Sunday, 26 February 2012

Stories of Empire, and a context for one British family

Sometimes you can just lose perspective when researching a family relative. I always told myself that in telling their stories I wanted to put them into the bigger picture. As intriguing as the life of my great uncle might be it is nothing unless you place him in the context of where he lived, when he lived and what was going on around him.


He was a British Home Child, and understandably his life and the difficulties of tracking down a man born in 1898 who spent his early years in institutions and then left for Canada in the May of 1914 can become so absorbing that you don’t see the wood for the trees.

Now all of us who have researched BHC are aware of the social and economic background that led well meaning organisations and individuals to sweep up children in Britain and relocate them to Canada, Australia and the other colonies of the former British Empire.

And I guess we have all come across those back in the home country with an eye to empire. For them these children were also about putting down a population in a colony still being built, who in time with family, a farm and a flag would bind these new territories to the mother country. Barnado himself is reputedly to have talked about the children he sent as “bricks for empire.”

Of course the bigger picture helps place BHC in a context. We had been sending our criminals and unwanted children to North America, the West Indies and later Australia since the 17th century while in the 1840s the Poor Law Commissioners and local land owners connived a scheme to send the unemployed across the Atlantic.

So I suppose I should have not been surprised to read about the Free Passage Scheme which at the end of the First World War offered a “Free Passage Scheme for ex-servicemen, ex-servicewomen and their dependants to emigrate to the colonies and dominions of the Empire,”* and was followed by the larger, Empire Settlement Act of 1922 to emigrate large numbers of British women as domestic servants.

Now I knew vaguely about the Empire Settlement Act, but it was her article in this month’s BBC History Magazine “Our Excess Girls” which drew me into the story. It has been written by Lucy Noakes who lectures in history at the University of Brighton and is a curtain raiser to her book
From War Service to Domestic Service: Ex-Servicewomen and the Free Passage Scheme 1919–22, OUP, 2010. It is a fascinating story and fits well with the idea of the mother country populating the outposts of Empire. There were she writes a “complex network of interlinked beliefs and policies concerning both the relationship between the metropole and the Empire, and the perceived necessity for social stability in Britain and in the dominions and colonies.” But in the case of over 4, 000 young women who had been in the services it was the opportunity for a new life often in domestic service.

And like so much in history there is a direct echo with my own family. My great aunt who had been born in the Derby Workhouse in 1902 and like my great uncle had spent her early years intuitions before being sent into service at the age of nine went across to Canada in 1925. She was one of the beneficiaries of the many schemes for the settlement of people in Canada. I guess she was part of the the program providing transportation assistance and guaranteeing standard wages and transition support for more than 22,000 domestic workers between 1919 and 1930.


Hers is a story I have yet to tell and it is one that my cousin who is her granddaughter and I have often talked about. Great aunt Dolly had planned to stay in Canada just a short while, and took only a few clothes in a suitcase. She had been encouraged to go by her brother who was my BHC. The plan was for her to meet him in British Columbia but she got no further than Ontario where she stayed, married and raised a large family.

Put their two life stories together and I begin to have something more than just a family history. Add in another uncle who spent his entire working life in Africa and great uncles who plied the oceans as ships engineers and it is the start of my family and an Empire.

Picture; the reference for my great aunt for her new life in Canada & with her husband in later life, date unknown, from the collection Jac Pember Barnum
*Lucy Noakes

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