Writ­ing the sto­ries of Cape Bre­ton's British Home Chil­dren

The Victoria Standard - - Local News - CAROLYN BAR­BER

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 cape­bre­ton­piper@gmail.com. Shears will send a ques­tion­naire in a self-ad­dressed, stamped, re­turn en­ve­lope.

Barry Shears

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