It has taken me a while to come around to the idea of writing this post, I still feel quite emotional about it. But when I came to think about the most interesting person I had met while travelling there was only one person, my Nana. I didn’t exactly meet her when travelling, but I did get to know her better and learn about a part of her life that I never heard her speak about.
I don’t think I ever expected Nana to have a past. Growing up she was the one who looked after me when I was off school yet again, always there to put the second heaped spoon of sugar in my tea and was an amazing hugger. At some point I found out she grew up in an orphanage in Glasgow, but for some reason I never asked her about it. I guess I figured it was personal. Or maybe it was so far outside my realm of understanding that I didn’t know how to bring it up. And then once she died there was no one to ask.
It took me quite a while to find the courage to delve into her childhood.
When my great grandfather got tuberculous he was unable to take care of his four youngest children (Nana was six at the time) and they were all handed over to the care of the Orphan Homes of Scotland.
The Orphan Homes is not what I was imagining. When I thought of a pre-war orphanage in Glasgow, I thought it would be a workhouse sort of institution but what I discovered was almost the opposite.
In 1876 a philanthropist named William Quarrier built a village for orphan. About an hour outside Glasgow (now converted into a commuter town) he built a church, houses, a school, hospital and store houses – all in the hope that it would give these unwanted children a place to thrive.
The idea was for around 30 children to live in each house overseen by a church fairing house mother and father. The children would live in the houses until they were 14, at which point they would start working in the local community with some of their wages going back to the homes. The set up was amazing at one point they even had a full scale ship on the river that ran past the church, to help train boys going into the navy. The boys would eat, sleep and live on this static boat until they were ready to enlist.
When she was six Nana was taken into the care of Quarriers Village. After being separated from her older siblings, even the four who were taken into care would have been separated into different houses. I can only imagine what she thought, the houses are beautiful but they do look like mini versions of Hogwarts – enough to intimidate any child but particularly one who was officially assessed as ‘shy’.
The Quarriers sent over 7,000 children to Canada in search of a ‘better life’, my Great-Uncle was among them. Back in those days it would have been the end of the relationship for the kids, no secure line of contact between orphans in Canada and rural Glasgow. Nanas family in the Village reduced further when her older sister left to find work in Inverness (she was a teenager when she arrived).
Some of what I found hardest about discovering Nanas past were the letters that I was able to access that were between the older children and the Village administrators. They are heartbreaking, and read more like a historical novel than real life. These were the letters I found the hardest to read; after finding employment in Inverness Nana’s older sister went back to the village to try and get custody of the younger two. Her request was rejected. What I can see with almost 80years distance is not only the official rejection (they wanted to allow the younger two time to settle down, as they were now doing well in the village), but also the real reason behind it. The village was worried that the employer of her older sister was only looking to collect the child support payments as well as gaining an extra maid.
I have no words for how any of them would have felt. Because post was controlled & censored in and out of the village my Nana would never have know about this potential other life. And for her older sister who only wanted her family together to be told no by the authorities for such a flimsy reason would have been heart breaking.
Walking around the village was eerie. I went on a weekday which because the village is all luxury flats for commuters now meant that it was deserted. The street names haven’t changed in all these years, still the optimistic avenues names of Love, Hope, Faith and Praise. And as I walked down them I just could not equate my happy settled childhood in New Zealand with how my Nana grew up. As I knew her, she was so content with her life, a quiet soul who loved a cup of tea. Now I guess I can see why, after a start in life so unsettled living in Auckland with a house, food, music and visits to the garden center would have been almost paradise.
After almost ten years growing up in the Quarriers Village, Nana went on to work in the Village itself looking after babies and toddlers. Then during World War 2 Nana met my Grandfather on the Isle of Man, and after the war moved to the other side of the world to marry him, before too long she was raising my amazing Mum.
Compared to the childhood Nana could have had, with a sick father in the slums of Glasgow (remember, this was before the invention of social housing or the NHS) the Quarriers Village was a haven. What I don’t know however is how she was treated, if Nana had someone to trust, someone to love, or if she looked back on her childhood with hatred or peace.
I want to go back to Glasgow one day, and look inside some of the buildings. I know that it would have been renovated and changed beyond recognition but with how connected I felt just walking through the streets, I think its something I need to do.
I wish that I had asked my Nana about this when she was alive, I wish she had been there to visit with me.