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May. 27, 2022 | Friday
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British Home Children - commemorating 150 years
Tina Muller, holds a photo of her grandmother, a British Home Child named Gladys Jesse Simm. (Brittany Carter)

Niagara-on-the-Lake will shine a light on a tree and plaque in Rye Park tree this Saturday at dusk to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the first British Home Children who were brought to Canada.

Sept. 28 will mark 150 years since 100,000 children were sent to Canada from England from 1869, many of whom stayed at the home which Maria Rye dubbed “Our Western Home.”

She was one of the most prominent organizers of British child emigration and had converted the old jail that once stood at Rye Park into a home for young orphaned British girls, before they were ideally adopted by Canadian families. While many of the girls were taken in by families, many were not and remained in the care of Rye.

NOTL will join municipalities across Canada shining red, white and blue lights on buildings and landmarks to mark the anniversary; Niagara Falls will illuminate the falls at 10 p.m. for 15 minutes. The Town of NOTL will also raise a flag on Friday Sept. 27 for the anniversary.

Many British Home Children are remembered only through the stories they told their grandchildren, family trees their relatives have pieced together and old photographs that have been dug up from the archives.

They were promised better lives, but many worked in harsh conditions and slept in even worse environments, said Tina Muller, granddaughter of Gladys Jesse Simm, who was moved to Canada in 1920.

“Hers was mild in comparison to a lot of the other kids. They were used as farm labourers. Some of their stories are heart wrenching; there’s just a handful of them that were put into good homes,” she said.

Though she said her grandmother was one of the few lucky children placed in a good home, there were still aspects about her childhood she never spoke of.

Muller was close with her grandmother and she said she is heartbroken at the thought of her coming overseas in that way. Met with a mix of sadness and curiosity she said she has been discovering more and more about her grandmother’s life, and the family she never met who may still be out there.

“I had nobody to talk to about it. My dad had passed away, and if he knew about it he certainly didn’t say anything. We have a whole half a family out there and I’m looking for them,” Muller said.

Nancy Martin is the granddaughter of Stephen Thwaites, brother of Reginald Thwaites who purchased farmland in 1925, which is now Thwaites Farm on townline Road. She said her grandfather never spoke of his experience.

“My grandfather’s situation was sad, but he got in with a good family. He never said that’s how he came over. It was always just “We came over.””

He was separated and then reunited with his brothers, she said, but she didn’t hear any of that from him. It was through researching the past that she discovered some of the harsh realities of how he came to Canada.

“I’m looking through all the names, and all of the ages are written beside the names, and I realized – this is a ship of children. The oldest one appears to be 15,” Martin said.

After spending more time looking into the ship’s manifest, she said she learned that this group of children were a part of Dr. Bernardo’s party.

“I had vaguely heard about Dr. Bernardo and how he had brought orphans to Canada. Supposedly for a better life,” she said.

Martin said there were other British Home Children in the family as well. Her maternal great grandmother came to Canada in the same way, years before her grandfather.

“I sometimes wonder what kind of conversations they must have had when no one else was around, about their experiences and what they went through coming abroad," Martin said.

Though she said they were brought over without consent, the idea was to provide a better life for them and to get them off the streets. Many of the 100,000 that were brought over were living in homes for orphaned kids or trying to survive on the streets of England.

“Dr. Bernardo was trying to get these kids off the streets. The depression was in full swing and they were sent for a better life,” Martin said.

And though that was the idea behind bringing them across the ocean, Muller said the vacant looks on the kid’s face’s in the photographs told a different story. It told the story of fear and unknowing.

“They had no idea what was happening,” she said.

Descendants of the British Home Children, like Martin and Muller, have been trying to piece together their history through ship manifests and correspondence between the people like Dr. Bernardo, who arranged for the children to come to Canada, and the families they were placed with once they arrived. Old photographs serve as pieces of an intricate historical puzzle.

Though each of the family members have their own reasons for researching their history and stumbling onto their ties to the British Home Children, each of them are at a loss when it comes to the lack of information surrounding the children.

“No one talks about it. I couldn’t get my family to open up about it, I had to find out on my own,” Muller said.

Martin said it’s important to make that history known and to make people aware of the experiences of the children; commemorating the 150th anniversary is a start, she said.