“Between 1869 and the late 1940s, during the child emigration movement, over 100,000 British children were sent to Canada from Great Britain. Motivated by social and economic forces, these orphaned and abandoned children were sent by church and philanthropic organizations. Many settled in Ontario. These boys and girls, ranging in age from six months to 18 years, were the British home children.
The British home children were sent to Canada on the belief that the children would have a better chance to live a healthy and moral life. The organizations that sent these children believed that Canadian families in rural Canada would welcome them as a source of farm labour and domestic help.
The resulting experience faced by many of these children was not what had been expected. With little monitoring by the organizations involved, many of the home children faced considerable challenges and tremendous hardships in Canada.
Many of the children were lonely and sad. Some were malnourished and others were emotionally starved. Many of the home children worked from sunrise until sunset, and children as young as eight years old were expected to milk cows and labour in the fields. Many siblings were separated and never saw each other again.
The story of the British home children, however, does not end with adversity and hardship. With remarkable courage, determination, perseverance and strength, these children overcame the obstacles before them. Most established roots in Canada and in Ontario, and many went on to lead productive lives and contribute to the economy of Ontario”.~ (Preamble, Bill 185: An Act to Proclaim British Home Child Day)
My husband’s great aunt, Kate Liggins, relinquished all four of her boys and all four of them came to Canada as British Home Children. Here is their story:
Joseph William Storer married Eliza Meggot. This couple had 5 children: Eliza, Kate, Ruth, Edgar and Joseph William (Jr). Eliza & Joseph’s second daughter, Kate, married James Liggins in about 1880. Kate had quite an eventful life, as did her four sons. Apparently James, a brass foundry worker, was quite a sickly chap and often out of work as a result. The couple had 4 sons: Harry, Archibald, Leonard and Stephen. The Liggins family were very poor as James rarely made enough to feed his family. In 1897, Kate went to an orphanage in Birmingham, England, called Middlemore Homes.
Here she relinquished the care of her two older sons, Harry and Archie. Middlemore was a “clearing station” for children being sent to Canada. These children, who had largely grown up on city streets in England, were suddenly transported to a foreign country — without their parents or caregivers—and sent to work on farms in their new countries. The children were indentured to the organization that sponsored them until their 18th birthday.
Kate’s younger two boys, Leonard and Stephen were also relinquished to orphanages. By 1900 Middlemore Homes had closed its doors and so the younger boys were sent to Barnardos. It is unclear whether or not they were relinquished together. They were sent separately to Canada. Stephen, the youngest, arrived first in 1900 at the very tender age of 8. His brother, Leonard, followed in 1901 at the age of 9.
On September 27, 1900, Stephen boarded the SS Tunisian in Liverpool and left his family and homeland behind. He arrived in Quebec on October 6, 1900. His destination was Toronto where presumably he ended up at a Barnardo’s clearing/receiving home. From there, he was farmed out to work. The 1901 census shows Stephen living in Muskoka/Parry Sound with an elderly woman named Judith Lever. Judith appeared to have a number of home children in her custody. Stephen was the youngest. From Parry Sound, young Stephen moved to Rainy River/Thunder Bay where he appears on the 1911 census living with a young woman named Irene McKean.
On December 4, 1915, Stephen enlisted to fight in WW1 with the Canadian Overseas Expeditiary Force. Enlisting to fight was one way that the Home Children hoped to be able to return to their homeland. Stephen’s attestation papers show him living at 8 Huron Street, Brantford, with his maternal aunt, Ruth (Storer) Skett. Stephen’s military record shows that in order to be considered “fit” to enlist, he required an operation to repair a double hernia. It is believed that this hernia was the result of having to perform hard manual farm labour from such a young age.
Upon his return from Service, Stephen married his first cousin, Lily Skett (Ruth and husband George’s youngest daughter). This was much to the chagrin of old George since Stephen was a bit of a rebel and apparently drank quite a bit. Stephen and Lily had no children together, and at some point the marriage disintegrated. Both Lily and Stephen remarried. Lily moved to Michigan to be near her family, and eventually remarried there. Stephen and his second wife, Aline, lived in Windsor. Stephen died on December 17, 1950 of a stroke. He was 58 years old. Stephen is buried in the military section of Green Lawn Cemetery in Windsor.
Kate’s remaining son, Leonard, left Liverpool on 18 July 1901 aboard the SS Numidian. His port of destination was Quebec. He arrived on 29 July 1901 with “a large party of Dr Barnardo’s children, 239 to Toronto, 68 to Winnipeg, 20 to Russell Manitoba and 3 to Peterborough Ontario.” Leonard married and settled here in Brantford. He was married to his wife, Lily, for 51 years. Leonard and Lily had one daughter, Donna. The three of them are buried together in Mt Hope cemetery, Brantford.
In Leonard’s obituary, there was no mention of any other family. His mother Kate later moved to Niagara, New York where she re-married. It is unclear whatever became of the father of these young boys.
Apparently Kate “was a bad sort, running around with men.” When Kate took the older two boys to the orphanage, and was asked if she would ever want them back, she said, “No.” Archie says that he and his brother could always remember the coldness in her voice, the door closing and her footsteps walking away.
Harry is described in the Middlemore books as being of sallow complexion with dark eyes and an untidy appearance. Archie is described as having a dark complexion with dark eyes and an untidy appearance. The Middlemore records state that, “ the circumstance was that both parents were alive. The father is a brasser but is so delicate that he does not earn more and 10/ week. Mother is living with another man named “Berks” She states that she married Berks 7 years ago, although the husband is still alive. She states that she plans to leave Berks as soon as she can as he is a brute. “He is a bad un to our children by my husband. His language is particularly disgraceful.” James was in gaol three times for desertion (non payment of child support) and apparently Steven Berks had also been gaoled twice. Mother quite understood that she cannot see the boys for at least 2 years after they are in Canada. Accepted.”
The records from Archives Canada show the immigration records for both boys. Henry was aged 13 and Archie was aged 10. The two departed Liverpool on May 14 1898 aboard the SS Siberian. They arrived in Halifax on 29 May 1898. Their destination was Halifax.
Harry arrived in Halifax and tracing his movements from that point has proven quite difficult. It appears that Harry stayed in Nova Scotia during his indenture to Middlemore Homes. The 1901 census for Antigonish NS shows Henry residing as a lodger with James and Sophie Gordon. He was 16 at the time. I have not been able to find a marriage record, or a death record for Henry. Nor have I been able to find him on the 1911 census. The possibilities of what became of Harry are infinite.
Although Archie arrived in Halifax with his brother Harry, he eventually moved to BC where he met and married Ida Martha Taylor on November 24, 1924. Archie was 37 at the time of his marriage. He committed suicide on September 6, 1931 at the age of 44. This is a tragic ending to the tragic life of a British Home Child. A child who was removed from his family, his country, his culture and sent to work in a foreign land. Sadly, no family connections were ever made. Unlike adoptions from foreign countries, the Home Children never belonged to anyone. They were often made to feel unwanted or defective. Many Home Children grew up socially isolated and full of loneliness. The sad reality for Archie was more than he could bear, even with a new wife.