The Marchmont Distribution Home
Between 1870 and 1925 about 10,000 British children, between the ages of 3 and 15 years, were brought to the Marchmont Home in Belleville for placement in Ontario farms and homes. These children, often orphaned, abandoned or from impoverished families were gathered from the crowded streets of the newly industrialized cities where literally thousands of homeless children lived in desperate poverty.
In 1870, Belleville mayor Billa Flint and Hastings County Warden A.F. Wood arranged for Annie MacPherson to have a home in Belleville through which these desperately poor children could be matched with families, the boys mostly becoming farm hands and the girls domestic workers.
The first house, named Marchmont, was situated at 30 Commercial Street (now Highland Ave); however, it burned in 1872. Through the intervention of mayor Billa Flint and many supporters across the city, a new house was promptly found at 193 Moira Street West. This speedy recovery after the fire illustrated the support and commitment of the entire Belleville and Hastings County community to this home. Over the 55 years, Marchmont homes received 10,000 children and resettled them with new families.
Many of the boys, raised in the tumultuous city streets, found it difficult to adjust to the heavy labour of farm work, with hard masters and demands beyond their training or physical capability. Conditions of life on many farms was primitive, often with little pay or appreciation. Many of the young girls, not used to normal domestic life or facilities, encountered rough treatment and extreme work demands in their new homes. Being separated at such a young age from their homelands and familiar places, many of the children suffered loneliness and isolation and often prejudice because of their origins.
On the other hand, many of the home children considered their lives in the peaceful and secure environment to be far superior to the impoverished conditions in industrial Britain. There were many success stories with former street children receiving a good education and being loved and cared for in their new families. Many home children went on to become successful farmers, teachers, nurses, ministers and other occupations.
One example, David Brown Fraser, was placed in an orphanage in Scotland at 3 years of age, his mother had died and his father was a sailor. He came to Marchmont with his younger sister in 1895. David was placed on a farm near Frankford where he went to school and became one of the family. David married and had two sons. In 1916 he enlisted in the Canadian infantry and served in France, where he died of his war injuries. Another Scottish lad, James Galloway came to Marchmont in 1910 and was settled near Springbrook. Reports say that he had a good home life and that he played in the Belleville Pipe Band. James served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force overseas and successfully returned home in 1919. He married another home child in 1920, bought 50 acres of land to start his own farm and raised a family of eight children
Other success stories include one young boy who obtained a position at the Flint Law Firm in Belleville, studied law and assisted old friends at Marchmont in legal matters. Another was placed near North Bay Ontario where he became a successful businessman and later mayor of the city. Another boy also went into business and became mayor of Arnprior. Many of these home children volunteered for service in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in WWI, serving with great courage and were honoured by their home country of Canada. It is generally considered that the success stories for these children far outweighed the negative experiences. Thousands of Canadians today can trace their ancestry to these brave and determined children.
The full story of this amazing chapter in Belleville’s history has been captured in the book, Marchmont Distributing Home, Belleville, Ontario 1870-1925 by James Gilchrist. This 224 page book is available from the Hastings County Historical Society bookstore in the Community Archives, 254 Pinnacle Street, Belleville and from their online bookstore at www.hastingshistory.ca
A historical plaque commemorating the Marchmont Home was unveiled by the Hastings County Historical Society and the British Home Child Group International on September 28, 2017.