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Museum exhibits explore British Home Children and quilting history
By MAGGIE RIOPELLE/Tribune Staff


WELLAND — They arrived by the boatload — young children with all their
belongings in a carry on satchel leaving their homelands and their
families in hopes of a better life.

For some the reality came true, for others it was an unattainable
dream as they became servants to Canadian families.

Welland Historical Museum will open two new exhibits: British Home
Children and Wrapped in History — stories of quilts and their history.
The exhibits open Saturday at 2 p.m.

British Home Children belong to a group spanning 1897 to1930. About
100,000 children from Europe and Ireland were taken from their
families and sent to Canada by steamboat. They travelled in groups of
300 to 400, many as young as six or seven years old.

To deal with growing poverty rates at the time, European governments
felt the best option was to remove children from their homes and send
them to Canada — some were adopted, but nine out of 10 became
indentured servants, said museum curator Penny Morningstar.

“It’s not our best moment in history,” she said as she looked at old
photographs of children. “These children were raised in cities, they
came here with no family around them whatsoever. Can you imagine
seeing a seven- or eight-year-old boy behind a plow? It’s not what we
tend to think of for a child ... and the girls, they became domestics
in the home.”

This year is dedicated to the year of the British Home Children. While
those children are now being recognized and acknowledged, for some it
comes too late — many have already passed on, said Morningstar.

Pulling together the exhibit, she said, was a difficult task.

“There’s not a lot of information on British Home Children because the
Canadian government and people didn’t necessarily want to talk about
it. Records were not kept the way they should be. A lot of records are
missing or lost.”

A few of the common group transition homes that housed children
included Dr. Barnardo's facility in Europe and in Niagara the Maria
Rye home in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

“The people who ran these organizations, I’m sure in their heart they
felt they were doing the right thing ... but when you have that many
children under your care, things can go wrong and things did go
wrong."

“All these promises were made,” she said.

Morningstar said while finding information was a challenge, she was
able to dig up some information through numerous interviews. She was
also able to find a passenger list and some actual records about the
families who had their children taken away from them.

A lot of those documents about the families would report things like
the family was worthless or drunkards. Whether it was true or used by
the agencies to justify their actions, no one will ever known for
sure, she said.

Many of the children came from large families. It isn’t hard to image
a single mother with 13 or 16 children being convinced by authorities
to give up some of her children with promises for a better future.
Most, said Morningstar, likely thought this was a short-term solution
and probably didn’t realize they may never see their child again.

“As a mother, I can’t imagine someone else deciding my family would be
better off somewhere else."

Through her research, Morningstar learned of a story about two
children, a boy and a girl, who were adopted by a Port Colborne
family.

“The farmers couldn’t have any children and went through the process
of petitioning the Barnardos agency for adoption,” she said.

Some children, she said, were returned to the agencies by the
temporary families.

“It’s really heartbreaking when you see the letters. Some of the
reasons they were returned was too shy, too weak, too fragile. Of
course they are, they are six, seven or eight years old, not from
here, without any family. Can you imagine being these children and
never knowing if they were going to see their families again? It just
shows you the strength of the human spirit.”

While their childhoods may have been difficult, many of those British
Home Children grew up, married, had children of their own and became
productive citizens, she said.

“They may have never talked about being a British home child.”

Through her interviews, Morningstar asked families if their loved one
ever held resentment or anger because of their childhood. All of them,
she said, answered a resounding no.

Some, she said, were lucky enough later in life to travel back home
and see relatives, like their siblings for the first time in years.

Like the story of Fred Cuff who travelled back to Europe in 1961.

“I was told by his family, that when his sister opened the door, she
knew who it was,” she said.

The museum's Wrapped in History exhibit features all styles of quilts
and about the history of the art and its importance to families.

“When you think of children and home, you think of the things that
make you feel safe and warm,” she said. “You think of quilts and about
how you are literally wrapping yourself in memories.”

There was a time when quilts weren’t just bought in a store, she said,
adding that while it is gaining again in popularity making quilts for
family is a long-standing tradition. They were used to celebrate a
birth, to honour family members, to pass down from generation to
generation.

On display is a quilt from 1858 that was made as a wedding gift for a
woman named Mary Jane Butler in Bloomsburg, Ont. It’s known as
Forbidden Fruit and is a stenciled quilt.

For more information on the museum, visit www.wellandmuseum.ca or call
905-732-2215.