Corporal George Herbert Beardshaw came to Canada as a fourteen-year-old boy, mistakenly believing he was an orphan and that he would become a cowboy. “I was at school one day and they said “How many boys would like to go to Canada? So I stuck up my hand.”
Born September 14, 1923, in the coal mining town of Doncaster, Yorkshire, England, he was the fourth child of five, born to a single mother. George knows very little about his father, just that he had a family elsewhere. He believes that the police had made his father return to his first family causing the family breakdown. Young George was sent to stay with an “Aunt May”. He retained no memory of his mother and memories of his Aunt are of her heavy drinking habits. “She could drink ten men under the table” George said of his Aunt. Of his siblings, he only remembered two older brothers, Charles and John. At the age of six, he was sent to the Barnardo Homes.
George remembers Barnardo’s as being a very strict home, where the boys were thoroughly punished for small things. Alone at first, George was left to the difficult task of fending for himself among the boys. Charlie and John, who initially boarded out, came to live in the same cottage as George and protected him from the other boys. Although many of the children were educated out in the community, George was sent to school inside Barnardo’s. John was sent to Canada through Barnardo’s in 1932 at the age of fifteen and Charlie was boarded out, once again leaving George alone. In 1938 George was also sent to Canada.
He had been in school when the Barnardo Homes inspector came in and said “how many want to go to Canada?” Fourteen-year-old George wanted to get out of the Barnardo Homes, stuck up his hand. He looked forward to the excitement of an ocean voyage and to becoming a cowboy. Nobody ever explained to him what going to Canada really meant. George, knowing his brother was in Canada already and believing his mother was dead, looked forward to the new life that was being offered.
George was seasick on the voyage but otherwise enjoyed the trip. They were treated well and could eat what they wanted. In his box, he was allowed to bring a box camera, clothing and a crystal set. From Quebec, they took a train into Toronto and stayed at the Jarvis Street receiving home for three days. Barnardo’s took the children on a trip to the Toronto Island.
The boys were given a list of about two hundred farmers who were looking for farm help. On that list he saw a Mr. Payne who was located in Little Britain. George thought, since he came from Great Britain he would go to Little Britain, and thus his placement was chosen. George was transported to the farm just outside of Lindsay, Ontario by train. Mr. Payne picked him up from the train station in a 1929 Chevy.
George stood out from the neighbourhood children, who often came to see him, to hear him speak and see his different clothing. He got used to stepping in cow dung and although he had never seen cows before, he soon got used to cleaning it up.
Mr. Payne was “ahhhh alright” in George’s words. Mr. Payne told George he was too smart for his own good. George was worked very hard and felt he could run rings around him work-wise. George was to earn three dollars a month and was told by Mr. Payne many times that he was not worth it. His pay was put into an account held by the Barnardo offices from which was deducted items for his care such as clothing and his straw hats needed. Barnardo’s held his money on account and he did eventually receive it. George lived a very isolated and restrictive life, he was there to work. Simple activities such as going to a movie was not allowed. Indentured to Mr. Payne for five years, George often ran away. Barnardo’s told him that he could not leave Mr. Payne and that he had to stay there.
One morning; George, weary of the harsh life, had been up ahead of Mr. Payne. He had milked his three cows and by the time Mr. Payne arrived for work, George had started milking his. George remarked that the cow wasn’t giving as much milk as before to which the farmer replied “if you kept your mouth shut she’d likely give more”. Well, George just stared at him, thinking he’d had about enough. Now was his opportunity to get out of there, he scared the cats away, took the milking pail and set it against the wall. Mr. Payne asked George where he was going and he told him that he couldn’t take this treatment anymore and he was leaving him.
Fed up, George went into the house where Mrs. Payne was making breakfast. She asked, “George, did you get your chores done already?” “Yup”, he replied, “about all I’m going to do.” “You didn’t leave Will down there all alone to do the chores did you?” George told her that he didn’t care when she told him that they would be unable to obtain another hired man if he left them. “After all we have done for you?” She replied. “You’ve done nothing for me but work my ass off!” George responded. “One of these days this farm will be yours” she pleaded. “I don’t want your damn farm,” were George’s final words to the Paynes. He left, walked down the road and hitched a ride to Delhi. Although his brother John was also in Canada, George did not see him for at least two years. John was placed in Delhi and that is where George headed. Once in Delhi, he was able to obtain a job working on a tobacco farm. Barnardo’s did try to get him to return to the Payne’s but George was determined he was not going back.
In February of 1944 he went to Toronto to join the Air Force. He was told that because he did not have enough education he would work as a grease monkey. George wanted to go overseas to see his family, he knew by this time his brother Charlie had found their mother. Although she had never bothered with him all his life, George, now nineteen years old, still wanted to see her and joined the army as a means to get back to England.
Once overseas, he obtained three days leave and arrived at her door, unannounced. Although his grandparents said they were proud of him and that he looked sharp in his uniform, it was like going into a stranger’s home. His mother was very quiet. George avoided discussing why she had given them up, he just wanted to meet his family. He was proud to be a Canadian soldier. George served with the Queen’s Own Rifles reaching corporal status with the 8th platoon. While serving in action near the end of the war, he was taken prisoner of war in Deventer, Holland. After “a bit of a schemozzle” Beardshaw was captured and spent the final 28 days of the war as a Prisoner of War. That was, George said “another fine mess.” (Ian Gillespie, The London Free Press)
George settled in London, Ontario where he lived with his pretty wife Emma. George and Emma did not have children of their own but enjoyed a good relationship with his brother’s children. Charlie had come to Canada in 1953, married and had two children. Tragically just after his forty-first birthday, he was killed in an automobile accident. George and Emma helped the family out a great deal after the loss of their father.
One of George’s keepsakes from the war is a handkerchief which was given to George by the Red Cross after his capture in Deventer, Holland. The names of fellow prisoners of war are written on it, including the names of his captured platoon in the top right corner. George framed it and proudly shows it off to visitors.
George is glad that he came to Canada. Despite his struggles on the farm, he is proud and grateful to be Canadian. George was the special guest speaker on July 28, 2014 when the British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association held a special commemoration service to Honour the British Home Children who served and died in the First World War. At the end of his address, he lifted his fist into the air and declared “I love Canada”. George is one of our last two surviving pre-1940 BHC and our last Home Child, surviving, who served.
The above is from the November 2020 BHC newsletter.
Partial Service Record:
- 1944 7 Sep – Taken on strength by QOR from reinforcement list
- 1945 8 Feb – Promoted Lance Corporal
- 1945 26 Feb – Attached to 3rd Canadian Infantry Division Traning School
- 1945 24 Mar – Ceases attachment to infantry school (A/Corporal)
- 1945 30 Apr – Reported missing. Taken prisoner of war
- 2022 29 Aug – Awarded the Legion of Honour medal, the highest honour awarded by the French government, giving him the rank of Knight of the French Legion of Honour.
As of September 2022, George was still living in a long-term care home in London, Ontario.