Grace Ruth Sillett
She celebrated her birthday on the same day her father died. She had just turned 7 years of age. It was June 19, 1899. It was a day in which a family of seven children under the age of 12 and their mother, a young pregnant widow, experienced loss and sadness that was never to end. Less than a year later, the loss would only become more intense. Following the birth of her eighth child, this now destitute mother agreed to have four of her daughters removed from her care. For one of those children, Grace, the sadness would change its focus from the early death of a loved one, to a life lived apart from family members an ocean way. It was a sadness that was to last a lifetime.
Grace Ruth Sillett was born on June 19, 1892, in the little village of Bungay, Suffolk, along the River Waveney. She was the third child of Harry Arthur Sillett, a Pressman at the local Chaucer Bookbinder, and his wife, Margaret Ann. At the age of 39, Harry succumbed, after a bitter battle with throat cancer. Margaret had been granted financial assistance for several months from the local church relief committee; but, she struggled, taking in laundry and sewing to help support her children. Close monitoring and unannounced visits by the committee resulted in the authorities threatening to move Margaret and her children to a workhouse, if she did not take better care of her home and her children.
Refusing the workhouse, Margaret, instead, permitted her four middle children to be taken under care: Edith went to live with and work for a local baker; Doris and Minnie went to the Girl’s Orphanage in Lowestoft; and, Grace was taken under the care of Dr. Barnardo’s Organization. Prior to being transported to Canada, Grace was placed with an elderly couple in Thorndon, Suffolk. One of the few things she kept all her life was a booklet. Written inside were the words, “From Uncle Alfred Green, Thorndon, Suffolk”.
Grace left from Liverpool to Portland, Maine, on September 26, 1902 on the S.S. Colonian, along with over 200 other children, all ‘in transit’ to Barnardo’s in Canada. Within a few days of arriving at Hazelbrae in Peterbourough, Ontario, she was living with a family in Brighton. Over the next several years, until she turned 18, Grace was placed in three different homes, two of which provided her with an education and supportive, caring relationships. One of those friendships lasted until her death. Yet, the purpose of training her as a domestic was always a reminder as evidenced in the reports by the l Barnardo representative and contacts with the placements. Except for telling her own children that she came to Canada to be a companion to a little girl, Grace never told them anything further about her early life. When she turned 18, however, she did not become a domestic servant. Instead, she went to work as one of the early telephone operators in Brighton.
In April of 1914, Grace married William Angus Hillman of Aldborough Township in Toronto, Ontario. "Will", a Civil Engineer, was from a family whose Canadian roots had been established since the early 1800’s. Over the next 42 years, his work took Grace, and then their three children, Clyde, Harold and Muriel, to many parts of Canada, while he oversaw the design, development and building of bridges and dams. Throughout this time, Grace maintained a strong Christian faith; had an enjoyment of Whist, Bridge and music; and always cared about others who had less than she had. One story comes from the depression years, while she and Will lived in East Hawk Lake, Ontario. Men, who rode the rails across Canada searching for work, painted the roof of Grace and Will’s house with a big yellow X. Seen only from the rail cars on the hill above the house, the X was a sign that a good hot meal could always be had here. Grace’s son, Clyde, was told this story by one of the men who came down to the house. The man said Mrs. Hillman’s baked macaroni and cheese was known by hobos right across the country.
By at least 1923, Grace had managed to make contact with her mother and learned of step-siblings, a step-father, and also the death of her grandmother. She also learned that the whereabouts of three of her sisters had been lost to the family. But, in 1956, one of those sisters, who had ventured to Australia at the end of World War I, returned to England and searched for her lost history and her lost family. She found them. In 1965, Grace, and all but two of her siblings and step-siblings, united together in the little village that she had left so abruptly, 65 years earlier. Then, after many years, documents and records were found for the other two children who had became lost to the family. The enitre family is now together, even if on a piece of paper. Yet, it is a piece of paper quite different from the one that held the damning report that tore this family apart, all those years ago.
As a British Home Child, Grace was one of a group of close to 120,000 unique children in British and Canadian history. She died January 25, 1976 in Niagara Falls, Ontario and is buried with her husband and son, Harold, in Lundy’s Lane Cemetery. If she was still alive today and knew how much these children are now honoured and valued, it is hoped, that despite her sadness and loneliness, she would have become proud of her place in this history.
Submitted in respect and with love, Susan (Hillman) Brazeau, Granddaughter, 2016