This was shared at a recent Women’s Institute meeting in Norval. It was part of a school project in 1984. It is written by the 12 year old granddaughter of British Home Child, John McVittie.
“This is a story about the little immigrants, the orphans, who came to Canada between 1870 and the Great Depression of the 1930s, and in particular, about one of these home children, my grandfather, John McVittie. It was an extraordinary but almost forgotten odyssey.
In Kenneth Bagnell’s book about the more than 80,000 children from the British Isles who journey to Canada, I learned that some of these children came from the streets of London and Liverpool where they lived by their wits. Others were taken from loving families who could no longer provide for them. Often with no choice in the decision, they were sent to Canada by well-meaning humanitarians in what seemed to be the perfect solution to a dual problem: what to do with the tens of thousands of children living in the slums of Britain who had no future there and how to meet the need for cheap labour over on Canadian farms.
Once in Canada, most of the children, eight, nine and ten years old, were placed with farm families and put to work in the fields planting, harvesting and opening the land of a young nation. They were known as the “home children”, lonely and forlorn youngsters to whom a new life in Canada might mean only hardship and abuse. Where some households were welcoming, some were cold and unsympathetic, denying their charges even proper food and shelter. In many cases the children were totally unprepared and unsuited for the work demanded of them and too often there was little or no inspection of their situations once they were placed.
Thomas John Barnardo, an English humanitarian, was known as ‘The Father of Nobody’s Children’ and he sent thousands of children to Canada amid criticism. My grandfather was one of these children.
In 1904 when my grandfather was six months old, his father, a shepherd in Applebee, England, drowned while caring for his sheep. He left a wife to care for nine children. Three and a half years later, my grandfather’s mother passed away. The eldest children made new lives for themselves. Some went to live with aunts and uncles while my grandfather and his twin brother Joe, went to live in the Barnardo Home in London. John and Joe did not have middle names. Coming from a large family, they had run out of names.
At the home, the boys had various jobs to perform. John’s was to shine the silverware which earned him a measly penny a month. He lived in a cottage called Angius along with 35 other boys. Because there was little or no fresh fruit, they would beg for apple cores from workers or passersby as they walked to school or Chapel. At Christmas their treat would be an orange, the one and only for the year and the same with an egg at Easter time. Sometimes they did have outings to the London Zoo and singing at the Royal Albert Hall.
When John and Joe were ten years old, the First World War had begun. For the dual purpose of getting the children safely out of London and to provide cheap help for Canadian farmers, the children including my grandfather and his twin , were shipped to Canada. Unfortunately John and Joe were placed in separate homes, miles apart, and they were unable to visit each other.
My grandfather’s new home was in Essex County which is located in southwestern Ontario. Others were sent to homes where there was little or no affection given, only hard, long-working hours. He even had to sleep in the barn. Tragically Joe died at 14 of blood poisoning due to poor medical care following a farm accident. This left my grandfather all alone.
When my grandfather was 27, he was allowed to leave the farm where he had toiled long, hard hours to start a new life of this own. He married and took his new bride to the West where he worked for a tobacco company. They finally settled in Kingsville, Ontario, in Essex County with their new family. There he bought his own farm and during the Second World War, he helped with the making of war equipment. Certainly these little immigrants, including my grandfather, played a great part in Canadian history.”
Note: Mary Lynn is now Mrs. David Beaton.