BHCs to Nova Scotia
Written by Jim Gilchrist
Orphans, Cheap Labour and a Brave New World
THE OLDEST of them was 18, the youngest six, and they watched their homeland recede in their wake as the Hibernian steamed down the Firth of Clyde, en route for Halifax, Nova Scotia. It was 19 March 1891, and the 129 boys on board were orphans, from Quarriers homes - established in Renfrewshire less than 20 years before - making the 2,650-mile Atlantic crossing to Canada in the hope of a better life than they might otherwise find in Scotland.
One can scarcely imagine what the feelings of these orphans, particularly the younger ones, must have been as they headed for the open sea and an unknown future, but their names and ages can still be seen, entered neatly in the ship's passenger list, with "Quarriers party" written tellingly on the first of the three pages. Between 1871 and 1938, an incredible 7,000 "home children" of both sexes were dispatched to Canada by Quarriers alone. Other orphanages, such as Barnardo's, or the Middlemore Homes in England, also sent children to Canada, as well as to other colonial outposts such as Australia. And now it is possible for descendants and other researchers to trace these individuals online, through what is being hailed as the first comprehensive database of passenger ships leaving Britain for destinations such as North America, Australia, India and Africa between 1890 and 1960.
The first tranche of UK outward-bound passenger lists - titled "BT27", after the Board of Trade designation and shelf number of the original documents, held at the National Archives at Kew - covers 1890 to 1899 and went online last week on www.ancestorsonboard.com This is an online resource developed by the family history website company findmypast.com in conjunction with the National Archives and access costs from £5. The remaining decades up until 1960 are expected to appear on the website over the next six months, providing an invaluable resource for those researching their family history. An estimated 131,000 people left the UK every year between 1870 and 1913 alone, many of them in search of a new life: some, however, had no life to speak of back at home.
Today it may seem incredible that these "home children", as they became known, having already suffered the trauma of losing parents and homes, should be summarily dispatched across the North Atlantic, but towards the end of the 19th century, orphanages in Scotland were filling up, at least partly due to the number of adults succumbing to tuberculosis, and the developing colonies were crying out for manpower. "Clearly it's not a model that we would in any way endorse today," says Martin Cawley, services director of Quarriers, "but we recognise that these things happened and we acknowledge that it's a part of our history and it's important that we are diligent in our support of Canada so we can help with genealogical searches or networking.
"The ethos that underpinned the child migration movement was that some orphanages here were becoming overcrowded, while the colonies were being established. It was felt there were opportunities for some of these children to leave the UK, so Quarriers established a network within Canada. The whole idea was that these children would be going to better lives and opportunities."
Many of the young Quarriers emigrants, explains Cawley, went initially to "holding houses" at Belleville and Brockville in Ontario, before dispersing to an often arduous life on farms and homesteads. "They were, to an extent, contracted for maybe two years, and during that time they were used as farmhands and labour, but were then able to go off on their own. Lots of children had positive experiences, but you'll find some didn't."
As many as 200,000 or more Canadians today can claim roots in Quarriers Village, and the organisation maintains its links there. In Toronto, Fred Wardle, a retired publisher who sits on the board of Quarriers, describes how his mother and her brother arrived in Canada from Scotland as home children: "My mom, Catherine McCallum, was 16 when shipped out to Canada. She had tried to get out a year earlier but was refused. Her brother, Duncan, I believe, was 15. He came a year after her and was originally placed on a farm next to Catherine's farm placement.
"My mother came to Brockville, then was sent to a widow on a farm just north of there, but didn't work there for very long. She didn't like it, and asked the Quarriers inspector if she could change and he arranged that. She ended up working for a family in a town on the St Lawrence, then about a year later she got into nursing school and graduated as a nurse."
His uncle disliked his first farm immensely and walked off it, finding a job as a short-order cook in Ottowa: "Eventually he had a very rewarding job building aircraft with AV Roe in Toronto."
Wardle has attended reunions of surviving "Quarriers kids" (most of whom are now dead), and their descendants. "We had our first reunion in Kingston, Ontario, eight or nine years ago. A little over 300 people turned up, and I think 17 were original children. It was very moving.
"Most of them were thankful for Quarriers having raised them and got them over here, and most were proud to be Canadians. One or two didn't want to talk about their Quarriers experience at all, but most of them did. My own mother's father died and her mother had no money... so what do you do? She put the two little kids into Quarriers. Without that who knows what might have happened to them. I certainly wouldn't have been around," he adds, laughing. Cecil Verge, who lives in New Minas, Nova Scotia, and runs the British Home Children and Descendants Association, agrees that often the emigration experience was infinitely preferable to life at home. "If you look at Birmingham, where my father-in-law came from, in one street, St Thomas Street, during the 1890s, the male life expectancy was 17."
His father-in-law arrived in Canada in 1920, via the English Middlemore Homes, and Verge believes the basic intentions of such schemes were good, although the life the youngsters found could be hard: "Those who took the children, who were indentured until they were 18 years old, were often looking for cheap labour."
Some of the children, he adds, didn't even know where they were going: "I've heard of cases where the agencies would ask the kids if they wanted to go on holiday. One child I know used to say he'd been on holiday here for the past 60 years."
Verge describes how his father-in-law, after arriving in Quebec from Southhampton then travelling by train to the Maritimes, was sent to a small homestead on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia: "The first morning he got up, the farmer handed him a pail and told him to go milk a cow. Coming from the city of Birmingham, he'd hardly ever seen a cow."
A case of culture shock, to say the least, "but, as he used to tell us, 'I was never horsewhipped and I never went hungry, and there were some who did'."
It was a strict regime, nonetheless, and eventually Middlemore took Verge's father-in-law away from that farm, because they couldn't afford to pay him the $10 a month he was due once he'd attained the age of 16. He ended up in a large dairy farm in New Brunswick, "and he got on very well there and they actually paid him $15 dollars a month. But he had to milk 17 cows every morning before breakfast".
The majority of home children weren't abused or exploited, reckons Verge: "We usually only hear about the bad things. Just as many, if not more, ended up in good homes and were certainly far better off by coming to Canada."
Other voyagers would travel more hopefully, as suggested by the records of 30 million passengers, sailing from all British Ports (and from all Irish ports before partition in 1921), currently being digitised by ancestorsonboard.com. In the early years of the 20th century, for instance, passenger lists shortly to go online record the number of entertainers setting sail for the United States, clearly with stars in their eyes. One Stan Laurel, for instance, originally from Ulverston in Cumbria (and who made his stage debut in Glasgow) left these shores in 1912 and, as Dan Jones, head of business development at the National Archives points out, was just one of a host of hopeful entertainers who set sail.
"It seems to have been a trend," says Jones, "with the likes of Stan Laurel, Bob Hope, Charlie Chaplin and Cary Grant... they're all in there. And if you imagine how many people went and weren't successful, it shows that the pursuit of celebrity isn't a new phenomenon."
One can only speculate at the fortunes of the unsung "musician", as he is described on one shipping list, Donald Morrison, who boarded the appropriately named SS Strathspey at Glasgow in January 1891, bound for Kingston, Jamaica - an early reggae enthusiast? Perhaps not.
"I think the real value of the collection is not necessarily in the celebrities who emigrated," says Jones, "but with the mass of people who emigrated. British shipping was preeminent at the time, and because of the price of steerage, which was cheaper in the UK than anywhere else, the majority of northern European migrations went through the UK. So you have a whole lot of transmigratory people from elsewhere, and once the whole collection - which is a very popular series here [in Kew] in paper form - is online, not just genealogists but social historians will be able to use it to track migratory trends."
As part of the National Archives' ongoing programme of digitising its material and making it commercially available, the next package to become available is likely to be "BT26" - inward passenger lists, over the same 1890-1960 period. And that, says Jones, will include such milestone episodes as the Windrush arrivals from Jamaica.
Because passenger records were made by the old Board of Trade in London, they tend to be thin on the ground among the otherwise extensive family research resources held at the National Archives of Scotland, so the new online archive, which works on a pay-as-you-view basis, could prove invaluable, says John Stevenson, a retired marine engineer who deals with maritime matters for the Scottish Genealogical Society. "I think this is going to be an absolute cracker," he declares after a brief trial, during which he manages to trace three family members he knew had emigrated to Australia but not through which ports of departure or entry.
"The price doesn't seem too bad," he adds, "and the basic system seems absolutely brilliant."
(Reprinted from Scotsman.com)