Case # 2: Formative Texts

Many of the Home Children who made their way across the Atlantic to their new lives on Canadian farms often felt that their journey was a spiritual one. This outlook was instilled in them by the rescue societies, as well as formative literature by authors such as Daniel Defoe (Robinson Crusoe) shaping Victorian narratives about children’s global adventure. Indeed, pioneers of the migrations scheme—including Maria Rye, Annie Macpherson (Home of Industry), Dr. Barnardo (Barnardo’s Homes), and William Booth (the Salvation Army)—were motivated by religion; these reformers typically mandated religious education alongside skills training as preparation for migration. At the same time, the nineteenth century witnessed an explosion of so-called “Robinsonades” pairing global adventure with spiritual conversion. Still other nineteenth-century authors such as Hesba Stretton and Horatio Alger appealed to readers’ Christian sensibilities in their sympathetic representation of poor and orphaned children; these authors stressed the necessity of moral reform (if not outright Christian conversion) in saving the young outcast. This case includes some of these formative texts that helped to lay the groundwork for the Victorian view of migration as a spiritual transformation.

The Gospels of Saint Matthew

[Thumb Bible] The Gospels of Saint Matthew, Saint Mark, Saint Luke and Saint John, King James Version. S.I.: s.n.; 19--? [Bible Mini BS2553 .A3 1900z]

The Home Children were often given bibles as reading material during their long journey across the Atlantic. The gift would have reminded the children that their migration was, according to Victorian reformers, intended as an act of salvation to save both their bodies and souls from the corruption of the slums. Indeed, their spiritual salvation would have begun as soon as the children entered into the rescue society, with bible classes alongside trades and skills education.

Thumb bibles like this were given to children for good behaviour. Though it is unlikely that the Home Child would have had a small bible like this, it is a reminder of just how important a role Christianity played in Victorian children’s education. The small bible would fit in the child’s breast pocket, right next to the heart, reminding its possessor of God’s constant loving presence.


The Holy Bible

The Holy Bible: containing the Old and New Testaments. Philadelphia; Brantford, Ont., 1882. [Bible Folio BS185.1882]

This family bible would have been on display in the home parlor. It signaled to any incoming guests that their hosts were good practicing Christians. This bible from a local donor includes prayer cards, inserts for family photographs, and a pamphlet on Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee (1897; coinciding with the early years of the Home Children’s Canadian migration).

One can imagine the Home Child’s foster family owning a similar bible.

Wait and Hope

Horatio Alger (1832-1899), Wait and Hope: A Plucky Boy’s Luck. (1877) New York: Hurst, 19?? [Child PZ5 no.0251]

Horatio Alger is best known for his story, Ragged Dick (1868), which popularized the American ethos, of “pull yourself up by your bootstraps.” His young adult fiction often focuses on impoverished boys who manage to transcend their humble backgrounds through hard work and honesty. Published in 1877, Wait and Hope propagates a similar message in its representation of class mobility. The story centres around 14-year-old Ben Bradford as he struggles to find work after losing his position at a mill. Along the way, Ben encounters spendthrifts and cheats, but he ultimately triumphs thanks to his industry and determination. Even if the Home Child didn’t read this or any of the many other popular stories by Alger, upon settlement in Canada they certainly would have become familiar with the “Horatio Alger Myth” (the “rage-to-riches” fantasy).

Jessica's First Prayer

Hesba Stretton (1832-1911), Jessica’s First Prayer. (1867) London: Religious Tract Society, N.d.  [Child PZ5 no.1929]

Hesba Stretton was well known for her children’s stories featuring waifs and strays of the London streets. This novel tells the story of Jessica, a homeless girl, who is beaten and neglected by her alcoholic mother. Jessica is eventually saved by a good Christian, her friend the coffee seller, who becomes a kind of surrogate father and helps her to find God.  The novel was a tremendous commercial success, outselling even Alice in Wonderland. It was published by the Religious Tract Society, an organization that also promoted children’s colonial adventure tales in The Boy’s Own Paper and The Girl’s Own Paper (case #3). Stretton followed this work with other best-selling so-called “street Arab” titles such as Meg’s Children (1868) and Alone in London (1869).

Jessica's First Prayer

Stretton, Jessica’s First Prayer, [1867], frontispiece.

The King's Servants

Hesba Stretton (1832-1911), The King’s Servants. (1873) London: The Religious Tract Society, 1879. [Child PZ5 no.1908] 

Published six years after her bestseller, Jessica’s First Prayer (1867), The King’s Servants represents a continuation of Stretton’s commitment to the “lost waif” or “rescued stray” motif. In this novel, however, the plot is somewhat more scandalous in its argument for the salvation of the fallen woman. The novel suggests that such outcasts should not be considered beyond God’s grace, and even toys with the idea of sending “some of our rescued girls to America” (146, Part 3, chapter 9). This idea of migration as a tool of salvation would have resonated with many other Victorian reformers and social organizations, including the Religious Tract Society who published Stretton’s novel along with other works on children’s global adventure (The Boy’s Own Paper and The Girl’s Own Paper [case #3]).

The King's Servants

Stretton, The King’s Servants, [1873; 1879], image from chapter 7.

The Pilgrim's Progress

John Bunyan (1628-1688), The Pilgrim’s Progress. (1678) London: Frederick Warne & Co., 1878? [Child PZ5 no. 0373]

Home Children were often given a copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress as educational reading for their new life in Canada. This is an allegorical text in which the protagonist, young Christian, passes through the various stages of a crisis in faith to spiritual awakening. His adventures chronicle the various stages of religious conversion and path to God. The text remained a popular representation of Christian teachings throughout the Victorian period. In giving The Pilgrim’s Progress to young migrants, reformers tried to suggest an implicit link between resettlement in Canada and spiritual salvation.

Robinson Crusoe

Daniel Defoe (1660-1731), Robinson Crusoe. (1719) London: Edwin J. Brett’s Edition, 1872 [PR3403 .A1 1872]

Robinson Crusoe recounts the adventures of the title character as he learns to survive on his own after he is shipwrecked on a remote island in the South Pacific. Written as an autobiographical travel narrative, the story also recounts the protagonist’s religious conversion as he begins to see how his survival is tied to God’s will or divine providence. Defoe’s novel would go on to inspire several generations of adventure stories for boys known as “Robinsonades” (including Jules Verne’s Mysterious Island (1874) and The Swiss Family Robinson (1812); also in this case). The Home Children would have been familiar with such stories, if not Defoe’s original, and would have been encouraged to view their own migration stories as merging together global adventure and religious conversion.

Swiss Family Robinson

Johann David Wyss (1743-1818), Swiss Family Robinson. (1812) New York: Hurst & Co., 1906 [Child PZ5 no.1725]

First published in 1812, Swiss Family Robinson is one of the most popular examples of the nineteenth-century Robinsonade. As suggested by this title, the story extends many of the themes first pursued by Defoe’s iconic novel, especially the idea of a castaway who must learn to fend for oneself. In this novel, a Swiss family travelling to Australia is shipwrecked in the East Indies. The Clergyman, his wife, and four sons not only succeed in their trials, but they also find God and embrace the good life on the island.