Tuesday, 14 October 2008

My Grandfather Hamlet - Full of Surprises

Sometimes when researching family history the unexpected comes along that opens up an intriguing new line of enquiry that is so mysterious that it becomes an obsession. So it has happened to me this week.

I've been delving into my family tree and family history for a number of years mostly with success but with some frustrating disappointments. My grandfather, Hamlet was born in Portsmouth in 1888. I found him on the 1891 cencus living with his parents, brothers and sisters. His parents both died within two years of each other leaving Hamlet an orphan at the age of around five. However, frustratingly i could not find him on the 1901 census. Where had he gone? What had happened to him? The next time he turned up was as an 18 year old in the Navy records. But, what was he doing before then?

Several years went by until out of the blue i got an email via the "GenesReunited" website from somebody researching "British Home Children" saying that he had come across the unusual name of Hamlet Wisdom in the Canadian registry of British Home Children and could he be my ancestor?

This is a quote from the British Home Children online directory
"About 100,000 British Home Children (alleged orphans) were sent to Canada and Australia by over 50 British Child Care organizations. These 4-15 year old children worked as indentured farm labourers and domestic servants until they were 18 years old. The British Child Care organizations professed a dominant motive of providing these children with a better life than they would have had in Britain, but they had other ignoble and pecuniary motives. They rid themselves of an unwanted segment of their society and profited when they sold these children to Canadian farmers."

After a bit of online research i found out that Hamlet was in care with Portsmouth council and then for whatever reason been selected by the Bristol Emigration Society to be sent to Canada. The records show that he was sent from Liverpool on the SS Lake Megantic in June 1900 (aged 12) to Quebec and onwards to Saint Johns, New Brunswick. I then looked on the Canadian 1901 census and found him listed as a lodger with a family called Secord. It looks to me that they were part of a farming community. The records say that he returned to England in the winter of 1903/4 (aged 15). The question now is why and how did he return? It was very unusual for these children to return. Where did he get the money for his passage? Who did he travel with? Intriguing questions which i am determined to find out.

My father knew nothing of these events. He was young when Hamlet died and no information was passed down. Personally i just wonder what it was like for a child to be orphaned, taken into care and then sent alone to a far off country. An adventure or purgatory?

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