Source Musée Lac-Brome Museum, le fonds John A. Wheeler
Exhibit tells heart-wrenching story of British kids uprooted and sent to Canada as cheap labour
Between 1869 and the 1930s, more than 100,000 children were shipped to Canada from England as part of a British government program to reduce the number of poor or orphaned children in that country. They were called Home Children. Little boys and girls between the ages of 3 and 14 – orphans and from poor families – were loaded onto ships and sent to Canada, where they were mostly sent off to farms and factories as cheap labour.
An estimated 5000 of these children passed through the Knowlton Distribution Home, a big house on the corner of Lakeside and Hillside. It was the third such facility in Canada, along with the Gibbs Home for Waifs and Strays in Sherbrooke, set up as part of England’s massive child emigration network. From this residential facility, the children were sent on to where they were wanted. The lucky ones ended up in loving families. Many others ended up working as cheap labour, mistreated and abused. It was a different world for poor children – one that was cruel and prejudiced in an Oliver Twist kind of way. Now the voice of these children is being showcased in a major exhibit at the Lac-Brome Museum, which runs until April 6, 2024. Through the eyes of Children: finding Home in Brome County tells the story of some of them, how they came here with nothing and went on to help build the community in which we live.
You will recognize some of the names. Richard and Susan Burcombe are both descendants from Home Children. Their fathers were sent here in 1926 and 1927 respectively, barely teenagers, and had to fare for themselves on their own. Richard Burcombe’s dad was a 14-year-old orphan, and Susan’s father came with a brother and sister, who were separated shortly after they arrived.
Their touching personal stories are among several that bring the exhibit to life, says Museum curator Rachel Lambie. Lambie says the exhibit is a striking reminder of how much society and attitudes towards children, poverty and class have changed since those days. The Home Children story is a black eye on both the UK and Canada, in that these countries operated a system in which so many children were used as cheap labour and were mistreated.
But at the same time, Burcombe says, “these children were a great asset to the community and country, and it important that we remember and preserve this history. It is also a reminder, looking at immigration today, that you have to appreciate at how much people who come from other countries contribute to building our community and culture,” said Burcombe.
If you are a descendant of Home Children, please contact the Museum 450-243-6782 or at email@example.com. The Museum has launched a project to collect more stories of Home Children who were handled by the Knowlton Distribution Home.