Shattered Lives: British Home Children in Prince Albert

Photo from Brian Collins, Ancestry Charles Burtenshaw and Lilla May Shipton, "the other woman" and his lifetime companion

This is the eleventh 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.

Charles Burtenshaw: “A Woman Other Than His Wife”

“[Private Charles Burtenshaw] was returned to this country on demobilization and discharged in Regina. It appears that Pte. Burtenshaw was accompanied to Halifax by a woman other than his wife, and this woman was returned to England at the man’s expense. The Department of Immigration and Colonization then proceeded to communicate with his wife and sent her and her children out to Prince Albert. Burtenshaw on discharge of course did not return to Prince Albert and his wife found it impossible to trace him. In all probability he has returned to England. Meanwhile, his wife and children are destitute in Prince Albert, and I wish to know if something cannot be done to assist them.”

            – Memo from Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-Establishment to Chief

Inspector Major Arthur, 12 July 1919. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Charles

Burtenshaw’s WWI records..

Between 1867 and 1939, 100,000 children from poor or broken families were taken from their homes in Great Britain and placed in the homes or institutions in Canada. In many cases, the adverse childhood experiences of these British Home Children impacted their mental health in adulthood, leading to substance abuse, family violence, and family breakdowns. “Most of them got married, had children, but they didn’t know how to treat them,” the descendant of a British Home Child, Connie Falk, told a reporter in a story about her father William Falk. [Source: “Irricana resident shares legacy of British Home Children,” in Ardrie Today, 24 Sept 2019.]  This may have been the case for the subject to today’s column: Charles Victor Emmanuel Burtenshaw (1891-1974)

When he was only a year old, Charles Burtenshaw lost his father, Alfred George Burtenshaw (abt 1869-1892), a coal porter working in East Preston, Sussex. Unloading coal from ships on the English Channel and loading it onto carts was a dangerous occupation. On 27 May 1892, Alfred suffered a ruptured blood vessel to his stomach causing heart failure. He was only 23 years old.

By 1901, 10-year-old Charles, his 6-year-old brother Richard, and his 1-year-old sister Mary were living with their mother Mary Jane (Fleet) Burtenshaw (1866-1886) in the East Preston Union Workhouse where Mary worked as a laundress for their keep. Mary and her children escaped from the workhouse when she married John Mills in 1902. She had three more children with Mills.

For whatever reason, Mary chose to send only one of her children – 11-year-old Charles – to an orphanage in Dover operated by the Catholic Children’s Rescue Society. On 15 October 1903, Charles boarded the ship Bavarian bound for Canada with 18 other British children. Their final destination was St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan.

Charles lived at the orphanage until he was old enough to work at the institution’s farm north of Prince Albert managed by Brother Edouard Courbis. At age 18, he applied for his own homestead, SW 32-49-26-W2 in the vicinity of the orphanage’s farm. He received the grant to the land in 1912.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Burtenshaw immediately enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force, listing Brother Courbis as his next of kin. He was 24 years old.

A private in the 28th Battalion, Burtenshaw qualified as a bomb thrower [hand grenade thrower] and served in France from 18 Sept 1915 to 26 Oct. 1915 when he was shot in the chest at Kemmel, Flanders, Belgium.

Burtenshaw spent a year recovering from his gunshot wound in England. While in hospital at Hampton, he married Elsie Mary Bowden (1895-1981) on 4 April 1916 in London. Charles and Elsie had two sons, both born in London. Charles Victor William was born on 20 January 1917 and Alfred Charles Richard was born was born a year and a half later on 13 July 1918.

When the war ended, something strange happened. Burtenshaw’s war records show that on 8 February 1919, he and “Elsie M. Burtenshaw” sailed for Canada from Liverpool on the ship Metagama, arriving at St. John, New Brunswick on 17 February. The couple’s stated destination was Prince Albert. The Canadian military authorities quickly ascertained that the woman travelling with Burtenshaw was not his legal wife.

On 4 March 1919, “Elsie M.” (actually Lilla May Shipton, 1895-1979) was deported back to England at Burtenshaw’s expense. Burtenshaw was officially discharged from the Army on 9 March 1919. Soon, the real Mrs. Burtenshaw was stranded in Prince Albert with her sons, Charles and Alfred.

I have not been able to confirm when Elsie and the boys arrived in the city. It may have been in June 1919, when the Department of Immigration and Colonization determined that she and her children had been living in Prince Albert “for a very short time prior to the war.” I do not think this is accurate. In any event, that summer Elsie had no idea where her husband was and had to prevail upon government for financial assistance which was minimal. An internal memo Department of Soldiers’ Civil Re-establishment dated 17 July 1919 states, “It is a matter for the civil authorities to get track of this man so that he may be apprehended for non-support of his family.” Burtenshaw’s War Service Gratuity was withheld “pending action taken regarding repatriation of his legal wife.”

Correspondence in Burtenshaw’s military file reveals that he last saw Elsie in 1919. Perhaps their reunion was amicable as Elsie gave birth to another son, Leslie Burtenshaw, the following year. Around the same time, on 30 June 1920, Lilla May Shipton gave birth to Charles’ daughter, Phyllis Patricia May Burtenshaw in Fulham, Middlesex, England. According to the 1921 British census, Charles was living with Lilla and their baby in Fulham, where he was working as a messenger for the Board of Trade. (Lilla was previously married to Alexander Hazlewood; they had three children.)

Elsie and her three sons moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba where the 1921 Canada census reveals that she had secured employment as the housekeeper for Thomas John Moutray (1877-1942). She married Moutray on 21 May 1925; they had six children.

The stress and trauma that Burtenshaw experienced both as a British Home Child and as a soldier during World War I likely contributed to his abandonment of his first wife Elsie and their sons at the end of the war. It appears, however, that he lived a stable life with Lilla in England for the rest of his days.

In a letter to the Canadian Pension Commission dated 14 February 1958, Burtenshaw states that he married Lilla on 28 September 1946. He was, however, never able to provide proof of divorce from Elsie to the Canadian Department of Veteran Affairs so that he could apply for a marriage allowance for Lilla. Thus, it is possible that both Charles and Elsie were bigamists.

Charles Burtenshaw died on 20 February 1974 in Prittlewell, Essex, England.