My Grandmother was a Barnardo Child

My Grandmother was a Barnardo Child

Christmas came early to my house this week. A long-awaited package containing my Grandmother Daisy’s file of the time she spent in the Barnardo’s Children Home during the early 1900s finally arrived. I ordered the file a little over a year ago and had almost forgotten about it. Imagine my surprise when I found a rather large envelope in my mailbox with a British return address, labeled “private and confidential.” At last, the story of my grandmother’s custody in one of the most well-known child welfare organizations was about to unfold.

Few Americans may know of the famous charity founded by Dr. John Barnardo. In 1866, a cholera outbreak killed thousands. Struck by the number of orphaned and homeless children in the East End of London, Dr. Barnardo opened a small home for boys and later, a home for girls. Before his death in 1905, his institutions cared for over 8,000 children throughout England, providing food, shelter, skills, and religious education. Like many others in the early 1900s, dire circumstances forced my Grandmother Daisy and her younger brother George to become “Barnardo Children.”

The trail leading me to Barnardo’s was a long one. When I started researching my mother’s family, I had no idea who her parents were or where they came from. Luckily, I uncovered a long paper trail of her well-documented family. From the 1930 California Federal census, I learned Daisy was born in England and the British census records provided details of her immediate and extended family. A death index told me Daisy’s mother died in 1898, when Daisy was four years old. Daisy’s father remained a mystery until I received her birth certificate and discovered Daisy was illegitimate. After their mother’s death, Daisy and George lived for a while with their maternal grandparents. Sometime between the age of 6 and 16, Daisy became a ward of England and would eventually relocate to Ontario Canada to work as a domestic servant, but I did not how, when, or why. The newly arrived package held the answers.

All countries struggle with caring for the orphans and the poor. In larger cities, children often lived in the streets and alleyways, begging for food. Poor sanitation lead to early death and desperation lead to crime. Children needed the skills that would help them find work when they became adults and a good moral up-bringing to make them good members of society. Institutions were no replacement for strong family units, nor could they accommodate all of the children in need. In 1800’s, homeless children living in the United States were moved from the East Coast cities to the Midwest aboard orphan trains. In England, orphaned children, and children of broken or poor families boarded ships to Canada and Australia as part of the British Child Immigration project. These British Home Children served as farm labor and domestic servants in exchange for food and shelter, and hope of a better life. Dr. Barnardo’s was one of many charities that participated in relocating their wards. I believe these charities had good, but misguided intentions. Many alleged that many children were sent to Canada without parental consent and exploited as cheap labor. In 2010, Britain formally apologized to the families of children who may have suffered. In the case of my grandmother, I do not believe there was deception as her admission history indicates that the children were admitted with the ‘Canada Clause’.

When I opened the package, the first thing I saw was a picture of my grandmother, taken the day she arrived at the children’s home. Grandma Daisy wore a long-sleeved dress with tiny buttons down the front and a lace neckline. Her long hair was pulled back from her face and fashioned with a tiny bow on top. A slight smile graced her face. Nothing about the photograph indicated this was the day her life would change. It could have easily passed as a family photograph, taken for any number of reasons.
I looked at the photograph and thought how hard it must have been for my grandmother. Her life may not have been easy before, but at least she knew what to expect. Everything had changed. She would have to make new friends and live by new rules. Her life would be well regulated, as one would expect from living in an institution. Daisy would go to school, attend church, and learn domestic skills aimed at helping her get a job. She would share in the work of maintaining the house. She would adjust over time, but that first night must have been scary for her.

One of my more pressing questions was why and when were Daisy and George placed in an orphanage. The records told me both were admitted in 1907, three years before Daisy and George left for Canada. Daisy’s grandfather was no longer physically or financially able to care for his grandchildren, and her grandmother, paralyzed and brain impaired, was committed to the local workhouse. Other family members had children of their own to care for. Given the dire circumstances of the family, it seemed that Barnardo’s was the only answer left.

Daisy spent the next few years living in the Girl’s Village Home in Essex England. According to the fact sheet provided by Barnardo’s, The Girls Village was home to over 1,300 girls, ages 2 to 16. Daisy lived in a cottage with 20 other girls. She continued her formal education and taught domestic services: cooking, dressmaking, laundering, and needlework.

At age 16, Daisy left England and sailed to Ontario Canada to begin a new life. Her first job was a domestic servant in the home of the town physician. Notes from her time in Canada indicate that Daisy was happy to be in such a good home. Frequent letters of a friendly nature were exchanged between Daisy and her case worker. I wish those letters had been included in the packet, as I would love to learn about my grandmother’s new life, in her own words. Notes in the correspondence log indicated that Daisy and her brother George, who was also in Canada, exchanged letters, and even visited on occasion.

By the time Daisy turned 17, things began to change. Her employer asked that Daisy be removed quickly and placed in a new home. She was “friendly with too many young men.” Over the next two years, Daisy is placed in several different homes. Her job performance is below standard and she is counseled to put forth better effort because her next home may not be so nice. Daisy would leave without permission and not return for long periods. Rumors of an impending marriage worried her case worker, but in the end, she believes it might be best for Daisy to marry young. The last letter to Daisy is dated January 7, 1914. The case worker sympathizes with Daisy’s dire situation and agrees to send her the full amount of her savings, something not normally done except under extreme circumstances. She is encouraged to start afresh and to “seek after things that are good and pure and true.” This is where it ends.

Reading the file gave me a glimpse into my grandmother’s life as a young girl. In many ways, she was a typical teenager girl; infatuated with boys, making poor decisions, trying to find her way in the world through rebellion. Her life experiences forced her to grow up faster than her a young girl should and I believe lead to a life of mistakes. Grandma Daisy gave birth to one daughter out of wedlock and married a man 25 years her senior to cover for another child. She was divorced twice, mothered three other children who she sent away to live because husband did not like them. Her relationships were turbulent.

I do not judge her, however. I may peek through a window into her life, but I did not walk in her shoes. Had her life been my life, I do not know that I would have done better. In years to come, one of my descendants may revisit my life and uncover secrets long forgotten. I hope they will not judge me.

2 thoughts on “My Grandmother was a Barnardo Child

  1. Great job! You have recovered some great family history. I also agree with you in that we should almost never judge a person and how their life turned out. Great blog enjoyed reading.

    1. Thank you for the comments. I really enjoy researching my family and learning about my British ancestors has been a real adventure.

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