Many years ago I sent my daughter Caolaidhe, who was 6 at the time, to stay with my brother Kent and his wife Ros for the summer. Although there was no one I would trust more with my children than them, I worried sick the whole time, questioned my decision and was so happy to have her back with me in the end. And over the years my oldest, Trevor, and youngest, Doug, have gone to camps. I’m sure their excitement about their anticipated adventures held nothing to the anxiety I felt about having them gone. So, when I came to understand a bit more about the life my Great Uncle William Anthony Kent (1892-1988) and his brother Albert Henry Kent (1890-1983) survived as Home Children in Canada, my immediate thought was about their mom and others like her. I became grateful that I was never in a position to have to make a permanent decision like that. It also made me recognize how resilient this family was.
William and his brother Albert were sent to Canada as “Home Children”. In order to understand why parents needed to make these kind of decisions, one must understand what life was like in the late nineteenth century in Britain. And through that, realize the decision was probably made with all the best intentions. Britain was faced with poverty, pollution, and social inequality. As a result, hundreds of thousands of people, especially children, were forced to live in horrible, slum-like conditions. These children had limited options. Many went “into service” for wealthier families, were forced into workhouses or served as indentured labourers. Others lived on the streets. By the late 1800s, it was impossible to ignore how bad the living conditions had become, and their plights were noticed in both Britain and Canada where decisions were made to try and alleviate the situation. Ironically, my two oldest children were involved in a play through St Albert Children’s Theatre in about 1990 called “Ragged Child” that highlighted the cholera epidemic and conditions that existed on the streets of London. At that time, I didn’t realize my own family had been impacted by this situation. Sadly for many of these Home Children, their life across the ocean was not much better, and sometimes worse, than what they had left behind. Fortunately for my uncle and his brother it appears they were afforded a better life.
The British Child Emigration Movement officially began on October 28, 1869, when Maria Rye, an English social reformer, brought sixty-eight children from London and Liverpool to Canada so they would have opportunities to thrive in our country. The plan was to have younger children adopted by Canadian families, and to have older children provided with shelter and food in exchange for farming help until they were eighteen-years-old. Both the Canadian and British governments supported the program, Britain, because it reduced the costs of having to support struggling children and Canada because it provided workers-in-training and young children that could be adopted. Over 100,000 children were sent to Canada between 1869 and 1948. In total, 150,000 children were sent to Canada and other Commonwealth countries such as Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Most of the children were between six- and fifteen-years-old, but some were as young as six-months-old. There were many agencies involved with Home Children, the most often noted on was Barnardo Homes. But there were others like Fegan’s Homes, (William and Albert were involved with Fegan’s) Quarrier’s and others. I can’t even fathom what parents must have felt making that decision, knowing you had little choice, wanting only the best for your children but sending them away knowing it was likely you would never see them again.
I never knew any part of this story until the mid 1990’s when I started working on our family’s history. My curiosity about my Uncle was in part because he was a very wealthy man, living in Michigan with my Aunt Hazel. My parents never wanted us to ask questions about them. Growing up, we often visited their home but my parents were always cautious of saying or doing anything that would raise eyebrows. As an outspoken, sometimes rebellious, teen I was often in trouble with my parents, mom in particular. T threat of ‘don’t let your aunt and uncle know about this’ was often made so to ask questions of them would have been totally out of the question. It’s so sad we don’t realize until its too late that there are so many stories to be told.
During my research I contacted Fegan’s Homes in England and was fortunate to receive copies of the application completed by William’s mother so that he could be cared for by this agency. They also gave me his mother’s permission to be sent to Canada along with his brother. The application was completed on November 4, 1903 at Southwark, England. Based on this information the following appears to describe William’s early life:
He was born at 7 Charleston Street, Walworth England on April 1, 1892. His father was no longer living in 1903 when his mother Annie Louise Kent of 326 Merton Rd., New Kent Rd. sent him to Mr Fegan’s Homes. She indicated on the application that she was a needle woman who was also working as an office cleaner. She listed her mother as Maria Dickie who lived at 41 Surrey Square, Old Kent Rd. Her reasons for sending William to the Home – ‘having lost his father, I his mother find it impossible to support him’. His father, whose name is not listed, was apparently a traveller. I later found out his name was Jonathan. Annie later married again to a Raphael Spencer in 1906.
William’s siblings are listed as Jonathan Edward Kent (age 17 in 1903), his whereabouts unknown at the time but his mother believed he may have joined the militia. He, too, later moved to America as did his younger sister (probably supported in part by Uncle Bill). Albert Henry Kent (age 13) who already had been sent to Fegan’s Homes (admitted at Southwark on October 13, 1902) and who travelled to Canada with William, James Richard Kent age 8 and Agnes Maria who was 6. I believe Agnes may have come to Canada in later years as a Home Child. Both boys emigrated to Canada together, sailing on the S.S. Southwark on May 18, 1905 from Liverpool. They were part of a party of 53 boys accompanied by Mr. Jarrett.
Fegan’s had a ‘receiving home’ in Toronto where the boys stayed until they were placed out with a family.
Records received from Douglas Fry who researched and kept many Fegan records provided notes to say that William was initially “trained” beginning on April 1, 1905. His character, shortly after his arrival in Canada, at 12 years old, was described in Fegan’s records as “honest, truthful, industrious, reliable and willing but rather hasty”- sounding like a very typical 12 year old although obviously old beyond his years already.
On June 2, 1905, William was assigned to Chas E Lewis in Newmarket, Ontario, where he worked for $40.00 for ten months. Their report on him dated August 1905: ‘a splendid boy so far. They seem to like him very much. Good home’. William remained with them through 1907 with positive reports each year. In 1906, he was paid $72.00 for the year and the report from Fegan’s states: “June 1906, doing very fine. Mr. and Mrs. Lewis speak highly of him. He has a very good home and is quite happy.’ In 1907 he was paid $95.00 for one year. The report in July of that year states: ‘doing well. Is a good worker inclined to be a bit stubborn at times. Has a good home’. In 1908 he worked for George Millard in Newmarket and in 1909 he was working at the Office Specialty Co., in Newmarket, Ontario. William worked for a time as a salesman travelling around Ontario and the Northern States and subsequently repaid his travel from Fegan’s and received a medal from them for doing so.
I received similar records about his brother Albert. Fegan’s record that his character upon arrival was honest, truthful, industrious “A good boy”. He was moved to Aurora, Ontario and lived with A. B. Haines, in Aurora. He was paid $45.00 for 10 mos. and the Haines family noted in August of that year that he was “Doing splendidly. Very quick and intelligent. Has a real good home”. In April, 1906, he worked for Henry Reynolds in Aurora and was paid $80.00 for year. Mr. Reynolds noted in June 1906 that he was “ A real good boy. Very satisfactory in every way. Has a good home.’ He remained with the Reynolds in 1907 and was paid $105.00 for one year. The remarks in July 1907 was that he was “Doing splendidly in every way. A fine intelligent young man. Has a very nice home.” On April 2, 1908, when he was 18, Fegan records show that he made his own terms.
One of the most heart-warming stories of these brothers was one that I have heard from a couple of different sources. Once a month, William and Albert who lived about 7 km apart, one in Newmarket and the other in Aurora, would make their lunches and begin walking (about an hour and a half walk) down Yonge Street toward each other, meeting half way, eat their lunch together and visit for a bit before turning around and walking home to do their chores. This brotherly love remained in tact throughout their lives and William often helped his brother in many ways especially after he was wounded during the war.
William and Albert both served in the Canadian Cavalry. William only served for a short period of time, but during this time he was introduced to Hazel Irene Wright (1892-1987) by her brother, Daniel Gordon Wright. Daniel and Hazel lived in Newmarket, Ontario having returned there with their mother, Josephine, after the death of their father in Carberry.
William and Hazel married in 1914 in Newmarket and migrated to Detroit, Michigan in 1915. William worked as a sales agent for an auto part company. He later started Kent-Moore Tool and Dye company which standardized tools for General Motors. He and Aunt Hazel were made US citizens by an Act of Congress at the time of the Second World War, as non-Americans could not own companies that were making war tools and Kent-Moore Tool and Dye was an intricate supplier to the war effort.
They later built a beautiful home in Red Oaks, Birmingham, Michigan. Their house was magnificent. The twin beds my sister and I used were so high. On the dresser was a jar of coloured cotton balls and the highlight (as I recall) was a window with a ledge you could sit on – IN THE CUPBOARD!!!! The driveway to their home was lined with orchards on either side and a very long driveway before you even came to the house. When I visited once in my early twenties, my Uncle Bill made my girlfriend and I hamburgers which I remember astounded my friend who said “on my God a millionaire is making my lunch”.
Their backyard had a nine hole golf course on it and their neighbour’s house next door belonged to my Uncle Don and Aunt Maxine Wright and their son Bobby. Bobby was just a little younger than me and he had a baseball diamond in his yard! In later years as my Aunt and Uncle aged they sold much of their property and my uncle explained the homes being built were quite “low class”. They were only worth about $300,000 each!
I was never really aware of how rich these people were and my parents and grandmother only speculated about their investments. There was talk about hotels and apartments in the mid-west and in Florida. When I visited as a young adult, my Uncle mentioned he had just sold the last of his property in Detroit – the land between the Fischer Building and the General Motors Building. Quite a different lifestyle than in London England in the early 1900’s and obviously he made alot more than his $95/year he was making in 1909!!
William was quite an accomplished artist and I am lucky to have a piece of his work hanging in my living room. He and Hazel travelled extensively throughout their marriage. Hazel would write letters addressed to family and friends in the format of a journal/diary and William’s art work was also incorporated to decorate the pages. The books “Hazel’s Holidays” were then sent to their family and friends. As a youngster I would excitedly look for the date and page that was written to us – now that I’ve read the books I am amazed at what they saw and wrote about and again wished I had paid more attention when I was younger.
Its a regret that I have that I cannot ask Uncle Bill about what it must have been like boarding a boat with his brother who was only a year older and travelling across the ocean to a country he probably had no idea about. I wonder what he thought years later travelling by ship again across the ocean on one of the many trips he and my aunt took on their later adventures. His success despite his very, very humble beginnings make me realize that his concept was that the glass was always half full as opposed to half empty and his determination matched his talents toward his success.