Congratulations to reader Heather Milnes, winner of The Social Historian’s Rogue or Angel? Contest for the story of her grandmother, Evelyn Harris who came to Canada as one of the British Home Children in 1907 at the age of eleven. Torn from her home in London, separated from her mother and siblings, Heather’s grandmother Evelyn always felt that part of herself was missing. For years, she tried in vain to find out what happened to her family, writing repeatedly to the Children’s Society for information, but getting nothing in return.
A piece of her past was missing and all her life Evelyn wondered about why she had been sent away from her family, where they were now and why they never looked for her.
British Home Children of Canada
The Industrial Revolution had an enormous impact on traditional family life in England. From the early part of the nineteenth century, internal migration soared as families from rural communities left their villages and farms and moved to the newly industrialized cities and towns of England in search of factory work.
No longer surrounded by extended family and close neighbours who could help in an emergency, the family unit was at risk if one or both of the parents lost their job, became ill or died. From 1834 when new poor laws were introduced putting an end to outdoor relief, entering the workhouse became the only option for the destitute.
Even as England became the most industrialized country in the world, the social problems brought about by that industrialization began to spiral out of control. Philanthropic organizations formed to address the problems of workers rights, education, social welfare and the growing numbers of homeless and destitute children in the cities of England.
Large sections of the industrial population were still at the end of the 19th century living in appalling conditions.James Joll
By the beginning of the twentieth century, there were over 200,000 pauper inmates in workhouses in England and Wales, 11901 Census of England and Wales, General Report with Appendices (1904 CVIII (Cd. 2174) 1), and an estimated 250,000 children who were destitute and living in poverty throughout the nation. A staggering thirty percent of the population were on the verge of starvation. 2Bloy, Dr. Marjorie. “Reform in Britain 1870-1914.” Reform in Britain 1870-1914. Accessed April 16, 2016. http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/politics/reform.htm.
This large army of destitute children constituted a political danger, for they would grow into men and women and increase in numbers, and so would brought in surroundings which constituted a terrible danger to the State.Rev. A. R. A. Nicol of Leicester
From 1869 and into the late 1930’s, over 100,000 children were dispatched from the United Kingdom to a new life in Canada by charitable organizations in Britain.
While Barnardo’s is one of the best known of these organizations, there were perhaps fifty others such as The Salvation Army, the Church of England Waifs and Strays Association and the Children’s Aid Society of London. While most of the children were sent to Canada, some were sent to Rhodesia, South Africa Australia, and New Zealand.
The children who came to Canada were mostly the poor children, found in the streets and workhouses of London and other cities in England. Some were orphans but most had parents who were simply down on their luck. With no social welfare systems in place, children’s organizations believed that the best chance for these children lay in emigration and adoption. Many children were separated from their parents and siblings and the only home they had ever known and were sent to Canada. The ages of the children varied but it was felt by many of the organizations that the younger children did better than the older ones. They had less to ‘unlearn’ and the ties to their home in England were less strong.
Once in Canada, the children were sent to various receiving homes across the country to await adoption and for every child, there were at least seven applications to adopt. The adoptive parents were mostly farmers who would house the children, feeding them and clothing them and sending them to school and in return the children would help with house and farm chores. The theory was that these children would receive ‘the most practical kind of training under the happiest conditions for themselves, at the minimum of expense.’ 3Dr. Barnardo’s Canadian Homes. “Boarding Out in Canada.” Ups and Downs on Scribd. Accessed April 15, 2016. http://bit.ly/1SG4kMI. The children who were brought to Canada under the child emigration scheme were under contract to their adoptive parents until they reached the age of eighteen. In some cases, a stipend for the children’s maintenance would be provided for the adoptive family, intended to ensure that they were well cared for, although that was sadly not always the case.
The monitoring of the children’s placements was poor or even non-existent and many of the home children found that their new life was even worse than the one they left behind in England. In some cases, the children were abused or mistreated and some even became ill or even died from neglect. Most never fit into their new communities. With their English accents, they were viewed as being different and were frequently ostracized. They were looked down on for being poor and needing help. Parents who lived in the communities that the children were sent to were concerned that the home children would corrupt their own children, leading them to undesirable behaviours, and forbade their children from associating with the newcomers.
After the first world war, the child emigration schemes escalated with so many husbands and fathers who lost their lives on the battlefield, and countless others who lost their lives to the Spanish influenza epidemic that followed. From 1924, only children over the age of fourteen were supposed to qualify for emigration, but younger children were still sent. The flood of children from England to Canada continued unabated until the onset of the second world war when it was finally recognized that the children were not being well served by being sent to Canada.
Evelyn Harris’ Story
On Wednesday, 17 June 1896, the weather in London was fine and bright. A light breeze from the south-west gave some relief from the heat and the bright sunshine. It was on this day, according to the records of the Children’s Society, that Evelyn 4Evelyn’s given name seems to have initially been spelled as Eveline and later as Evelyn Harris was born in Filmore Road, Fulham, the illegitimate child of 22-year-old Frances Harris. Her birth was seemingly never registered, nor has any record of an infant baptism ever been located, omissions that would haunt Evelyn for the rest of her life.
Not much is known of Evelyn’s earliest years but on 5 September 1905, an application was made for Evelyn to be received into the care of the Church of England Incorporated Society for Providing Homes for Waifs and Strays, otherwise known as the Waifs and Strays Society. The application was signed by her mother, Frances Harris and witnessed by Miss Jaggs, a Mission Worker from the Police Court Mission. On the form, Evelyn’s mother agreed that her daughter should go to Canada, if she were found suitable.
Miss Jaggs, the witness to the application, was a Mission Woman from the London Diocesan Branch of the Police Court Mission and Women’s Union and Evelyn most likely came to her attention when her mother brought her to the Police Court for stealing money. 5Established in 1876, the London Police Court Mission volunteers focused their concern on the vulnerable people who came before the courts, frequently giving guidance to magistrates and recommending rehabilitation rather than incarceration for the offenders. Miss Jaggs appears to have taken an interest in young Evelyn Harris after her court appearance and the subsequent dismissal of the charges against her and began acting in the child’s benefit.
This poor little girl seems to be badly neglected, in moral [unreadable]. She is an illegitimate child, her mother is living with a man. She seems to be a poor weak-minded woman as done wrong more from force of circumstance and want of will power than intention. This child will steal money. It is a sad thing, she gives it away, or spends it on sweets. Her mother as brought her down to the court to charge her they will not take it, they say give her a good whipping, the poor child has been whipped till I think she things it quite the right thing. The child is a smart sharp little thing, and with proper training will make a good woman, if she is left now to be brought up as she has been so far, she is not likely to be a criminal. I should like if possible the child to go to Shipton under Wychwood or that one in Wales, she is a sturdy little thing.Miss Jaggs, Mission Worker
On 13 September 1905, Miss Jaggs wrote to the Waifs and Strays Society and in turn they wrote to Miss Lawer at the St Michael’s Home in Shipton under Wychwood asking about vacancies. Miss Lawer replied to say that they had room for five children and on the following day, the Society wrote back to say that Evelyn Harris would be sent to them on the following Wednesday.
Prior to her admission to care, Evelyn had been living with her mother at 39 Windmill Street near Tottenham Court Road for about twelve months. Frances worked as a chambermaid, spending a good portion of her wages on the 6 shilling rent each month. While Frances was working, Evelyn attended the nearby St John School in Fitzroy Square and on Sundays, she went to St. John Sunday School, until she was surrendered to the care of the Waifs and Strays.
According to the recommendation from Miss Jaggs, Evelyn Harris, aged 9 years, 3 months and 10 days, left Paddington Station under the care of the guard on 27 September and was met in Shipton by a representative from the St. Michael’s Home for Girls. On the day following her arrival, Evelyn Harris was baptized by Reverend Carter, the Vicar of the parish Church in Shipton under Wychwood.
After four months at St. Michael’s Home, Evelyn had reached standard III at school and indicated that she was pleased with the idea of emigration. Miss Lawer wrote to the Waifs and Strays Society on 7 February 1906 in an attempt to come to an arrangement. With measles being prevalent in the villages near the home, the Society requested a medical examination and on 30 March a Certificate of Health was issued, certifying that, other than suffering from chilblains, Evelyn was in good health and suitable for the Waifs and Stray Society’s Emigration scheme. In a subsequent report from Miss Lawer, the superintendent of St. Michael’s, Evelyn was recommended as ‘a nice amiable child, with a grateful disposition.’ Miss Lawer noted that when Evelyn had first arrived at the home, she ‘had such a sad, white face, but is now much happier looking.’ But on 20 April 1906, the Society wrote back to Miss Lawer to let her know that Evelyn’s application had been submitted to the Emigration Committee but that her request had been deferred until she was older.
A year after she arrived at St. Michael’s Home, Evelyn had reached Standard IV in school. She was described as being gentle and affectionate, with good intelligence, although rather delicate and subject to rheumatism. At the age of 10-years, she was 4 feet tall and her conduct was noted as good.
Not long after receiving the glowing report at St. Michael’s, the Waifs and Strays Society received a letter from Cotswold House on Barton Street in Gloucestershire advising that they had two vacancies as a result of two of their girls having gone into service. The Society recommended Evelyn, along with another child but the Cotswold House hesitated to accept two children who were only recently brought into care.
The Committee is reluctant to accept two children who have only a comparatively short time ago been removed from their evil and immoral surroundings. The Committee fears the responsibility of bring among the children now in the Home, children whose minds are tainted with the knowledge of so much evil.Cotswold House, Gloucestershire
After further correspondence, it was decided that Evelyn would be sent to the Cotswold Home on trial and although Miss Lawer was sorry to lose Evelyn, she accompanied her to the home in Gloucestershire, arriving there on 12 October 1906.
After four months in her new home, Evelyn was again recommended for Emigration on 16 February 1907 and was described as ‘of sufficient bodily strength for domestic service taking her age into consideration.’ This time, Evelyn was accepted by the Emigration Committee and arrangements were made for her departure.
Evelyn Harris and twenty-eight other girls from the Waifs and Strays Society left Liverpool on 1 July 1907 and arrived in Montreal on 14 July. Although some of the other passengers from the ship were detained on Gross Isle while they recovered from measles, chicken pox and scarlet fever, the Waifs and Strays party passed through immigration and were cleared to proceed to Niagara on the Lake.
Sometime after her arrival at the Niagara on the Lake Home belonging to the Waifs and Strays Society, Evelyn was placed with farmer John Edward Fittall in Fenelon Falls, Ontario. She journeyed by rail to the rural Ontario community and her new home. When the society checked on her placement on 24 June 1910, Evelyn was 14-years-old, 5′ 2″ tall and weighed 105 pounds. Mr. Fittall, a 71-year-old farmer told the society that Evelyn was working out just as he had hoped.
Evelyn is a very good girl. I have no fault to find. She is obedient and willing and is one of the family in every way. She has gone regularly to public school ever since she came to us.John Fittall, Farmer
Evelyn herself told the society that she was getting along well and just loved her new home. She hoped that she would always stay there and said that she had learned to do lots of things since she had arrived. Her home was the east half of lot 16, concession 4 in Fenelon Township. John Fitall, who owned the farm, was a widowed farmer, on his own since the death of his wife Emma in 1884. His children were all grown and gone and he was no doubt looking for help around the house and companionship in Evelyn.
John Fittall died 16 May 1919 of influenza and arteriole sclerosis after an eight month illness just after his eightieth birthday. Evelyn was 22-years-old and all alone in the world.
By 22 October 1923, Evelyn had moved to Toronto and was living on Cowan Avenue. She wrote to St. Michael’s Home for Girls, asking for information about her background, and wanting to know how she had come to be in the home. She wrote that she remembered being with a woman named Arnold in London who might have been her aunt and that this woman had two children, a boy of about five years old and a young baby, and that the woman’s husband had kept a restaurant. Before she was seven, she wrote, she had lived at home with her mother, father, sister Florence, and brothers Albert, Ernest and Teddy. Her father had been a stone cutter and had an accident at work, breaking his leg.
The Home forwarded Evelyn’s letter to the Waifs and Strays Society for reply and they gave her the details from her file.
You were sadly neglected and your home surroundings were very bad.Waifs and Strays Society
Evelyn responded in December 1923, saying:
I have been among strangers all my life. I have been watched and guarded by my Heavenly father better by far than any earthly parent. I have been very successful both in business and social life.Evelyn Harris
When Evelyn wrote again in 1926, she asked about Miss Jaggs, the woman who had arranged for her to go into care, but her inquiry came too late. Susannah Jaggs had passed away at the age of seventy-two at the beginning of 1923, taking Evelyn’s secrets with her to the grave.
The correspondence between the Waifs and Strays Society and Evelyn continued for over two decades, well after Evelyn had married Robert Cairns on 17 Mar 1924 and well after she had children of her own, but Evelyn was never successful in learning more about her birth, or her family, or why she was sent away.
Heather Milnes’ Ancestral Journey
In possession of Ann Guthries’ book family entitled Don Valley Legacy, A Pioneer History, I was introduced to my father’s maternal ancestors, the Taylors, who arrived in North America in 1825 and around 1931 settled in York County (pre-Toronto), Todmorden specifically, and were the last proprietors of what is now the The Brickworks in the Don Valley. I was hooked by ‘ancestry’ as Ann’s book opened to me a family I had no idea existed and relatives who were notorious in the building of what is now Toronto.
Delving in to my mother’s side proved to be more of a challenge. The only grandparent I ever knew growing up was my mother’s mother, Evelyn Cairns, who in every sense of the word was a lady. However, it came to light after she died at the age of 97, that she was born in London, England and because of her family’s circumstances, little Eveline Harris was considered a waif and a stray. At the age of 11 she was sent to Canada as a Home Child indentured to an 80 year old farmer, never to see her English family again. Upon my mother’s recent death, I found a letter her mother wrote expressing her bitter sadness of being separated from her mother and siblings and her obvious shame.
E-Petition to the House of Commons for a Public Apology to the British Home Children and their Descendants
On March 30, 2016, the British Home Child Group International initiated petition e-257 to the House of Commons asking for a public apology to the British Home Children of Canada and their Descendants. The petition reads as follows.
Over 100,000 British Home Children/Child Migrants, were systemically relocated from their British homeland to Canada, in order to indenture them as farm labourers and domestics as part of an unjust immigration policy;
These vulnerable British Home Children were severed from their families, many were physically and/or mentally harmed, and were stigmatized by Canadian communities meant to foster them;
Many descendants are unaware of this part of their heritage or are actively searching for the family they have been deprived of;
The Governments of Australia and the United Kingdom have issued formal apologies for their involvement in this child migrant scheme; and
Elderly yet surviving Home Children and the estimated four million Canadian descendants of Home Children deserve the same recognition in the form of a formal apology from the Canadian government.
We, the undersigned, Citizens and Residents of Canada, call upon the House of Commons to Issue an unequivocal, sincere and public apology to the elderly yet living British Home Children and all the descendants of Home Children. We seek this apology in order to acknowledge that this child migrant scheme is an important part of Canadian history and to recognize that it is a legacy that has roots in the harm and displacement of thousands of vulnerable children. An apology would ensure a higher profile for British Home Children, thus enabling the education of the public. An apology would help to heal the wounds of separated families and providing a chance for more people to discover their family history within the context of a proud Canadian culture.
The petition is sponsored by July A. Sgro, Liberal MP for Humber River – Black Creek and is open for signature between 30 March 2016 at 11:27 AM EDT and 28 July 2016 at 11:27 AM EDT.
Anyone interested in signing the petition can do so on the Parliament of Canada website. To add your name, simply click on the ‘Sign the Petition’ button to sign the petition, fill in your contact information and don’t forget to respond to the verification email by clicking on the link provided.
1901 Census of England and Wales, General Report with Appendices (1904 CVIII (Cd. 2174) 1),
Bloy, Dr. Marjorie. “Reform in Britain 1870-1914.” Reform in Britain 1870-1914. Accessed April 16, 2016. http://www.historyhome.co.uk/peel/politics/reform.htm.
Dr. Barnardo’s Canadian Homes. “Boarding Out in Canada.” Ups and Downs on Scribd. Accessed April 15, 2016. http://bit.ly/1SG4kMI.
Evelyn’s given name seems to have initially been spelled as Eveline and later as Evelyn
Established in 1876, the London Police Court Mission volunteers focused their concern on the vulnerable people who came before the courts, frequently giving guidance to magistrates and recommending rehabilitation rather than incarceration for the offenders.