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British Home Children receive national recognition

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John Arnold Guest was eight years old when he was shipped to a country he knew nothing about, to live with people he’d never met and do things he’d never imagined.

John was one of more than 100,000 children, between the ages of six and 18, who were sent from the U.K. to Canada between 1869 and 1948. His daughter, Marilyn Verge, and her husband Cecil are a couple of the people who worked to have British Home Child Day recognized in Canada. Earlier this month, members of Parliament unanimously voted to declare Sept. 28 to be British Home Child Day.

“It’s tremendous news,” said Cecil, who lives in New Minas. “Now, we hope Nova Scotia will do something.

“These children made great contributions to the country, but their stories aren’t well known. They usually didn’t want to talk about their experiences.”

The children were often made to feel worthless, and when they grew up they kept quiet about their past to avoid stigma, but sometimes they shared some of their stories with those closest to them.

John Guest’s mother was single and unable to care for him so, on the advice of the Sisters of Charity, he was placed in the Middlemore Home, in Birmingham, at the age of four. He was sent to Nova Scotia in 1920, and placed on a farm in Cape Breton.

“It was a very poor family,” said Cecil. “The man was in his eighties and the woman was in her sixties, and they had no children. The first morning after he (John) arrived the man handed him a bucket and told him to milk the cow. He’d come from the city and hadn’t even seen a cow before, but he learned.”

John later told his family that he felt the elderly couple treated him well, as he was never horse whipped.

Families were supposed to pay the Home Children $10 a month for their work once they turned 16, but the Cape Breton couple couldn’t afford it, so John was relocated to a dairy farm in Midland, N.B.

At this farm he milked 17 cows, by hand, every morning before breakfast, but the family treated him well and took him on outings.

“When he was 19 he was free to make his own decisions, and he chose to go back to the Cape Breton family,” said Cecil. “They were family to him so he worked in fishing and in the coal mines, staying in Cape Breton his entire life.”

He bought his own small farm, married and had eight children. He was also a councillor for 17 years.

“He always longed to visit England but never got back,” said Cecil. “Marilyn and I visited England three times and we found his mother’s grave. We found out she had been in the poor house for several years.

“We also found some second cousins, and we correspond with them now.”

Cecil and Marilyn were involved in establishing the British Home Children and Descendants Association in Nova Scotia in 2000. The organization holds an annual reunion in the Truro area. This year’s reunion will take place Sept. 15, and those interested in learning more are welcome to take part.

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