Tuesday, February 25, 2014


My birth family is braided together between Canada and the US and, inevitably, before that mostly through England, Scotland and Ireland.  Though there is a group of sisters a few generations back whose surname was Welsh, they were not from Wales.  Just now a thread has appeared that leads back into the history of one aunt.  I won’t use names, but I’m going to be high-handed about quoting some of the more impersonal observations.  The following info is a mix of Wikipedia and family email.

“East London in the late 1800’s was one of the most deprived places in England.

“The districts of Bethnal Green, Stepney, Shoreditch and Hoxton made up most of East London, commonly known as “the East End.”  Each of the above districts were very much alike and consisted of slum dwellings.  A family or families could crowd fifteen or more people into one dwelling space.  It was Charles Dickens material.  Even worse when in 1888 Jack the Ripper terrorized the East End with five murders.  (Sensationalized by fog, darkness and victims who were ladies of the night, he seems like an underachiever when compared to some American killers, esp. those who murdered children.)

Thomas John Bernardo

Thomas John Barnardo (July 1845 – September 1905) was a philanthropist and founder and director of homes for poor children, born in Dublin.  He opened the first school/home in the East End of London to care for and educate children of the area left orphaned and destitute by the recent cholera outbreak. A little street child called Jim Jarvis attended one of his classes after hearing of it from another child and asked for help. The little boy eventually led him to a hiding place of hundreds of boys on a rooftop in Whitechapel as their only alternative was to go to a workhouse.

From the foundation of the first home in 1870 to the date of Barnardo’s death, nearly 100,000 children had been rescued, trained and given a better life. “

“Barnardo’s father had married twice and had seventeen children.  The Barnardo origins are uncertain; the family ‘traced its origin to Venice followed by conversion to the Lutheran Church in the sixteenth century,’ but others have claimed German Jewish roots for them.”  Thomas Barnardo’s daughter, Syrie, married Somerset Maugham, a famous best-selling author but unfortunately for the marriage both gay and cold.  

Syrie Maugham

Somerset Maugham

She herself became famous among the upper classes as an interior decorator who painted everything white and moved among relationships freely.  Even promiscuously.  She and Maugham had one daughter and became bitter about each other.  Thomas and his wife had seven children, four of whom survived.   One speculates that a benefactor of many children might be guilty of neglecting his own, though that death rate is not abnormal for the time.

Syrie Maugham's work in the 20's and 30's.

The first of the "Dr Barnardo’s Homes" was opened in 1870 at  18 Stepney Causeway, London.  In 1871, an 11-year old boy called John Somers (nicknamed "Carrots") was not taken in because the shelter was full. He was found dead two days later from malnutrition and exposure. Thomas decided not to limit the number of children he helped. From that time on the home bore the sign "No Destitute Boy Ever Refused Admission". The ever-open door at 10 Stepney Causeway opened in 1874 for homeless children. Number 10 stayed open until 1939 when Stepney was evacuated. It never re-opened after the war.

From then on the workload of his humanitarian venture steadily increased until, at the time of his death in 1905, he had established district homes, besides mission branches, throughout the United Kingdom.  From the foundation of the homes in 1867 to the date of Barnardo's death, nearly 60,000 children had been rescued, trained and placed out in life.  At the time of his death, his charity was caring for over 8,500 children in 96 homes.

9,000 children were sent to Canada to the Hazelbrae Home in Peterborough, Ontario between 1884 and 1923.  A book about them is “The Golden Bridge: Young Immigrants to Canada, 1833-1939”By Marjorie Kohli.  Another source of information is at  http://canadianbritishhomechildren.weebly.com/the-hazelbrae-memorial.html

It will be no comfort to anyone (particularly to Native Americans) to realize that every plague or war or wave of addiction leaves orphans to wander, starve, and grow up every-which-way or that efforts to save them by gathering them up to feed, shelter and teach in groups can be worse.  These efforts are often driven by notions of religious virtue or benevolent upper class privilege.  Who could object?  But is this trafficking?  When they are sent to be a sort of servant doing hard work?

Weren’t there probably other abuses?  In a time of frontier settlements and colonization, when the world was still rural and even factories used plain labor that could be done by a child, was it better or worse?  All I can say is that the relative of mine who was the daughter of one of those kids was both lovable and gifted -- she was quite a fine poet.  Yes, like, "published."  Christian Science Monitor, Arizona Highways.  But even her descendants are secretive, which they call private, discrete.  There is somehow that fear of blaming the victim, that somehow they were at fault for being orphans.

There was controversy early on with Barnardo's work. Specifically, he was accused of kidnapping children without parents' permission and of falsifying photographs of children to make the distinction between the period before they were rescued by Barnardo's and afterwards seem more dramatic. He openly confessed to the former of these charges, describing it as 'philanthropic abduction' and basing his defence on the idea that the ends justified the means. In all, he was taken to court on 88 occasions, largely on the charge of kidnapping. However, being a charismatic speaker and popular figure, he rode through these scandals unscathed. Other charges brought against him included presenting staged images of children for Barnardo's 'before and after' cards and neglecting basic hygiene for the children under his care.

It is strange that attacks ALWAYS appear in opposition to every philanthropic effort.  Even established markers of virtue like ordination or a professional degree are not accepted as defenses.  Self-appointed or government authorized inspectors insist on raising standards higher than any some birth-families could meet.  They want to know everything and pry into the privacy of individuals in ways that endanger them -- since street children in need of help often have predators and enemies.  The goal never seems to be to offer solutions or better funding, but only to make an effort to close down, to deny and to erase.  Out come the stigma brushes to tar everyone involved.  And yet if someone suggests ways of limiting the births of more children -- unwanted, neglected, damaged in gestation, abandoned at birth -- the same spoilers purport to be outraged defenders of life, honor, and success.

One of the most remarkable developments in contemporary life is electronic devices and code “language” that can be carried on the person of a child who can learn to use the gizmo as easily as learning street slang and that will put him or her in touch with the entire planet.  We have yet to understand how all this will turn out, but it's bound to be a game changer.  One authority says that “only” ten per cent of grade schools are teaching the kids to code.  The ability to code on a tablet -- which kids teach each other -- is something like having an adult in one’s pocket.  (How do they get the gizmos?  Don’t ask.)  They teach each other, they form networks, they learn how to evade authority.  And they grow up.  Then what?  We’re finding out.  There are still hundreds of boys, but now they don't go to the rooftops -- now they live under bridges and in sewers.  Yet they are part of the human family.  So far.


northern nick said...

. . . lovely, you've found a relationship between your family heritage, your experiential concern, and TB's work. But about boys: are they better off being collected up and cared for (however/whatever the moralistic, elitist, paternalistic ethic - it has to be some form or other, even if by the state), and abused in some way (can't be helped, at least for a certain percentage), or left on the street to their own devices (an now with these code machines) clustering like Goldingian flies to become a "new" kind of boy? Or c/would they "naturally" seek out a humane "leveling" and make a real better world for themselves? And girls?

Mary Strachan Scriver said...

Many simply die. It seems to be the FACT of nature that many are produced, then they are reduced to few who are lucky or strong or protected in some way. It's Loren Eiseley's little tale about throwing back the stranded starfish.

My family did not escape unscathed. The consequences of one aunt having been deported to Canada as an orphan have run deep in terms of secrecy, shame and preoccupation with being respectable. Worry about money.

Prairie Mary