Little immigrants found hardship

More than 100,000 impoverished British children were sent to Canada between the 1870s and the 1920s. Known as “home children,” the lonely frightened youngsters faced a life of hardship and often abuse on farms throughout Canada.

What began as an act of benevolence, the practice of rescuing destitute waifs in Great Britain and shipping them to Canada was soon viewed as a cunning plan by which England was ridding itself of undesirables. The children faced hostility, fear, loneliness and hard work. This article is an excerpt from The Little Immigrants: The Orphans Who Came to Canada, Kenneth Bagnell (Dundurn Press, 2001).

Without a word, the boy hauled the big, oblong box thumping across the boards to the end of the railway platform. The man took one end and, with the boy, heaved the trunk into the back of the buggy, then climbed onto the seat. He picked up the reins and, looking at the boy still standing on the platform – as if some new and ominous sense was stirring within him – he murmured, “You coming?” The boy quickly jumped up beside him. Thus began Fred Treacher’s life as a home boy in Canada.

The farm was a long way from Elmval[Ont.], standing small and sad upon the cold fields of April, a place to which, years earlier, a man and a woman had come with high hopes that had been vanquished in a losing struggle against the land. They did not have many children, only two, but even these seemed to be burdens that overwhelmed their spirits, so that at times the woman – a weary wife who, despite her failures, ruled the life of her husband – was driven into dark and terrifying fits of temper.

A lonely arrival
When Fred arrived on that first day, no one asked where he came from or who his parents were or what his hopes were for life in Canada. Instead, he was given a place at the table in the kitchen and there, in a silent loneliness that he would know all his childhood, he ate his potatoes and bread by himself. Sometimes, as he heard the clatter of plates and the passing of food in a room beyond the kitchen, he wondered why he was eating alone and worried that already he had done something wrong. But in time he would understand that in this house he would always eat alone.

His room, to which the man took him when he finished his food, was small and square, and in the corner stood a rickety bed upon which was laid a straw tick. On the opposite side were a chest of drawers and a straight-backed chair. Most of all, he noticed that the room was cold, so cold that later, on winter mornings, he would find his moccasins frozen. On that first night in his new home, he remained awake in the dark and through the narrow window, he watched for the first time the moon rising in Canada. It was, he thought to himself, the same moon that was in the sky over England, the same moon his brothers and sisters would see if they looked.

Next page: Hard and long days

Hard and long days
Fred found the work on the farm not only hard and long – beginning before dawn and ending after dark – but very strange, for he had never seen a cow until he arrived there. For several days, the farmer tried to teach him to milk but he could not do it and, though the man said little, Fred knew that he was growing impatient. One night in May, while he was eating alone at the kitchen table, he heard the man telling his wife that the boy was not working out, that he was nothing but “a green Englishman,” and he felt for the first time the sense of abandonment that would haunt him for years thereafter.

Then, one evening, after he had failed again, he heard the man’s wife – who rarely spoke to him and then only when she was putting his food before him – say that the best thing for the boy would be a good whipping. For many hours, he stayed awake, his loneliness now turned to terror, hearing over and over again the woman’s voice, high and strange, urging her husband to take him and thrash him.

In the morning, his throat raw from crying, he did not eat. He was led, silent and trembling, to the barn. The man kicked the stool toward him and, without a word, motioned to him to begin milking. He tried for almost a minute, but there was nothing. He stared at the floor and, suddenly, uncontrollably, began to weep. The man reached out and tapped him on the shoulder in a way that was almost kind. He beckoned the boy toward the yard. As the man followed the boy outside, he reached over the door and took down a glistening black snake whip.

At first, the boy was not sure what was happening. He heard a shout from behind but he did not understand. Then he heard it again and clearly: “You cockney bastard!” He turned and saw the whip raised above him like a blade cutting the sky. He ran, pleading, crying, screaming. Suddenly, the door of the house opened and he saw the woman standing waiting. He ran toward her but she quickly blocked the doorway. Fred Treacher fell sobbing upon the hard brown grass and over him stood the man, lashing him again and again and again.

Brothers reunited
The following spring, when he was fourteen years old, Fred Treacher received a letter from Mr. Fegan’s Home in England, a warm and friendly letter telling him that his younger brother Bert, who had been placed in the home with him, would now like to come to Canada and, if possible, live on a farm near his brother. Bert was nine.

The next day, the letter tucked in his jacket pocket, Fred crossed the fields to the nearest farm, to the house of the man who, in the months he had been in Canada, had been the only person to treat him with ordinary understanding. He asked if perhaps Bert might stay there; over the years so many boys from England and come and been happy in his care. The man, a slight, ruddy-faced farmer with warm grey eyes, read the letter and said simply, “Why not?” A few days later, he wrote the home in Toronto and that summer, Bert Treacher was reunited with his older brother Fred.

For Bert, who was a bright boy with blond hair and a mouth that smiled easily and often, it was as if he had been chosen as a son, surrounded by the affections of a kind man and woman and provided with the sense of belonging to a good and caring family. He did light chores – learning to separate the milk and wash out the buckets – but while he was expected to work, he was not expected to slave and, in the very first week he was there, he was told that as soon as fall came he would begin school. Often on summer evenings when he could get away, Fred crossed the fields to the farm and there in the large kitchen, he sat at the table with Bert and his new parents, saying little but somehow feeling that life was easier just knowing that his younger brother had done so well.

Next page: Another tragedy

Another tragedy
That August, on a very hot afternoon when the air was sweet with the smell of hay, Fred Treacher, who was going on fifteen, set out once again to cross the fields to find his brother and, he hoped, give him a hand with the late chores. He reached the house and, finding it empty, climbed to the top of a hill overlooking a lake where Bert liked to feed the ducks.

He looked down and saw standing there four people: the farmer – who seemed to be stirring the water with a long pike-pole – his wife and two men he did not know. He called out, asking simply where Bert was. Only the woman looked up. Slowly, she said that Fred should stay where he was and not come down. Then she began to climb the hill toward him. But before she reached him, he saw. The long pike-pole emerged from the water and at the end of it, hanging on its hook, was a boy’s cap, a peaked cap, the kind worn by boys of Mr. Fegan’s Home. It would take time, for the water was muddy, but they found Bert’s body beneath the raft on which he was playing.

Only war would bring dignity
That winter, Fred Treacher, still abused and beaten, got up very early one morning, his only possessions the clothes he wore and, like so many boys of his kind and his time, ran away. He crossed the south of Ontario to a farm near Belleville and there too he found only pain. It would be only the First World War that would rescue him from despair and give him the dignity that his childhood did not have. He went overseas and when he returned, he settled in Toronto, becoming an electrician, an elder in his church and, in time, a man to whom other men gave their respect.

Through the years, he would go back to Elmvale and into the country beyond it, as if in search of a youth he did not remember. Once, more than sixty years after it all had happened, he returned to the cemetery, the small grave and the headstone he remembered from his boyhood. It said that Bert Treacher, a home boy, was buried there. But what touched Fred in a way he never forgot where the words that were placed beneath the name: “Dearly loved, Dearly missed.”