Case # 5: Literature on the British Home Children in Canada

Distraught by the hopeless conditions of the English slums, many Victorian social reformers devised a scheme for transporting poor and pauper children to Canada. Annie Macpherson and Maria Rye were the first to begin sending the “Home Children” overseas in 1869, but they were later joined by even bigger charity figures such as Dr. Thomas John Barnardo (who also sent children to Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa). There was during this period as many as 44 different salvation agencies in operation.[i] As many as 118,000 infants and juveniles came to Canada through these organizations until the migration scheme was finally terminated in 1932 (though some organizations were still active until 1948). Macpherson was responsible for sending approximately 21,000 children to Canada, while Rye and Barnardo migrated another 5,000 and 35,000, respectively. Most of these children were between ages six and sixteen, but some were as young as two and as old as eighteen.

This case looks at the representation of the Home Children in literature from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. It includes writings by or about Maria Rye, Annie Macpherson, and Dr. Barnardo promoting their migration schemes. Literature by R.M. Ballantyne, as well as Barnardo’s serial magazines for children (Bubbles and Our Darlings), use adventure in order to celebrate migration as yet another positive opportunity for spiritual growth through empire-building. The case also includes works that attest to the discrimination faced by these children in their adoptive country. Excerpts from the Queen’s College Journal and C.K. Clarke suggest that Queen’s University itself was part of such conversations in which the children were judged unfairly because of their poverty. But there are also works by Canadian authors such as Pauline Johnson and L.M. Montgomery that are more sympathetic in their treatment of the children. Finally, the 1982 opera “A Barnardo Boy” composed by Queen’s Professor of Music Clifford Crawley would seem to atone for some of this past discrimination by shining a light on the Home Children’s positive contributions to Canadian history, including service in the war.

[i] See the Library and Archive Canada for more information on these many rescue societies:

Our Darlings

Dr T.J. Barnardo (1845-1905), Our Darlings: the Children’s Treasure of Pictures and Stories. London : J. F. Shaw & Co., 48, Pasternoster Row, E.C.; 1886 [Child PZ5 no.2248]

Thomas John Barnardo was an Irish philanthropist who trained in medicine at the London Hospital (though he never took his degree, he still went by “doctor”). Like Macpherson, he was driven by evangelical faith to missionary work. In the 1860s he focused his attention to the neglected and pauper children of East London, working as a Preacher in the Ragged Schools. He founded Barnardo’s Home in 1867, and eventually established numerous other homes dedicated to the shelter of homeless and destitute youth. After the death of a child (“Carrots”), whom he had denied entry because the home was full, Barnardo insisted that “No Destitute Child Ever Refused Admission” to any of his homes.

Barnardo eventually became interested in migrating his rescued children to the colonies after he realized that support resources within England were in short supply. He set up his first distribution home in Canada in 1884 (Hazelbrae, in Peterborough, Ontario). He would go on to migrate as many as 35,00 children to Canada between 1870s-1939 (this is not to mention his placement in other colonies such as New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, etc). His followers continued his work under the name of Dr Barnardo’s Homes and, later, Barnardo’s Children Charities (still active today).  Many works have been written about Dr Barnardo’s rescue work, including pamphlets by Barnardo himself justifying his often controversial tactics like removing children without parents’ consent and, later, refusing to return children. See for example, Barnardo’s Kidnapped! A Narrative of Fact (1885),  “Worse than orphans: how I stole two girls and fought for a boy” (1885), and “Taken out of the Gutter” (1881). For a critique of Dr. Barnardo’s “rescue” methods, see Lydia Murdoch’s Imagined Orphans (2006).

Bubbles Magazine

Dr T.J. Barnardo (1845-1905), Bubbles Magazine: A Volume of True Tales and Coloured Pictures. The Children’s Bookroom, 1890s. [Child PZ5 no.2249]

In an effort to promote his rescue work, Barnardo also published a number of serial publications for children. He started with Father William’s Stories (1874-1887), and then took over the Children’s Treasury (1868-1881), which later continued as Our Darlings (pictured above) and then Bubbles. He also published Ups and Downs Magazine (1895-1949), which after his death was taken over by his organization. Examples of Our Darlings (1886) and Bubbles (1890s) are included in this display. Each serial contains stories that celebrate children’s adventure and reformation. All of these works served as effective propaganda, among both child recruits and adult donors, for Barnardo’s charity work and migration scheme.

Our Darlings

Barnardo, Our Darlings, [1886], frontispiece and titlepage

Bubbles Magazine

Barnardo, Bubbles Magazine, [1890s], frontispiece and titlepage


Dr T.J. Barnardo (1845-1905), Kidnapped! A Narrative of Fact. London: J.F. Shaw & Co., 1885 [Private Collection]

In this pocket-sized pamphlet, Dr Barnardo offers a first-hand account of his rescue work. As suggested by its title, he recounts some of his rather unorthodox approaches to saving children. He explains how he justifiably “kidnapped” two young sisters (ages 5 & 7) as well as their sickly brother from the infamous “Mother Brown,” a woman who took in unwanted children only to exploit their labour or send them out begging. Sadly, the young boy dies after a few months. Barnardo then decides to ship the remaining children overseas so they might escape the negative influence of poor relatives (18-19). He enlists the help of Annie Macpherson and Louisa Birt in order to send the sisters to Quebec. According to his account, the girls are eventually adopted together by a loving couple. The pamphlet ends with a direct appeal to readers on the virtues of emigration as a way for the nation to rid itself of “surplus population” (24). Dr. Barnardo then asks the reader what he/she will do to support such Christian works. Subsequent pages list the history of the Barnardo Homes, as well as the number of children placed, and a breakdown of the costs for such rescue work (eg. “£16 will support a healthy child for a whole year in any of our London Homes”).

In real life, Dr Barnardo claimed to have “kidnapped” as many as 47 children from their families. His questionable rescue tactics eventually resulted in three custody cases, all of which reached High Court in 1899, in which parents sought legal rights to their children: Martha Tye, Harry Gossage, and John James Roddy (see Lydia Murdoch, Imagined Orphans [2006], p. 113). In all three cases, the parents (represented by Catholic solicitors Leathley & Co) asked that the courts reassign their children to Catholic organizations; in response, Dr. Barnardo preemptively sent two of the children abroad and hid the third in one of his country homes. The court eventually issued writs of habeus corpus against Dr. Barnardo, demanding that he return the children, but by this time he claimed to have no knowledge of their whereabouts. Such cases (and this pamphlet itself) are evidence of rescue societies’ assumption of power over working-class and poor children, as well as the kind of powerlessness typically experienced by the children’s families. 

Abundant Grace

Abundant Grace: Select Addresses on Salvation, Warfare, Life, and Hope. Christian Colportage Association for England, 1920. [LP BV4501 .M3]

Annie Macpherson, along with Maria Rye, was the first to start sending “Home Children” to Canada in 1869. An evangelical missionary, Macpherson began her work with the poor and destitute youth of London by writing exposés of exploitative (or “sweated”) labour practices. Her pamphlet on the Little Matchbox-Makers (1866) details the horrific conditions endured by child workers. And in 1868, she founded her “Home of Industry” at Commercial Street, Spitalfields, which served as a safe-haven for youth looking to escape the streets.

Macpherson’s Home of Industry (or “Beehive” as Ballantyne describes it in Dusty Diamonds [below]) functioned as both recruiting and training station, prepping its young wards for a new life of labour in the Canadian colonies. Children were introduced to bible studies, as well as basic skills deemed suitable for their new life abroad. The children would be sent to Macpherson’s receiving homes—in Belleville (Ontario), Galt (Ontario), and Knowlton (Quebec)—and then on to foster families in the rural countryside.  Macpherson offered a record of her work in Canadian Homes for London Wanderers (1870), and later accounts can also be found in Clara M.S. Lowe’s God’s Answers (1882) and Louisa Birt’s The Children’s Home-Finder (1913; below). Many of these works also feature excerpts of letters from the Home Children, though always filtered through the salvationist as interlocutor (and thus highly self-censored).

It is incredibly difficult to find print versions of any first edition by or about Annie Macpherson. Abundant Grace contains an essay by Macpherson in which she pays tribute to William Paton Mackay, Scottish Presbyterian Minister. Macpherson’s own work with child rescue was inspired by her commitment to evangelical teachings. Her contribution to Abundant Grace is thus a statement on the religious principles of spiritual salvation that guided her work with the young migrants.

The Children's Home-Finder

Lilian M. Birt, The Children’s Home-Finder: The Story of Annie Macpherson and Louisa Birt. London: James Nisbet &C0., 1913. [Private Collection]

Annie Macpherson was one of the first English reformers (alongside Maria Rye) to start sending children to Canada. She opened her Home of Industry in London, England in 1869, where she prepared poor and pauper children for eventual migration to the colony. Between 1870-1925 she helped relocate 21,000 children. Louisa Birt was Annie Macpherson’s sister and partner in this migration scheme. Birt became head of their Liverpool Sheltering Home in 1873, and began sending children to Canada that same year. Birt also took over operations of Macpherson’s distributing home in Knowlton, Quebec (1877). The Children’s Home-Finder was written by Birt’s daughter and Macpherson’s niece, Lilian Birt (who was also manager of the Liverpool Sheltering Home for Destitute Children [1915]). Shown below are images from the book of Macpherson’s London Home of Industry and her Stratford House in Canada.

The Children’s Home-Finder is Lilian Birt’s personal account of her aunt and mother’s work with Home Children. The biography describes Macpherson as “a woman of an intense mother-nature, who longed passionately to save the oppressed and cruelly used children of the poor, and whose delight it was to live amongst them and spend herself for their benefit” (325). Macpherson believed that her migration scheme was part of a larger religious mission. Indeed, the biography suggests that Macpherson worked to save not only the children under her care but also the many adults who either participated in, or sponsored, her migration scheme. As Birt recalls, “[f]ew could listen to her stories of the rescued without tears, while countless numbers in all ranks of life are indebted to Annie Macpherson for the words that spoke to their souls and stirred them to noble living” (235). As its title suggests, The Children’s Home-Finder frames Macpherson as doing God’s work by helping these lost souls find their way “home.”  For the assumption was, all along, that her young wards did not have proper homes, and so it fell upon reformers like Macpherson to resettle the children in Canada and, also, in the process, tend to their lost souls.

The Children's Home-Finder

Birt, The Children's Home-Finder, [1913], picture of Annie Macpherson's Home of Industry in London (p. 52)

The Children's Home-Finder

Birt, The Children's Home-Finder, [1913], picture of Macpherson's distributing home in Stratford, Ontario (p. 234). 

Pauper Children (Canada)

Pauper Children (Canada) return to an order of the Honourable the House of Commons, dated 8 February, 1875, for copy “of a report to the Right Honourable the president of the Local Government Board, by Andrew Doyle, Esquire, local Government inspector, as to the emigration of pauper children to Canada” [Canadiana by CRKN, library electronic resource]

The 1875 “Doyle Report” is available as an electronic resource through Queen’s Library. In his report to the House of Commons, Andrew Doyle condemns the migration scheme of Home Children to Canada, focusing specifically on the lack of supervision after placement. A lawyer and Poor Law Board inspector with 25 years experience, Doyle was commissioned in 1874 by the English Local Government Board (responsible for workhouses and other government institutions for the poor and unemployed) to travel to Canada and report on Maria Rye and Annie Macpherson’s work with the Home Children. As part of his investigation, Doyle met with the foster families and observed first-hand the health and success of the children abroad. Though critical of Rye and Macpherson’s neglect of the young migrants, Doyle’s official report (which was passed from the local government board to the House of Commons) exhibited its own cultural biases toward poverty in its complaint that the reformers too often confused “street children” for “paupers”—the latter were simply down on their luck, while the former were allegedly tainted from spending years on the streets in criminal activity. Doyle insisted that these children were “distributed without distinction” (6).

Still, Doyle’s report proves that the migration scheme was not without its critics, and his findings raised grave concerns about the treatment of the children as well as the issue of consent. Doyle claimed that many of the children were transported without their parents’ approval. And he observed that many were poorly treated by their foster families in Canada. The majority of children, Doyle explains, were viewed by Canadian families as a cheap source of labour and that any investment in education was typically made with a very “business”-like eye toward future returns (12). The general emphasis on the Home Child’s “future usefulness” was enough “to justify the recommendation for more strict supervision” by their charitable guardians (13). In sum, then, Doyle raised serious questions about Rye’s and Macpherson’s interests in the children, alleging that both were extremely careless with their placement schemes, and suggesting that their real motivations were selfish in nature (be it for religious and/or economic gains).

Pauper Children (Emigration to Canada):

Maria Rye (1829-1903), Pauper Children (Emigration to Canada): copy of the letter addressed by Miss Rye to the President of the Local Government Board, referred to in Mr. Doyle’s reply thereto, of the 14th day of May last, already presented. London: HMSO, 1877, 2005. [Canadiana by CRKN, library electronic resource]

Maria Rye was, along with Annie Macpherson, the architect of the transatlantic migration scheme for the British Home Children in Canada. Though her earliest efforts in social reform focused on migration of young ladies (through her work with the Society for Promoting the Employment of Women), she eventually shifted her attention to children’s aid by the late 1860s. By 1869 she began shipping homeless English children to her new “Western Home” in Niagara. In her 1877 essay-letter on Pauper Children (Emigration to Canada), she explained her belief that the colony would exert a positive influence on the otherwise hardened youth: Canada has just the right “tone and moral power enough to guide, control, and soften such children,” and it is not so wealthy a nation that it doesn’t need real work (5). Pauper Children (Canada) also quotes at length from Froude’s Short Studies on Great Subjects (1878-82) on the Canadian demand for imported labour: “The settlers would be delighted to receive, and clothe, and feed [the children] on the conditions of the old apprenticeship,” Froude explains, adding that “[a] continued stream of young, well-taught, unspoilt English natures would be the most precious gifts which the colonies could receive from us” (qtd in Rye 4).

If Rye sounds defensive, that is because Pauper Children (Emigration to Canada) was penned in response to Andrew Doyle’s scathing 1875 Report. To clear her name, she sought testimonies from many of her foster families who were, no doubt, eager to challenge Doyle’s unfavorable review of their mentorship. Some argued that the English inspector came to the dominion with a closed mind: for example, George D. Sutherland insists, “I saw that his mind was made up adverse to the work before he saw any of the youngsters from the Home in the London [Ontario] district,” adding that Doyle “felt only disposed to call and see a few [children], who, from their own misconduct or otherwise, had fallen into the hands of labourers, or such poor people” (18). Many respondents also insisted upon Canada’s superior moral influence and argued that any problems with the settlement scheme were due to the children themselves. John Bell Worrell, of Oakville, argued the children were “far better off than they could be in England” and, having experience of both countries, insisted that Rye was “saving many of these girls from a vicious life in England... [by] placing them in Canada, where they may grow up virtuous wives and mothers” (5-6). And Mrs T. W. Carlton (of Rosebank, Ontario) explains that it is not that the Canadian mistreats the Home Child, but rather that “it is because of [the child’s] bad training, or rather to her no training at all she has received in England, that she had to be punished in Canada” (11).

Dusty diamonds cut and polished

R. M. Ballantyne (1825-1894), Dusty Diamonds Cut and Polished: a Tale of City-Arab Life and Adventure. London: James Nisbet & Co., 1884. [Child PZ5 no. 2247]

R. M. Ballantyne was a Scottish author of children’s adventure fiction. His best-known work is Coral Island (1857; case # 3). His work was often published in serials such as The Boy’s Own Paper, and regularly combined evangelical themes of self-reformation through adventure and hard work. Dusty Diamonds tells the story of the Frog family and their hardships in the slums, detailing alcoholism, lack of work, child labour, and slum conditions. The novel depicts child characters who are “dusty diamonds” because, although they are supposedly susceptible to a life of crime in the slums, Ballantyne describes some of these children as innately good. Ultimately, the novel argues that bringing these children to Canada gives them the opportunity for a better life away from crime and parental influence.

Ballantyne was clearly a fan of Maria Rye and Annie Macpherson, and Dusty Diamonds reads as promotional literature for the women’s migration schemes. There are several moments in the text where characters explicitly praise Rye and Macpherson’s rescue charities, and both Tim Lumpy and Bobby Frog are eventually taken in by Macpherson’s “Beehive” and then sent abroad to a new life in Canada. Dusty Diamonds presents the western colony as a safe haven where these slum children can finally enjoy a happy childhood. Read from bottom to top, the illustrated titlepage (pictured below) depicts the child’s rescue from the dirty and dangerous slum, to his happy placement on a Canadian farm, and finally a happy childhood with everything from winter sports and country games.

Dusty diamonds cut and polished

Ballantyne, Dusty Diamonds, [1884], frontispiece. 

Anne of Green Gables

L. M. (Lucy Maud) Montgomery (1874-1942), Anne of Green Gables. (1908) Boston: L. C. Page, 1909. [LP PS8526 O6 A56 1909]

L. M. Montgomery’s Canadian novel focuses on the orphan Anne’s struggles to find a home and her adoption by Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert, who had been looking for a boy to assist with farm labour. However, Marilla’s early concern about a “Barnardo boy” or Home Child from England reflects prejudice against these children in Canada, and her reference to the risk of adopting any orphan during this conversation reflects a mistrust of orphans more generally: “At first Matthew suggested getting a Barnado [sic] boy. But I said ‘no’ flat to that. ‘They may be all right—I’m not saying they’re not—but no London street Arabs for me,’ I said” (9). Montgomery’s popular Canadian novel is ultimately sympathetic in its overall treatment of the orphaned Anne, yet scenes such as this suggest that Canadians’ sympathies were often limited by cultural differences.

Critics have debated the connection between Anne’s story and the real-life histories of the Home Children. Historian John H. Willoughby argues that Montgomery took as inspiration for her heroine a young Home Child named Ellen who was adopted by neighbors Pierce and Rachel Macneill (Ellen [1995], p. vi), while Irene Gammel insists that young Ellen was most likely born in Nova Scotia and that there is, therefore, no link between the fictional Anne and the plight of the British child migrants (Looking For Anne of Green Gables [2008], p. 69). Even if Anne’s story is not modeled after an actual Home Child, the novel does still explicitly name and draw attention to this all-too-often overlooked figure in Canadian history.

Lost Gip

Hesba Stretton (1832-1911), Lost Gip. (1873) London: Henry S. King and Co, 1876. [Child PZ5 no. 2245]

Hesba Stretton was a popular author of children’s literature. Most of her fiction focuses on religious themes of spiritual salvation and moral education. She is best known for her stories of rescued outcasts (“waifs and strays”), including her bestselling novel, Jessica’s First Prayer (1867; case # 2). Many of her works were published by the Religious Tract Society, also responsible for The Boy’s Own Paper and Girl’s Own Paper (case #3).

In Lost Gip, Stretton helps popularize migration to the colony as a solution for urban poverty. The novel follows Sandy’s search for his lost sister Gipsy (Gip) in the streets of London. During his search, Gip meets Johnny Shafto who teaches him about God and Jesus, and we see again the child as innately good but whose slum surroundings threaten a criminal existence should they remain there. In the end, Sandy finds his sister among child emigrants going to Canada (Miss Murray’s home for children reads as a thinly veiled reference to Annie Macpherson’s Home of Industry), and ultimately the whole Shafto family moves to Canada with Sandy and Gip. 

It is important to note the discrepancy between fiction and the brutal realities often faced by Home Children and their families. In the story, Sandy has little difficulty reclaiming his infant sister from Miss Murray’s rescue society. Yet as was the case with most rescue organizations, birth families’ right of access were typically suspended following admission of a child. In fact, children were often sent to Canada without prior consent from parents (such authority was instead granted to rescue organizations under the 1889 Prevention of Cruelty to Children Act). And the 1891 Custody of Children Act even went so far as to state that any parents who did seek reclamation of their child had to reimburse the organization for the costs of the child’s care, a requirement which was of course cost prohibitive for most poor families. 

Queen's College Journal

Queen’s College Journal, vol 15, 9 June 1888, pages 163-166. [Queen’s University Archives]

Not everyone in Canada was happy to see the British Home Children settled in the colony. Indeed, many Canadians were vehemently opposed to the migration scheme, and often relied on inflammatory claims of social degeneration (assumptions of the poor as genetically immoral) to bolster their arguments. It is important to acknowledge Queen’s University’s own role in this dark chapter of Canadian history. A June 1888 editorial in the Queen’s College Journal claims, for example, “we all know that very many, if not the majority of these pauper children, carry with them inherited tendencies both physical and moral which no training, however careful, can eradicate and which may do more harm eventually to the community receiving them than good to the individuals received” (165). The full article can be found through the Queen’s University Archive’s online collection of digitized issues (1873-1974).[i] 

[i] Queen’s College Journal digital archive:

Mental Hygiene in Canada

C.K. Clarke (1857 -- 1924), “Mental Hygiene in Canada” The Lancet, 2 June 1923, pages 1139-1142. [Elsevier ScienceDirect, library electronic resources]

Prominent Canadian psychiatrist and founder of the Canadian National Committee for Mental Hygiene (in 1914), C.K. Clarke was one of the loudest and widely published critics of the British Home Children in Canada. In his frequent objections to the migration scheme, Clarke argued that the children were marred by “hereditary taint” (ie. the assumptions that their poverty was the product of inherent degeneracy) and that their introduction to Canada thus put at risk the health and well-being of the nation.

Clarke was Professor of Psychiatry at Queen’s University between 1895-1905 and is now known as the founder of the “mental hygiene” movement in Canada. In an 1895 lecture given to students at Queen’s University, Doctor C. K. Clarke warned of the “problems of heredity” given that, “in Canada we are deliberately adding to our population hundreds of children bearing all the stigmata of physical and mental degeneracy” (qtd in Kenneth Bagnell, The Little Immigrants [1980], p. 71). In 1896 Clarke joined with the National Council of Women (NCW) and the medical superintendents of asylums in London and Hamilton Ontario in their collective call for an inquiry into the effects of child migration schemes upon Canadian mental hygiene.

Clarke was particularly concerned with Barnardo’s (and later the Salvation Army’s) Home Children and their possible role in increased asylum admission rates. And in an 1896 report for the NCW, he wrote that Home Children “presented all of the characteristics of degeneracy,” such as criminality, physical diminishment, and mental illness. In this featured article on “The Mental Hygiene of Canada,” for the 1923 issue of The Lancet (electronic resource through Queen’s), Clarke continues to rail against the importation of supposedly degenerate child migrants. At this point he was involved with the Toronto Psychiatric Hospital  (founded in 1923). On the “Problem of Child Immigration,” Clarke claims that nearly all of the children brought by the migration societies are “immoral” and “defective and degenerate types” (1139). Clarke’s work contributed tremendously to the shame and discrimination against the Home Children in Canada, and his cruel eugenicist claims overlooked the meaningful contributions these children made to their adoptive country.

The Shagganappi

Pauline Johnson (1861-1913), “The Barnardo Boy,” in The Shagganappi. Toronto: Ryerson Press, c1913. [LP PS8469 .O37 S43]

Some Canadian authors tackled head-on in their fiction the prejudices faced by the young Home Children. Pauline Johnson (also known by her Mohawk stage name Tekahionwake) defends the young migrant in her short story, “The Barnardo Boy” (first published in 1910 and then reprinted in her collection, The Shagganappi [1913]). Johnson had seen firsthand the horrors of the London slums during her literary tour in England. She was deeply affected by the poverty she witnessed there and thus wrote this sympathetic account of the young migrant looking to escape such destitution. Her story centres on a young Barnardo boy named Buck who is taken in by a “great surgeon” upon the urging of his daughter, Connie (173). It is interesting to note how, in the early scenes where the boy is introduced to Montreal and the Canadian to the boy, Johnson reproduces many of the negative cultural stereotypes of her time. Bucky is surprised to see that Montreal is in fact a civilized city (counter to popular stereotypes about the country’s indigenous population), while the young migrant is described as a “street arab” (using racist language to stress class difference) (173).  The main plot of the story concerns Buck’s attempt to prove his gratitude to his Canadian family. His chance comes when two masked men attempt to break into the surgeon’s home. Using his street smarts and strength, Buck is able to single-handedly defeat the armed robbers. While recounting events to police, the surgeon “looked at Buck as if he saw him for the first time” and then proudly exclaims, “He's our boy! He's my boy!” and promises to henceforth send his “adopted son” to college the following year” (181). Buck not only proves his worth, but he finds complete acceptance as an adoptive son and Canadian.

Barnardo Boy

Clifford Crawley (1929-2016) and David Helwig (1938-2018), Barnardo Boy, an Opera in two acts.  Toronto, Ont.: Canadian Music Centre; c1981. [Music Oversize M1500 .C828 B3 1981t]

This two-act opera describes the transatlantic migration of a young Home Child to Canada through Dr. Barnardo’s Children’s Charities. Music for the opera was composed by Queen’s professor Clifford Crawly and the libretto by Canadian poet and essayist David Helwig. It was premiered in Kingston in 1982, and was a proud community project entailing contributions from both local amateurs and semi-professional musicians. The story begins in Ontario in the present-day 1980s. It focuses on Albert Ashby, an old man recounting his youth many decades ago in Edwardian London. After his mother died when he was only two, Ashby and his brother were forced to fend for themselves in the London streets until they were taken in by Dr. Barnardo. At the end of the first act, Dr. Barnardo sees the boys off at the Liverpool docks bound for a new life in Canada. Upon arrival in this new country, the boys are separated and mistreated by their Canadian guardians. Both serve in WWI, but only Albert survives. After the war, Albert works on the Canadian railroads and retires with a small pension.

The program for the original production of the Opera explained that Albert Ashby was a composite character based on the many stories of Canadian Home Children and research into Victorian child rescue work: “The comments made by the philanthropists in the London scene are taken from Charles Booth’s pioneering work of sociology, Life and Labour of the People of London. The story of Jim Jarvis, which Barnardo tells at Liverpool, is one that he used many times in pamphlets describing his work. Both words and music of the hymn in the Liverpool scene are those used on such occasions, and a brass band of Barnardo boys was always present.” Barnardo Boy, an Opera offers a positive example of Queen’s role in showing us the important legacy of these children in Canada—their service in the war, for example.

Case # 5: Literature on the British Home Children in Canada