Unlike some other Irish descendants who sailed for North America from the Old World in the early 20th century, Cyril William Joyce wasn’t seeking his fortune or unknown freedoms. Arriving in Canada from England at 16, Cyril was one of what would become an agglomeration of approximately 125,000 “home children” forcibly sent to Australia, Canada and New Zealand to work on farms or government projects with the assent of the British government.
These boys and girls—”waifs” and “strays”—many times weren’t paid what they were owed. Some were simply forgotten or much worse. Phyllis Harrison, who placed advertisements in Canadian newspapers in the 1960s and 1970s seeking aged home children, reported the story of Margaret Cleaves, a girl kept away from school and not told she was entitled to the wages owed to her beginning on her sixteenth birthday. She worked on her host’s farm until she was 31. Many of the children suffered physical and sexual abuse.
In his book Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest, author and poet Sean Arthur Joyce unearthed primary sources and conducted in-person interviews with surviving relatives of home children sent to Canada to construct a concise, authoritative history of several of the child emigration programs as well as reveal the personal stories of several individuals who made their way to western Canada, including his grandfather Cyril Joyce.
Some of the children, such as Joseph Betts, fared better than others. Betts wrote his host family was “wonderful … and I shall never forget them and what they did for me.” But others had a very different experience. One boy, George Everett Green, was sent in 1895 to a Canadian farm where he died at 17 after repeated beatings by his farm host, Helen Findlay, for not completing his chores. Findlay was convicted of manslaughter but spent just one year in prison.
Arnold Walsh, another home child, froze to death after being forced to live in a barn. An autopsy showed Walsh suffered from a fractured skull, was menaced with a pitchfork and died malnourished. “Shock and horror is certainly the appropriate response to the many cases of British Home Children who died at the hands of their hosts from neglect and severe brutality,” Joyce wrote in his book, which was published in 2014.
About one in eight living Canadians has a relative who was a product of the forced emigration programs, which began in the 1860s and endured well into the 20th century.
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“He was a very distant figure in our family,” Art Joyce told me by telephone from British Columbia, where he has lived most of his life, when describing his grandfather. “He was a very quiet, soft spoken man. Almost your prototypical British office worker type: he went to work every day, he clocked in, he didn’t talk back—he didn’t hardly talk much anyway—he clocked out, he went home, he had dinner, he read his newspaper, he went to bed. And then he repeated the whole cycle again the next day,” he said.
When Cyril did talk, it was never about his years as a young man in Canada. “It was as if Cyril either was not interested in his past or trying to bury it, even destroy it. My Uncle Rob told me letters would be destroyed as soon as they were read in that household, and that would include letters from his family in Britain that apparently did keep in contact with him after his emigration,” Joyce said.
“When something like that happens, especially if you’re a writer, the alarm bells start ringing and you say, ‘Wait a minute. What is he hiding, or is he hiding something? Why this attempt to cover his tracks?’ ” he said.
While a fulsome history about his mother’s family was known to him, before he started researching his book in 2007 Art knew very little of his Joyce family history. His research led to the discovery that Cyril traveled from Liverpool, England to Montreal on the S.S. Montclare, arriving July 31, 1926, and then made his way to an Anglican Church hostel in Edmonton. Art learned his grandfather traveled with three other boys ranging in age from 12 to 16 as well as Ellen Burns, listed on travel documents as a companion.
As Joyce pushed ahead with his research he concluded, to his own satisfaction at least, why “grandpa” was so silent about his past: embarrassment, humiliation. “I discovered there is this common thread of shame among the home children, and that many of them repeated this similar pattern of either obfuscation or even destroying the traces of their past because of that shame they had been made to endure as children, when they came to this country and were treated like third class citizens by virtually everyone,” Joyce said.
British industrialization in the 19th century eviscerated agrarian and cottage-based industries. Freshly unemployed fathers moved their families to cities, which even with their new factories could not absorb an expanding urban labor force. Especially hard hit were the children, many of whom purportedly slept just about anywhere: gutters, animal litters and even roofs. Schools were overwhelmed.
A solution to this hardship, at least in the minds of some people, was to send poor children to British colonies, both to help populate them and expand their much-need local labor forces. Contracts were signed between individuals who established emigration programs and parents: in exchange for their labor the children would receive room and board, some schooling, and a stipend that would be paid when the child came of age—typically 16 years of age.
One of the chief proponents of this emigration concept, a man responsible for shipping about 30 percent of the 100,000 children sent to Canada, was Thomas John Barnardo. “Well planned and wisely conducted child-emigration, especially to Canada, contains within its bosom the truest solution of some of the mother country’s most perplexing problems, and the supply of our Colonies’ most urgent needs,” Joyce quoted Barnardo as writing.
Barnardo argued his plan would relieve overcrowded cities and “the congested labour markets at home” while conferring upon the children “unspeakable blessings,” including “an immediate prospect of an independent existence upon a high plane as could hardly have been imagined as within its reach.”
“[E]migration [is] the only remedy for chronic pauperism in the East of London,” Annie Macpherson and Ellen Logan wrote in an 1869 pamphlet. Macpherson, who designed her own child-emigration effort, made an effort to establish a screening process for applicant Canadian farmers, with farmers required to submit references from neighbors or clergy. “But in practice this provided no guarantee of fair treatment,” Joyce wrote.
While it’s probably true a child had the chance of a brighter life upon being placed at a Canadian farm, these “philanthropic abductions” were “a crapshoot at best,” Joyce wrote. Despite its good intentions “in practice, the system fell far short of the promised benefits,” he wrote. “Once children were placed with farmers, they were entirely at their mercy.”
Efforts to monitor a child’s continued health and safety, for instance, were “a great practical difficulty” given the vastness of the Canadian territories where the children were placed. Maria Rye, a pioneering figure in the emigration effort who Joyce asserted may have focused as much on her own financial gain as her philanthropic empathy—in Canada the programs were funded by appeals to the public and subsidized by Canadian federal and provincial governments—merely asked friends to look in on her girls from time to time.
“She took the view that no news was good news, writes [The Little Immigrants author Kenneth] Bagnell. As a result, large numbers of Miss Rye’s girls were never heard from again, what happened to them is left to the imagination of history,“ Joyce wrote.
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Having described the program, Joyce then describes—with the assistance of invented dialog and scenes—the lives of some of the home children who eventually settled in western Canada. There’s the story of Joe Harwood, who left poverty in London and a prison cell in Canada to launch a successful trucking business. He also wrote of the Thompson girls, Elizabeth and Caroline. Elizabeth died at 92 in Vernon, British Columbia in 1984 and is buried in Revelstoke next to her husband of 45 years, a relatively prosperous engineer—“a world away from the poverty of her London childhood.”
And Gladys Martin and her younger sister Louisa, whose mother was destroyed by alcohol and father suffered from failing health. The two girls left for Canada in 1920 when they were nine and 12, Gladys the older of the two. Though Gladys died in 1985 of pancreatic cancer Joyce was able to locate her daughters, Irene and Jeanette, and with their help and the assistance of others created in the book a rich portrait of life as a home child. Irene discovered she had cousins in Australia, who recounted a familiar story of being the offspring of a home child when they connected. “My mother was sad her whole life,” Joyce quoted the cousin as saying. “She had no love, she never belonged to anybody. She was very bitter until the day she died.”
On Nov. 16, 2009, then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd became the first head of state to offer an apology on behalf of a nation regarding the emigration programs, saying Australia was “sorry for all of these injustices to you, as children, who were placed in our care … regarded not as innocent children but regarded instead as a source of child labour.” Gordon Brown, former British prime minister, offered an apology on behalf of the United Kingdom Feb. 24, 2010, and announced a £6 million fund to assist home children reunite with their families.
“We are walking history. Like it or not—believe it or not—we carry its burdens. As individuals or as a nation, we either lay the ghosts of family past to rest or remain haunted by them—and pass them on to our children to deal with. The psychic dislocation of abandonment echoes down the generations like a gunshot, a bullet tearing through the heart,” Joyce wrote.
“It seems to have fallen to me to heal the wound I inherited, the same as if it had happened to me,” he wrote. “The children’s ghosts are waiting. Let the healing begin.”
– Stephen Joyce
A shipload of mostly girls arrives at port in St. John, New Brunswick, 1920. Among them are Gladys Martin and her sister Louisa, featured in chapter 4 of Laying the Children’s Ghosts to Rest. This was a typical size for groups of children being emigrated to Canada. In any given year, several thousand would make their way to Canada and the other British colonies. IMAGE CREDIT: Library and Archives Canada PA014785
Dr. Thomas John Barnardo, who established one of the largest and most prominent charities housing and exporting children from the UK. Much of Barnardo’s work was truly charitable, offering homes, clothing, meals and schooling to children who were otherwise abandoned by society. But he was a complex character who was known to be tyrannical in the way he ran his organization, and he was not above using the law to take children away from families he deemed unsuitable. Barnardo’s alone was responsible for shipping over 30,000 of the 100,000 total boys and girls sent to Canada between the 1880s and World War II.
“Memorandum of Conditions” for children, including Irish children, sent to Canada by Barnardo.