Six months ago my mother died from ovarian cancer after a courageous fight. Less than two years ago, her mother, Isabel Connell Wise, died in a nursing home at the age of 93. In fact, my mother’s cancer was diagnosed the same week her own mother died.
In the midst of the loss of these two family matriarchs, I learned that my grandmother’s family housed an indentured servant in the early 1920s.
Full stop here folks: An indentured servant. My own family history stained by slavery.
It wasn’t talked about much in the family. There is still a lot of confusion about the circumstances, the dates, even his full name although we believe it was Dan Irving.
He came to our family farm in farm in Southern Ontario as a young man, carrying nothing more than his violin. And it was Dan Irving’s violin that would eventually set him free.
Allen and Isabel Connell with Dan Irving about 1920.
From 1869 through the early 1930s, more than 100,000 poor or orphaned children were shipped from Britain and put to work on farms in commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia. Some were also sent to the United States.
They were called Home Children, kids as young as three sent to a hard, cold land and expected to live in sometimes desperate conditions.
The charitable agencies that were behind the program often failed to monitor placements and some of the children, once matched in Catholic or Protestant Canadian homes, faced the same abuse, neglect and loneliness that they left behind in Britain.
As early as 1874, there were signs of trouble. Andrew Doyle, an inspector experienced in child welfare issues, was sent by Britain to Canada to investigate. He wrote a sweeping report sympathetic to the philanthropic aim of the Home Child program, but scathing in its account of how poorly many of the children were treated.
Still, the practice continued for some 60 more years as the public debated whether these children were better off anyway. While some suffered at the hands of hard taskmasters, some did find loving homes. A host of books, websites and social media groups have helped share their stories and guide family members tracing their roots.
Regardless of the conditions they found in Canada by luck or by fate, they were still kids, indentured servants moved around like livestock, sometimes separated from their siblings, after being quite literally shipped to an unknown land.
In 2010, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a formal apology to affected families. Australia has apologized to its Home Children; however, the Canadian government has not. Instead, Canada designated 2010 as the Year of the British Home Child in recognition of that lost generation.
We’ve not been able to find out what part of Britain Dan Irving left behind for the cold winters of Valens, Ontario, but we do know that Dan’s violin is a German-made Stradivarius copy, about 100 years old.
It is a “student model violin,” which means it is a good instrument for novice or non-professional players.
There is nothing valuable or extraordinary about it. It has a reddish brown, patchy oil finish. My sister says it has a bold and focused sound with a rich tone, earthy, neither sweet nor refined, as though it has seen too much to play that pretty.
I wonder how closely he held it, making the crossing from Britain to Canada on ships bearing names like the Samaritan, the Empress of France, filled with unwanted children.
I have a photograph of Dan holding the halter of my grandmother’s pet lamb in the early 1920s, tall and lanky with, as my sister points out, the posture of a player. And I have a later photograph of Dan and Grandma together when they both look to be in their sixties or early seventies.
They kept in touch long after Dan left the family and he apparently visited our family farm as an adult. So I’ve got to believe that Dan Irving was one of the lucky ones.
My mother told us that Dan was treated like a son, attended school, and considered my grandmother a sister.
But was he sad, did he find his lost family, did he also receive the treat of a ripe round orange in his stocking at Christmas, did he teach my grandmother how to play the violin? The questions haunt.
As was the custom with British Home Children sent to Canada, once they reached 18 they were allowed to leave.
According to the stories told before my mother’s death, Dan decided to go west in search of opportunity as Canada’s frontiers opened to larger settlements. Dan needed a suitcase for the trip, and as the story goes, he traded his violin for Grandma Connell’s suitcase, and rode away.
Dan’s violin played on. My grandmother joined a string band and performed in churches and at local dances.
Refurbished now, the violin sits in my sister’s music parlor where she plays it from time to time. If only it could talk. Why did my family even take the violin when it was time for Dan to go? Couldn’t they just have given him the suitcase, for all he’d been through?
Projecting modern-day values on an earlier time doesn’t really settle the discomfort. I suspect that a deal was a deal, and a suitcase was every bit as precious as a musical instrument back then.
It’s hard to describe how the knowledge that my own family’s prosperity is linked to a program that was, in its time, a version of modern day slavery.
Justifications for the trafficking of children are as old as time: They’ll be better off, they’ll have a better life, nobody wants them anyway.
The facts of my family’s story don’t stack up neatly like journalistic facts, for these are based on family lore spun over and over like fiddle music at a barn dance. The details change depending on who is doing the telling, and sadly, those who could tell our story most accurately– are gone.
We may never know the circumstances under which Dan came to a frozen farm in Southern Ontario. We know that he eventually married and returned to Britain.
My sister says she thinks of his violin as a precious child, not just an instrument.
It’s a piece of history, and it is a symbol of the many forms of the mistreatment of children that still burden us.
It’s life - not unlike the mystery of an abandoned child, a voyage across the ocean, and a destiny that was fortunate - reminds us of the work that still must be done.