Among many memorable moments from my golden-hued tenure as a graduate English student at Queen’s University was an excursion to Wolfe Island, part of my orientation week. As many Kingston locals and Queen’s alumni are aware, Wolfe Island is home to a giant corn maze, which, as the English department saw it, was the perfect tool by which to forge lasting bonds with one’s peers all while testing one’s mental turpitude. Indeed, though designed to be all in good fun, the maze in fact requires no small amount of spiritual endurance if one is to make it out before nightfall.
That was my only real experience of the island unless you count many an afternoon spent glancing out over Kingston Harbour, pondering great works of important literature as I stared listlessly at the windmills that lined the island’s edge. At that point in time, it’s fair to say I was not all attuned to Wolfe Island’s unique history.
In the summer of 2009, Dundurn released Wolfe Island: A Legacy in Stone by Barbara Wall La Rocque. The book proffers a near-exhaustive account of Wolfe Island’s entire history, from its geologic origins dating back to the last ice age to the rise, and subsequent decline, of industry on the island.
One of the most compelling bits of history that the book touches on surrounds the phenomenon of ‘home children:’ the United Kingdom’s institutionalized resettlement of poor and orphaned children to other commonwealth countries, beginning in 1869. The resettlement system was conceived with the benevolent intention of removing children from harsh English workhouses (think Oliver Twist) and providing them with better opportunities overseas. Indeed, many children found loving homes and success through the program, numerous others were exploited for cheap agricultural labour and often subject to poor working and living conditions. Many of these children found themselves living and working on Wolfe Island, sometimes for better and occasionally for worst.
The economic circumstances of The Great Depression forced the child emigration program to effectively cease in the 1930s. By that time, more than 100,000 children had been transplanted from the UK to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa.