A Granddaughter’s Search for the Hidden Years
In 1986, I read a one page excerpt from a book that led to a change in my life. I became a family researcher. The book was called “The Little Immigrants”, the author, Kenneth Bagnell. I immediately purchased my own copy of the book and began to write on the inside covers and in the many spare spaces on various pages. I wrote down everything I remembered being told by both my grandmother and my father. For this book opened my awareness to a group of children who came to live and work with Canadian families; and what Bagnell was telling me in his book, sounded just too familiar, with those few comments that had come my way through family memories.
On behalf of my father, the only living child of my grandmother, I immediately wrote Dr. Barnardo’s in England, sending them the equivalent of a $30 Canadian donation. We both held our breath, on and off, for 6 months until the day arrived that I received a single page letter from across the ocean. Yes, Grace Ruth Sillett, had been a child who had been placed in the care of Dr. Barnardo’s organization, and, within a few months, Barnardo’s would forward additional information.
The arrival of the additional information was one of the most emotional experiences in the lives of both my father and me. It began with us seeing the photo of a little 7 year old child, with chipmunk cheeks, a shaved head, and looking about ready to cry… and we learned the tragic story of her family, that even she might never have learned. Over the next 4 years, I searched through all the booklets, address books and little notes that my grandmother had kept throughout her life. I scoured all the photographs that had been given to me, documenting and comparing notes and writing to every address my grandmother had tucked away in books and boxes since 1943. Most letters were returned – address or party unknown; but, one address in Australia, that of a niece who had known my grandmother’s story, wrote back. Not only did my grandmother’s life begin to open, but those of her sisters and brothers, her parents, and, ultimately, my own Sillett and related ancestry, all the way back to the 1400’s.
Grace Ruth Sillett: Records at the Barnardo Girl’s Home in Barkingside, London, England
The Barnardo record described Grace as 3 feet, 5 inches with brown hair, brown eyes, a dark complexion and weighing 44 pounds. She was shy, quiet and polite.
• Admitted: 7th May, 1900, Age 7 years, 10 months.
• Reason for admission, death of father at an early age, less than a year earlier. Pregnant mother of 7 children under the age of 10, was left financially destitute.
• Date and Place of Birth: 19th June, 1892, at Bungay, Suffolk, England.
• Religious Denomination of Parents: Church of England.
• Full Agreement, with Canada Clause, signed by mother.
More graphic details in the original report discussed the investigations into this family. One comment stated that the committee believed my great grandmother was truly fond of her children and appeared to be a caring, loving mother who took in sewing and also did laundry. Another observation was that she was strong in her refusal to be placed, with her children, in a workhouse.
One other statement in the report, however, was a chilling one. Physical force had been considered by the welfare committee to remove Grace’s mother from the house; but, because of her delicate condition [pregnancy], it was decided to let her remain until after the birth of the child. Her eighth child, a son, was born in February, 1900.
Shortly after his birth, a final investigation and report accused my great grandmother of leaving her children alone and in squalid conditions while she went out to work. She was also accused of engaging in immoral behaviour to feed her children. Immediately, financial assistance provided by the church was discontinued. Within days, my grandmother agreed to give up four of her children.
Grace was the only one to be sent to Barnardo’s. Although there was no additional information about family members, subsequent research revealed that two of her sisters were sent to an orphanage run by the Waifs and Strays, in Lowestoft, Suffolk, where they remained until the age of 18. A third sister was sent to live with ‘neighbours’ and all family contact was lost with her. After 21 years of searching, this author found her in 2012.
Within a few months after being admitted, Grace was sent to a small village, Thorndon, Suffolk, England, to live with a family consisting of an elderly couple, George and Charlotte Green and George’s brother. She was with them for almost two years and kept a small prayer book given to her by Alfred Green, the married son of this family. It was one of only four items Grace kept from her childhood. She did not remain there permanently, because Grace’s mother had signed the Canada Clause. This gave Barnardo’s the right to send Grace to Canada and place her according to where there was a request or a perceived need for a child to assist within a Canadian family… and there came a request for a young girl to be a companion to the daughter of a local minister in Brighton, Ontario. Grace was selected to be that companion.
Sailing out of Liverpool on the ‘Colonian’ on September 25, 1902, Grace and many other ‘home children’ landed in Portland, Maine, U.S.A. on October 2nd. Her overland destination was Hazelbrae, Barnardo’s Receiving Home for Girls in Peterborough, Ontario. Within days of her arrival, Grace was living with the Catchpoles. It was short-lived, however, because the family moved to the United States soon after and were not given permission by Barnardo’s, or Grace’s mother, to take her with them. Over the next 8 years, Grace lived with two other families for extended periods of time and for a few difficult months with an elderly artist. Her final years under Barnardo’s care was with a well-to-do family who oversaw her education, while at the same time, trained Grace as a domestic servant. Grace kept in contact with this family and their children for the remainder of her life.
Except for one brief period, the reports for Grace were excellent and visits by Barnardo’s staff occurred at least once a year. The final entry in her Barnardo’s file states: “good health, very pretty girl, black eyes and hair and good figure. Nice girl, well-spoken of in this village – keeping company with a respectable young man – a clerk in a hardware store. Has decided to go to the Telephone office after the New Year”. The final comment on Grace’s record is from Mrs. Ross, Grace’s final placement and with whom she later boarded: Grace…“is a splendid girl and a credit to the Home”.
Unlike the stories of many other Home children, Grace’s story was a positive one. Yet, when she spoke of her childhood experiences to her nephew nearly fifty years later, there was a lifetime of doubt. “When Aunt Grace told me she was a Barnardo’s girl, she cried. She said she was so ashamed that she could never tell her own children. All of her life, she thought she wasn’t as good as other people”.
Grace had no contact with any of her family, until, at the age of 14, she asked if she had any relatives in England. Barnardo’s then assisted Grace to make contact with her mother. She subsequently made and kept written contact with some of her siblings. In 1965, after 65 years of separation, Grace fulfilled a lifelong dream and traveled to England where she was finally reunited with six of her seven siblings, and two step-siblings. A Bible, in which she recorded all 56 places and address where she and her husband lived in Canada throughout their life together, is substance for another story.
All of Grace’s placements in Canada were in Brighton, Ontario
• Reverend and Mrs. Catchpole (I month)
• Mrs. J. Pelkey (3 years)
• Elderly artist (6 months)
• Mrs. J. Ross (4 years)