The thread about the Edinburgh Emigration Home for Destitute Children and the evangelical women who helped “poor homeless and destitute” girls to new lives in Canada

Looking up something else in a Post Office Directory, my eye was caught by a rather sad sounding listing for the Canadian Home for Friendless Girls in Lauriston Lane, Edinburgh; a street long since built over.

The Home was formed at a public meeting in December 1871 in Queen Street Hall in Edinburgh – organised by the Reverend and Mrs Blaikie – with the goal of establishing a missions to send “poor homeless and destitute girls” to the “rescue homes” in Canada of Miss Macpherson. Annie Macpherson was an evangelical Scottish Quaker who, moved by the poverty she saw in the East End of London in the late 1860s, had set up the Home of Industry in Spitalfield. She organised a scheme of assisted emigration for the destitute children from London to new lives in Canada. After education and training, they would be placed with a suitably Christian host family as a domestic servant. To this end she set up reception and “distribution” homes in Canada and made arrangements with a network of children’s homes back in Britain and Ireland who would provide the “recruits”.

Annie Macpherson, “a friend of neglected children”.

Annie Macpherson addressed the meeting in Edinburgh to testify to the success of the scheme; 800 children had already sent abroad to Canada. The Reverend William Garden Blaikie stated that premises had already been secured for the new venture in Edinburgh and a matron – Miss Tait – appointed. Margaret Blaikie, the minister’s wife, was to be secretary of the society and it was she who was the driving force behind the Home in Edinburgh. A temperance advocate and long-time president of the Scottish Christian Union (a women’s temperance society), it was during a visit to Canada in 1870 that she had met Annie Macpherson. She was so impressed with the work that she resolved to get involved when she returned home. Finding that there was no existing organisation in Edinburgh to become involved through, she decided to set one up of her own and invited Annie back to Scotland to speak in public at its formation.

Margaret Blaikie in 1895
Margaret Blaikie in 1895

The Home in Edinburgh took in “young women who have fallen from virtue and desire to redeem their character” or “young girls who have lost one or both parents or have living parents… of loose character.” (Boys were sent to Mr. Muir’s homes in either Yardheads in Leith or Musselburgh). Those girls admitted to the Home would be “clothed and taught and cared for” and “brought up in the ways of godliness and industry“. Ultimately they would be sent, suitably reformed and trained, to be placed in domestic service in Canada.

We are therefore as thoroughly convinced as ever that our scheme presents a merciful opening for many destitute children who would not otherwise escape the gulf of sin and misery on whose borders they have been born and reared.

Margaret Blaikie, writing to the North British Agriculturalist, May 1875

The name of the Home had quickly been changed to the Edinburgh Emigration Home for Destitute Children. In 1874 it reported that it had 16 girls resident, awaiting the journey to Canada. In 1875 it was 31. It was run by voluntary donation and fund-raising; Margaret Blaikie made it a point of founding principle to never make public appeal for funds. It obviously prospered as in 1880 the Home bought its premises at Lauriston Lane, and briefly closed them to refurbish and enlarge them, adding an additional wing with 4 extra bedrooms. It reopened in November 1881.

The Home was in a villa at 6 Lauriston Lane, built over first by the Royal Infirmary and then subsequent redevelopment when the hospital moved to the edge of the City.
The Home was in a villa at 6 Lauriston Lane, built over first by the Royal Infirmary and then subsequent redevelopment when the hospital moved to the edge of the City.

In its 20-or-so years of existence, some 700 children were removed from the homes of destitute and drunken families, and some 300 were “assisted” to emigrate, others were adopted or found relatives or positions in Scotland. Most of the girls sent from Edinburgh went to Annie Macpherson’s Marchmont Distribution Home in Belleville, Ontario,

The Marchmont Distribution Home. © Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County
The Marchmont Distribution Home. © Community Archives of Belleville and Hastings County

An 1892 publication noted that of the girls sent to Canada from Edinburgh, “at least ninety five percent have done well, and less than five percent have been unsatisfactory“. Its success was put down to distributing the girls widely over the country in family homes, rather than keeping them massed together in a central institution. The expansion of the Royal Infirmary in 1889 saw a compulsory purchase impending for the Home; advancing in age and noting that there were now larger organisations in Scotland carrying out work such as her own (in particular Quarrier’s Orphan Homes of Scotland), she decided it best to wind up her institution and retire. The proceeds of the purchase and the remaining funds of the Home were gifted to the Society for the Protection of Children.

It was while minister of the Pilrig congregation of the Free Kirk that the Rev. Blaikie had commissioned both the original church building (the second purpose-built church for the Free Kirk) and its replacement by a more lavish and permanent building on the opposite corner. It remains a landmark to this day on Leith Walk, even though it has long since been within the established Church of Scotland.

Pilrig Free Church, now Pilrig St. Paul's Church of Scotland. CC-by-SA 2.0 G Laird
The second Pilrig Free Church, now Pilrig St. Paul’s Church of Scotland. CC-by-SA 2.0 G Laird
The Rev. William Blaikie, by Elliott & Fry, 1901
The Rev. William Blaikie, by Elliott & Fry

Margaret publicly wrote that she and her husband had become “total abstainers” in the 1870s and “always worked in conjunction with [eachother].” As well as sharing a zeal for temperance with his wife, the Rev. Blaikie was also a prolific writer and pamphleteer and advocate of improving conditions for working people. He formed a society which commission the Pilrig Model Buildings to provide model workers housing, one of the first such instances in Edinburgh. They are now known as Shaw’s Buildings or Shaw’s Street / Terrace / Place and were a sort of progenitor of the later Colonies housing.

Pilrig Model Buildings
Pilrig Model Buildings

Around the same time that Mrs Blaikie stepped back from her work with the Home, the Reverend resigned as minister at Pilrig and took up a chair in theology with the Free Church’s New College, rising to become Professor of Divinity. He resigned in 1897, aged 77, and the couple retired to North Berwick where he would die in 1899 and Margaret in 1915, aged 92. Annie Macpherson died in 1904.

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