Shattered Lives: British Home Children in Prince Albert

Daniel Daly with four of his ten children, (L TO R) Eileen / Machel (12), Robert, Florina, and Joshua, 1934. -- photo courtesy of the Daly family.

This is the third 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

Conditions at St. Patrick’s Catholic Orphanage were not great when the four Daly children – Daniel (11), Joseph (10), Evelyn (8) and Violet (7) – arrived at Prince Albert from England in 1901. Quite simply, the institution was not prepared for the children. “There was no money and means of financing the institution was overlooked,” writes Monica H. Plante, author of a history of the orphanage (1988). “It was taken for granted that Divine Providence would care for the needs of the children.”

In a letter to the Catholic Union and Times on 4 February 1904, the manager of the orphanage Brother E. M. Courbis, OMI, appealed to readers for quilts and blankets “on behalf of over fifty poor little children who are suffering very much from the severe cold of our northern winter, especially at night, for want of sufficient bedding.” On 25 November 1905, Brother Courbis wrote to the Irish Standard, “If you knew, as we do, the pitiful circumstances of these poor forsaken little ones of Christ, you would be moved to tears. … Our harvest is for the most part a failure. What, then, am I to give my hungry orphans to eat if you close your heart and hand to them?”

The four Daly children spent their school years in the Prince Albert orphanage. The Sisters of Providence came from France in 1901 to teach the children, but because they could not speak English, the children were required to speak French. “No doubt much misunderstanding arose among the French-speaking Sisters and the English-speaking British orphans,” Plante writes. “[T]he Sisters found it increasingly harder to care for and teach children whose language they could neither easily speak or understand.” Bishop Pascal saw the need, but it was five long years before three English-speaking Sisters of Charity arrived to teach the orphanage children.

According to his daughter Machel, Daniel Daly (1889-1978) was not ill-treated at the orphanage. Daniel lived for a time at the Bishop’s Palace next to Sacred Heart Cathedral, served as an alter boy, and thought about becoming a priest. In 1904, 15-year-old Daniel was sent to the orphanage’s farm at Red Wing where, he worked providing food and firewood to the orphanage.

In 1906, with help from Father Courbis, Daniel applied for a homestead at White Star. In 1915, he sold that homestead and bought another in the Red Wing area five miles north of Prince Albert. By 1916, he was farming with his wife Mary Viola. The couple and their ten children were happy on the farm, but the Depression forced them to leave for British Columbia. Daniel died on 7 January 1978 in Saanich, BC at age 88.

Joseph Daly (1894-1959) took out a homestead in the Buckland area, receiving his papers in 1912. Machel recalls that Joseph didn’t enjoy farming. With the outbreak of the First World War, another opportunity came knocking. On 24 March 1916, the Prince Albert Daily Herald reported that Captain William Featherstonehaugh was in the city to secure recruits for 224th Canadian Forestry Battalion. Canadian bushmen, he said, would be sent to England to cut standing timber for use at the front. (It was impossible to ship timber from Canada because ocean transport was restricted to men, munitions, and food.)

Joseph signed up on 7 April 1916, listing his occupation as “lumberjack.” By then, 70 recruits from the Prince Albert area had enlisted in the Forestry Battalion. “The men line up at the old skating rink on Twelfth Street West for drill every morning and though this does not last long, the men are learning the rudiments of military formations,” the Herald stated. “They are a fine type of men and probably no better can be found in Canada, for physique.”

Joseph embarked for England in April 1916 and was posted to a lumber operation near Windsor Castle. He was reunited with his mother, now Mrs. Dowle, while in England. Joseph returned to Prince Albert after his discharge from the Forestry Corps in August 1919. He never married. He worked as a caretaker and a journalist for the Daily Herald; and then as a postman, retiring in 1959. He died in Prince Albert that year.

After Evelyn Daly (1891- 1985) left the orphanage, she took her vows with the Sisters of Charity in New Brunswick. In December 1916, one of the priests at the convent started “acting up.” Evelyn and another woman made a clandestine escape because, Machel said, they were worried about their personal safety.

Evelyn went to work looking after the two small sons of a Baptist widower named Edgar Banks whom she married on 19 February 1919. The 1921 Canada census shows them living in St. John with his two sons, Donald (7) and Frank (5) and their daughter Barbara Mary (2). In 1924, Evelyn and Barbara traveled to Dover, England and were reunited with her mother, Esther. They stayed in England where Evelyn remarried to John Philpott in June 1924. She died at age 94 in England on 16 January 1985.

Violet Daly (1892-1916) had a crippled shoulder, possibly, Machel said, due to abuse at the orphanage. Daniel wanted her to live with him on his farm, but Violet wanted the city life. She moved to Winnipeg where she died on 26 January 1916 of pneumonia at age 24.

After Part One was published two weeks ago, I was put in touch with Machel Johnston (formerly Eileen Daly) of British Columbia. She is the daughter of one of the first British Home Children to arrive at the Prince Albert orphanage, Daniel Daly (1889-1978), and will be celebrating her 100th birthday in October. Machel and I spoke on the phone for two hours and she is a delight! She did, however, have some sad and disturbing stories to tell me about her father’s and his three siblings’ lives in the orphanage. Here is a brief update to Part One, based on my interview with Machel Johnston on May 26, 2022:

  • Daniel Daly Sr. was a “very bad alcoholic.” When his wife Esther was hospitalized in 1901, she put their four children in a workhouse. Incensed by his wife’s action, Daniel decided to take their children to Canada. He did not allow them to say goodbye to their mother. Esther did not find out until two weeks later that her children were gone.
    • Once the children were in the PA orphanage, Daniel Sr. saw them only three times before heading north to work. They never saw their father again.
  • Conditions in the orphanage were “terrible.” The Daly boys were not allowed to see their sisters. Worse, Daniel told his daughter Machel that a boy died due to the abuse he experienced at the hands of a “very bad” priest. The boy suffered to the point that he stopped eating and grew very thin. When Daniel reported the abuse, he was sent at age 15 to live on the orphanage’s farm. “They got rid of him quite quick.”
  • Daniel also told Machel that his brother Joseph and sister Violet were abused at the orphanage, something that affected them for the rest of their lives.