Celebrating an “Invaluable Resource”— the Middlemore Project
Both Patricia and Christine are long-term active members o fBIFHSGO, who have previously contributed articles to Anglo-Celtic Roots on a variety o f subjects
Preface (by Christine Jackson)
Many readers are aware of the sterling work done by volunteers in transcribing and indexing informa tion about the 5,200 children brought to Ontario and New Brunswick between 1873 and 1932 by the Middlemore Children’s Emigration Homes of Birmingham, England. In 2001, volunteers began working under the guidance of BIFHSGO’s then associate director, Research and Projects, Patricia Roberts-Pichette; they spent countless hours extracting the names and some details of the children from the microfilmed source documents held in Library and Archives Canada (LAC)’s Collection MG 28-1-492— te Middlemore Children’s Emigration Homes fonds. By the time the extraction process was finished, more than 50 volunteers had been involved, most of them members of BIFHSGO.
Perhaps you thought the project was finished by now?—after all, we’ve heard about a number of developments over the years since then: an index of all the children’s names has been available on the BIFHSGO website since 2008; project coordinator Patricia Roberts-Pichette has contributed numerous in-depth articles on the history and context of the Middlemore agency’s work to this journal —an introductory account in 2002, followed by a series of eleven more articles between 2004 and 2007; and Global Heritage Press published Patricia’s book Great Canadian Expectations: The Middlemore Experience in November 2016.
Furthermore, Patricia has filled a steady flow of requests to BIFHSGO from researchers at home and abroad for details regarding their Middlemore home children relatives. Until the Index with references went on line in 2019, itusually took two hours to find and organize the references for a specific child or children, respond to any questions and possibly explain any background context, before sending the information and the LAC request and access forms to the researcher. It sometimes meant a trip to LAC to check on something specific, or in the early days, to get copies of the microfilmed documents to send to the researcher—a time-consuming task performed at little or no cost to the researcher. (As none of the Middlemore source documents are available online, researchers can request access to, or obtain copies of documents from microfilm reels held at only three locations—LAC, Library of Birmingham, where the original documents are archived, and the National Archives of Australia.)
So, following the publication of her book in 2016, Patricia turned to expanding the online nominal Middlemore Index to make it easier for researchers to go straight to the correct source and conduct their own research. Singlehandedly she added all the (legible) documentary references found in the LAC records for each child brought to Canada by the Middlemore agency—a substantial task. The updated Index was then posted online in February 2019 along with the comprehensive Guide to the Middlemore Index and Sources.
So, you still think the Middlemore Project is finished?—you couldn’t be more wrong! As we know all too well, family history research is never really finished. Patricia has had—and continues to have—a lot more up her sleeve. More on that later, but first let’s hear Patricia’s account of how she recently found herself unexpectedly immersed in an exciting Middlemore-related project that was underway in Birmingham, England. Serendipitously it all occurred just as the new improved Middlemore Index was being prepared for posting on the BIFHSGO website.
Exhibition: The Lost Children of Birmingham
(by Patricia Roberts-Pichette)
It was in early July 2018 that I first heard about the Balsall Heath Local History Society (BHLHS) project they called The Lost Children o f Birmingham. (Balsall Heath is today an inner-city neighbourhood of Birmingham, England.) It was to be a study of the children who were taken to Canada for settlement by three different juvenile emigration agencies: Middlemore’s Children’s Emigration Homes, Father Hudson’s Homes and the Fairbridge Society, which together emigrated about 6,000 children from Britain to Canada. The project was to focus on the Middlemore agency as the oldest, biggest and most well- known in Birmingham.
Having worked for years with the Middlemore archives here in Canada, I was intrigued and pleased to know that a British organization was showing interest in researching the Middlemore agency and child ren from the British perspective. After several exchanged emails, I participated by Skype in a workshop discussing the detailed project plans and learned that my book Great Canadian Expectations: The Middlemore Experience was being used as a primary resource. The exhibition would include the stories of several Middlemore home children, so I agreed to help in anyway possible, letting the organizers know that early in 2019 the online Middlemore nominal index on the BIFHSGO website was to be expand ed to include all legible references relating to each Middlemore child brought to Canada.
The research and plan evolved, with the decision being taken to open The Lost Children Exhibition as part of Birmingham’s Heritage Week, usually held each September. I was invited to give a presentation during the exhibition and in late spring 2019 I learned it was set for Saturday, 14 September, a week later than originally forecast. I dismissed the thought of cancelling due to Canadian commitments starting September 16—the opening of The Lost Children Exhibition was just too important to miss. I soon received the full plan for the exhibition’s opening ceremony and, a surprise for me—I was also to be part of the official opening ceremony, one of three speakers on Friday, 13 September.
So, having arrived in London a week early to get over jet lag and do some family history research and a little sightseeing, I took the train from Euston Station on Wednesday, 11 September, accompanied by a very heavy suitcase containing copies of my book. I was met at Birmingham’s New Street Station by my host, Val Hart, Secretary of the BHLHS. She had been the driving force behind The Lost Children Project, including the successful application for financial support made to the National Lottery Heritage Fund.
Val invited me to that evening’s official opening of Birmingham Heritage Week at the Tram Shed, a heritage building in Birmingham’s jewellery sector. (The Lost Children Exhibition was to open on the Friday.) There I met Rowena Lyon who had kept me informed about the BHLHS’s study and about a dozen others involved in The Lost Children Project. One other Canadian was present—Pat Skidmore from British Columbia, whose mother was a Fairbridge child sent to the Middlemore Emigration Homes at Selly Oak (Birmingham) to be readied for emigration to the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School near Duncan, BC. Both Pat and I were each taken aside by a local radio host for interviews, the results of which were broadcast the following Monday, 18 September.
My original plan was to use the time before the Friday evening opening of the exhibition to visit the Library of Birmingham (where the original Middlemore archive is located) and take photographs of records that we do not have in Canada. But it was just too complicated to arrange. Instead I spent Thursday and most of Friday helping set up The Lost Children Exhibition at the Birming ham Midlands Institute (BMI). BHLHS volunteers were doing a variety of tasks: preparing old picture frames to receive photographs of home children and their surroundings in Birmingham and Canada; getting three by five-foot and larger panels ready for hanging on display stands; arranging the display of various 19th and early 20th century every day artefacts; and hanging up strings of dried and pressed maple leaves across the windows of the Canada Room,
And what an exhibition it turned out to be!
It was set up in two rooms entered from a wide corridor with photographs and short quotations on the walls and a small anteroom furnished as a typical small middle-class sitting room with fireplace. First came the Birmingham Room filled with huge panels describing the lives of children in both text and photographs, with extracts from Middlemore documents, and information on the backgrounds of other juvenile emigration agencies including those of Father Hudson, Fairbridge, Annie Macpherson and Maria Rye.
To further illustrate the times, a life- sized skeleton was hung with some 20 tags naming the common diseases of the day, while tools and typical household items of the late 1800s and early 1900s were all laid out to illustrate life in the poorest parts of Birmingham.
Since the mothers of many Middlemore children took in laundry to earn money, a clothesline was rigged up from which hung child- and adult-sized garments— dresses, trousers, and underwear. Included was a pair of “hambags”, a woman’s undergarment and something I had never before seen, although in my childhood had heard my mother, aunt and grand mother discussing. It was a pair of long-legged cotton underpants with fancy trimmings and an open crotch. I think I was the only one who had a name for them. In fact, the Homes Committee minute book after the First World War contains a report of a discussion implying that in future all girls’ undergarments would no longer be open, thus creating what became known as “bloomers.” A table and chair were set up just inside the Birmingham Room with copies of my book and bookmarks, where I could meet people and answer any questions.
Between the Birmingham Room and the second, or Canada Room, a very short entrance hall was lined on either side with long silvery blue, shiny plastic strips to represent the ocean, along with a photo of one of the Allan Line ships that brought Middlemore children to Canada.
In the Canada Room were lots more photographs and more panels telling the stories of home children in Canada— some sad, some excited and most satisfied. To make sure people recognized the room as representing Canada, two very tall spruce trees were set up and spruce branches fixed above the doors. The room smelled wonderful. Time did not allow me to read all the panels or stories presented, but I did take photographs to read at home.
The most recognizable person among the crowds from 5 pm Friday through till closing time on Saturday was Richard Albutt. Dressed as “Sir John Middlemore, Bt” he was the MC for Friday evening, the actor in a video produced to introduce a dramatic lecture to take place on Saturday, and also a participant in the dramatic lecture.
The opening ceremony of The Lost Children Exhibition was held in the BMI Theatre on Friday evening. “Sir John Middlemore” introduced the three speakers: the Vice Lord- Lieutenant of the West Midlands, Dr. Beverly Lindsay, OD, OBE; the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Councillor Mohammed Azim; and myself. “Sir John” introduced me as “Dr. Roberts-Pichette, a lady who knows more about me than I know about myself’, which sent a ripple of laughter through the audience of about 50 to 60 people.
Our three short speeches were followed by the official reception, although it took some time for me to join it, as I was immediately surrounded by people asking questions. The first to approach me were two members of the Middlemore Trust—so happy to hear something positive being said of Middlemore and both wanting books. I did make it into the reception in time to speak and be photographed with the Vice Lord-Lieutenant and the Lord Mayor . What I found amazing, and I think appropriate, was that we three speakers were all immigrants—appropriate when I think of the children we were honouring.I then took up my position beside the table with my books. The rooms quickly became packed as people passed through, many stopping to talk to me and ask questions.
Saturday was the big day: children singing at New Street Station and parading to the BMI with more songs at its entrance; a dramatic lecture prepared and delivered by Val Hart and children and adults from a local amateur theatre group; and my Middlemore presentation which closed the day. Taking my place back at the book table I was delighted to meet and to have the support of Dr. John Dickenson from Liverpool, who some readers may recall has attended two BIFHSGO conferences. He is currently researching Mrs. Louisa Birt and her agency which took children from the Liverpool Sheltering Homes to Halifax, NS before establishing her Knowlton, Quebec home.
A last-minute mission of mine had been to try and find someone (preferably male) who could speak well and who would read the children’s letters I was including in my presentation. I asked Val if she knew anyone who would be pre pared to do this with little or no rehearsal and her immediate response was “Richard will do it”. Once I knew about him and his role in the celebrations, I could think of no one better. After all, most of the letters in my presentation were written to Middlemore. Richard agreed, although we didn’t actually have time to do a complete run through. Val gave me a very generous introduction. The ovation we received was tremendous, in spite of the potential danger of Sir John and me tripping over all the wires around the one lectern, some technical problems involving the changing of my PowerPoint slides, and my laser pointer giving up the ghost.
There were apparently some 150 to 200 people present (the theatre held less than 250). I was quite overcome and found the audience reaction almost overpowering. Then, as I was leaving the lectern, a man approached me, took both my hands in his and almost reverentially thanked me for what I had said about Middlemore. Later I learned he was from the Middlemore Trust —the CEO, I believe. I was particularly moved by his response when I learned that there is a vocal group in Birmingham, much as there is in Canada, which believes the child emigration movement was wrong, that children should have been left with their families, and that it was a terrible thing to take children away from their families and settle them in another country, even when a parent was begging for help after the loss or imprisonment of a spouse, the loss of work, or the death or injury of a breadwinner. The exhibition closed after my presentation. Back at Val’s we had a glass of sherry, and I sent some brief emails home to Canada to let friends know how well I thought it had gone. I was on a very high “high”!
Val hosted dinner that night with friends who had worked very hard in preparing and setting up the exhibition. It was a lively, thoroughly enjoyable evening, and for me the end of a very productive and exciting four days with hospitable Birmingham people. More importantly, it was the launch of the BHLHS’s work in telling the story of Birmingham’s home children. Sunday morning, still on a high, I said goodbye to Val at the bus station for my return to Canada and the arrival of my guests.
The exhibition closed at the end of Birmingham Heritage Week but went on to open at the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Bull Ring for a month, where I understand it was well attended. Val and other participants in the project were invited to tell the story of the home children at different places, and they also gave a workshop on home children research. Furthermore, on 28 September, Birmingham joined in the celebration of Canada’s British Home Child Day, marked this year across Canada by the “Beacons of Light for British Home Children” event which was organized to mark the 150th anniversary of the arrival in Canada of the first British home child. The Library of Birmingham and other buildings were lit up, as was the spire of the Church of the Holy Trinity at Belbroughton,Worcestershire, where Sir John Middlemore, Bt was buried.
The last, and perhaps most important part of the project has yet to be completed—the preparation of a book setting out what was done and how— it will become the report to the National Lottery Heritage Fund. In conclusion, I would like to congratulate all who were involved in The Lost Children o f Birmingham Project. And, I would like to issue a challenge to my compatriots: the production of a similar project here in Canada. I am convinced that a fascinating and worthwhile travelling exhibition could be organized on this side of the Atlantic with the cooperation of home children societies in the provinces where children (also known as assisted juvenile immigrants) were settled, and of others interested in Canada’s social and immigration history, and in the contributions made by home children in building C Canada.
So What’s Next? (by Christine Jackson)
Well, if Patricia’s challenge is successful, a Canadian travelling exhibition will be produced to tell the story of British home children in Canada, their lives and contribu tions to Canada. Stay tuned.
A new Middlemore index
In the meantime, Patricia has been doing even more work on the Middlemore records—this time preparing a subject index of the contents of each of the 69 annual reports of the Children’s (Middlemore) Emigration Homes, for the years 1872/3 to 1939. Patricia has always believed that there is valuable information in the annual reports that would be of interest to people who want to know about the background and context of their home child ancestor, or about assisted juvenile emigration in general. By this she means descriptions of the trans atlantic voyages, the actual settlement process and the visits Birmingham staff made to children when in Canada. Until now, few people would know such descriptions existed unless Patricia told them and included relevant documentary references in her responses. The reports also contain information about the way children were chosen for emigration, the policies and methods of the Homes, and the people who supported this private agency or who contributed specifically to the training and emigration of a particular child. Although the complete names of some of those children are in the annual reports, in many cases only their first name and/or initials were given. Patricia has been able to identify most of these children so the references to them in the annual reports will be added to the existing Middlemore Index. This new subject Index gives the LAC microfilm reel numbers and volume, and the year and page number(s) where these types of details may be found in each report. It will soon be online at the BIFHSGO website—expect an announcement in due course.
A special “thank you” from Birmingham
Before closing, I would like to share with you the letter of thanks sent by the Balsall Heath Local History Society in Birmingham to BIFSHGO’s President, Duncan Monkhouse. It is indeed gratifying to know that BIFHSGO’s efforts to produce a free, publicly accessible resource—and of course Patricia’s hard work in that respect—are appreciated and considered to be “invaluable” by users:
Dear Mr. Monkhouse,
As you may be aware, the Balsall Heath Local History Society in Birmingham, England was awarded a Heritage Lottery grant in 2018 to raise awareness o f the work o f The Middlemore Homes. Over the last 18 months we have held various events as well as a recent exhibition in Central Birmingham, which was attended by many hundreds o f visitors, many o f whom were relatives and descendants living in Birmingham.The project has been an enormous success and we have been extremely fortunate that Patricia Roberts-Pichette has supported our research throughout. Her book has been a truly invaluable resource for us, as has the Middlemore Index compiled and made available online by your Society. We are hugely grateful to both Patricia and the Society for such in-depth research and collaboration. The whole project would have beenfar more difficult without these resources.
We are holding workshops for people wishing to research their own family histories connected to Middlemore and we are encouraging people to use the Index for themselves. People are very excited to discover such a resource, as indeed we were. Patricia flew over from Canada, at her own expense, to give a one-off talk which was very well attended and appreciated by hundreds o f people. We are absolutely thrilled with her contribution which took our event to another level. We credited the BIFHSGO in our publicity material but wanted to let you know the enormous impact both Patricia and yourselves have had on our project. Thank you.
Best wishes, Val Hart, Secretary, Balsall Heath Local History Society Birmingham, England.
Anglo-Celtic Roots •Quarterly Chronicle Volume 26, Number 1 •Spring 2020