James William Condell Fegan was born April 27, 1852 in Southampton, England. He was a deeply religious man, having been raised in the faith of the Plymouth Brethren, a fundamentalist evangelical church.
After completing his schooling in 1869, he was employed in the Mincing Lane office of colonial brokers in London and while there, became exposed to the terrible circumstances of that city’s impoverished. He was moved to spend his evenings teaching in a nearby Ragged School. Concerned about the wellbeing of his students, he housed a few in the school’s attic.
By September 1871, the strain of working in the commercial world during the day and long nights of teaching at the Ragged School took their toll on Fegan’s health. Exhaustion led to his forced rest in Bognar Regis and it was there that he befriended a young homeless orphan, Tom Hammond. Returning to London, Fegan took the boy with him and arranged for his admission into an institution and thus Hammond became known as the first Fegan Boy. Eighteen months later, Tom Hammond was emigrated to Canada.
Realizing that the Ragged School’s premises couldn’t meet the educational and housing needs of destitute boys, Fegan solicited the financial help of friends and in May 1872, opened a house in Deptford, one of the most notorious areas of London. His work in the community would earn him the title ‘Fegan of Deptford’. The house on High Street underwent several expansions to meet the ever-growing number of boys seeking Fegan’s help.
In 1879, Fegan opened his second institution, The Little Wanderers’ Home in Greenwich. Run with military discipline, boys were provided an education and industrial training in printing, shoe making and carpentry. The boys were also taken on camping excursions and taught survival skills and the basics of self-sufficiency.
Further expansion occurred in 1882 when larger premises in Southwark, a central district of London, replaced the original Deptford home. The Red Lamp at Westminster would subsequently replace this home in 1913. The name, The Red Lamp, acknowledged the red lantern that hung over its doors, serving as a beacon to boys seeking food and shelter.
Fegan’s work was not confined to his efforts on behalf of boys. In 1875 he opened several missions, one of which was The Medical Mission, providing medical care to impoverished families. As an adjunct, he opened the “invalid kitchen” where food was prepared and sent to the neighbourhood’s sick. His charities extended to distributing clothing to the needy, providing wholesome affordable meals to women factory workers and to teaching girls dressmaking and cooking.
By 1882, Fegan had abandoned his career as a broker in order to devote his energy to his benevolent work.
Faced with a seemingly endless stream of boys needing his assistance, Fegan considered the possibility of sending some to Canada. Lord Blantyre offered to pay for fifty boys to emigrate to Canada. Additional support was forthcoming from Samuel Smith, MP, a director of the Liverpool Sheltering Home.
Accompanied by ten boys, Fegan made an investigative trip to Canada in May, 1884. Surprised by the ease with which he was able to place the boys, he returned that same year with fifty more.
His Canadian travels would take Fegan to Toronto, Ottawa and as far west as Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. He would eventually open a home in Brandon, Manitoba, and is credited with being the first to send children to western Canada.
William Gooderham junior, a wealthy Toronto distiller’s eldest son, afforded invaluable assistance. He provided for the boys’ accommodation and in 1886 donated a distributing home at 295 George St. The home was for the joint use of Fegan and the Salvation Army. Upon his death in 1889, Gooderham left $10,000 to Fegan so that his good works might continue.
On August 23, 1889, Fegan married Mary Pope. She became an active partner in his work and his most trusted advisor.
By 1900, the Greenwich home’s utility value had all but run its course. In a giant leap of faith, Fegan offered to buy the former St. Paul’s College at Stony Stratford, Buckinghamshire. His offer of one tenth of the property’s value was accepted on the understanding that he deliver the funds in two weeks. He raised the funds from within a group of friends attending a prayer meeting. The Orphanage and Training Home for Waifs and Strays would house as many as 250 boys at any given time.
Following one of his visits to Canada, Fegan determined that the boys should be readied for life on Canadian farms. In 1911, he bought a farm property at Goudhurst, Kent and set about creating a “Canada Training Farm”. He had Canadian styled barns constructed, imported Canadian farm machinery and instructed the boys in Canadian farming methods. The property also served as the principal residence of Mr. and Mrs. Fegan.
Once settled in Canada, the boys were encouraged to open bank accounts and save a portion of their earnings. Fegan also urged them to acknowledge their good fortune by sending a portion of their income back to Goudhurst, to fund the cost of sending future immigrants to Canada. In 1907, the government’s inspector, Mr. Smart, telegraphed Fegan to say, “Your sons across the sea send forty-six hundred and fifty dollars as an expression of love and gratitude.”
James W.C. Fegan died at Goudhurst on December 9, 1925. His private secretary, while greatly admiring Fegan, nevertheless said of him that he was “autocratic, dictatorial and impatient, for he was a perfectionist and did not suffer fools gladly”. He further described Fegan as having “considerable human sympathy and a fine sense of humour”.
Following the death of her husband, Mary Fegan would continue his work until she was tragically killed in 1943 by a bomb that struck Goudhurst during an air raid.
Canadian immigration records of the time make little reference to Fegan’s immigration practices but thanks to the meticulous record keeping of the organization, it is known that they sent some 3,200 boys to Canada.
Fegan’s: email: email@example.com; website: www.fegans.org.uk
Receiving or Distribution Homes in Canada: Fegan – 295 George Street, Toronto, Ontario