Shattered Lives: British Home Children in Prince Albert

Illustration from London Street Arabs by Mrs. H. M. Stanley (Dorothy Tennant), 1890. Flower seller in Victorian London with her two young children.

This is the 24th in a series of columns about the 70 British Home Children sent to St. Patrick’s Catholic Orphanage in Prince Albert between 1901 and 1907. While all orphanage records were destroyed in the terrible fire of 1947, every attempt has been made to trace the life stories of these dispossessed children through genealogy websites and newspaper databases

William and Richard Saunders: Tots Sent to Canada

Two of the youngest British Home Children sent to St. Patrick’s Catholic Orphanage in Prince Albert in the early 1900s were William and Richard Saunders. At ages 3 and 4 respectively, the brothers travelled with 21 other children aboard Empress of Britain. Sponsored by the Southwark Catholic Rescue Society in the charge of Mr. T. W. Parker, the boys embarked from Liverpool on 12 July 1907 and arrived in Quebec City on 18 July 1907. From there the little tots took the train journey over 3,000 kilometres to Prince Albert.

The boys’ parents, John Charles Saunders (1874-1931) and Elizabeth (Collins) Saunders (1874-1947), were street hawkers and flower sellers at Gravesend, a town in northwest Kent, England. The couples’ five children, including William and Richard, were frequently in and out of the Medway Union Workhouse at Chatham, not far from Gravesend.

1906 was a grim turning point for the Saunders family. John and Elizabeth were charged with the neglect and desertion of their children on more than one occasion. Elizabeth was sent to prison for six weeks that spring for neglecting her children. In July, John had put his wife and children out onto the street. When the children were found “wandering about”, the police took them to the workhouse where they remained for weeks, according to a story in the Gravesend Reporter on 20 Oct 1906.

The union workhouse Guardians, however, were not happy with having to bear the cost of 30 shillings per week to look after the five Saunders children. On 6 November, John was charged with leaving his children “chargeable to the common fund of the workhouse.” Ten days later John made a third appearance in court where he agreed to take his three oldest children out of the workhouse and attempt to find some provision for the two youngest, William and Richard. [Source: Gravesend and Northfleet Standard, 16 Nov 1906]

In the meantime, that same year the boys’ mother Elizabeth had left her husband John and entered into a common-law marriage with Richard Henry Cordingley. She eventually had nine more children with him.

Little William and Richard soon ended up at the Franciscan Convent in Littlehampton, Sussex, a care home for boys and girls. From there the young boys were shipped to Canada. The Canada censuses for 1911 and 1916 show the two brothers living at St. Patrick’s Catholic Orphanage at Prince Albert. From there, their trail disappears. I have searched for William and Richard in subsequent censuses without any luck. I have no idea what happened to the Saunders brothers after they left the orphanage.

At least two of the boys’ siblings were also British Home Children. Herbert Colins Saunders (1894-1994) was sent at age 11 by Barnardo’s to Toronto aboard the ship Dominion on 25 April 1907; he arrived 7 May 1907. Herbert served in the Canadian army during WWI. He died at age 100 in 1994 at Abbotsford, British Columbia. Charlotte Saunders (1899-1984) was sent by Barnardo’s to Hazelbrae, Peterborough at age 11 on the ship Dominion in the summer of 1908. She married Alfred E. Gage in Toronto, Ontario on 7 December 1921. Charlotte died in Toronto in 1984 and is buried in Prospect Cemetery in that city.