A new Life in Canada

One Saturday in May 1885 nine children were taken from various parts of Guildford Union Workhouse into the handsome oak-lined boardroom.  There they stood nervously before the twenty seven grand gentlemen and one lady of the Board of Guardians.  The Board included Miss Augusta Spottiswoode, one of the first women to be voted on to a Board of Guardians.  Miss Spottiswoode was anxious to break the spiral of poor or orphaned children following their parents’ path into pauperism and crime by giving them an industrial education and removing them from the workhouse by boarding out.  Now she espoused the cause of sending orphans to start a new life in Canada.

Guildford Union Workhouse
One of the children standing in front of her was Walter Shires, an 11 year old boy from a tragic family.  He can be found age 7, amongst the inmates listed in Guildford Union Workhouse in 1881 and next to him, the name Mary Ann Joyce, age 12, who was his step-sister.  Both children had been orphaned two or three years earlier, but only Walter would be part of the small party of children sent out to Canada to begin a new life.

Walter’s mother Kate May married William Joyce at St Nicholas, Guildford in 1866.  He was an Agricultural Labourer and by 1871 they were living in the area of St Catherine’s with their three children, William John Joyce, age 4, Mary Ann Joyce, age 2 and newly born Kate Elizabeth.  Sadly, Kate died within a few months and a year later their father, William Joyce, was buried in St Mary’s churchyard, aged 26.

The young widow, Kate Joyce, married again next year, this time to labourer Walter Henry Shires.  Their son, also called Walter Henry Shires was born shortly afterwards but there is no evidence of any other children born to the couple before Kate’s death in 1878.  At the age of 30, her funeral was held at St Nicholas’s.  With three young children to look after, Walter Shires senior entered Guildford Union Workhouse where he died a year after his wife, aged 37.

By 1881, the eldest boy William John Joyce was 14, so he was working as a farm servant in Hambledon.  The next time we find Mary Ann Joyce is in 1891 when she is living in Spitalfields with three other girls, all with no occupation, in the household of a Docker and a Laundress.

Meanwhile, young Walter Henry Shires was part of an experiment which hoped to give young people an opportunity of a better life in Canada than was possible, given their unfortunate start, in England.  By 1884 many stories were told by well-meaning ladies such as Miss Maria Rye, Miss Ellen Belborough and Mrs Burt about the success of taking destitute children via Liverpool to Canada where they were needed for employment as servants.

John T Middlemore and some of the young immigrants
Miss Spottiswoode was particularly eager to give some of the children from the Union Workhouse this opportunity.  She believed, ”that if all unions adopted the means at their disposal for promoting the emigration of children, it would do much to stamp out pauperism in the country.”  She had been told by John T Middlemore of his receiving home in Ontario where he had begun to send children from his Children’s Emigration Homes in Birmingham.  He undertook to arrange transport of children from poor Law Unions in Guildford, Bermondsey and Wolverhampton via Liverpool.

Despite opposition from other members of the Board, based on the young age of the emigrants, the advantage of separating the children from mixing with the children of casual paupers, outweighed the arguments.  The nine orphans, aged 3 to 9 years were summoned into the Boardroom where they were asked whether they were willing to go to Canada.  The six eldest children, including Walter Shires, Alfred Curtis and John and Annie Walker, agreed, but it was decided by the Board that the youngest three should remain in Guildford.

Guthrie Home
Just over a week later the children set sail on “The Lake Winnipeg” en route for the Guthrie Home in London, Ontario.  From there, 12 year old Walter was sent to live with J D Crane, a farmer in Chatsworth, Ontario.  Each child was subject to one inspection to check that his new home was suitable.  Walter Shires was reported to be both honest and untruthful, stubborn, sulky and a source of trouble.  He was, however, “showing signs of slight improvement,” in his behaviour, although suffering from scalp disease.

In later years Walter married and had 2 children, before his death in 1937.  He was one of over 5000 children taken to Canada by the Middlemore Homes but there were many more children who were expatriated by Barnardos, the Children’s Friend society and other organisations adding up to approximately 100 000 emigrants.

It seems fitting to conclude with a quotation from the journalist of Guildford Jottings in the Surrey Mirror in 1885,

Although one feels almost guilty of expatriating the poor little ones by deciding to send them from our shores, it does not follow that it is not in reality, the very kindest thing it is possible to do for them.  They are at a premium in Canada, they are a discount here.  It’s just as well to get a premium on one’s wares where possible.”

Surrey Mirror May 1885 via www.findmypast.co.uk

You can read more about children sent from Guildford to Canada here

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