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The Barnardo Boys

Thousands of British 'Home Children' were shipped to Canada as child labourers in a plot right out of Dickens

At a time when children had no rights and little protection, a notorious immigration scheme provided thousands of child labourers to work on Manitoba farms.

Between 1868 and the 1930s, more than 100,000 destitute children in Great Britain were shipped off to Canada. An estimated two-thirds of the Home Children, as they were known, were under the age 14.

This image of a Barnardo Boy pulling a plow an a farm near Russell was used on a Canada Post stamp commemorating the Home Children.


This image of a Barnardo Boy pulling a plow an a farm near Russell was used on a Canada Post stamp commemorating the Home Children.

James Towner

James Towner

An unidentified child from a Barnardo Boys photo exhibit.

An unidentified child from a Barnardo Boys photo exhibit.

George Towner

George Towner

James Towner

James Towner

Charles Dickens couldn't have come up with a more depressing, heartbreaking plot.

An eight-year-old boy being raised by his mom was sent off to Manitoba when she became too sick from cancer to work and support them.

A housemaid who had a son by her married employer had to give the boy to her boss, who starved the child. When her son was rescued by the authorities, she couldn't claim him, and he was sent overseas to a Manitoba farm.

When they got here, they were indentured servants on remote farms. Their meagre pay was sent to the agency that placed them for safekeeping. Some of the boys had to sleep in barns, some were beaten, and most didn't talk much about it when they grew up.

In Manitoba, at the Barnardo Industrial Farm near Russell, more than 1,660 British kids were trained as agricultural workers from 1888 to 1907.

Thousands more were sent to work on Manitoba farms where, in the late 1800s, there was a huge demand for labourers, especially at harvest time.

"Child-saving institutions" in Victorian England saw it as a win-win situation -- sending the overflow of London's poor offspring to Canada where there was a shortage of labour.

An estimated 50 agencies took part in the immigration scheme that sent destitute children to help build the colonies in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Many were Barnardo Boys -- poor kids plucked off the streets of London by an organization founded by Dr. Thomas Barnardo.

He was a Dubliner studying medicine in London in 1866, who planned to become a medical missionary in China. During his studies, he heard about a plan to school street kids in the slums of the East End. He went to the Ragged School as it was called and met a 10-year-old named Jim Darvis.

The boy took Barnardo to see how some of his friends lived, huddled in rags under railway bridges. Barnardo was moved. He passed the hat among his wealthy acquaintances and opened his first Mission House in London. He gave up on going to China but saw opportunities for kids in the colonies.

By 1888, he'd purchased 9,000 acres near Russell and opened the Industrial Farm.

It had a three-storey wooden home for the boys and the farm had horses, cattle, sheep, pigs, fowl, vegetable gardens and a creamery that served surrounding districts.

The famous Dr. Barnardo arrived in Winnipeg from London on Aug. 7, 1890 to visit the "industrial school" he established near Russell, the Manitoba Free Press reported. His charity had "receiving homes" in Winnipeg, including one still standing at 85 Bannerman St., for the boys to stay at until they headed to their farm posting or the training farm.

There, his "boys" were brought in groups of 30, and the locals were intrigued by their stories.

"To myself and my brothers, they seemed like pages out of Dickens," Alice deBalinhard of Russell wrote in her essay, The Barnardo Home As I Knew It.

A bugle woke them up at 5 a.m. and they worked until 6 p.m.

The home had two jail cells for boys who misbehaved -- one windowless and the other with a barred window.

A model of the Farm Home in Russell was exhibited at the World's Fair in Chicago in 1893.

This model of a child immigration scheme wasn't celebrated everywhere, though.

The Trades and Labour Council of Toronto denounced the Barnardo foundation for sending out "batches of boys" it characterized as "exceedingly objectionable settlers in Canada," the Manitoba Free Press reported.

By the 1920s, people began questioning the handling of immigrant children. J.S. Woodsworth, the Winnipeg MP, told the House of Commons: "We are bringing children into Canada in the guise of philanthropy and turning them into cheap labourers."

When the Depression hit in the 1930s, the demand for Home Children dried up.

The Canadian government declared 2010 the Year of the British Home Children. Canada Post issued a stamp with the iconic image of a Barnardo Boy working a plow at the industrial farm in Russell.

"These people deserve an apology," said Cheri Rauser, whose grandfather was Arthur Burns Sculthorp, an 11-year-old Barnardo Boy sent to Manitoba. He went to work on a farm in Baldur where he had to sleep in the barn and was beaten by the farm owner.

"Some people say 'well, that was then,' " and that an apology now is "total horse feathers," said Rauser, who maintains the immigration scheme by the "child-saving institutions" was not well-intentioned but, in fact, was very sinister.

Rounding up all the poor kids in Britain and getting rid of them was a deliberate, educated and sophisticated policy implemented by 50 agencies, said Rauser, a Vancouver librarian and historian.

"It was social eugenics." The educated ruling class wanted to eliminate social problems, the offspring of the poor and "illegitimate" kids like her grandfather.

"Instead of supporting families, it was 'Let's punish the poor and take their children away.' It took a lot of effort sending these kids to the colonies," she said.

"They would never have done that to their own children, or the children of their peers," said Rauser.

The governments of Great Britain and Canada gave it their blessings.

"One hundred thousand children came and helped build this country," said Rauser. "They were brought in as cheap labour and were contributing members of this community."

The Canadian establishment didn't value the young British cast-offs, though, and the Home Children knew it, she said.

"I think they felt the enormous shame that other oppressed people feel after the fact."

James Towner, who was sent to Canada in 1900 at age 10, just felt lucky to be alive, said his granddaughter in Winnipeg.

"He said he had a very harsh life, but never considered himself abused, saying life on the streets in London would have been far worse," said Roberta Horrox.

"Like many British Home Children, he didn't talk much about his life growing up and being a Home Child," said Horrox, a local history buff. James was taken in by the Barnardo Society in London with his sister, Florence, and younger brother, George.

Horrox sees some parallels between the British kids scooped up and sent to work in Canada and the aboriginal children taken from their homes and sent to residential schools.

"While some Home Children were taken in by loving families, many received the bare basics. Others suffered from abuse, some died from the abuse, others committed suicide. The vast majority received no affection."

The story of the British Home Children is mentioned in Manitoba's Grade 6 social studies text, said Horrox, whose son did a project on the Home Children for school.

"But I think it is overlooked."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 28, 2012 A12

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