Friday, 20 November 2015

Searching for my great uncle Roger and thinking about British Home Children

I have no idea if my great uncle Roger ever married or if he had children or even if he stayed in Canada.

Middlemore report on great uncle Roger, 1915
He was migrated in the care of Middlemore who were acting for the Derby Poor Law Union in 1914.

After a troubled year on three farms he ran away joined the Canadian army and on the way changed his name lied about his age and never mentioned his mother on any official form.

Having served his adopted country he returned to Canada in 1918 and persuaded his sister to join him in the November of 1925.

She will have gone over on one of the assisted passage schemes found work and later married and her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren all live in southern Ontario.

Thomas Bowers who fell in love with Francis, date unknown
It is a familiar story of a BHC which I have visited over the years but today I am puzzled by the lack of information about him after his demob.

I know that great aunt Dolly remained in touch for a while but in one of her letters written in the 1970s she thought he had gone west to Alberta or British Columbia.

And that is it, the trail goes cold and I am back wondering if he married and if somewhere across Canada there is a second family who we are related to.

All of which made me also reflect on how others found partners and settled down and in particular whether they sought a wife or husband who was also a BHC.

Couples like Thomas and Francis “an old Refuge boy and Cheetham Hill girl.” 

Both were from Manchester sent out as BHC, by the Manchester & Salford Boys’ and Girls’ Refuges where they met, fell in love and got married, forging a strong relationship with a local farmer, who employed both of them and rented them somewhere to live.*

Letter in the archives of the Together Trust, date unknown
They feature in one of the articles posted by the archivist of the Together Trust and raise interesting questions about the degree to which young people with similar backgrounds sought each other out.**

Now this is not such a daft line of enquiry because it gets to the heart of how far we have come with BHC which has moved from a collection of people seeking answers to their own family history into a serious area of study.

And part of that study should I think address the relationship between those sent over and the degree to which some at least were able to come to terms with the separation from family members, the traumas of their early life and their ability to find closure.

We know that many did not have an easy time and that had an impact on their future relationships.

Unknown boy on admittance to the charity, no date
My own great uncle did not take to the farms, found the discipline of army life irksome and rebelled against both.  Nor was he alone for both he and my grandfather were deemed out of control by the authorities and were destined for a naval boot camp.  Granddad went but great uncle Roger took up the option of Canada.

In their case the damage was done long before the prospect of migration loomed and it may also have impacted on how granddad behaved in his marriage and the fact that his other brother Jack married twice.

That is not to trivialise the effect of migration on many young people whose lives were blighted by the experience of migration but it does point to that simple observation that history is messy and that just as the motives of those involved in the programme were mixed so were the outcomes for those sent.

And that leads me on to the archives of the Manchester & Salford Boys’ and Girls’ Refuges which offer up a treasure store of information and which regularly offer up new insights in to the story of how late Victorian Britain approached the issues of childhood neglect, and destitution.***

A Manchester lad in Canada, date unknown
Unlike the Middlemore papers which are held by Birmingham Public Libraries and which can only be effectively accessed through a visit, those of the Refuges frequently are referred to in articles by the archivist of the charity who has also contributed material to a major travelling exhibition highlighting the migration of children to Canada, Australia and elsewhere.***

Together they are raising awareness on this side of the Atlantic to what went on and making a contribution to our understanding of an important piece of our collective history.

And somewhere along the line I might just discover whether great uncle Roger got married and whether we have a second Canadian family.

Pictures; a Middlemore report on Roger Hall, from the collection of Andrew Simpson, remaining images courtesy of the Together Trust

* Letters and reports from British Home Children,

**A marriage and President of the cheese makers association, Getting Down and Dusty,

***Together Trust,

**** On Their Own: Britain's Child Migrants Exhibition,

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