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Town to remember region's children sent away from home and forced into work overseas

PUBLISHED: 11:51 18 September 2019 | UPDATED: 12:25 18 September 2019

Grace Ruth Silett, Susan's grandmother, aged 8, two years before being sent to Canada. Photo: Susan Brazeau

Grace Ruth Silett, Susan's grandmother, aged 8, two years before being sent to Canada. Photo: Susan Brazeau

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In the late 19th and early 20th century over 100,000 British children were taken from their families and sent abroad to work.

Susan Brazeau at the headstone of her great great grandparents, John and Hannah (Sillett) Charlish. Photo: Susan BrazeauSusan Brazeau at the headstone of her great great grandparents, John and Hannah (Sillett) Charlish. Photo: Susan Brazeau

The children, some as young as four years old, were sent from the UK to colonies such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa where they were exploited as cheap labour and faced shocking abuse.

150 years on from the first group of children's arrival in Canada, one Canadian woman has returned to the region to honour her ancestors and commemorate the legacy of those known as the British Home Children.

Susan Brazeau traces her ancestry to four generations of Bungay families.

She said: "My great-grandfather, Harry Sillett, died at the age of 38 in 1899, and his death left my great grandmother, Margaret, unable to support her seven children.

Grace Ruth Silett, Susan's grandmother, aged 8, two years before being sent to Canada. Photo: Susan BrazeauGrace Ruth Silett, Susan's grandmother, aged 8, two years before being sent to Canada. Photo: Susan Brazeau

"A year later she gave up four of her daughters, and my grandmother, Grace, was ten years old when she was sent to Canada and never saw any of her family members again for the next 65 years."

Over 100,000 boys and girls are known to have been sent to Canada from 50 organisations. The average age of these children was 12, and they were trained as farm labourers and domestic servants.

In 2010 then-prime minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology and financial recompense to the families of those who suffered.

Ms Brazeau said: "Contrary to popular belief and clever advertising, very few of the children were orphans or abandoned. Most came from impoverished homes and, once in Canada, many experienced some form of abuse, and feelings of loneliness, worthlessness and shame.

Susan Brazeau visited the Holy Trinity Church, where her ancestors worshipped. Photo: Susan BrazeauSusan Brazeau visited the Holy Trinity Church, where her ancestors worshipped. Photo: Susan Brazeau

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"This story is not well known in either of our countries. Yet it is estimated 10pc of Canadians are descended from these children.

"The experience of many home children is not a positive one, yet, their generations became our nation builders and the backbone of our country as it developed."

In 1965, Ms Brazeau's grandmother finally returned to Bungay to visit her remaining family.

Susan Brazeau is now an advocate and researcher for British Home Children. PHoto: Susan Brazeau.Susan Brazeau is now an advocate and researcher for British Home Children. PHoto: Susan Brazeau.

She made the same trip in 2016 after she "became fascinated with the market town and its history", and went to visit her great grandparents' graves, as well as places of work and churches.

She said: "I walked the streets that my ancestors walked; visited Holy Trinity Church, where three generations practiced their faith, were baptized, married, and given solemn farewells at death. I stood on the corner of Upper Olland Street and looked at the parking lot where once stood the pub and blacksmith shop of my great-great-grandparents, and I visited their headstone and that of their son."

Now, as a member of the British Home Child Advocacy and Research Association (BHCARA), Ms Brazeau spends time researching the 'missing' links of families separated through this scheme. She even has a Master's degree from Athabasca University, Alberta, where her thesis was about the immigration of British Home Children to Canada.

As 2019 marks 150 years since the first group of children were sent to Canada, BHCARA are commemorating all of the children sent to Canada by asking communities and towns involved to light up a building with the colours red, white and blue representing both the Union Jack and Canadian Maple Leaf.

Over 120 locations around Canada and the UK are taking part in this 'Beacon of Light' on September 28, including Bungay, whose town council will light up the town's ancient Norman Castle.

Ms Brazeau said: "I felt great pride that this community would embrace the story of one of their own, whose family was torn apart.

"I was excited and actually quite emotional when I received the message that Bungay was participating. I sent emails to the brother and five nieces and their families - the 12 of us are the only direct surviving descendents."

More information about BHCARA and the Beacon of Light event can be found online at www.britishhomechildren.com

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