No one heard their cries

By Willa Wick in Places, Events, & History

They were taken from their families. They were alone, forlorn, and confused, but their fears were not consoled. Children, as young as four, stripped from their mother’s arms and placed “in care.” Poverty was rampant, as well as filth and disease. Many children were beggars in the streets. So it was determined that children in these circumstances should become wards of the crown to be given a “better life.” But no one heard their cries.
Such was life in England 150 years ago. The UK wanted to rid themselves from the underlings of society. The lives of 100,000 boys and girls were disrupted—but no one heard their cries.
Under age six, these “kidnapped” children were put in foster care, but for the most part were badly treated, under-clothed, and often hungry. Older kids were placed in orphanages under horrid conditions. They were stripped of their names and henceforth known only as Boy or Girl plus a number (Boy #1473). They were told their parents didn’t want them or they were dead. Some forgot who they really were, others never knew. There were harsh rules for everything: absolute silence, downcast eyes, hair cut with razors, delousing once a week. But no one heard their cries, for crying was a sign of weakness, and for that they were whipped.
When the “time came” the hollow-eyed youngsters were set on a ship bound for the less inhabited areas of Australia or Canada where they were promised a wonderful future. But each move often made them worse off than before. Homesteads here were paid to keep them, but they were often used on farms for cheap child labor. They were treated as animals and scorned— but no one heard their cries.
It sounds like the beginning of a Warner Bros. horror movie, unfortunately it’s real. This was Britain from about 1870 up to as recently as 1949. These “waifs and strays,” as what was then considered polite terminology, are commonly known as Barnardo Boys. (Barnardo’s was one of a number of institutions that housed then deported children. Others included Fegan, Rye, and Macpherson Homes.) The now standardized generic name is British Home Children.
Families and children were discouraged from trying to contact one another. Often parents weren’t notified of their child’s passage until after the ship left; some were never told. Even if a teenager waited out his Canadian work tenure and sailed back to England, the orphanage would not release his records. Many lived full lives either in Canada or after returning home, and died never knowing exactly who they really were because no one would acknowledge their tears.
Initially records were kept sealed and secret. Legal access to child care records did not come into effect until 2001 when the Data Protection Act came into effect. This act mandated that agencies holding information must make it available to the person it’s written about. There was no legal obligation to families or descendants; however, homes like Barnardo’s, realizing the importance of these records, lifted the secrecy for ancestors in 1995.
With 100,000 immigrants, multifplied by about 100 years, simple math would indicate hundreds of thousands more population in descendants. It’s estimated 10 per cent of Canada’s population is descended from Home Children, many still unaware of their heritage. The ironic part is that this is history, and it’s ignored; yet those very same individuals helped shape our country and are the fabric of our farms and towns just like anyone else. Social and family studies curricula don’t mention it. Ask around, how many adults can relate to the term Barnardo Boys, or know what a British Home Child is. If adults don’t know, then certainly today’s students won’t be finding out.
These Home Children came to Canada with a suitcase containing a few clothes, minor toiletries and a Bible. No personal items were allowed. They came in anticipation of a better life, but for thousands that didn’t happen. They weren’t prepared for the harsh Canadian winters. The boys were placed as cheap farm labour and the girls as domestics. They met with harsh and cruel conditions. Some were made to sleep in barns, could not eat with the rest of the family, were under-clothed and underfed, but perhaps worst of all, these poor innocents were whipped and beaten for the simplest things. Some died from disease, some ran away, some took their life by suicide because of loneliness and hardship.
By World War 1 it was common for teenage boys to sign up as a way to get back home to England. About 10 per cent of the immigrants went to war; approximately 1,100 perished as a result.
But wait, it wasn’t all that horrid. Some had excellent homes, were treated as family and received a good education. The descendants of those children usually know the stories. They live among us, but it’s a topic still not much talked about. Even host of Hockey Night in Canada Don Cherry has a maternal grandfather who was a Home Child.
Lori Oschefski, from her Barrie office, wanted to help her mother, a surviving child migrant, find her roots. During her search Lori discovered many others in the endless search for their family history.
In 2012 she created the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association. This is the first organization of its kind to use social media to promote the British Home Children story. She has found unequalled success.
A Facebook page has been designed, and anyone interested in the British Home Children subject may either join membership or just scan the entries. This has brought hundreds of people together in their searches.
Lori Oschefski has also authored the book Bleating of the Lambs, already in its third printing. In November 2016, an Ontario Museums Award of Excellence was presented to the Black Creek Pioneer Village for the exhibit Breaking The Silence, created in partnership with the British Home Children Advocacy and Research team. To commemorate Canada’s 150 a 1908 flag was created in mosaic using hundreds of British Home Children photos received over the past few years.
In July, there was a gathering in Kitchener where both Oschefski, and John Jefkins of Brampton, presented at a reunion where hundreds gathered to remember their ancestors who were Home Children. An Ontario quilt toured Canada last year. British Home Children images were printed on color-fast, crease-proof material before the squares were placed on the backing and quilted. This now accompanies Lori with her talks. Books have been donated to schools and Oschefski has made many presentations in the Barrie/Orillia area. She will be speaking at Wilfred Laurier University on October 26.
So word is spreading on the after-effects of the child immigration program, which was in reality a program of human-trafficking administered by 52 private agencies.
About four years ago, Oschefski stumbled upon information of a forgotten plot containing the unmarked graves of Home Children buried in Park Lawn Cemetery in Etobicoke.
Working with the man in charge of plot sales, Oschefski combed the records to determine the exact location, expecting to find a dozen or more had been buried there. Ancient plot cards revealed a number of 75.
Citing that “every life is valuable” Oschefski and her team have done years of research to uncover children’s dates of birth and family background. All 75 have been identified.
A project during Ontario Culture Days Weekend was the unveiling of a monument bearing the names of the 75 children. Bob Huggins was instrumental in the design and construction of this truly symbolic, one-of-a-kind monument which was created from a rough block of Quebec granite. One of the features is a brass porthole symbolizing the ships these children sailed. The monument plays tribute to all the British Home Children as well as the 75 buried there. Huggins is also producing a documentary featuring his father and other home children through his own company Orphan Boy Films.
On Friday October 20 the Harriston Historical Society will be presenting an evening featuring John Jefkins who writes and speaks regularly about the British Home Children. His father was one, and recently Jefkins found unknown relatives in England. Jefkins works closely with Lori Oschefski and will be a valuable resource for anyone in the area who has so far been hesitant to start or needs assistance with their research. His presentation, complete with artifacts, will be held in the Harriston Library meeting room at 7:00pm This is a free event with light refreshments provided.
One hundred years ago no one heard their cries, but now we’re trying to wipe the tears.