Writing the stories of Cape Breton's British Home Children
Cape Breton piper and writer Barry Shears is changing his tune slightly, turning his research attention to another topic dear to his heart. Shears is compiling stories about the estimated 500+ British Home Children (BHC) placed with Cape Breton families. He read The Standard's article in October about BHC and reached out looking for more stories for a book he hopes to publish in 2019.
Between 1869 and 1948, children’s emigration homes in England sent approximately 100,000 British boys and girls to Canada between as indentured labourers. The Middlemore Home in Birmingham is the most widely known and also the home through which Shears’ maternal grandfather (Sam), granduncles (Willliam and George Wiletts) and grandaunt (Margaret Wiletts) passed. The home’s mandate was to keep impoverished children for a year, while their parents got back on their feet, training the boys to be farmhands and girls to be domestics. Shears questions the sincerity of this mandate.
“In some cases, [a child] would be taken off the streets,” says Shears. “There'd be a before-and-after picture, often taken the same day, where they'd give them a haircut and a bath and a new set of clothes and say this is the type of good work we're doing."
George, William and Margaret were taken from their home after their father passed away, and spent only two weeks in Middlemore before being put on a boat to Canada in 1906. Their older brother was Shears’ Grandpa Sam. He was 15 years of age and working away from the home at the time. Shears believes Sam tried in vain to halt his younger siblings’ emigration and convinced the home to allow him to go with them to keep the family together.
George grew up in Broughton, William in Long Beach and Margaret in Sydney. Sam was sent to Mira. They managed to stay in contact. Margaret’s family took her to visit George. The boys worked in the coal mines in Birch Grove, Donkin and Caledonia. When Sam broke his back in the mines, William took care of Sam and his family.
The siblings never saw their mother again. Margaret’s son Robert from Birch Grove did meet his grandmother though during his service in World War II.
“Apparently, according to my mother, she kind of rubbed her thumb along the Canada patch and started to cry."
The multitude of ways home children promoted and sustained Cape Breton - through their physical labour, their adoption of the culture and languages, even rallying to the Canadian flag during the Great War – is largely unacknowledged.
“They were usually the first ones up doing the chores, putting the porridge on, stirring the fire.”
Shears’ grandmother was also a home child. When scarlet fever broke out, she was delegated the task of caring for the sick.
Shears has found that the lives of home children unfolded in many ways. There are triumphant stories, like Gwendolyn ("Gwen") Pottie (d. 2008) who came to Canada in 1924 to live in West Tarbot. She became a fluent speaker of Gaelic and sat on the board of the Gaelic College. And there are tragic ones. He has learned of another young girl placed with a widowed farmer and his two sons elsewhere on the island. She was sexually abused on a daily basis.
"I'm just kind of an editor and a collector. It's really going to be up to the people that have stories. I will only put what they want to put in.”
And then there are the many love stories. Two BHCS who grew up on adjacent farms in Inverness County married. They discovered they had also come over on the same boat from England. Shears has read the groom's love letters sent while fighting in the Great War.
Shears is especially interested in primary sources of information such as correspondence kept up by home children, any memories of the sea voyage from England. He has also prepared a research questionnaire.
BHC descendants, or those connected to one are invited to email their home address to email@example.com. Shears will send a questionnaire in a self-addressed, stamped, return envelope.