Our broadband went down last week.
Instant panic. I was surrounded by books and notes and maps and pictures, but how could I possibly work without the internet? I knew my story and the details I thought I’d need, but what about the little questions that come up when you’re going along? What did a lady’s side-saddle look like in 1855? Could a soldier in that year have known the words to ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’? I looked at that white Error Page and knew that as a writer I’d become utterly dependent on the internet.
Which is rather humbling when I think about earlier historical writers who managed perfectly well with notebooks and a library. True, they weren’t expected to include all the little details required of us now (and their readers couldn’t easily check on them if they did) but they did need a dedication and detective instinct besides which my own look decidedly pallid.
|Stanley meets Livingstone|
But their rewards were often greater too. We all know the frisson of excitement when refining the search terms finally yields the exact thing we’re after, but ‘real world’ research can make us feel like Stanley when he pronounced the words, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume?’
I know that feeling, because twenty two years ago I was a junior researcher for Central Television, and that kind of thing was my job.
We’re dinosaurs now, but for those who’d like to know how we did it Back In The Day, here’s a potted history of just one case and how it worked out.
This was my brief:
Even that paper is enough to tell us we’re in a different world. It’s not an e-mail, not a text – it’s an actual Memo that someone typed out and faxed.
It was also a tall order - find out about a Barnardo boy who was sent to Canada in the early 1900s, ran away, and ended up living with the Indians - but when I contacted the source of the story I learned at least that the subject had the rather unfortunate name of ‘John Thomas’. It was unfortunate for me too, since I’d hoped for something distinctive like ‘Ebenezer Hawkswhistle’, but ‘John Thomas’ and ‘somewhere in Cornwall’ didn’t give me a lot to go on. Given that surname, the only thing I could be thankful for was that he wasn’t Welsh.
But I had to start somewhere, so it was off to the Bodleian to order up every possible book on Dr Barnardo’s. The results were enlightening. This is where I learned about Barnardo’s infamous ‘Canada Clause’ that gave it the right to ship its children off to a supposedly ‘better life’ in Commonwealth countries whether the parents wanted it or not. This was where I learned about the children treated as slave labour in Canada and basically worked to death, the children who were beaten and raped by their host families and had nowhere to turn for redress. I was, in fact, on the track of the ‘Home Children’, whose stories Canada itself had already begun to recognize, and whose fate Gordon Brown finally apologized for in 2009.
|Mrs Barnado with emigrant children 1909|
As a human being I thought ‘tragedy’, but as a researcher I thought ‘trouble’, and I was right. The next call was obviously to Barnardo’s itself, but although the staff plied me helpfully with books and photographs, they were much more reluctant to talk about the Canada Project or anyone who might have been a victim of it. The most I learned was that if John Thomas had come from Cornwall then he would have been referred to Barnardo’s by another body – most probably the NSPCC.
|NSPCC Offices in London|
Next stop the NSPCC, and my heart lifted at the sight of records going right back to the 1880s, but sunk again when the friendly archivist wouldn't let me see the one I wanted. She wasn’t being obstructive, but rules of confidentiality protected the records of the living, and there was no evidence John Thomas was dead.
It was a blow. I pleaded the likelihood, that it was a long time ago, that he had to be dead, but she said we could only be certain that he’d be very old. I took a deep breath, looked her straight in the eye, and said, ‘How old?’
That’s what you can’t do over the internet. We looked at each other for a good ten seconds before she glanced again at the book, closed it firmly, and said, ‘Perhaps a hundred and three.’
I could have kissed her. She’d given me what I needed most – a timeframe for the date of birth – and I was walking on air as I took a bus to St Catherine’s House for the registry of births, marriages and deaths.
It still took me half a day to find what I needed: his were common names, and there were five ‘John Thomas’s within my time frame. I eliminated those from obviously well-to-do families, but the last two had nothing to choose between them and I duly ordered copies of both birth certificates. Which was ‘my John’ I couldn’t tell, but I knew now that he had a middle name – and that it was either ‘James’ or ‘Henry’.
|Birth certificate of John Henry Thomas, born 1887|
That wasn’t terribly impressive after a week’s work. There was still the Canada end of the story to explore, but my budget didn’t extend further than a railfare to London, so I made an appointment at Canada House and hoped the archives there might give me some answers.
|Canada House, London|
They did. The immigration lists were swamped with Thomases, but having a full name and date of birth made all the difference, and two minutes’ search gave me exactly what I wanted. His name was John Henry Thomas, and he’d been known locally as ‘English John’. The nickname was hopeful – the kind of cognomen he might be given if he lived among people of a different race – but I was entirely unprepared for the reaction of the archivist’s assistant. ‘Oh, English John,’ he said. ‘Florence Caswell wrote something about him.’
That doesn’t happen much on the internet either.
It was plain sailing after that. Florence Caswell settled in Manitoba after the Second World War, and her little book of reminiscences was right there in the Canada House library. I flicked feverishly through the pages, and stopped short at the heading ‘English John’, because there beside it was a photograph. A bad one, an old one, (even worse now with second generation photocopying) but there he was in front of me – my John.
|Dr Livingstone, I presume?|
His story was there too. He was dead, of course, he’d died in the 1970’s, but he’d told Mrs Caswell his whole tale. He had indeed been passed by the NSPCC to Barnardo’s and in 1899 he was sent to Canada. His first employer was a farmer who was clearly unable to get enough work out of the 11 year old child and returned him to the Toronto base after only two months. His second was a farmer in Saskatchewan, but John ran back to the Distribution House in Winnipeg after only a few weeks. His third was another farmer who worked him for 17 hours a day, and when John ran this time he didn’t bother heading for Barnardo’s. He went for the wilderness and a life of freedom.
It took him a while to reach it. He was never a beggar and took work where he could find it, but eventually joined forces with a French Canadian carpenter who rowed with him down the Red River as far as Manigotagan. Boudrais found work in a sawmill there, but John refused the offer of occasional odd jobs and rowed on for Lake Winnipeg. He kept himself as long as he could, but when the wild food ran out and his boat sprang a leak he sheltered from the storms on a central island and waited to die.
|Ojibwa canoe, late 19th century|
And there he was rescued, by a band of Saulteaux Indians seeking refuge from the same storm. White civilization of two different countries had failed him, but the Ojibwa respect and care for their orphans, and a particularly distinguished man named John Robert Bunn took John into his family to bring up as his own.
‘My’ John stayed with them all his life. Winters were spent fur-trapping near Clearwater Lake, and summers on the Fort Alexander Reservation, selling the furs to factors and socializing with other Indians. John even married one, although this seems to have been only at his adoptive father’s suggestion because ‘he said she was a good cook.’ It was still a happy life, and ultimately a prosperous one – when Bunn died he bequeathed John his trapline, and for the first time the ‘Home Boy’ had a home and a business of his own.
|Saulteaux (Plains Ojibwa) Indians in 1887|
Mrs Caswell gave much more detail than that, and my own story should have ended there too, but the narrative threw up just too many new leads to ignore. I read how he’d turned up on her doorstep one day clutching a letter, and when she read it to him they were astounded to find it was from his half-sister. The sister was dead now, but she gave a great human interest to a possible film story, and the way she’d traced her brother offered something more. She’d read about him in an interview reprinted from an original in The Free Press Weekly Prairie Farmer – and Mrs Caswell gave the date of January 1952.
I had to read it. I’d heard John’s story in Florence Caswell’s voice, but here was a chance to hear it in John’s. The Prairie Farmer wasn’t the kind of periodical I’d expect to find in the Colindale Newspaper Library, but Manitoba has a big library of its own, and after just one phone call they dug out the article and sent me a photocopy through the post. Here.
It’s nothing really, just a little ‘local interest story’, but to me it was fascinating, and the laconic tone of John’s voice seemed almost audible. He talked of his time ‘on the bum’, how he’d eat most things but ‘backed up’ on night owls and skunk, and spoke of ‘the white man’ as if he weren’t one himself. His vagueness as to his past was interesting, and when he only guessed his age at ‘63-64’ I had the extraordinary sensation of knowing more about this man than he knew himself. More, perhaps, than he’d like, and it gave me a little pang to see him describe his father as a ‘doctor’, when I knew him to have been a tin miner who could only mark an X for his name when he registered his son’s birth. Unless, of course, John was illegitimate…
That’s when I suddenly wanted to stop. I knew all I needed to know, and it was time to wrap things up for Central. There was one last duty to find out if John had left any papers on his death, but the health administrator I spoke to in Winnipeg told me his final nursing home had been pulled down and its papers were in the incinerator. End of the line, but as I typed up the paperwork it occurred to me there was one last stone left unturned. As an ignorant Brit, the name ‘Fort Alexander’ had initially conjured up images of wooden stockades out of ‘Custer of the West’, but I’d had a bit of an education since then and decided it was worth a try. I picked up the phone, dialled International Directory Enquiries, and asked casually to be put through to Fort Alexander in Manitoba.
|Church in Fort Alexander Reservation|
The ringing tone started. A secretary answered, and put me through to a charming young man in the Cultural Centre who didn’t seem in the least surprised to hear what I wanted. ‘Oh yes,’ he said cheerfully. ‘I know about English John. He was my grandfather.’
Now that’s something you never get on the internet.
It was a wonderful conversation, but it soon became clear there was no great coincidence involved since it was believed John had had ‘a number’ of children. Whatever his marriage had been like, John Thomas had clearly lived up to his name, and it was lovely to think of lots of little descendants of that once tragic Barnardo boy running round happy and free. When I started researching him I never thought the end of his story would make me smile.
And it was the end. Central did pursue the idea for a while, but nothing was ever made, and as I moved into a new career as script editor I forgot all about it – until now. As I was digging out the material for this blog I wondered how much easier a job I’d have had if the internet had been around, and tried a few Google searches to find out.
Nothing. Zilch. I found a few snippets on Bunn, but John Henry Thomas seemed as invisible as he was when I first started seeking him. Then I tried the usual google-fu things, focussing on ‘Caswell’, narrowing down to the smallest town in his history (Bissett in Manitoba), and found a wonderful little local history site devoted to the area. They had a picture gallery, and among the thumbnails one jumped out at me.
|(c) The Bisset and Area Historical Society|
Yep. The ‘Jack’ was worrying, but I right-clicked for metadata, and up it comes as ‘english john henry’ and I knew it was my man. So is this:
|(c) The Bissett and Area Historical Society|
Dr Livingstone works on the net as well, it seems.
But not entirely, because that was all I found. No story, no details, none of the information I’d had to run round so desperately to find out. The internet can only give back what someone’s put in, and it looks as if no-one else has troubled to ‘put in’ the story of English John.
And that makes me think. If he’s not here, who else is missing? What other fascinating stories are out there that the net hasn’t even touched?
Maybe we should unplug the broadband, switch off the computer – and go and find out.