Liela Eliza Preston was probably born in 1894; the month, day and place are still unknown. Very little is known about the first four years of her life in England except that her mother, also named Eliza Preston (aliases Sawyer, Clinton) was a professional beggar with no “fixed abode” who was arrested several times in the 1890’s.
She was in prison during much of her child’s early years. Where little Eliza was left during her mother’s many incarcerations is unknown.
One bitter February 28, 1898, while begging and drinking on Charing Cross Rd. in east London, the police once again arrested Eliza’s mother and the man with whom she was then associating. Eliza, just four years old, was with them, blue with cold, filthy, and hungry. She was taken to St. James Workhouse, where she was given a physical exam that revealed a severe eye infection. Her head was then shaved to rid her of a lice infestation. Eliza’s mother was charged with neglect and exposure, and sentenced to three months at hard labor, in Holloway Prison. Little Eliza never saw or heard from her mother again. Custody of the child was given to Rev. Benjamin Waugh, the founder of the NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children). She was sent to the NSPCC shelter for a short time until Rev. Waugh applied for her admission to Barnardo Homes. Eliza was admitted to Barnardo’s on March 10, 1898. She first went to the receiving house at Stepney Causeway, then on to Girls Village Home in Ilford, Essex, England. She was placed in “Forget Me Not” cottage. Each cottage had a “cottage mother” who was in charge of the house. Eliza’s cottage mother was a woman named Ms. Lousia Lance Cheyne. A very special relationship developed between Eliza and Ms. Cheyne. Eliza would often accompany Ms. Cheyne on weekend visits to her brother Dr. Walter Cheyne, a doctor in Scotland. Ms. Cheyne also gave Eliza the name Leila. She told her, “You are such a little girl for such a big name like Elizabeth.” (We thought her name was Eliza. This is another of many unanswered questions.) Even after Eliza had emigrated to Canada, Ms. Cheyne continued to correspond by letter and sent her several packages. Unfortunately, Ms. Cheyne died in 1907, before a planned visit to see Eliza in Canada. Eliza never got over her death. She later said, “Never did I have such a friend.” Eliza stayed at Girls Village until May 1, 1902; she was then eight years old. It was decided by Barnardo’s to emigrate her to Canada as part of the “Ever Open Door Policy” of Dr. Barnardo. Eliza left England, never to return, on May 1, 1902 aboard the SS Dominion. The ship arrived in Quebec, Canada on May 11, 1902. A large party of Barnardo girls traveled with Eliza by train from Toronto to Peterborough, Ontario, where Dr. Barnardo had a home for girls called Hazlebrae. She stayed there a short time until arrangements were made with the Jeffs family, who had applied to adopt her. Eliza was with the Jeffs about a week when they sent her back to Hazlebrae. “Too quiet and irresponsive,” they said. “Did not care for the child.” Eliza went on to thirteen more foster homes in the province of Ontario until she reached the age of eighteen. Many of the families she lived with mistreated her; a few were very good to her. She met and married my grandfather, Arthur Paige, who was working on a boat when they met. They settled in Alexandria Bay, N.Y. and had eight children, my mother being one.
The story we grew up with was that Eliza had been left on the doorstep of an orphanage as a baby, with a note pinned to her with her name. Imagine our shock when the papers arrived from Barnardo’s Aftercare with the real heartbreaking story. Unfortunately, Eliza had passed away before we received the papers. Over the years, she had written many letters to Barnardo’s, begging for information on her family and a birth certificate; she received neither. She never had a birthday nor knew of any family. After marrying my grandfather, she took his birthday as hers. Since receiving her papers, my mother and I often wonder if Eliza had any memory of her mother or any of those early years. If she did, she never spoke much about it.
I would like to add a little story about Eliza that took place when she was ten years old. It speaks to the kind of perseverance and survivor skills she possessed her whole life. On September 19, 1904, while living with the Twamley family in Cavanville, Ontario, Eliza decided to run away. She wanted to return to her former foster home with the Day family in Brighton, Ontario. The Days were an elderly couple who had become very attached to Eliza in the year she lived with them. “Best child ever sent to Canada,” they said. Being elderly, they had had to give up housekeeping and move in with their children. They were unable to take Eliza with them, so she was returned to Hazlebrae until another place could be found for her. Eliza boarded the CPR train without a ticket in Cavanville and managed to get to Peterborough. When the conductor asked where she was going, she responded, “To grandmother’s in Brighton.” The conductor put her in his office in Peterborough, and told her to stay there until he returned from dinner. When he returned, Eliza was nowhere to be found. The police were called, advertising was put up and word spread all through the area about the missing ten-year old girl. She had been missing for five days when a letter from Mrs. Percy Fitzgerald informed the people at Hazlebrae that Eliza was safe with them. It seems that Eliza, determined to get to the Day’s, walked twelve miles down the railroad tracks from Peterborough to Indian River. She had fallen and skinned her knees, when she saw a group of children playing in their yard. When they were called in for dinner, she followed along behind them. She stayed with the Fitzgeralds until Ms. Poole, a worker from the home, drove out and picked her up. Through diligent research, I have been able to put this whole story together, including pictures of the Day house and the ticket station in Peterborough. I have even found the Fitzgerald house in Indian River, where their descendants still live.
I guess perseverance does pay off! I wonder where I got that quality?
I will continue to search for Eliza’s family as long as I can. My mom is now aged seventy-eight, and I hope to find some relatives before another generation is lost without knowing our roots. Given the difficult circumstances of this search, Eliza’s mother’s aliases and being homeless, it will surely be a test of my perseverance. I know that many people have very negative feelings about Barnardo’s, and with good reason. I believe that my grandmother would not have survived had she not been taken from her mother when she was. I don’t agree, however, that all family ties should have been severed, or that children should be emigrated as indentured slaves to foreign countries. My grandmother lived a very hard life. She always had to be the breadwinner of the family while raising eight children due to my grandfather’s ill health. She made her living using what she had been taught at Barnardo’s, domestic work. She worked as a live-in companion and nurse to the elderly after the death of her husband, and managed to buy herself a house and live comfortably until she passed away in 1981 at the age of 86.
I am named after my grandmother; I carry her name with such pride.
Liela Eliza Preston was one of the most gentle, loving, and strongest women I have ever known. In four generations, our family has come from begging on the streets of London for survival, to college degrees in teaching and accounting. Even more important than monetary success, real success to me is the kind of mother I learned to become because of Liela Eliza Preston, my beloved grandmother.
My grandmother had nothing to be ashamed of; because of the very special person she was, my family is what we are today: happy, successful and most of all proud.