The Next Chapter

Genevieve Graham's The Forgotten Home Child is based on the sad legacy of the British Home Children

The Nova Scotia-based author spoke with The Next Chapter about writing a novel based on the ill-fated child emigration program.
The Forgotten Home Child is a novel by Genevieve Graham. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC, Simon & Schuster)

Genevieve Graham is the bestselling author of historical fiction works like Come From Away, which is about a Nova Scotia community in 1939, and Promises to Keep, which is a historical romance set in Acadia circa 1755.

The East Coast writer's latest novel is The Forgotten Home Child, which was inspired by the real story of the British Home Children: youth who were immigrated into Canada as a source of cheap labour. Many were subsequently mistreated and abused.

Graham spoke with The Next Chapter about writing The Forgotten Home Child.

The forgotten story of the British Home Children 

"I ran across one article in 2017 that took me away. I couldn't believe this actually happened. What I read was about 120,000 children were sent from the streets of London and Liverpool over to Canada, basically to work as indentured servants and farm labourers.

"These children had come from impoverished backgrounds in England and in Scotland. They've been living in the streets, somewhat like a Dickens novel. They were picked up by different social reformers and philanthropists who had created buildings and safe places for them with clothing and food safety and warmth and everything was good for them. There was a good future for them there, except the buildings couldn't contain them all.

The whole scheme started with a great idea to help everybody. It's unfortunate that it didn't work out the way they planned.

"Then they came up with a scheme: it would give the children a chance to get a better education, to breathe fresh air, to get away from the filth and the disease of England. And it would help the farmers and the people of Canada who were badly in need of help. 

"The whole scheme started with a great idea to help everybody. It's unfortunate that it didn't work out the way they planned."

British immigrant children from Dr. Barnardo's Homes at landing stage, Saint John, N.B. ca. 1920. (Isaac Erb/Library and Archives Canada/PA-041785)

A migration scheme

"It started in 1869. They were sending over shipments of these children. They would land in Halifax and Quebec City and they'd be spread out across the country.

"The masters, a great deal of them were farmers, had paid three dollars in an application fee to buy a child. About 25 per cent of the children actually went to good places. That leaves a large number that were not taken into good situations. 

"A lot of the children did not have adequate living conditions. Some slept in barns and slept with the pigs or in the dog house. Some slept in attics that had no window panes, so the snow would blow in while they slept. A lot of them ended up with frostbite just from sleeping there."

The power of historical fiction

"When you read something that's black-and-white history, sometimes it doesn't stick.

When you read something that's black-and-white history, sometimes it doesn't stick.

"But when you can read it in historical fiction and touch the heart — not just the head — it can stick and you can feel for the history."

 Genevieve Graham's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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