Today, September 28, is British Home Child Day. It is a day to remember all those children who were sent to Canada in the hope of a better chance in life. My paternal grandmother was, and her two siblings were among those children. Below is a draft of the text of an article I wrote for Family Tree Magazine in 2016.
Although we both lived in Montreal, indeed within several kilometres of each other, I have but one recollection of meeting my paternal grandmother. I was about seven or eight at the time and my father took me on the bus one summer Sunday afternoon to see his mother. Sadly my only memory of the event is that of a rum and raisin ice cream cone from the shop across the street, the only flavour they had left, and far from my favourite. Of course, we had “met” numerous times when I was an infant, but various family complications over the ensuing years led to a deep rift that quashed most communication.
In 1897, when she was five, her father, John Fyfe, a coal miner by profession, left his children and wife, my great-grandmother, also a double n Winnifred (nee Whittington), allegedly because of her “bad conduct”
While family stories about her abound, I was able to acquire a vast amount of information regarding her childhood from the Quarriers Homes in Scotland where she and her siblings lived for several years. A mere £20 donation and I was sent a thick package of documentation including original birth certificates.
Winnifred Fyfe – with a double n if you please – was born in Glasgow, Scotland, on June 16, 1892. She was the middle of three children; John Jr was the eldest, Maggie the youngest. Based on what I have gleaned from their Quarriers file, I get the impression that they had a challenging childhood.
In 1897, when she was five, her father, John Fyfe, a coal miner by profession, left his children and wife, my great-grandmother, also a double n Winnifred (nee Whittington), allegedly because of her “bad conduct”. It is believed he went to South Africa to fight in the Boer War. However, he was never seen nor heard from again, and all attempts to contact him failed. The only possible reference is a John Fyfe listed as a member of Brabant’s Horse, a regiment involved in the war. As John Fyfe was a common name at the time, there is no guarantee it was him.
The description of their mother’s death included in the Quarriers documents – “brought on by drinking and evil living” – leads me to conclude that their childhood was one marked by much instability and not a little misery.
On February 13, 1899, just a couple of years after her husband’s departure for South Africa, my great-grandmother passed away, leaving the three young children in the care of their maternal grandparents. At the time of her passing, she was living at 19 Ardgower Place in Glasgow. The description of their mother’s death included in the Quarriers documents – “brought on by drinking and evil living” – leads me to conclude that their childhood was one marked by much instability and not a little misery.
When her husband left, she and the children stayed with her parents for some eleven months. However, the children’s grandmother was blind, and once their mother died she was unable to cope with the little ones. They then lived with their paternal grandparents, but within a year their paternal grandmother had to go out to work, as her husband was ill, so they were given up for adoption.
On Wednesday, May 30, 1900, the three children were brought by their paternal grandmother to the City Orphans Home on James Morrison Street in Glasgow. There they were checked medically and sent to the Quarriers Homes at the Bridge of Weir, in the west-central Lowlands of Scotland the next day. They lived there for several years; the girls in cottage 20 and John in cottage 25.
In conjunction with the Canadian Home Children’s program, Winnifred’s siblings came to Canada in 1907. Winnifred was scheduled to travel that year as well, with her sister Maggie as part of the girls’ party, but was ill at the time of departure. She stayed and in fact worked in the hospital at the Bridge of Weir until immigrating to Canada aboard the Grampian in 1913.
Before he could finish explaining who this was, my grandmother stopped things, stating in her thick Glaswegian brogue, “That’s alright, I know enough people already”
Little is known about what she did upon her arrival, other than that she worked as a hospital aid in Montreal’s east end. The details of how she met and married my paternal grandfather (himself a recent immigrant from Cheshire, England) sometime before 1918 have never been known to me.
Perhaps it can be attributed to her rotten childhood, or maybe it was just her character, but she was a significantly less than sociable woman. One example of this that has been passed along through the family occurred when my father returned from World War Two. Having been overseas, after VE Day, he volunteered for continued service in the Pacific. He was training with the Royal Canadian Navy in Esquimalt, British Columbia, on Canada’s west coast when the war ended.
A short while later he traveled home to Montreal by train. My mother, now his fiancée, and his parents gathered with others at Montreal’s Windsor Train Station to greet the returning men. One can imagine the great joy and exuberance upon seeing loved ones, knowing they would not have to leave again. My father, a quiet but not unfriendly man, had befriended a fellow traveler during the long trans-Canada train ride. At one point, so the tale goes, my father brought this fellow over to introduce him to his mother. Before he could finish explaining who this was, my grandmother stopped things, stating in her thick Glaswegian brogue, “That’s alright, I know enough people already”.
Truth be told, my mother played a role in his imbibing by allowing him to smuggle bottles of beer into the house in my older brother’s pram when he was an infant
She was a short woman, but tough. My father played football (soccer) in an industrial league and on one occasion she dumped a bucket of water over a referee with whom she disagreed. A religious woman, though most definitely not Catholic (did I mention a family rift?), she was, however, not averse to telling referees to “get the shit out of your eyes” when she felt it was warranted.
She was teetotal, but her husband, my paternal grandfather, most certainly was not. I assume this led to numerous confrontations over the years. Truth be told, my mother played a role in his imbibing by allowing him to smuggle bottles of beer into the house in my older brother’s pram when he was an infant.
My paternal grandfather passed away in 1955, four years before my birth. My grandmother died in 1979; she was predeceased not only by her husband but also by her son, my father, in 1977.