnipes" and the "dregs of London."

Many British home children suppressed their own history, shut down emotionally, and carried shame about their birth families.

I believe my Nana, who held onto her secret until that fateful night at dinner, was one of them.

Delving into the history of the British Home Children scheme, I am struck by some parallels with the Indian residential schools system.

As well as honouring my Nana, I will be thinking of residential school survivors and children currently in care.- Barb Janes

These were children removed from their birth families and sent far away — in the pretence that this would give these children a better life and an education. 

The home children were not forbidden their mother tongue or their religion, like the children in residential schools.

But both groups were shamed about their origins, shamed about parents who couldn't care for them, and taught that a better life meant turning away from their primal identity of family. 

Both groups suffered physical and sexual abuse. 

Both groups survived trauma and largely kept silent. 

And both of these schemes were supported by church and government — ostensibly — for the child's own good.

Sept. 28 is British Home Child Day in Canada, and 2019 marks the 150th anniversary of the first children who emigrated to Canada (or rather, deported here). 

Initiated by descendants of home children, public buildings across Canada (including the Manitoba Legislature Building on Sept. 29) will be illuminated in an act of remembrance. 

As well as honouring my Nana, I will be thinking of residential school survivors, and children currently in care.

This column is part of  CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.



Barb Janes is a retired United Church minister, who adores living in Winnipeg, culture capital of Canada. Writing, bird-watching, pickleball and theatre-going are filling her days, along with researching her grandmother’s story.