Her family broken apart and her identity taken away, she had to forget her past in order to face her future. But forgetting isn’t forever.
Taken from their mother’s care and deported from England to the colonies, ten-year-old Marjorie Arnison and her nine-year-old brother, Kenny, were sent to the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School on Vancouver Island in September 1937. Their eight-year-old sister, Audrey, followed the next August.
Marjorie's new home was on an isolated farm — a cottage she shared with at least ten other girls and a “cottage mother” at the head, who had complete control over her “children.”
Survival required sticking to bare essentials. Marjorie had to accept a loss, which was difficult to forgive. Turning inward, she would find strength to pull her through, but she had to lock away her memories in order to endure her new life.
Marjorie was well into her senior years before those memories resurfaced.
About the authors
Patricia Skidmore is a daughter of a British child migrant. Researching the layers of British child migration has enabled her to understand her mother and her family’s role in this incredible 350-year-history of Britain shipping children to the colonies. Patricia lives on Salt Spring Island, British Columbia.
Excerpt: Marjorie Her War Years: A British Home Child in Canada (by (author) Patricia Skidmore; foreword by Gordon Brown)
Chapter 1: Winifred’s Children
“We insist that parish officers have no right to send children of the poor abroad; we protest in the name of the working classes against this scandalous abuse of their authority … indict the officers for child-stealing; this would probably bring the affair to an issue, disclose the names of some parties who are yet behind the curtain, and prevent this kidnapping of her majesty’s subjects, which we believe is carried to a greater extent than the public are at present aware of.”
“The children on the Tyneside must be shewn the way to Fairbridge.”
It was January 1937 when the lives of the eleven members of the Arnison family of Whitley Bay in the Tyneside area of northeastern England changed forever. It all began when the father, Thomas Arnison, received a letter asking him to give up four of his children. His wife, Winifred, and their children were living in Whitley Bay while he was in the London area working, saving for the day when he could bring his family down to be with him. Thomas replied to the letter, saying, “Providing my wife and the children are willing, I am quite agreeable to what you propose if my wife thinks that they will be better off away any how you have my full permission.” The emigration official that received the letter, unconcerned about the willingness or approval of his wife and children, scrawled across the top “This is a consent.” The father’s permission was all that was required.
Marjorie was in her eighties before she read a letter from her niece stating that it was to her mother, Winifred’s, “eternal distress” that she had lost her children to Canada. Until that moment, she had not known that her mother’s distress matched her own. It took my family many years to understand all the reasons and circumstances that underlay the deportation of Winifred’s children to Canada. Winifred went to her grave with the loss permanently etched on her heart. It has been impossible to heal all the scars, although today we have come to a form of acceptance, easier now with the passing years and a greater understanding of the circumstances. Fortunately, the family no longer blame themselves for failing the children, as they now see, as Prime Minister Gordon Brown publicly admitted on February 24, 2010, that it was “the British government’s fault for failing in the first duty of a nation, which is to protect its children.”
In February 1937, four of the Arnison children — Joyce, Marjorie, Kenny, and Audrey — were removed from their mother’s care and sent to the Middlemore Emigration Home in Birmingham, where they were prepared for emigration to the colonies.
Canadian officials based in London, who had the final say on those who would be admitted into Canada, examined all the children that the Fairbridge Society selected for the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School. Only children who passed the thorough investigation into their background and the testing of their mental and physical abilities were accepted. The children were vaccinated just prior to leaving England.
The use of immigration screening to enact a form of eugenics was not stated, per se, but the belief in it was alive and well in the offices of the Canadian government. Frederick Charles Blair, assistant deputy minister, Department of Immigration and Colonization, Ottawa, Ontario, worked to tighten Canada’s immigration doors throughout his time in office. He not only made it his business to reject “substandard” British children, but he also attempted to keep out all who did not fit his image of the ideal Canadian citizen. Blair’s policies had the support of the Canadian prime minister, Mackenzie King, who, while at the Évian Conference in 1938, instructed his representatives not to support measures to assist refugees. The anti-refugee sentiment was strong in the Canadian government, and in 1938 Blair said, “Ever since the war, efforts have been made by groups and individuals to get refugees into Canada, but we have fought all along to protect ourselves against the admission of such stateless persons without passports for the reasons that coming out of the maelstrom of war, some of them are liable to go on the rocks and when they become public charges, we have to keep them for the balance of their lives.” Allowing only the right stock into Canada was a priority for this government.
Given that, it is interesting to note that most, if not all, of the Fairbridge Farm School children were sent to Canada without birth certificates or passports. Of the first 176 children presented by the Fairbridge Society for consideration for their Canadian farm school in 1935, the Canadian immigration officials rejected close to 75 percent. Reasons for rejection were varied; following are some examples:
“Younger brother mentally defective: rejected. Dislocation of hip — disability will tend to get worse: rejected. Father a soldier, but mother a neurotic hysterical woman: rejected. Underdeveloped: rejected. Nearly dumb, doubtful mentally: rejected. Tuberculosis in family: rejected. Bright but delicate: rejected. Good sharp boy but small. Wears glasses: rejected. Incontinence: rejected. Not good type, parents in trouble with the law: rejected. Child has half-caste appearance. Underdeveloped: rejected. Parents bad type: rejected. A backward child: rejected. Only a fair type of boy and does not impress as being at all bright: rejected. Poor physique: rejected. Physically defective: rejected. Poor musculature: rejected for the time being. Well-built, wears glasses, boy pilfers: rejected. Appears rather a stupid lad: rejected. Fish skin (ichthyosis vulgaris), did not appear very bright: rejected. Mother has epilepsy: rejected. Boy backward and lacking in intelligence: rejected. A dull boy, underdeveloped: rejected. The boy is not up to standard: rejected. Deafness: rejected. Varicocele, flat feet: rejected. Defective heart: rejected. Only fair intelligence: rejected. Poor vision: rejected.Unsatisfactory condition of nose. Not impressed with this boy: rejected. Otitis media: rejected. Backward for age: rejected. Lordosis: rejected. Tic on right side of face: rejected. Below standard: rejected. Too small: rejected. Sulky and a fighter: rejected. Weak type: rejected.”
Marjorie’s memoir is important in helping us all to remember a time not too long ago when the ties which bind us became lost to Governments. This is a powerful reminder of the consequences of child migration.
Dr. Margaret Humphreys CBE, OAM
An important book because it exposes the dark side of “civilized” society, as it reveals the strength of the human heart to rise above that darkness.
Rex Weyler, author of Blood of the Land and Greenpeace: The Inside Story
A testament to the human spirit, to resilience and reconciliation.
The Ormsby Review