A son finds out about his father’s past
A little while ago I was scrolling the Facebook page for my hometown high school in Deep River, Ontario, where I often see great old pictures of the town where I grew up or catch up on news from people I knew long ago. This time, to my surprise, I noticed a post about “British Home Child Day.” After I read the story, I wrote to its author, Ron Baker, and asked if he’d allow me to publish it here. So thanks to Ron for this touching piece about his dad Edwin Matthew Baker, a home child who came to Canada in the 1920s.
For decades, I and my brothers and sister believed that our father Edwin was an American born in Boston, USA; in fact, in 1970, I actually wrote letters to the City of Boston archives and to the Boston State House seeking information on my father. They replied that they had no records of him or his mother, Rachel Rebecca. I chalked it up to possibly poor record keeping back in 1913, the year my father was born.
That all changed on August 15, 2008, when I came across an old torn envelope addressed to my late father at the Gibbs Home in Sherbrooke, Quebec, sent from India. I googled ‘Gibbs Home’ and a couple of emails later, I discovered a whole new chapter of my father’s life that was previously unknown to me and the rest of my family.
Yes, my father was born in Boston, but it was actually the Boston in Lincolnshire, on the east coast of England. What I discovered was the quintessential story of the British home child.
At the age of ten his mother Rachel Rebecca died in a workhouse, probably of tuberculosis, according to a file sent to me from the Church of England Children’s Society, formerly Waifs and Strays. My father was placed into care by his grandfather Charles, age 60. (See Leicester Home for Boys.)
Later, at almost 15, my father was given the choice of coming to Canada or going to Australia. He chose Canada because some of his friends were going there. After farming training at Stoneygate Farm School, he was sent to Canada on the SS DORIC along with 32 other boys. He arrived at Quebec City on July 7, 1928, and went from there to the Gibbs Home in Sherbrooke, under the watchful eye of Thomas Keeley. He worked at several Quebec farms in Bulwer, Eaton, Ayer’s Cliff, Bromptonville and Lennoxville.
My father was like many of the home children, who did everything they could to distance themselves from their past to eliminate the bullying. They disposed of their trunks and their English accents. My father’s trunk was found at the first farm he worked at, the Gallup Farm in Bulwer. The trunk was returned to me by Sarge and Pauline Bampton (Bampton Home Children Collection), original members of Home Children Canada, Quebec Branch.
After marrying and serving in the military, my father worked at a munitions factory in Valleyfield, Quebec, before moving to Deep River, Ontario, to work at the newly established Atomic Energy plant, where he worked in the Chemical Extraction Division.
He successfully shed his English accent and never spoke of his native country, even in spite of the fact that we had English neighbours in Deep River. It amazes me to this day that there were no slip-ups when speaking with the neighbours.
This discovery doesn’t really change anything about the relationship my siblings and I had with our father, but it does give us a whole new appreciation for his ability to keep a secret. I am sure that sometimes he probably really wanted to tell us his story.
The Church of England Children’s Society did send me details of my father’s stay with them, which included details of his mother’s struggles, where he was born and baptised, his level of education, the names of aunts and uncles, and the fact they maintained some contact with him at the Gibbs Home, however briefly. More recently, I have discovered one of my father’s first cousins and his family in and around Boston, England. We have exchanged messages and pictures and visited.