Part 2: Home children Walter and Maria, a genealogical case study

In my last post I told you about a man I was researching, who was wounded in WW1 and whose daughter was accidentally killed not long after his return to Canada. That post focused on unraveling the two wives of Walter Dunn (Myrtle Bishop and Blanche Poidevin) and sorting out who was the daughter’s mother. In this post, I’ll dip further back into Walter’s story — but don’t worry, I will eventually come forward again, and investigate his daughter’s death in 1920.

As I mentioned last time, the 1921 census record for Walter and wife Blanche showed that he arrived in Canada in 1898. When I saw that, I immediately wondered if he was a “home child.” Library and Archives Canada describes the home child scheme this way:

Between 1869 and the late 1930s, over 100,000 juvenile migrants were sent to Canada from the British Isles during the child emigration movement. Motivated by social and economic forces, churches and philanthropic organizations sent orphaned, abandoned and pauper children to Canada. Many believed that these children would have a better chance for a healthy, moral life in rural Canada, where families welcomed them as a source of cheap farm labour and domestic help.

After arriving by ship, the children were sent to distributing and receiving homes, such as Fairknowe in Brockville, and then sent on to farmers in the area. Although many of the children were poorly treated and abused, others experienced a better life and job opportunities here than if they had remained in the urban slums of England. Many served with the Canadian and British Forces during both World Wars.

homechild traveling alone
Chadwick Sandles, a 1911 home child, courtesy Library and Archives Canada.

I found Walter’s name in the LAC Home Children database, and for several reasons I knew I had the right Walter Dunn. The year of his arrival, 1898, matched the 1921 census; among the other children he was traveling with was a girl named Maria, whose age was correct for the sister I’d already found out about by matching Walter’s Quebec marriage record (which named his parents) with English census records. So it was clear that Walter came to Canada as a home child along with his little sister Maria. They were listed as 9 and 11 years old, and they were traveling on the Numidian with the Liverpool Catholic Children’s Protection Society. Along with Walter and Maria, the Society was transporting 22 other children ranging in age from 3 to 18. A Miss Yates was in charge of the group, and Miss E Cawley was listed as the matron. There were other groups of home children on board too, and many from a number of English workhouses. Three boys between 8 and 11 were rejected as unfit upon arrival, and were sent back across the ocean. One can only imagine how that must have felt, and what became of these boys after their journeys, but that’s a story for another day.

As far as I can tell, Walter and Maria were the two oldest children of Walter Dunn, a dock labourer, and Margaret Shearon, a hawker. Walter’s occupation alone suggests the family lived in poverty. Dock labourers loaded and unloaded ships, and transported the goods between ship and shed. Though they could sometimes earn a decent wage, relatively speaking, the social investigator Beatrice Potter, writing in the 1890s, describes this type of work as casual and uncertain, and says “The most they can do in their forlorn helplessness is to make the pawnbroker their banker, and the publican their friend. … If married, they must submit to the dreariness of a one-roomed home which, even in its insufficiency, [depletes] their scanty earning. … And the fact that the wife can and frequently does work weakens the already disheartened energies of the husband, and with the inevitable neglect of children and home tends to drag the whole family down into the lower ranks of casuals.”

Margaret’s job as a hawker — selling her wares in the street — does indeed suggest a deep level of poverty. But she must have been accustomed to a hard-scrabble existence; before marrying Walter, she was already a “basket hawker” living with her widowed father, a dock labourer just like her husband-to-be.

flower sellers
Walter’s mother’s occupation, hawker, meant she sold her wares in the street, calling out to passersby. This image shows Covent Garden flower sellers, and comes from the book Street Life in London, 1877, courtesy LSE Library.

According to Potter, a dock labourer’s income was effected by “the vicissitudes of dock trade” but also by competition. A man might show up for work punctually day after day, and prove that he was competent and dependable, but it didn’t give him job stability. “A strong man presents himself at the gate. He may be straight from one of her Majesty’s jails, but if he be remarkable for sinew he strikes the quick eye of contractor or foreman. The professional dock labourer is turned way and the newcomer is taken on. … The professional dock labourer retires disgusted; why exert himself to rise early and apply regularly if he is to be unofficially dismissed, not for any lack of duty or any special failure of strength, but simply because another has sunk from a higher plane of physical existence and is superior to him in brute force? And the widely know fact that a man without a character can live by dock labour becomes the turning point in many lives.”

In 1891, the couple were living on Circus Street in Liverpool with little Walter and Maria. The street no longer exists, but was just a short walk from the docks where Walter Sr worked, and where the Numidian would set sail from when the children left for Canada. What caused this to come about is unclear, but can be guessed at. The children weren’t orphaned, and they were probably not abandoned, since baptism records show that two more daughters were born to the couple in 1892 and 1894, four years before Walter and Maria moved away. So it was likely just dire poverty that led to the elder children leaving their parents and their two little sisters, hopefully for a better life.

The ship’s ledger states that the children’s ultimate destination was to Miss Brennan’s Home on St. Thomas Street in Montreal. An 1894 article in the True Witness and Catholic Chronicle described the home as a large, plain brick building, with “an appearance of neatness and scrupulous cleanliness which would do credit to a Dutch housewife.” It was newly opened then, and had space for more than 50 children. As for Miss Brennan herself, there was apparently “no more suitable lady … to fill the position of superintendent.”

How long the Maria and Walter were there is still a mystery to me, and where they went afterwards is uncertain too. I haven’t been able to find either of them in the 1901 or 1911 census records. But it seems they stayed close. When Walter’s ill-fated child, Elsie/Juanita, was born in 1913, one of the witnesses was Mary Dunn, who must be Maria. Maria married a man named Louis Bourdon in 1917, and Walter and his wife listed Maria Bourdon as a family contact when they crossed the border in 1935. So 37 years after they left their home in Liverpool, brother and sister were still connected.

Back in England, the Dunn family had carried on. In 1901 and 1905, Walter and Maria’s parents had two more daughters, and named one of them Maria, as if replacing the girl who’d gone. Unlike the sisters born in the 1890s, Walter and Maria probably never knew these two girls. Some home children were reunited with family, but the evidence doesn’t lean that way in this case. In 1911, parents Walter and Margaret were still living in Liverpool, with just the youngest daughter. In the column for “number of children born to this marriage,” they’ve answered four — discounting, it seems, the two who went away.

This detail is a sad fit for a note in Walter’s WW1 service record years later: asked if his mother and father were alive, the answer was: “does not know.” And yet — the wound he received in France eventually landed him in a Liverpool hospital. Did he retrace his steps when he returned there? For many home children sent far from loved ones, WW1 presented an unexpected opportunity to find family again.

Next time, I’ll explore Walter’s WW1 experience.

Part 1: Myrtle, Blanche and Walter, a genealogical case study

I mentioned in my last post that Tracy and I have been busy lately, each with new projects. Mine, very happily, has me visiting many of the same resources we used to create The Cowkeeper’s Wish — but the new story is set here in Toronto, and is not family-related. Still, I find I am coming up against many of the same conundrums and genealogical brick walls, and I thought I would write about one of them, partly to sort it out in my own mind, and partly because it will probably be of interest to anyone engaged in similar research, whether they are curious about family or general history.

This new book in the works, also non-fiction, explores patients and staff at a military hospital just after WW1. One day I was scouring the Toronto Star Historical Newspaper Archive available through our public library system. I was searching specifically for the term “lost an arm,” for reasons I won’t go into now, and I came upon a tragic 1920 article about a veteran who had indeed lost an arm during the war, and whose young daughter was killed accidentally by a boy playing with a gun.

The Dominion Bank Building, circa 1914, at the corner of Yonge and King. Courtesy Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection.

I was intrigued to find out the back story of this family. The little girl’s name was Elsie Dunn, and her father was Walter, a returned soldier who had just taken a job as an elevator operator in the Dominion Bank Building at Yonge and King. The mother/wife (as so often happens) was mentioned in the article, but not by name. Still, I had dates and details, and the article even included photographs of Walter, Elsie, and Elsie’s “mother.” (Read on to see why I use quotes here!)

I quickly found Walter’s service record at Library and Archives Canada, and was able to corroborate details in the article: the wound matched, the home address matched, and he had one child named Elsie. So now I also knew that Walter had been born in Liverpool in 1888, that he’d enlisted in Montreal in 1916, that he’d been wounded in the Battle of Arras, and that his wife’s name was Blanche. Some time during the war, or slightly after, the family moved from Montreal to Toronto.

When I looked for the death record of Elsie Dunn, however, nothing came up. Since I knew her age, and figured it was fairly unusual to die at eight years old, I removed her first name from the search field, and searched instead for a girl named Dunn who’d died in Toronto in March 1920. The record turned up, with her name recorded as Juanita Odesse Dunn. Almost everything else fit: her age; her father’s name, address, and birthplace; the cause of her death. Her mother, however, was listed as Mirtle B. Bishop, born Nova Scotia. I assumed the “B” stood for Blanche, and carried on gathering information.

I found the now childless Walter and Blanche still living on Gamble Avenue, in an area called Todmorden, just south of the Don River in Toronto in 1921. That particular census included a column for the year a person arrived in Canada, and told me that Walter had come in 1898, and Blanche, also born in England, in 1908. I immediately wondered if Walter had been a home child, having arrived here at age 10, and I quickly found his name, along with a sister Maria’s, in the Home Children Records at Library and Archives Canada. The back story to this is rather fascinating, but I will save it for a subsequent post, and stick with my investigations about Blanche and Myrtle for now.

Patagonian-Welsh home children on board the Numidian in 1902, the same ship Walter and Maria Dunn traveled on when they left England for Canada. Courtesy Library and Archives Canada/C-037613

Now I knew that Blanche, married name Dunn, was born in England in 1888 and had come to Canada in 1908. That went against the details in Elsie’s death record, which said the Myrtle/Mirtle had been born in Nova Scotia. I searched for a marriage record and found one for Walter James Dunn marrying Myrtle Pearl Bishop in Montreal in 1912. Immediately preceding that record was a Catholic baptism for Myrtle. The discovery also revealed Myrtle’s and Walter’s parents’ names — but again I’ll stick with Myrtle for now.

Myrtle’s parents were Allen Bishop and Amy Hindon — clear, not-too-ordinary and not-too-odd names that I knew would be easy to find. And indeed, there they were with baby Myrtle on the 1891 census living in Nova Scotia. A later census showed the parents without Myrtle, but with a sister named Juanita Maxime. Hunting further back, the name Odessa also turned up in Amy’s ancestry. It was obvious I’d found the right family, and that Myrtle had named her baby after her own relatives.

And yet — the 1891 information challenged the idea that Myrtle, if she was Blanche, had come to Canada in 1908, and that she’d been born in England. It corroborated the information in Elsie’s death record: that mother Myrtle had been born in Nova Scotia. So all the records thus far very clearly showed two different names, two different birth dates, and two different birth places. If Elsie could be Juanita, then surely Myrtle could be Blanche, and I knew from the work Tracy and I had done on The Cowkeeper’s Wish that Eleanors could be Margarets, Olives could be Isabels, and so on. But now I had too many details that didn’t add up, and I knew there had to be a different story.

Next I searched for a birth record for Juanita Odesse Dunn, aka Elsie, and found that she had been baptized Juanita Maxime, like Myrtle’s sister, in Montreal in May 1913, a year after her parents had married. Once again the parents’ names were Walter James Dunn and Myrtle Pearl Bishop, with no mention of a Blanche. I began to wonder if Myrtle had died and Walter had remarried, but I could find no death record for Myrtle, and no remarriage for Walter. I wasn’t sure how to proceed to determine who Blanche was, but the little 1908 notation from the census kept niggling.

Finally I did a broad search of passenger lists for all Blanches, without a surname, born in England in 1888, who came to Canada in 1908. There was a handful of possibilities, but I was especially drawn to one record that showed a French surname: Poidevin. This Blanche was the daughter of an egg sorter born in France. The family lived in London, and Blanche’s siblings had working-class occupations like feather curler and perfumer’s assistant — not as glamorous as it sounds, and familiar territory from when Tracy and I researched our own ancestors in the poor areas of London. Like so many young English women of her era, Blanche Poidevin came to Canada with a party of domestic workers, and found employment in Montreal. Her English baptism record also gives her birth date — February 11, 1888 — and it was this detail that eventually linked her with more certainty to Walter Dunn.

Domestic workers arriving in Quebec, 1911, courtesy Library and Archives Canada

In 1935, 15 years after Elsie/Juanita’s awful death, Blanche and Walter Dunn traveled across the US border, heading to London, England, via New York. The cards filled out confirm various details: Walter’s sister Maria is given as a contact; the couple’s address is still Gamble Avenue, Toronto; and finally Blanche’s birthdate, February 11, 1888, matches the baptism record for Blanche Poidevin, daughter of the egg sorter.

Sometimes less is more with this type of research — the best way to find Elsie Dunn was to remove her first name; and the best way to find Blanche was to remove her surname. So now we know that Walter and Myrtle had a baby named Juanita; that something happened to Myrtle, or to her relationship with Walter, between the time Juanita was baptized in 1913 and the time Walter enlisted in 1916; that Walter married or took up with Blanche Poidevin; and that Blanche and Walter were living as husband and wife when Juanita died. Was it Blanche who decided to call Juanita Elsie, once Myrtle was longer around?

The mystery as to what happened to Myrtle is far from solved, but there is plenty to say about Walter, home child turned war veteran, in the next post; and about Elsie and the boy who caused her death.