Beacons of Light shine on stories of British Home Children

·4 min read

Each year, National British Home Child Day shines a momentary light on a dark era in Canadian and British history that affected generations' lives.

On Wednesday, Sept. 28, at 7 p.m., the Hartland Baptist Church will host the Beacons of Light Memorial Service for British Home Children as one of the tributes across Canada honouring the children sent from Britain to work as farm labourers and domestic servants.

In addition to the memorial service, local landmarks will join national Canada landmarks as they are illuminated with red, white and blue lights to raise awareness of the little-known chapter in Canadian history.

Nationally, the lights will shine on such iconic sites as Niagara Falls, the CN Tower and the Digby Lighthouse. Locally, lights will illuminate Woodstock's Connell House and Hartland's town hall and Dr. Walter Chestnut Library.

Additionally, Woodstock L.P. Fisher Public Library will display relevant books, while the Blink Sign across from Woodstock High School will showcase a message marking British Home Child Day.

Between 1869 and 1948, authorities in Britain shipped 100,000 children, from toddlers to teens, across the Atlantic Ocean to serve as indentured workers on Canadian farms and elsewhere.

Some arrived in Canada as toddlers, treated as orphans, although that was not always an accurate description.

Some estimates suggest Home Children descendants represent almost 10 per cent of Canada's population.

Carleton County resident Norma Davis Cook is one of those descendants. Her grandparents, Bert and Mary (Pitt) Davis, were both British Home Children.

She knew little about their story until she began researching the history of her grandparents and other children like them eight years ago.

"They didn't talk about it very often," Norma said.

She said her grandfather Bert and his twin brother Ted arrived in Canada as children in 1912. One ended up on a farm in Carlisle and the other in Howard Brook.

Bert and Ted had no contact with each other until the years of indentured labour ended.

"They couldn't handle being separated after that," Norma said.

Her grandmother Mary Pitt arrived on the same farm as Bert as a toddler. Mary and her sister Violet were actual orphans, but only Mary was sent to Canada.

Violet remained behind at the Middlemore Home but eventually came to Canada through a program which helped young adults immigrate.

Norma said her grandfather continued to work on the farm as a hired hand for six years after his indentured labour requirements ended.

During that time, she said, Bert kept an eye on Mary. They eventually married.

In later years, Mary was nearly blind, and it was touching to see how Bert looked after her," Norma recalled.

Norma said her grandfather lived to 101.

She said her Uncle Ted's grandson, wife and children will perform a drama depicting life as a British Home Child during the memorial service.

Because of the turmoil of their childhood, which often included isolation and harsh treatment, Mary explained many British Home Children grew up with feelings of inferiority.

"Even after they finished their terms of indenture and started to build a new life in their adopted homeland, the prejudice against Home Children continued to follow them," Norma explained. "It's no wonder that they rarely spoke about their childhood or the families they left behind in Britain."

During the First World War, 'Home Boys' as they were called were among the first to volunteer. Norma said more than 1,100 paid the ultimate sacrifice.

Generations of Home Children's descendants knew little about their ancestry.

"It has only been in recent years that descendants have been able to trace their family trees and discover the untold stories of their British Home Child ancestors," said Norma. "This has been my personal project over the past eight years since both of my Dad's parents were British Home Children."

Norma made it her goal to find the answers her family had sought for almost a century.

"I'm happy to say that many of those questions have been answered through my research, which even revealed the identity of my unknown great-grandfather from England," she said. "Along the way, I have been able to encourage and assist others who have embarked on a similar journey to find their roots."

Jim Dumville, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, River Valley Sun