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Author tells story of Home Children

Genealogical research - Author Sandra Joyce spoke at the annual meeting of the Mapleton Historical Society on May 8 at the PMD Arena. Joyce’s topic, British Home Children, was of interest to many of the Society’s members who had family members that were British Home Children. Memorabilia from The British Home Group International was on display along with Joyce’s two books, The Street Arab and Belonging.     photo by Caroline Sealey

Author tells story of Home Children

by Caroline Sealey

DRAYTON - Author Sandra Joyce was the guest speaker at the Mapleton Historical Society’s annual meeting on May 8 at PMD arena.

Joyce, a Toronto native, is an advocate of the British Home Children and has given over 160 presentations on the subject across Canada. She has written two books based on the experiences of her British Home Child father, Robert Joyce, her uncle, Thomas Joyce, and aunt, Emma Joyce.

In 2004, after her parents had passed on, Joyce travelled to Halifax Pier 21 to see the site where her father had landed after military service in the Second World War.

Encouraged by employees of the pier to research her ancestors, Joyce reluctantly did. The research lead her to learn that her father had come to Canada in 1925 as a British Home Child at age 15, along with his brother, 12. Joyce’s father was placed as a farm worker in Brockville. Contact was lost with his brother, who was placed out west.

Joyce’s sister, an immigration official in Ottawa, originally found records of Joyce’s father and uncle staying in an orphanage in Scotland. Canadian records of British Home Children were destroyed. The Scottish records indicated that Joyce had an aunt (her father’s sister) living in Scotland.  Under the Canada Clause, Joyce’s grandfather had signed the rights of his children away and the children were under the discretion of an organization. On Feb. 14, 1919, Joyce’s grandparents were divorced with a statement issued that the mother had not given the care the   children required. Joyce had  been told by her father that her grandmother had died.

From 1869 to 1939, a span of 70 years, 120,000 orphaned and destitute British children were indentured farm workers and domestics. Children were not sent to Canada during the two wars, as passenger ships were needed in military service.

No regulations were ever set out for Home Children.  Children as young as babies were sent to Canada. Younger children were adopted into families. Older children were considered workers and not children. Over 55 organizations and individuals were involved in the placement of children. Four homes or distribution centers were set up in Ontario in Toronto, Brockville, Peterborough and Niagara on the Lake.

Notices about Home Children were placed in local newspapers. Fees and application forms received from farmers were placed in advance. Seven applications were received for each child. If a child did not work out they could be returned to the distribution center. Children were paid a wage, which was put into an account to be given to the child at age 18. Expenses were deducted from wages. Child supervisors travelled by horse and carriage or sleigh. Visits to farms were usually done in summer. Some organizations had no supervisors.

One of the reasons given for sending children to Canada were that British orphanages were full to overflowing and could not handle the influx of children after many organizations said no child would be turned away. It was felt they could be given a  better life in Canada. The British government also wanted more British subjects occupying the colonies. They stated that it was  necessary to remove impoverished children, who were considered to be of bad blood or genetically unsound.

Many sent to orphanages

The industrial revolution brought many families into the cities in search of work. Traditionally, families stayed in one area and if a need arose, children would be taken care of by other family members.  Families who moved to urban areas did not have the necessary family support when a death, illness or abandonment of one parent occurred. Thus, many children were sent to orphanages. The Spanish flu epidemic also left many children without families to care for them. No government institutions were available so philanthropic organizations were formed to help needy children. Most children were surrendered by families.

Canada accepted children to fill a need for cheap labour. Poor Canadian farmers were happy to pay low wages for help. Canada was marketed as a safe haven from the life the children lived in Britain. These children also bolstered the English-speaking population in Canada.

Some home children were treated well and became members of the family they lived with. They were considered the lucky ones. Many  children suffered from separation anxiety, as only 2 per cent were actually  orphans. The remainder had at least one parent alive. Brothers and sisters were known to be split up and sent to different regions across Canada.

Other children were physically and mentally abused and were ostracized by the communities meant to foster them. They lived and worked under extreme conditions. It is estimated that all male British Home Children who were of military age in 1914 stepped forward to serve. They made up a significant number of Canadian soldiers and approximately 1,000 died in battle.

Over 7,000 children were also sent to Australia. In 2009 Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologized for the role his country played in having Home Children sent to Australia. In 2010 the government in the United Kingdom apologized for the mistreatment of Home Children.

Jason Kenney, former Minister of Immigration, publicly stated there was no need to apologize. Canada designated 2010 as the official year of the British Home Child. A commemorative stamp and a poster of the stamp was made public.

Joyce said, “An apology petition has had third reading in the House of Commons,” but she is unsure whether it will pass with this government.

Joyce has made many trips to Scotland to research her families genealogy. On a recent trip she met with cousins she did not know existed. One of Joyce’s cousins is Moria Cameron, the only female Beefeater in England. Cameron works and lives in the Tower of London. Joyce stayed with her new-found cousin and was privy to private tours of  the House of Lords, House of Commons and the Crown Jewels. She has witnessed the Ceremony of the Keys and enjoyed drinks in the Beefeaters Private Club.

This past November she was part of the team that placed  ceramic poppies in the moat around the Tower of London. A total of 888,246 poppies were sold, with six military charities receiving  1.2 million pounds each.

The Street Arab, Joyce’s first book, was launched on the first British Home Child Day in Ontario on Sept. 28, 2011. The book chronicles the life of a young boy taken from his family during the First World War, life in an institution in the United Kingdom, his journey to Canada and life as an indentured farm worker.

The second book, published on Sept. 28, 2014, is titled  Belonging. A sequel to The Street Arab, Belonging looks at the struggles Joyce’s father faced as an adult because of his upbringing.

Recently, a gentleman who  read Joyce’s books contacted her sister with more information on another potential member of the Joyce family. The gentleman had been given a birth certificate of a person  thought to be the illegitimate child of  Joyce’s grandfather.

“I have learned so much about my family that I didn’t know existed. It seems from this last contact, that I have more relatives I need to research.  It has been an interesting process. I never know what tomorrow will bring,” Joyce said.

“The only information I have about my father’s brother was that he went out west and he worked on the boats on the Great Lakes. More research needs to be done about his life.”

The British Home Group International, of which Joyce is an executive director, promotes free genealogical research, providing information and sharing stories. It publishes a newsletter  containing stories on Home Children and the people who worked around them.

This group played a role in a private members bill  that was passed in 2011 declaring Sept. 28 to be British Home Children Day in Ontario.

May 22, 2015


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Alan and Phyl Wright
May 22 2015 | 20:26
There were many of these British Home Children that settled in the area. Many never told their future families of where they came from. Many families still do not realise that they are part of the almost 12% of Canadians that are descendents.
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