Tuesday 14 October 2014

British Home Children in Our Family

In my blog post of 10 June 2014 I wrote about John Walker Cooper, my wife’s uncle, who was a Cossar boy, one of hundreds of children relocated to Canada from Scotland by Dr. George Carter Cossar. The immigrants sponsored by Dr. Cossar were part of a larger wave of children, called British Home children, sent to Canada for a better life.

The most well-known group were those brought over by Thomas John Barnardo. He founded a charity in London in 1866 set up to shelter and care for vulnerable children in London. It was initially established to take care of children left orphaned by the cholera outbreak in that region. His shelters expanded rapidly over the years as alternative housing to the Workhouse for destitute children. Over time it changed from not only housing orphans but also to providing fostering and adoption services.

The charity still exists today – almost 110 years after the death of Barnardo – still providing support, counselling, fostering, adoption, education, residential and training service for young people and their families.

Approximately 118,000 children were brought to Canada from the British Isles between 1863 and 1939, by over 50 child care organizations. They ranged in age from toddlers to adolescents, all unaccompanied by parents. Of the total, about 30,000 came from Barnardo homes in England.

One the Barnardo Boys was the grandfather of my brother-in-law, Henry John Pettitt. There have been many stories published about the harsh conditions and abuse the Home children were subject to in Canada. According to a Pettitt family historian, the experience of Henry was a positive one. He was grateful for the home life provided and for the education and care that he received as a young boy.

Henry was born in Limehouse, Stepney, Middlesex, England on December 10th, 1867, the son of Henry Frederick Pettitt, a carman, and Mary Ann, nee Minto. Henry Frederick died in 1868 of consumption. In 1870 his mother remarried but she too died within a couple of years, also of consumption. Henry’s stepfather was unable or unwilling to look after the child and he went to live with his maternal grandmother who was by then 60 years old. She did her best but, when her health failed, and no other relatives stepped forward to care for her grandson, she was forced to apply to the Barnardo home for assistance. He was then just nine years old.
1876 – photograph of Henry John Pettitt at the time of his admission to the Barnardo Home (from the Pettitt family files, courtesy of Pat Pettitt)
Henry is shown living in the Barnardo Home in Stepney Causeway, Ratcliffe, in 1881. He apparently also spent some time at the Youth’s Labour House on Commercial Road in London, which had been set up in 1882 to provide a home for young men who were candidates for emigration.
Photograph of the Barnardo Home at Stepney Causeway, London (image downloaded October 14, 2014 from barnardos.org.uk website)
Henry sailed to Canada on board the SS Polynesian on June 14th, 1883, with 82 other boys, arriving in Quebec on June 25th. He was placed at various homes in Russeldale and St. Mary’s, Ontario. By 1891 he was living at the Barnardo Home in Russell, Manitoba.
Photograph of the Russell Industrial Farmhouse in Russell, Manitoba (downloaded October 14, 2014 from British Home Children website)
Henry married Agnes Knott in Russell, Manitoba, in 1900. Agnes was an English girl who had arrived in Canada in 1898. The couple went on to raise a family of four in Russell, from all reports very happily and successfully.

Wayne Shepheard is a volunteer with the Online Parish Clerk program, handling four parishes in Devon, England. He has published a number of articles about various aspects of genealogy and is a past Editor of Chinook, the quarterly journal of the Alberta Family Histories Society. Wayne also provides genealogical consulting services through his business, Family History Facilitated.