A British ‘stolen child’ finds his way home

Alberni resident Ray Phillips was one of 7,000 children spirited away from England to Canada during the Second World War to work on farms.

Ray Phillips sits at his table and looks at pieces of his past

Port Alberni resident Ray Phillips never knew what it was like to have a mother while growing up, first in England, then in Canada.

Phillips, 83, and his siblings were separated from their mother as children by the British welfare authorities and the Second World War ensured that all contact was severed.

But a confluence of circumstances after he was grown with children of his own in Port Alberni reunited Phillips’ family.

Sitting in the kitchen of his modest upper-10th Avenue home during a crisp morning, Phillips recalled how the events unfolded that led to the unravelling of his family.

He was born in the county of St. Luke, England on Aug. 24, 1928, and was one of three children born to Florence and Henry Phillips.

The family broke up when Florence found out that Henry was already married and had other children. It was her second marriage. Her first husband, Henry Thomas, was killed in the First World War.

She resumed the name Thomas and tried to get on with life, but hardship soon struck and the family unit disintegrated.

The British welfare authorities apprehended Ray’s older brother Alec at age four and placed him in Banstead School in Surrey, England, which served as an orphanage or holding home for some 300 boys and girls.

Raymond was taken a short while later when he was two years old and placed in the school, where he would remain until age 11.

“I don’t know what it is like to have a mother,” Phillips said. “All I ever knew was school life.”

Ray had no contact with his brother Alec while at the school, and the two spent their childhoods apart not knowing one another existed. Exacerbating this was the fact that they were registered under different last names — Ray Holmes and Alec Phillips.

According to Ray, word circulated that the children were going to be shipped out and that the school would be for the deaf and dumb.

In 1938 the two were summoned to the headmaster’s office, where they were asked if they wanted to move to Canada and they agreed. They were still unaware that they were related.

“All I knew about Canada then is that there was cowboys and Indians,” Ray said.

In 1939 buses arrived on a Sunday afternoon and children from across England climbed aboard.

Phillips stayed with a family in the town of Raigate for eight months, then was moved with Alec again to Birmingham and Liverpool, where they were placed aboard a ship and sent to Canada.

Referred to as the Stolen Children, more than 7,000 British orphans and foster children were spirited away to Commonwealth countries between the Second World War and 1967.

It was only on the boat that Ray and Alec were told that they were brothers, and that Ray’s last name was not Holmes, but Phillips.

“All this time I never knew; I could have seen him around at the school but I never knew,” Phillips said.

After a nine-day sea voyage the 30 children who were sent to Canada landed in Montreal and made their way by train and ferry to the Fairbridge School, an industrial education facility in Duncan, B.C.

The brothers spent three years at the school but had no contact with their mother, who remained in England.

War raged in Europe, and in 1941 communication was lost with their mother after her home was destroyed in a bombing raid.

In Canada, Raymond left the school at age 14 to work on a farm in Salmon Arm, then in Vancouver and Pitt Meadows until he became an adult.

Alec meanwhile worked in Thunder Bay before working on Marlowe’s Farm in Port Alberni.

Raymond applied for and got his birth certificate at age 18 in order to prove his age when joining the merchant marines. He found out his birthday was on Aug. 25.

“I never knew when my real birthday was,” Raymond said. “I gave myself the birthday of April 2 — the day of the Fate Day boat race in England.”

After a short stint at sea Raymond worked at a mine, then in mills in Ocean Falls and Campbell River, where he married his first wife and settled down.

He came to Port Alberni in 1958 to work in the pulp mill and has lived here since, marrying a final time and raising six children here.

In 1986, a former Fairbridge classmate called Phillips after seeing his name in a phonebook, and invited him and his brother to a school reunion.

The two went and met classmates they hadn’t seen since they left the school more then 30 years earlier.

Meanwhile, a world away in England, Florence Brett wondered aloud to her daughter-in-law whatever became of her sons who were taken away before the war.

The daughter-in-law sifted through her husband’s personal affects and found a letter from Fairbridge School. She wrote the school’s head office in Vancouver, the coordinator of which had met the brothers at the school’s reunion the previous year. The coordinator forwarded the letter to Raymond.

“I called my brother and said “I think we found our mother,”” he said. “I didn’t know we even had anybody up to then.”

Raymond went to meet his mother in 1987, but he went without Alec, who was stricken with arthritis. The reunion was tearful and received a lot of public attention.

“I’d always thought about who we were and now I knew, Raymond said.

Their mother came to Canada with Raymond’s sister to meet Alec and to see the lives and families they made.

Both Raymond’s mother and brother Alec have since died.

Raymond and other stolen children recently received an apology from the British government, and he visited England as part of programs to reunite stolen children with their families.

He has one sister left: Lilly, who lives in Australia.

He visits his former school in Duncan, where of the structures still stand, from time to time. “It was a good school and I learned a lot — I have a lot of good memories there.”

Phillips’ experience was troublesome but it also forged him in other ways.

“Not having had a family I had to fight my own way through life,” he said. “I tell my kids ‘You’re darn lucky to have a mother and father because I never had them’.”

reporter@albernivalleynews.com

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