8,100 Home Children stayed in Stratford
StratfordBeaconHerald.com – Article
26 Jun 2010. Betty Jo Belton, Stratford-Perth Archives
The Dec. 10, 1898 edition of the Stratford Evening Herald featured these pictures of “ Miss Macpherson’s Boys Home” at 51 Avon St. in Stratford.
The first group of 100 boys under Annie Macpherson’s care to be transported to Canada set sail on May 12, 1870. After she arrived a large house in Belleville was offered to her as a “distribution centre” for impoverished children with the rent to be paid by Hastings County. The next year, an Annie Macpherson Home was established in Galt ( now Cambridge) with her nephew William H. Merry as manager. In 1883, the Annie Macpherson Home moved to Stratford and the Galt location was closed. Merry continued as manager of the Stratford home.
At different periods in its history the home was referred to as “Miss Macpherson’s Boys’ Home — for the distribution and care of English children emigrated through Miss Macpherson,” “The Annie Macpherson Home of Industry” and was often called the “Merry Home” by local residents.
Who was Annie Macpherson and why were these children sent to Canada? Macpherson moved to London, England from Glasgow, Scotland in the mid-1860s to further her training as an educator. In his book, Kenneth Bagnell describes how her experiences with poor children in the city’s East End changed her plans:
“Annie Macpherson, according to the memories that pass among her descendants, was above all else a woman with a sense of destiny. Her eyes, peering out from beneath a high forehead, were large and strong, and her mouth, which was straight and correct, were set among features that spoke of a will of iron. Her parents … saw to it that after she finished her schooling in Glasgow she went to London, there to study the methods of … the founder of the kindergarten movement … When she was twenty-three years old, in 1865, Annie Macpherson — like many in her time a convert to evangelical Christianity — decided that her life work would be among the poor in London, in the East End, where, for an entire population, life was a burden of unending desperation, disease, and crime … During her first summer of work in 1866, an epidemic of cholera swept the entire East End … She visited the sick and distributed food, and in the evenings, in her room … she held meetings for mothers, talking with them of ways in which they might stave off the tragedies that stood at their doors.
Then one day in the late autumn of 1867 … Annie Macpherson entered a dark, smelly house and heard voices on an upper floor. She climbed the gloomy stairway and opened a hatch upon a sweltering attic. Inside was a sight that would move her to direct the rest of her life, not to the miseries of poverty in general, but to the suffering of children. Everywhere in the attic … crouched more than thirty small girls, their arms thin as broomsticks, at work making matchboxes … Each child received three farthings, less than one penny, for making a gross of boxes … On a table was a loaf of bread. When the children were so hungry they could not go on, they were given a slice. They paid for it out of their earnings. Annie Macpherson came back down the stairs … convinced that she must begin that day to try ending the misery of the matchbox-makers.”
With her sisters Louisa Birt and Rachel Merry she operated a child emigration organization from 1870– 1925 with homes in Belleville, Galt and then Stratford and Knowlton, Que. From 1869 until the late 1930s, around 100,000 children — boys and girls — were brought to Canada from the United Kingdom by religious and philanthropic organizations like Macpherson’s, and sent to live with families here. Some of the very youngest were adopted and treated as family. More often these children were used as low-cost farm labourers or domestic servants. They were called Home Children. Millions of Canadians are directly descended from these “ little immigrants.”
The First World War made it dangerous for children sailing overseas and the last Home Children to live at 51 Avon St. arrived around 1916. In 1919, the Annie Macpherson Home in Stratford closed and Merry and his wife moved to Belleville to operate the home there. The Stratford property was sold the next year. Historians estimate that 8,100 of the approximately 100,000 children who were sent to Canada spent time in the Stratford home.
In 1987 the well-preserved remaining portion of the Italianate house was designated under the Ontario Heritage Act as a significant heritage property and described as “a station in the British Child Emigration Movement.” In 2001, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada commemorated the nationally significant contributions of Home Children and their descendants to Canada’s success by placing a federal plaque in front of 51 Avon St. A reunion of Home Children and their families was held following the plaque unveiling and attended by over a thousand people.
The government of Canada has designated 2010 the Year of the British Home Child. Canadian Citizenship, Immigration and Multiculturalism Minister Jason Kenney announced that the government recognizes the hardships suffered by British Home Children and their perseverance and courage in overcoming those hardships. Over the next year, the government will honour the great strength and determination of this group of child immigrants, and reflect on the tremendous contributions made by former Home Children and their descendants to the building of Canada.
The Stratford-Perth Museum has created a new display about Home Children and the Annie Macpherson Home. Beginning tomorrow to July 10, the display will feature one of two British Home Children Memory Quilts made of blocks submitted by descendants of Home Children from across Canada. The one being displayed here is BHC Memory Quilt ( AB) which was finished by Hazel Perrier who lives in Alberta. The other quilt soon to be finished is BHC Memory Quilt ( ON) which is being finished by Gail Collins who lives in Ontario. Information on researching the lives of Home Children will be available at the exhibit and the archives.
A colourful and exuberant celebration of triumph over adversity, the quilt is also extremely moving. Blocks include photographs, text and small artifacts chosen by descendants to symbolize the life of “ their” Home Child. Many thanks to archives volunteer Lynn Matthison who worked very hard to arrange for the loan of the quilt and the creation of the exhibit. It includes a block for her grandmother Gladys Gwendoline Cookson (nee Parsons).
The Stratford-Perth Archives is located at 24 St. Andrew St. We are open from 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., Monday through Saturday. You can reach the archives at 519- 271-0531, ext. 259, or by e-mail at email@example.com. For more information including hours at the Mitchell and Listowel branches, call the Stratford office or visit us on the Perth County website at www.perthcounty.ca.
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