When Benjamin and Annie Bown of Hampshire, England had their third child in July, 1880 (my grandfather), I’m sure they never anticipated what the future would bring for them and their children. At the time of Walter’s birth, Benjamin (a former policeman) was a licensed victualler and Walter was actually born in the pub – The Vine Inn on Stoke Road, Gosport, Hampshire.
A fourth child, Ernest, was born in September 1883 and in April, 1884, their mother passed away at age 32 (in the workhouse), soon followed by Ernest in August, 1884. Hard times had obviously befallen them and Benjamin was now left with three motherless children and unable to cope. They were in and out of the workhouse a number of times and they appeared in the 1891 census as residents of the Portsea Workhouse, Benjamin being a worker in the “insane asylum” and the children listed as “paupers”. Benjamin passed away in 1893, again at the workhouse, leaving three children orphaned, my grandfather “Pop” being the youngest at age 12.
We don’t know what Walter’s life was like following his father’s death (was he getting into trouble – was that the reason he was sent here?) – but it would appear that he remained at the Portsea Workhouse in any event until April 1895 when the “Board of Guardians” sent him to Canada as a British Home Child, never to see his siblings again. (BHC records have him as Walter “Bounds”.) He left Liverpool on the S. S. Vancouver on March 28th, 1895 arriving in Halifax on April 7th and on to Marchmont Home in Belleville, Ontario, by train, arriving on April 9th, 1895 to be indentured out as a farmhand. It would be less than a week before he was sent out to his first “placement”. I’m sure he had no knowledge of farming, having lived his life close to the sea, and I wonder how much training he received at Marchmont over the few days he had there before his departure to a farm in Metcalfe, Ontario on April 15th.
There were many other home children sailing with Walter at that time as part of the Rev. Wallace group, and for a glimpse of what he might have experienced en route and on arrival at Marchmont Home in Belleville, the following is an excerpt from a story of two orphaned brothers ages 8 and 13 on the same ship and heading for Belleville: (Adventures of an Orphan, an autobiography of George R. Steele)
” …… The trip across the great Atlantic was made in twelve days …. The first few days were pleasant but …. The ship tossed about from one side to the other. The latter part of the trip was calm and enjoyable. The twelve days, although being a short time, seemed like years to us. All the youngsters were planning what they would do the first thing whey they arrived on land. One would do this and the other would do that. We had fine food and were treated very kindly by all on ship … Upon arriving in Halifax we were placed on a train for Belleville Ontario Canada, where we were taken directly to the Marchmont Home….. This house was a large brick building, surrounded by large green lawns and beautiful flower gardens, all being enclosed with a board fence. On this lawn I picked the first flowers I had ever seen. They were dandelions but as pretty and fragrant to me then as a rose would be today. We were free to roam and come and go as we wished, as long as we kept within bounds and the board fence. There was a feeling of liberty, freedom – no heavy gates to clang when they closed, or to bar us from the outside world. We were here assigned to large, airy sleeping rooms and playgrounds. Mr. and Mrs. Wallace had charge of the institution and sure were very nice people. Our stay here lasted about six weeks, when one day two parties wrote in for two boys to go out on farms …. ”
Unfortunately, unlike the Steele brothers, my grandfather was not afforded the luxury of six weeks at Marchmont.
Following his arrival at the farm of his first “employer”, the farmer commented that “you did not send me the Scotch boy I sent for”. He was returned to Marchmont on July 9th and sent to a new post not long after. He would remain at this new farm in Brighton, Ontario for some time although a neighbour in 1897 had to complain to the “authorities”. “I like him, no clothes, very destitute, will you put this matter very strongly to Mr. xx, his employer.” As of May 1900, we see an entry “a big strong young man, still working for xx”, a new employer. We do know from the 1901 Ontario census that he was employed as a farm hand in the township of Seymour, Brighton, Ontario. We believe that this was after his indentured period had expired as Walter would have been 21 at this point. And on March 29, 1903, his records indicate: “Walter called, fine young man, well dressed. Gets $180 for year. Has no bad habits. Attending Tabernacle.”
Little was shared by Walter with his family of his early years, except a few details of family names, that he “ran away from home” at age 12 and that he had worked for the School for the Deaf (now the Sir James Whitney School) in Belleville, Ontario at some point. Because his marriage certificate stated Belleville, Ontario as his place of birth, we assumed Walter was with his family in Canada when he “ran away”, but of course that was obviously not the case. I think the truth of his birthplace must have come out when he had to provide a birth certificate for pension purposes but even then his BHC story did not surface.
His BHC story in Ontario was not a happy one at all but he dealt with it and eventually found himself in Saskatchewan where he worked hard and had a good life, marrying a lady from England who only after letters exchanged between them travelled to Canada in 1912 where they married a month or so later. They celebrated 50 years in December 1962. My grandmother died the following March. Two sons were born to Walter and Ethel, the youngest of which was my dad. As stated above, Walter never told his story and we only found out about it long after his death, after doing some sleuthing to find out how he got himself to Canada knowing as we did that he was a “pauper”. What we did find in his records explains a lot about his demeanour throughout his lifetime and my dad was so upset that he didn’t know his father’s background and said it would explain a lot – why he wasn’t very demonstrative – he never let his sons lack for any material things but didn’t let his emotions show.
Walter was very hardworking and a good man, provided well for his family and prided himself on very lovely vegetable and flower gardens every year until shortly before his death. He did laugh – especially when he recited the alphabet backwards to my glee when I was a child or when he played with each new grandchild as they came along! – I am just so sorry that we didn’t talk to him more about his life – but he only told us what he wanted us to know and if we had questioned more he would probably not have “fessed up” in any event. He obviously did not want the workhouse sojourn to be remembered as a part of his life and I do feel a bit sad now making it a part of our family history. But after receiving his BHC records and accepting the story of his early life, it IS part of our family history albeit not a happy one for him. How could he wear long woolen underwear year round I used to ask myself – but he was sooooo cold during the winters when he was indentured in Ontario – according to the reports – he must have said “I will never be cold again!” – Sad story to say the least – but his descendants are all well and thriving and we are so proud of him and wish we could tell him so. And I am so encouraged by the attention the BHC story is receiving throughout the country and hope that there will be a national day of celebration of British Home Children declared in each and every Province across Canada.