When William Tilley was 10, they rounded him up, put him on a boat, and shipped him to a farm in northern Ontario, far from his home in England.
It was 1899, and Tilley was one of a host of “Home Children” fetched from Britain’s slums to be put to work as labourers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
The goal of the program was to clear Britain of excess children living in poverty, while providing cheap labour to the colonies. For many Home Children, the disruption of leaving home was compounded by abusive conditions at their new homes.
“My grandfather… was a Cockney lad who had likely never seen a farm,” says grandson Kenneth Tilley. “He was sometimes beaten by his employer, and at some point, ran away and made his way in the world on his own.”
Despite this traumatic upbringing, Tilley volunteered in 1916 to fight for “King and country.” At the time, he was 27, married, and living in Toronto, where he worked as a fireman. Enlisting in the 169th Overseas Battalion, Tilley was a sapper in France, where he suffered a minor gunshot wound, was seriously gassed, and eventually discharged in February 1919 due to being “medically unfit” for service.
Kenneth Tilley says his grandfather’s willingness to fight for England, despite it’s willingness to treat him as expendable as a child, is a testament to his loyalty to the British Empire.
“Despite being the unwanted children of the Empire, these young Britons remained enthusiastic and loyal subjects of their new homes in Canada and Australia and New Zealand,” he says. “They signed up to defend a system and way of life that had not shown much decency or compassion to them in their short lives. My grandfather was an “Empire man” to the end of his life.
Do you have an ancestor who served in the Great War? Submit their story and it could be included on this Great War Album website.