When people think of the historical significance of Niagara-on-the Lake, they may not go too far back past the War of 1812.
They are often told of the battle of Queenston Heights, the story of Laura Secord and the importance of Fort George. Yet, as a quaint town in what was historically the capital of Upper Canada, we are steeped in a history that goes beyond 1812 and into an era of a different significance.
In his lecture, Was your Grandmother a British Home Child?, David Hemmings explains that Maria Susan Rye’s work in Niagara has had far-reaching effects on generations in our town, our country and beyond. His lecture on British Home Children was part of the July series for the NOTL museum.
As Hemmings, president of the museum board, explains, NOTL’s “strategic location in the War of 1812 made it a key target for invading troops. Its history is not only local, but national in the consequences of its inhabitants’ courage and endeavours. Later in the 19th century, Niagara-on-the-Lake became the feeder home for the distribution of 5,300 British Home Children to farms and homes in Eastern Canada, and a few to the United States.”
The descendants of most of these girls still live in North America, but may be unaware of the work of Rye’s organization. Connecting the town to their ancestry “enhances the cultural heritage value of Niagara-on-the-Lake at a very personal level. Telling this story is important to our town’s significance to prospective cultural heritage visitors.”
Hemmings explained that Rye rose as a dominant figure in England in the 1860s, during a time when women were beginning to have a voice in social and political arenas.
With the support of the British and Canadian governments, by 1867 she had established an emigration system for so-called “gutter children,” mostly girls and young women, who were taken from the slum conditions and work houses of British cities and shipped to Canada. Rye’s goal was to have these children start a new life in Canada, away from the poverty and disease of urban life, by being “adopted, fostered or hired” into new families or married off into “good Christian marriages.”
To our modern sentimentalities, this project may seem cruel or drastic, yet Hemmings reminds us that the treatment of children in the 19th century was fundamentally different than our current perspectives. Respect for your elders, ‘speak when you’re spoken to,’ Sunday school every week, corporal punishment of children, and a failure by governments to provide for their children all changed after World War II, he said. “Our view of children today is all based on the ‘nanny state’ laws that were enacted in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It has now been two generations for this view to sink in, and the conditions which Maria Rye saw in the late 1800s are difficult for us to understand today in the western hemisphere. As a result, our harsh treatment of Maria Rye’s organization, the forerunner in BHC emigration, mirrors our current view of what should have happened then.”
Rye established homes for the children on either side of the Atlantic, one in Peckingham, England and the other in NOTL. With the help of her sisters and other women, she relocated about 5,300 children to Canada. Other like-minded emigration organizations relocated tens of thousands more. Unfortunately, records of these children have been difficult to obtain and trace. One of the difficulties has been tracing ship manifests for the names of the children. Children may have changed their names due to adoption, fostering, marriage, or as Hemmings explains, due to embarrassment over being labelled as a British Home Child.
One of Hemmings’ goals with this research is to gather information on the children using a database to catalogue the research. In 2019, the museum began collecting information on British Home Children, including their spouses and children.
Cataloguing and organizing a database of this kind is a daunting task, but Hemmings says he is up to it. “Challenging projects have always been in my blood. The database on the Niagara-on-the-Lake website contributes not only to our local history, but also to clients of Library & Archives Canada, our national archive in Ottawa, and other regional archives in Eastern Canada. Having a single spreadsheet makes searching names much easier for family members and researchers. However, the relevance of a database is important, and the easiest way to demonstrate that is to engage living descendants. My motivation to do this research is satisfied by descendant satisfaction, and more interest in visiting the cultural heritage sites in Niagara-
Hemmings asks if anyone knows if their grandmother or great-grandmother was a British Home Child, please contact him. He would be happy to talk to you to gather information for the museum’s database. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Registration for the lectures is free and if you miss the lecture or would like to enjoy it again, it will uploaded on YouTube by the next day for public viewing.
Upcoming lectures include:
July 30, Sarah Kaufman hosts a Q & A session online entitled Ask the Curator.
Aug. 13, Barbara Worthy – Virtual Scandal & Gossip Tour of Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Aug. 20, John Henry – The Cayuga and her consorts: Remembering those beloved Niagara-to-Toronto steamers.
Aug. 27, Scott Finlay – Ten Things That Will Save Your Life in the Trenches.
All presentations start at 4 p.m. and require registration through the Zoom platform. Contact Amy Klassen to register for the registration link to next week’s lecture at firstname.lastname@example.org.