A family’s 130-year hunt for its children missing in Canada

Arthur Delaney of Edinburgh who fought for eight years in the courts to bring his children home. PIC: Contributed.
Arthur Delaney of Edinburgh who fought for eight years in the courts to bring his children home. PIC: Contributed.
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A small batch of papers found in a locked bureau in Edinburgh was to set one family on a search for three of their ancestors who disappeared as children in Canada after being sent there by an Edinburgh children’s home.

The court documents brought to light one ordinary man’s fight to have his children returned to Scotland after they were sent across the Atlantic without his knowledge.

Emma Stirling, who ran several orphanges in Edinburgh, said she didn't know where the Delaney children had gone. PIC: Contributed.

Emma Stirling, who ran several orphanges in Edinburgh, said she didn't know where the Delaney children had gone. PIC: Contributed.

Arthur Delaney, a painter and glass cutter of Niddrie Street, spent eight years in the late 19th Century pursuing his case against the Edinburgh and Leith Children’s Aid and Refuge Society and its founder Emma Stirling.

READ MORE: The 15,000 Scots children shipped to Canada
Despite being told by the Court of Session that he was entitled to get his children back, he was never to see them again.

Desperate, he arrived in Canada to try and find them himself, but no trace of them was ever to emerge in this vast new country where they had been sent with new names.

For Pat Dishon, of Portobello, the great granddaughter of Arthur Delaney, the search for what happened to the children is as important to the family now as it was then.

Emma Stirling's Hillfoot Farm in Nova Scotia where many Scots children were taken after arriving in Nova Scotia. PIC: Contributed.

Emma Stirling's Hillfoot Farm in Nova Scotia where many Scots children were taken after arriving in Nova Scotia. PIC: Contributed.

READ MORE: How the Scots built Canada
She said: “We found out about Arthur Delaney from the papers around 25 years ago and it remains as fresh now as it did then. We won’t forget Arthur Delaney and we won’t forget his children. “Finding any descendants of the Delaney children would mean a great deal to us. It would let us know that they survived. That would be a consolation for us.

“My sister would love to know if the children ever found out how desperate their dad was to get them back and that he went out to Canada to look for them. We want them to have known that they were not abandoned but very much wanted.”

The Delaney children were put into the care of Stirling’s Edinburgh refuge in 1882 following the death of their mother when James was 5, Annie was 4 and Robina just 2.

Their father claimed it was only every to be a temporary measure but they were shipped out four years later.

Pat Dishon, the great grandaughter of Arthur Delaney, who continues to search for information on his children. PIC: Contributed.

Pat Dishon, the great grandaughter of Arthur Delaney, who continues to search for information on his children. PIC: Contributed.

Stirling later claimed in court it had been impossible to send the three back to Scotland– as she did not know where they were.

Following an increasingly bitter court case, Mr Delaney was eventually awarded £100 in damages for the loss of his children.

Delaney also tried to sue Stirling for slander after she claimed he was of “notoriously bad character” with the £500 claim later settled out of court.

Some who have studied the case have claimed Stirling’s anti-Catholic prejudice may have underpinned her attitude towards Mr Delaney, who was supported through the case by St Patrick’s Church in the Cowgate which was known as Little Ireland at the time given its large immigrant population.

The Delaney children were amongst an estimated 15,000 Scots youngsters taken to Canada between the 1860s and 1970s as part of the British Home Children programme of forced emigration designed to save children from the hardships of the slums and the poor houses.

Stirling, who is credited with securing better child cruelty law in Britain, set up Hillfoot Farm in Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia to receive children who were later sent to work as domestic help or farm labour.

Stirling, who ran at least nine orphanages in Edinnurgh, actually returned to Scotland with Robina and James in 1886 as the court case continued – but their father was never informed. Later she changed the children’s surnames to Whitehead - and took them back to Canada in late 1887 with Annie.

Despite years of searching, the mystery of what happened to the Delaney children has never unravelled.

Ms Dishon said: “While we acknowledge Emma Stirling was well intentioned with her work for children we also saw from the court case that she constantly lied to cover herself .

“I am often in the Old Town and I am walking in streets and closes where Arthur would have lived. What happened to him and his children is always with us.”