Posted by: Maggie Riopelle
September 14, 2009 / The Tribune
They arrived by the boatload — young children with all their belongings in a carry on satchel leaving their homelands and their families in hopes of a better life.
For some the reality came true, for others it was an unattainable dream as they became servants to Canadian families.
Welland Historical Museum will open two new exhibits: British Home Children and Wrapped in History — stories of quilts and their history. The exhibit opens Saturday at 2 p.m.
From 1897 until 1930, about 100,000 children from Europe and Ireland were taken from their families and sent to Canada by steamboat. They travelled in groups of 300 to 400, many as young as six or seven years old.
To deal with growing poverty rates at the time, European governments felt the best option was to remove children from their homes and send them to Canada — some were adopted, but nine out of 10 became indentured servants, said museum curator Penny Morningstar.
“It’s not our best moment in history,” she said as looked at old photographs of children. “These children were raised in cities, they came here with no family around them whatsoever. Can you imagine seeing a seven or eight-year-old boy behind a plough? It’s not what we tend to think of for a child ... and the girls, they became domestics in the home.”
This year is dedicated to the year of the British Home Children, she said. While those children are now being recognized and acknowledged, for some it comes too late — many have already passed on, said Morningstar.
Pulling together the exhibit, she said, was a difficult task.
“There’s not a lot of information on British home children because the Canadian government and people didn’t necessarily want to talk about it. Records were not kept the way they should be, a lot of records are missing or lost.”
A few of the common group transition homes that housed children included Dr. Barnardos facility in Europe and in Niagara the Maria Rye home in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
“The people who ran these organizations, I’m sure in their heart they felt they were doing the right thing ... but when you have that many children under your care, things can go wrong and things did go wrong."
“All these promises were made,” she said.
Morningstar said while finding information was a challenge, she was able to dig up some information through numerous interviews. She was also able to find a passenger list and some actual records about the families who had their children taken away from them.
A lot of those documents about the families, she said, would report things like the family was worthless or drunkards. Whether it was true or used by the agencies to justify their actions, no one will ever known for sure, she said.
Many of the children came from large families, she said. It isn’t hard to image a single mother with 13 or 16 children being convinced by authorities to give up some of her children with promises for a better future. Most, said Morningstar, likely thought this was a short-term solution and probably didn’t realize they may never see their child again.
“As a mother, I can’t imagine someone else deciding my family would be better off somewhere else,” she said.
Through her research, Morningstar learned of a story about two children, a boy and a girl, who were adopted by a Port Colborne family. “The farmers couldn’t have any children and went through the process of petitioning the Barnardos agency for adoption,” she said.
Some children, she said, were returned to the agencies by the temporary families.
“It’s really heartbreaking when you see the letters. Some of the reasons they were returned was too shy, too weak, too fragile. Of course they are, they are six, seven or eight years old, not from here, without any family. Can you imagine being these children and never knowing if they were going to see their families again? It just shows you the strength of the human spirit.”
While their childhoods may have been difficult, many of those British Home Children grew up, married, had children of their own and became productive citizens, she said.
“They may have never talked about being a British home child.”
Through her interviews, Morningstar asked families if their loved one ever held resentment or anger because of their childhood, all of them, she said, answered a resounding no.
Some, she said, were lucky enough later in life to travel back home and see relatives, like their siblings for the first time in years.
Like the story of Fred Cuff who travelled back to Europe in 1961.
“I was told by his family, that when his sister opened the door, she knew who it was,” she said.
Also opening on Saturday is the Wrapped in History exhibit which features all styles of quilts and about the history of the art and its importance to families.
“When you think of children and home, you think of the things that make you feel safe and warm,” she said. “You think of quilts and about how you are literally wrapping yourself in memories.”
There was a time when quilts weren’t just bought in a store, she said, adding that while it is gaining again in popularity making quilts for family is a long-standing tradition. They were used to celebrate a birth, to honour family members, to pass down from generation to generation.
On display is also a quilt from 1858 that was made as a wedding gift for a woman named Mary Jane Butler in Bloomsburg, Ont. It’s known as Forbidden Fruit and is a stenciled quilt.
For more information on the museum, visit www.wellandmuseum.ca or call 905-732-2215.