Many might not know the history of Our Western Home, an orphanage for young girls that was operated out of the old courthouse on King Street, where Rye Street Heritage Park is now located.
On Dec. 1, 1869, a woman named Maria Rye (Miss Rye) bought the courthouse and surrounding property to be used as a transitional home — or as others might call it a distribution centre — for young orphaned girls brought from England. She called it Our Western Home and from its opening in 1869 until its closing in 1913, more than 3,500 girls transitioned through the home.
Rye began her charitable work in the 1860s, escorting young, single, middle-class women to Australia and New Zealand in pursuit of husbands. However, the cost of that became prohibitive, so she turned her attention to the plight of much younger girls, some as young as 2-years-old, who she felt needed her help more.
Rye and her sister Elizabeth purchased a house in Peckham, England, calling it the Little Gutter Girls’ Home, and Rye petitioned for many young girls to be removed from the workhouses in Liverpool and from the streets of London.
Some of these girls had families that could no longer care for them, while others were orphans, and it soon became apparent there was a great need to find homes for these girls.
With few places taking in young children in England, Rye turned her attention to Canada.
The government of England had felt sending young orphaned children to Canada would afford them a better opportunity with fresh air, plenty of food and loving families to care for them. For many children this was true, but there were also horrible stories of abuse.
On the journey to Canada, Rye would have the girls stay in the Peckham house to get them cleaned up, fed and healthy. Then, in groups of 60 to 80, she would personally escort them to Our Western Home. The girls’ clothing and transportation costs were paid for by the Board of Guardians of England.
Upon arrival in Canada, the older girls would be given training in housekeeping, cooking, laundry, sewing and gardening, while some who showed potential were trained in the stationery business that Rye owned. Once the older girls were trained, they would do work placements in homes as household help or in shops as clerks.
They were paid, though the money was put into a trust account they couldn’t access until the age of 21.
Younger girls were expected to learn basic chores before being placed for adoption into suitable Christian families. These families would be vetted and had to sign documents to state their intent to house, educate, raise them in the Church of England and look after the girls as if they were their own child.
Despite the good intentions of Our Western Home, inspections were not undertaken to ensure the girls were being properly educated and well-cared-for, and instances of abuse surfaced. In cases where it was brought to light, the girls were brought back to the home.
Some girls were also returned to the home by guardians who deemed them unfit, undisciplined or dull-witted. Rye did not permit these girls to live in Our Western Home as she was concerned they may negatively influence the younger girls. Instead, she boarded them close to the home in a red brick house at the corner of King and Cottage Streets, so they would be looked after until other arrangements were made.
By 1895, Rye retired and returned to England, donating both her property in Canada and the Peckham house in England to the Waifs and Strays Society of England. At that time a woman named Emily Bailey took over running Our Western Home.
In the book Bicentennial Stories of Niagara-on-the-Lake (1981), there is a delightful story by Doris Sheppard as told to the editor, John Field.
Sheppard tells of arriving at Our Western Home in 1902 at the age of 14, and describes how one of her first duties was to take care of the laundry and to put the younger girls to bed. She did not receive any pay for her work, just room and board, nonetheless she recounts how lovely the home was compared to where she had come from.
After residing in the home for a year, the cook for the home quit and Sheppard took the opportunity to take the position. She had no idea how to cook, but Bailey convinced her she could learn — and she did.
She soon had a new navy dress and hat and was paid $3 a month for her work.
Sheppard lived and worked at the home for ten years, eventually earning $10 a month, before leaving the home at the age of 24.
When she left she was permitted to access the money in her bank account — a staggering $750.
Our Western Home closed in 1913, a few years later and the entire building was torn down after World War One.
A small side note: I spoke with one of the town’s maintenance workers who was on hand when trees were planted in Rye Street Heritage Park as part of the Canada 150 initiative. He said “everywhere they dug holes they had to remove red bricks.”
On Sept. 28, 2018, the Niagara Historical Society and Museum, joined by the British Home Child Group International will be unveiling a historic plaque on the site of Our Western Home in Rye Street Heritage Park in Niagara-on-the-Lake to commemorate Miss Rye’s girls .
Further details will be provided at a later date.
The British Home Child Group International has some interesting statistics on the children of Great Britain who were brought to Canada. One stat says 10 per cent of the Canadian population can trace their ancestry through children brought to Canada from England between the 1860s to the 1930s.
More information on these children can be found at, britishhomechild.com.
Note: The Niagara Historical Society and Museum has a trunk on display that belonged to Eliza Morris, one of the young girls who arrived in Canada on May 12, 1873.
Eliza was born in England around 1861 and died in Wentworth, Hamilton on Sept. 4, 1889 at the age of 28.
In St. Mark’s Anglican Church graveyard there is a plot bought by Maria Rye for any child who died in her care. The plot is marked by a large monument with a Celtic cross. The stone is inscribed “Sacred to the memory of Our Western Home Niagara. Waiting for adoption, to wit the redemption of the body, Rom. VIII XXIII.”
Bailey is buried in this plot with six children from the home.
To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, www.niagarahistorical.museum, or visit the museum for yourself.
The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake in Memorial Hall.
Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.
Denise's profile can be found here, niagaranow.com/profile.phtml/13.