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Marjorie Too Afraid To Cry: A Home Child Experience

By Patricia Skidmore

Review By Patrick Dunae

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 182 Summer 2014  | p. 228-230

The Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School was located near Duncan, British Columbia. Between 1935 and 1950 it accommodated over three hundred underprivileged British children. Marjorie Arnison was one of them. She arrived at the farm school in 1937 when she was ten years old, accompanied by her eight-year-old brother. She came from a large, impoverished family in northeast England. Local authorities persuaded Marjorie’s mother to entrust some of her children to the Fairbridge Society, knowing that the children would be sent overseas to Australia or Canada. At the time, it seemed like a reasonable survival strategy — one that would ease the family’s financial difficulties while promising a more comfortable future for some of the children overseas. But the consequences of the decision were dire, as this account by Marjorie’s daughter, Patricia Skidmore, reveals. Marjorie was treated callously by social workers and immigration officials in England; and, as the title of the book indicates, she was acutely anxious when she and her brother were despatched to Canada. After a very long trans-Atlantic and trans-continental journey, they reached the Fairbridge children’s village at Cowichan Station. She and her brother were assigned to different dormitories. There were fourteen duplex dormitories and four single houses on the property. Each unit accommodated about a dozen boys and girls and a resident supervisor who was called a cottage mother. Children attended a provincial elementary school, on site, and were given additional vocational training, with the expectation that boys would become farmers and girls would become homemakers. Like other Fairbridgians, Marjorie and her brother stayed at the facility until they were sixteen years old, when they went to outside employment and, it was hoped, embarked on a prosperous life in Canada.

The Vancouver Island farm school was modelled on a concept developed in the early 1900s by Kingsley Fairbridge, a Rhodes Scholar from South Africa. He envisaged Arcadian communities in the British Dominions where children from impoverished homes and crowded cities in Britain would be raised in a nurturing, rural environment. His objective was to promote child welfare and empire settlement. Inaugurated in Western Australia in 1912, the Fairbridge system was widely admired when it was implemented in British Columbia. Certainly it was better than earlier schemes where disadvantaged children from Britain were consigned to farm families in remote places in central and eastern Canada. The plight of British home children is now well-known. But the Fairbridge system was also flawed and, the author asserts, Fairbridgians should be included in the larger diaspora of British home children.

Skidmore regards child emigration as an appalling practice and “shameful part of British history” (14). The author and her mother were extremely gratified when the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, formally apologized to “the victims of the child migrant program on behalf of the U.K. government” (9). They were invited to London in February 2010 to hear the apology. The experience was transformative. For a long time, Marjorie was embittered that her mother had apparently colluded with the child welfare authorities in the break-up of their family. Marjorie felt like a cast off and so never spoke of her background after she married and had children of her own. Unsettled by this genealogical void, the author coxed her mother into “unlocking” her personal history. They travelled to England where Marjorie reunited with siblings she had not seen in seventy years. The prime minister’s apology a few years later helped them to reconcile, posthumously, with their late mother. It was also redemptive for the author who came to appreciate Marjorie’s tenacious character and value her lineage: “I began to see who I was. I was no longer the daughter of a child migrant; I was the daughter of a child migrant with a family history” (31).

Most of the book deals with the rediscovered childhood of Marjorie and her family in England and the powerful emotional experience of witnessing the official apology for child migration in the British House of Commons. The book includes a transcript of Brown’s statement and a forward by the former prime minister, lauding the courage of former child migrants like Marjorie. But the book also deals with historical events in British Columbia. In the 1940s, the Fairbridge farm school was the focus of a struggle between professional social workers, who opposed institutional childcare in any form, and the England-based Fairbridge Society and its supporters in British Columbia. The author alludes to this struggle and some of the contestants, including Harry T. Logan, who was principal of the farm school at this time. Remembered today as a distinguished UBC classicist and historian, Logan was a colleague of Kingsley Fairbridge at Oxford University and a champion of the Fairbridge child welfare system in British Columbia. From her mother’s recollections and other sources, the author describes life at the farm school. She remarks that while Marjorie “never forgot her family [in England] and stopped missing them…in time the pain of losing her family lessened and the other Fairbridge children became her substitute family” (218). The book includes a bibliography of works relating to the Fairbridge system and the larger topic of child migration. It is illustrated with archival documents and photographs.

Marjorie Too Afraid To Cry: A Home Child Experience
By Patricia Skidmore 
Toronto: Dundurn, 2012. 304 pp. $30.00 paper