British Home Children: a personal story

Unidentified Anderson-Seton family members

These are not any members of the Pyner family, for whom I am searching. I have no pictures of this family to post, and so am using this photo of anonymous persons who we believe are members of the Anderson-Seton family. 

This is a personal story and a new family mystery — but it is not my fur trade family. It is a mystery that comes from father’s family, which is British. It happened more than 115 years ago, but we — and the “we” includes the English family, with whom we are in touch — sis not know of these sisters who were mysteriously removed from the family. And in a few, these two children, that we knew nothing of, are the reason why I ended up in Canada rather than being born in England.

And yet my father said not a word about them, though he must have known they existed!

So this is another “Tell your Story” story. This is a story that we didn’t know because my father did not tell the story.

Here’s what happened. My grandfather, James Samuel Pyner (1889-1957), was the youngest child of seven children (I think) of another James Samuel Pyner (g.grandfather, born in Middlesex in 1854, Registered in the 4th QTR, 1892, Essex). My great-grandfather Pyner was already listed as deceased when his daughter, Emma, married in 1899; and he left behind a wife named Priscilla, born about 1855 in London.

My great-grandparents Priscilla and James Samuel Pyner had seven or so children, and the eldest were married when James Samuel died. But the last three children — Mary Ann Elizabeth, Priscilla Sarah, and James Samuel (my grandfather) — were too young to marry. It was likely Priscilla was poverty-stricken and so, after a few years, she took a second husband.

It seems that this second husband demanded that Priscilla Pyner send her three children away. The two girls — Mary Ann Elizabeth (born January 1883 in West Ham), and Priscilla Sarah (born in May 1887 at Stratford) were sent to Barnardo’s Children’s Home, and the younger boy (my grandfather) James Samuel, was sent to Cardiff to live with other members of the Pyner family. 

Barnardo’s Home for Children sent orphaned children to Canada by the thousands. They promised a land of milk and honey, but what the children found on their arrival was, for most of them, anything but. These are the British Home Children, and most were sent to Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes. Mary Ann “emigrated” in August 1899 to Ontario, and lived with a clergyman’s family. Priscilla “emigrated” in 1900 to Madoc, Ontario, where she lived with another family but close to her sister.

The children were “free” when they reached the age of eighteen, I believe, and they were supposed to be given a small sum of money. But many of these children worked as farm labourers, or as domestics, for years and years. They did not have a normal childhood. Many, if not most, of these children were abused: beaten, starved, treated as if they were slaves. Unloved. Frightened. Alone.

Both Pyner girls survived. Mary Ann married in October 1903, to a Thomas Henry Buxton, or Thomas Henry Burton. She had a child, Samuel James Buxton or Burton, born April 1904: I would guess she was pregnant when she married. Mary Ann had another child named Alice, whose father might have been Buxton/Burton, but also might have been that of her second husband, whose name was Frederick Banks. She married him after 1904 but I don’t think we have a marriage date.

Priscilla was listed as a domestic in the 1911 Census, when she was 24 years old. Thomas Moore was the head of the household, which was in Hasting East Sub-district in the Census. By 1923 she was in British Columbia, in Nanaimo, and she was being married to a Angelo Raffaele Marino, a miner, with her sister Mary Ann Banks (notice the change of name) as witness. Mary Ann lived at 4220 Harris Street in Vancouver. So sometime between 1911 and 1923 both girls moved to the west, and both were married (Mary Ann for the second time).

Priscilla Sarah gave birth to a son within the year, and it died. Her husband, Angelo, died February 23 1928, in South Wellington. He was older, I believe, and might well have died of a miner’s disease as I cannot find any mine accident occurring at that time. Priscilla Sarah married for the second time (after August 1932), to an Englishman named George William Turton. By this time Priscilla had moved from South Wellington to Nanaimo itself.  She died in Nanaimo in May 1964, and her husband survived her. He died in Comox in February 1962. 

Mary Ann’s husband, Frederick Banks, died in Dollarton, North Vancouver, May 26 1954. His daughter, or at least Mary Ann’s daughter, lived in the Coast Capilano District in 1957. In 1958 she married John E. Halford, a mechanic in Dollarton, and they both retired to Halfmoon Bay, where Alice served for years in the Hospital Auxiliary.

Alice E. Halford, Mary Ann Pyner’s daughter, lived until she was 107 years old, and died a year ago (literally) with all her marbles intact! She was a delight to talk to, our informant at the Auxiliary said. She left two boys (who know about our search but who have not followed up with us, which is fine) and a Halford niece [so not a descendant of Mary Ann, but of her husband’s family]. Both Priscilla and Mary Ann might well have had other children we are not aware of. 

So that is basically all I know about the great-aunts who were in Canada when I was a child. We sometimes lived in the same cities, and didn’t know the other family member existed. But my “gentle giant” of a grandfather did. James Samuel Pyner came to Vancouver, in November 1922, to visit his sister, M. E. Banks — Mary Anne Elizabeth Banks. Mary Ann was married to Frederick Banks by 1922, and she was obviously in touch with her younger brother, if not with other members of her family. My father must have been about ten years old when he arrived here, and he looked after all his younger brothers and sisters. My grandfather was a gardener, and later he built houses for the railway. But the depression came, and he moved back to England with his family because there was little work here. My father, however, refused to leave. He was sick of looking after his younger brothers and sisters, and like any teenager he stubbornly refused to go. He rode the rails for a year or so, and lived in the bare-bones work camps the government offered at that time: he panned for gold in the interior, and learned to build a log cabin (he built our log house on Cortes Island). He was part of the sit-in in the Vancouver Hotel — not the big post office sit-in, but a smaller one. He met my aunt who collected lame ducks. My aunt introduced him to her sister, my mother. and they married and I was born here, in Canada. 

We were always the only Pyners in Canada! Or so we thought, and of course, this is now not true. But none will carry the Pyner name! I only found out about these great-aunts a month ago, when my English cousins dropped the story in my lap. Tracking down this “new” family might prove challenging: they were working class people all the way through the line, and they left very few clues behind.

But here’s the question: How did my father not tell us of the story of his aunt who he must have known lived in Vancouver? Did they fight? Did he run away from her house? I do not know, and I doubt I will ever know the answer to that. I will, however, throw all these questions out there, and I might get an answer or two if I am patient.

Copyright, Nancy Marguerite Anderson, 2017. All rights reserved.