Saturday, 24 January 2009

Home Children

It is probably little known that Britain has had a long history of child migration to its former colonies.  Some were orphans, many were institutionalised and in abject poverty.  Often going abroad was an option for a child one of whose parents had died.  Children under 10 were normally adopted.  Those of 12 and over were 'workers-in-training' who often went to farms as cheap labour.  Such was the case in Canada and such was the case for 13 year old Thomas McIlhagga who in 1909 found himself on the ship Corsican with 92 other children who set sail from Liverpool on 20 May, arriving at Halifax, Nova Scotia, on 28 May, Thomas destined for Knowlton in Quebec.  In the ship's documentation Thomas' surname had been changed from McIlhagga to McIllhagga, a spelling he kept for the rest of his life.  Canada calls these child migrants 'Home Children'.

Thomas was in fact the third child of Thomas McIlhagga (b. 6 Mar 1868) who had married Margaret Sinclair Galbraith (b.c. 1871/2) on 19 Sep. 1889 in Liverpool, England.  Exactly eleven months later they had their first child Agnes Barbour (on 19 Aug 1890).  Thomas had worked in the Sugar Refining industry since he had left school at thirteen, though by 1890 he had become a Freight Clerk, a job he kept through his life.  Only seven months later they were in Anderston, Glasgow visiting relatives at the time of the 1891 Census.  This was however only a visit.  If their purpose was to do more than show off their child and perhaps look for work in the area in which Thomas had been born, in Greenock, then the purpose failed.  Nine months later they were back in Liverpool where William Crawford was born (27 Jan 1892).  Named after his grandfather Crawford who was still alive, and perhaps after his older brother William whom Thomas had probably left Greenock to join to work on Merseyside, sadly this second child only lived for two and a half years.   He died on 24 October 1894 of Tubercular Meningitis.

A year later, on 6 November 1895 Thomas was born, also in Liverpool.  We must assume that the family stayed in the area, though strangely they do not appear on the 1901 Census either in England or in Scotland.  What we do know is that tragedy struck for the family in 1908 when on 18 March Margaret died of 'Mitral Endocarditis Asthenia'.   The effect on Thomas and the children must have been traumatic.  We know from the 1911 Census that eighteen year old Agnes became a boarder with a Williams family in the town.  There is no sign of father Thomas until he married again nine years later in Everton to a widow, Agnes Baker.  Young Thomas we have found 15 months later on board the Corsican in the charge of a Mrs. Birt, bound for Canada.

What was Thomas' fate in the New World?  There is one thing certain that we know about him. He served in the First World War with the Regimental number 919439.  We know this because not only is he the only serving McIllhagga, and his date of birth is recorded as 6 November 1895, but his Attestation Papers give his birthplace as Liverpool, England.  On those papers his address is Lachute, Co. Argenteuil, Quebec.  His occupation, as we might expect from the 'Home Children' information, is 'farmer'.  The date they were signed was 15 May 1916.  Thomas was 21.  He had joined the 55th I.C.R.  It was seven years since he had left Liverpool and since he had seen his father and sister.  Poignantly his Attestation paper records that he has no known relations, so he gives the name of his next-of-kin as 'Thomas Patterson, Esq.', a Friend - presumably the farmer for whom he had worked for the previous seven years.

Thomas' signature on the paper is clear and in a good hand.  His description is perhaps not quite so impressive.  He had a fair complexion, blue gray eyes, light brown hair, was 5ft. 3in. tall with a 34 chest (expansion 4 inches).  He had marks, including acne, on his back.  The Medical Officer declared him fit 'as a Landsman' for the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force.  He was recorded as belonging to the Church of England, which was certainly in accord with the fact that his parents had been married at All Saints Parish Church in Liverpool.  There is no record of Thomas on a Canadian War Memorial, so we must assume that he survived the last two years of the war, though at present we know no more of him.  His father lived until he was 58 in 1926, when Thomas would have been 31.  Agnes would have been 36.  Is it possible that Thomas returned to the British Isles?  Did he ever see any of his kin again?  It would be good to know, not least because he was my first cousin (once removed).

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