The British Home Children of Wales

Wednesday 26 February 2014, 10:52

Cat Whiteaway Cat Whiteaway

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In July 2012 I wrote about visiting Gwent Archives and how I encountered Nerea Martinez de Lecea’s art work. At first glance it would appear that Nerea and I have nothing in common but she is now working on an incredible new art project, the origins of which are based firmly within the field of family history.

If you have never heard of the British Home Children (BHC) then prepare to be amazed by their story - a story that is soon to be told through Nerea’s artwork.

The Ballad of Ivor Jones is a project created by Nerea, based in Wales, and Michele Woodey, based in Canada, who collaborate as Found&Lost.

They have been researching the experiences of British Home Children, who were transported to Canada, taken from their home country and sent across the water.

Lost Lamb at Sea. Image courtesy of Found&Lost. Lost Lamb at Sea. Image courtesy of Found&Lost.

Among the 118,000 children ranging from toddlers to adolescents who were sent from Britain to Canada between 1863 and 1939 there remain a number who remain ‘unclaimed’. This means that so far nobody has tried to research them, trace their family history or claim them by connecting them to their own family tree.

During Nerea and Michele’s research, one unclaimed boy’s name stood out and he has become the focus of their work.

Migration. Image courtesy of Found&Lost. Migration. Image courtesy of Found&Lost.

Ivor Jones was a 10 year old Welsh boy who was sent to Canada by Barnardo’s in 1900. He sailed on the Tunisian out of Liverpool but never returned. Like many other British Home Children, Ivor’s story is all but lost. His persona and individuality have been wiped away by time.

Nerea and Michele cannot access Ivor’s records since they are not direct descendants, but they see Ivor as an empty vessel through which they can explore more general themes of abandonment, loss, journey, home and identity.

Nerea and Michele will spend two weeks developing part one of this project, which will include the production of a large-scale video installation, the creation of a sound work with artist Chris Young, and a performance by a junior choir of a new work by musician Imogen O’Rourke. This project is supported by National Theatre Wales and is part of their WalesLab scheme.

George Llewelyn Thomas was another British Home Child, taken into Barnardo’s at the age of two after a string of unfortunate circumstances.

George Llewelyn Thomas aged two. George Llewelyn Thomas aged two. Image courtesy of Tom and Carol Black.

However George Thomas is not one of the unclaimed and certainly not unloved or forgotten. Carol Black is married to George’s grandson Tom and they are desperately trying to trace any other members of George’s family.

Carol says “I have been trying for a long time to trace his half siblings and their descendants because in the paperwork I received from Barnardo's he (George) asks quite a few times for the whereabouts of his mother and his sister Nancy, whom he named his oldest daughter after.”

George’s mother was Elizabeth Mary Thomas (nee Haines) who lived with her husband John Thomas at 267 Brithweunyedd Road in Trealaw, with her other children Nancy and John Hayden Thomas.

Do you recognize any of the names? Do these people belong in your family tree? If so please get in touch with me.

However, according to the paperwork George’s father was actually George Williams. Elizabeth’s husband John Thomas was unwilling to raise him and so little George was cared for by various members of his maternal family, living with four women by the age of 2 when he was eventually admitted into the care of Barnardo’s.

Unfortunately neither Carol nor myself can find George on the 1911 census (even though we know he was born in Cardiff on 28 August 1909) and worse still he was on board the boat travelling to Canada aged 12 at the time of the 1921 census.

George Llewelyn Thomas aged 12. George Llewelyn Thomas aged 12. Image courtesy of Tom and Carol Black.

George went on to fight in World War Two and was a surviving veteran of Juno Beach. His name appears on the memorial that was dedicated there in 2003.

When Carol started her research it was quite a revelation for the family since George had never told any of his children that he was a British Home Child from Barnardo’s. There are a number of family members in Canada wanting to know more about their Welsh ancestry.

George Llewelyn Thomas during WW2. George Llewelyn Thomas during WW2. Image courtesy of Tom and Carol Black.

Luckily Carol, Nerea and Michele are not alone and they have the help and support and a wealth of information thanks to Lori Oschefski and the British Home Children Advocacy & Research Association. This is an international organization that strives to catalogue Home Child information and Home Children stories, to reconnect families unjustly torn apart by these migrant programmes and to promote the story of the Home Children across the world.

I defy anyone not to be moved by the images on Lori’s website of all the trunks and suitcases that the British Home Children arrived with and which have been kept safe all these years.

This year there will be special BHC themed events; including a special WW1 Commemoration Ceremony to be held on 28 July 2014 at Black Creek Pioneer Village in Toronto, Ontario, to remember and honour more than 850 Home Children who perished in the Great War.

It’s not often that I come across a collaboration between family history and art, let alone one with such strong emotional links to social history. This has been a wonderful experience and I shall follow Nerea and Michele’s work keenly.

One day I hope to be able to report that George’s half siblings survived and had children and grandchildren of their own who can now be proud of George and what he achieved in life despite the early hardships he suffered.

Nerea, Carol and Lori will be joining me live on the Eleri Siôn show on BBC Radio Wales this Wednesday, 26 February.

On 26 March I will be returning to BBC Radio Wales in a special programme dedicated to Mothering Sunday, so if you have a story to tell or a puzzle to solve which involves your mother or her family history then please get in touch.


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    Comment number 1.

    We emigrated to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada in 1980 and moved to the Toronto area in 1985. My wife and I started looking into our ancestry a couple of years ago and we found that my wife had an uncle from her grandfather's previous marriage that was sent to Bernardos Children Homes and then shipped to Canada in 1923 at 13 years old. He ended up in Saskatoon and passed away there in 1984. We never knew that while we lived there. We eventually contacted his surviving family and they live about 10 minutes from where we lived.
    At first they were very difficult to talk to because he always told them that his family drowned and he worked on a farm in Toronto area until he followed a friend to Saskatoon to work. He could only do this after he had worked off his fare to Canada.
    My wife now has a new part to her family who are now excited about what has been found and are encouraging her to find out more for them and for her.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    I am the Executive Director for Canada of the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association and the author of a book called The Street Arab - The Story of a British Home Child. I was moved to write this book and become heavily involved in this organization with Lori Oschefski when I found out that my dad was a British Home Child. A man who carried this part of his background to the grave. who never spoke about this part of his background. I discovered his past just by chance after seeing a passenger list with his and his brother's names on it.

    I do, however, have good news - I was able to find my cousins in Scotland - ones from the sister who remained there. The aunt I never knew I had. One of my cousins is the only female Beefeater in the history of the Tower of London! It was tremendously fulfilling to discover I have family on my father's side. Now that side of the family tree has leaves on it!

    Thank you for broadcasting this story. It is truly one of the largest kept secrets in Canadian history. So far...

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    One day in 1963 my mother got a letter from the Salvation Army saying a family member was trying to trace us. After varification of details my mother received letters from a lady in Canada who was her Aunt. This was the first she knew of this lady. Aunt G. came from Canada to visit us in 1965 - the start of 35 years of letters, birthday cards and getting to know each other.
    I was able to visit her in 1981 and she told me some of what had happened to her. Over the years up to her death in 2000 she wrote of her experiences. In one letter she wrote of the sexual abuse she suffered saying this was the FIRST time she had been able to express / tell of what she had suffered from the age of 8 years old in 1923
    I have been able to cross reference facts in her letters with orphanage records and other information I have obtained - She had a mother and brother and sisters and her mother had tried to get her returned to the family. There are still some areas that I want to explore so if anyone can help please let me know - Thank you

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Thank you so much for the opportunity to participate in this program today! We are excited for the chance to continue our work in telling this story and reconnecting families broken apart by these migration programs. Lin above asked if anyone can help and we certainly can. For anyone who is seeking more information or help, we have excellent researchers and knowledgeable people available in our Facebook group:

    If you are not on facebook or uncomfortable with that format, please contact me through my website link provided in Cat's blog and we will be more then happy to help in any way we can. The British Home Children Advocacy & Research Association holds a database which contains information on about 80,000 children. This database will soon be published on line which will make it the largest on line database of this kind on these children. We have been successful in rejoining many families and reuniting their lost members. It's the joy of the reunification of family which keeps us going in this work. Through our work, these children's stories will never be lost again and their spirits will truly be set free.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    I am a researcher for the WWI British Home Children project for the 28 Jul 2014 Memorial and can claim two British Home Children in my own tree thus far. I can't convey my thanks and appreciation enough for the open manner in which this topic was presented. Education on this topic is vital, the more people we can reach, the more understanding and support we'll have for the legacy of these children that never should have been swept under the historical rug. The more people who know about them, the more chance there will be for reunited families, for healing from a series of events that have caused social and emotional ramifications that span generations. Thank you for your broadcast and the blog, I do hope there will be follow ups in the future!


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