During childhood visits to my grandparents’ Cape Breton home, I would stare up at the ceiling of the tiny bedroom I shared with my sister, waiting for sleep. The seams in the plaster ran corner to corner, creating what was clearly the letter N.
The metal bed’s sagging mattress forced us to its centre in a way I found comforting on nights when the wind raced down the backfield, rattling the windowpanes. To me, the N was a sure sign that Nana, my great grandmother Margaret MacDonald (née Willetts), had slept there, perhaps even died under the same woolen blankets.
My grandmother, Mary or Grammie as she was known to me, was the second of Nana’s children, eight girls and four boys, the product of a marriage to Donald John MacDonald. They were a God-fearing, remarkably close family. Tall tales, local lore and the gales of laughter from those brothers and sisters echo through my memories of my grandparents’ house.
After a stroke rendered her aphasic, Nana spent her final years under the care of her children, spurning formal rehabilitation in preference to the restorative qualities of her children’s homes, including that of my grandparents.
Grammie patiently led Nana through exercises intended to reconnect the neural pathways of language. Though she could no longer discern “fork” from “knife”, Nana once mischievously blurted “arse” rather than “chair” when asked what she sat on. While she generally resorted to the repetition of sounds, songs remained safely tucked into the same deep recess of her brain that delivered her occasional profanities.
My images of Nana are stitched together in that hazy place between emotion and memory. She is old, rounded, rocking me in my grandmother’s kitchen by the window looking out on the apple trees, singing the lullaby that crossed the pond from England with her.
Where are you going Birdy tell, Birdy tell,
Where are you going Birdy tell,
I am going to the woods,
I am going to the woods,
I am going to the woods Sweet May…
Nana died when I was seven, just as her disordered verbiage became strange to me. At 79, she passed into the realm of family stories, joining the great uncles who refused to speak to each another after a falling out over a girl neither of them won, and the Massachusetts ancestors whose lives were cut short by the Spanish flu.
Most of Nana’s life unfolded in the plain, solid Birch Grove farmhouse she filled with children, ending in 1974 when she was laid to rest beside her husband in the Black Brook cemetery, “Mother” etched into the black granite headstone above her name.
Margaret’s rural Cape Breton years belied the tragic circumstances of her Birmingham childhood, when a series of devastating decisions and a society unwilling or unable to care for its most destitute ripped her from her mother and separated her from her siblings. The paradox of her life and my fragmentary understanding of it sat uncomfortably with me for decades, prompting an effort to summon Nana from photos, details mostly lost with the passage of time, and scarce accounts spread between the country of her birth and the one of her death.
Dressed in dark coats, the unsmiling girls stare out from under the broad brims of matching hats, travel satchels at their feet. Margaret is almost certainly the girl in the top row on the left. Liverpool, June 12, 1906, departure day.
Born August 5, 1894, Margaret Willetts was baptised at the local parish, the fourth child of Mary Ann and Samuel Willetts, a Birmingham iron caster. Nine years later, Samuel, not yet 40, was dead, leaving his wife and their six children to the grinding poverty that befell widowed working-class women of the time.
Little is known of Mary Ann, but for one archival record that illustrates the depth of her desperation. It is an official’s May 29, 1906 notation in the admissions records of the Birmingham Children’s Emigration Homes.
“(The) Mother came to the Homes drunk on Monday afternoon to make application for us to receive the two youngest children. Her appearance was most revolting and when she told me of the other members of the family, I said she must bring the girl of 13 years and the two youngest on the following morning at 10 o’clock.”
When Mary Ann failed to return with the children – George, 3, William, 7, and Margaret (who was really 11) – he went to see the family, waiting until he knew Margaret would be back from school.
“I found her and the two youngest at home and persuaded the mother to sign our papers. I have no hesitation in saying the mother is an immoral woman though she denied she was.”
Established in 1872 by John Throgmorton Middlemore, The Children’s Emigration Homes ( later the Middlemore Homes) had a singular mission: To save children by “permanently removing them from criminal and pauper surroundings and transferring them by means of emigration to entirely different and hopeful associations.”
Margaret’s “hopeful association” came from Sydney, Cape Breton, when Hugh McNeil filled out the half-page Application for and Settlement of Mr. Middlemore’s Girls. He sought the domestic services of a twelve-year-old girl, agreeing to provide her clothing, education, medical care, religious instruction and a modest wage once she turned 18.
Margaret and her brothers spent two weeks at Middlemore before they were squeezed into steerage on the SS Siberian’s Liverpool to Halifax crossing. Their brother Sam, 15, entered Middlemore’s custody on departure day. Whether to protect his siblings or to flee his Birmingham circumstances, it is impossible to know.
The eldest Willetts siblings, Mary and Robert, stayed behind. According to Robert’s son Walter, 96, his father learned his siblings were leaving for Canada when a friend asked if he planned see them off. The Atlantic Ocean would separate the Willetts family for the rest of their lives.
Thirty-nine Middlemore children, ages three to 16, boarded the Siberian that day, plucked from poverty and destined for indentured servitude in the Dominion of Canada. Some 5,000 children made the same voyage to Atlantic Canada between 1873 and 1933, part of a broader effort to export impoverished or orphaned British children in what has been viewed as either misguided altruism or state-sanctioned child trafficking. It may well have been both.
Margaret’s ship steamed into Halifax Harbour on June 25, 1906. A receiving home soon parceled out the Willetts and their travel companions to farms and houses where they would spend the balance of their childhoods. Distance made visits between Margaret and her brothers nearly impossible.
The mostly undated and truncated letters from Margaret to the Middlemore matron contain no indication of the neglect and abuse many British “home children” suffered in their new surroundings. Still, they provide a window into a new life that included schooling and piano lessons alongside loss and longing.
“Will you be kind enough to give mother that photo of me and our George and William because I cannot get to see George or William yet and mother wants to have there (sic) photo.”
“Please will you try and get my mother and sister over next summer because we should like to see her.”
“You told me and Samuel that we should be able to go and see George and William every month but we never saw them yet. I like this country very well and I am going to school every day.”
A 1908 Middlemore Settlement Report notes simply that Margaret “wants to return to England.” Margaret would have no such agency until decades later.
A studio image of Margaret with husband Donald J. MacDonald marking their October 5, 1913 wedding. She wears a three-button coat over a pale lace blouse, her hair swept up in a hat embellished with an ostrich plume. He sports a three-piece suit, mustache groomed, his dark hair slicked to one side.
At 19, Margaret left the McNeil household to marry the area farmer, 28 years her senior, who had custody of her youngest brother, George. Through marriage, she became a badly-needed mother figure to a boy who had not known one since he was a toddler.
By the time George was 10, the Middlemore inspector charged with annual visits deemed the boy stubborn, untruthful and indolent. At 15, George was a smoker and proficient swearer who preferred the company of “undesirable acquaintances” from the coal mine to the instruction of school and church. Donald wanted him gone; Margaret insisted otherwise.
“Mrs. MacDonald is perplexed to know what to do – her husband has become annoyed at the boy misbehaving so badly, and more or less domestic friction has resulted,” wrote the inspector.
Whatever may have periodically troubled the marriage of Margaret and Donald, they brought 12 children into the world over 19 years, raising all of them on the farm. At 87, Vernon, the baby, is the sole survivor, still living in the family house. He does not recall his mother ever speaking of her early life in Birmingham, though she did voice her desire to return.
On the Birch Grove farm, Margaret’s life of toil continued, caring for her many children in a house with no running water, and taking on farm chores that her aging husband could no longer manage.
“You wouldn’t want to know what my poor mother went through,” says Vernon. “The old Presbyterian ways were a hard way; no one would put up with that today.”
When weekends came, she cooked for her brood and Donald’s extended family. The relatives ate first, followed by her husband and the children. Grammie would say that her mother scraped the sides of the pot to feed herself.
And, yet, in all the hardship there was also joy, as evidenced in the collected images marking the lives of the children and grandchildren she loved so deeply.
Following Donald’s death in 1950, Margaret, 56, had to find work. She parlayed her hard-won domestic skills first into a position in the home of a wealthy Boston woman, known only to our family as Miss Faye, and later cooking for the descendants of Alexander Graham Bell at their Beinn Bhreagh summer estate, overlooking the Bras D’or Lakes.
Her children grown, her husband gone, and her work now compensated with wages, Margaret could make her own decisions. It was time to make the journey back.
Margaret is older, heavier, wearing a flowered dress and a small tidy hat. On one side is her brother William, on the other a taller smiling man and a woman holding a white terrier up for the camera. It is England, 1955.
By the time Margaret made her long-desired trip to England, her mother was gone, and she did not see her sister. She reunited with her eldest brother Robert and met his family, who were gracious and hospitable. Still, Margaret returned to Cape Breton disillusioned, Vernon recalls. Perhaps she was unable to reconcile the girl who left with the stranger who returned.
I have yet to learn what became of Margaret’s sister or her mother. Mary Ann Willetts was most likely not the wretched woman the Middlemore official described; nor the mother Margaret idealized. She was simply a woman dealt terrible misfortune in an unforgiving time, faced with a decision no mother should ever have to make.
The faded 1967 snapshot still captures the sparkles of the dresses. Twelve siblings crowd into the frame, marking my grandparents’ 25th wedding anniversary. Margaret, sits in front, the seat of honour bestowed by her beaming children.
Today, more than 100 of us exist because a young girl crossed a vast ocean. The lullaby Nana carried with her over distance, through time and despite illness is the same one I sang to my own small daughters. Maybe that is enough.
What’s in the woods, Oh Birdy tell, Birdy tell,
What’s in the woods, Oh Birdy tell,
There’s a tree in the woods,
There’s a tree in the woods,
There’s a tree in the woods, Sweet May…