Friday, November 18, 2011



Your response was awesome.  Contact has been made and we’re edging closer to finding out just how a little girl, alone in 1900’s London found her way to Canada.

Camilla Maude Fleming was barely 11 years old when her life came crashing down.  First her father, George dies in a crane accident in the London docks area of Greenwich.  That is a disaster in itself.  Remember these are the days before work and safety and compensation; with their father’s death, their mother is left destitute.  The family has lost its breadwinner.

Constance Olivia Fleming, their mother, is pregnant with her last child.  Myrtle Grace will be born five months after her father’s death.  The eldest of eight, Bernard George is apprenticed to the electrical trade. The other six children, Isabel, Francis, Ernest, Olive, Camilla Maude and Constance Anna are aged between 3 and 13 years.

Living with the Flemings in London are the children’s Sweeny grandparents, the aged Anna and Alfred.  By now, 1901, they are both in their late seventies.  Alfred is already in a work house for the elderly.  Within a few short years of the father, George Fleming’s death in a work accident, his 37 year old wife dies, followed by his aged mother in law, Anna Sweeny, and finally her husband Alfred Sweeny. 

The Fleming brood, all eight, aged from 3 months to 17 years, are on their own.

The Sweeny’s life, Anna and Alfred, has not been easy.  Constance Olivia is their youngest child, the baby of their 16 children, most of them born in Worthing, Sussex in the years when Alfred was the respected Tax Collector for the Worthing Town Council and the family lived in comfort, wanting for nothing.

But by the time Constance Olivia is born in Swansea, Wales, the Sweeny family has fallen apart, Alfred has lost his position with the Council, he has been imprisoned, bankrupted, their family has separated with six of their children taking flight to Australia.  There has been a great deal of recrimination and remorse.

None of which helps the younger Flemings.

1901 census for Bluebell Orphanage showing Camilla Fleming aged 10
 With the surviving 12 Sweeny children, all adults by 1901, living far apart and some not even knowing the other’s whereabouts, the orphaned Fleming youngsters are farmed out to orphanages and homes.   The new baby Myrtle is adopted by a young couple living just a few blocks away.

Many youngsters in homes and orphanages in the UK were moved enmasse to Australia and to Canada during the second world war.  But the Atlantic transmigration had actually started some time before then.  In the case of Canada as early as the late 1700s.

A number of  children were earmarked for work on farms or in townships.  Often siblings were sent to the same foreign country, but separately to different provinces.  Some reunited later, much later.  Others like Camilla Fleming were absorbed into a new life, completely and utterly losing contact with home and family.

Camilla might even be one of the young English girls pictured here, fresh off the boat in New Brunswick, facing a new life in a new country.

Another of the orphaned Fleming children, Francis Ivor, will find his way eventually to Fiji, where an Aunt Geraldine he has never met, but no doubt has heard mentioned in letters to his Grandmother, then lived.

If you’ve been following my stories, you have read about Frank Fleming,  the WW1 pilot, government representative on Canton Island in the middle of the Pacific,  friend of Noel Coward;  you would know about his wife Lucy, and about the photos he took of my Grandmother, Maggie, his cousin.  Photos that resurfaced on the internet some 60 years after they had been taken.

And just recently you would have read my plea asking for help in contacting Linda Babiuk in Canada,  a lady who held the key to finding the long lost Camilla Maude Fleming, last heard of in 1901 in an orphanage on the outskirts of London.

We have made contact. Linda lives on Vancouver Island, curiously, a place my Reluctant Traveller and I visited and enjoyed on that 'Round the World' romp such a long time ago.   

 Linda is Camilla’s grand daughter, though she never knew her Gran by that name.  True to the tradition of many of the Sweeny children before her, at some time on her journey from England to Canada, Camilla has changed her name to Margaret. 

Why?  At this stage we have no idea.  Her present day family can only imagine the rocky path their Grandmother may have trod.  The loneliness and terror this little girl must have faced. 

Margaret-Camilla in later life.

Photo from Linda Babiuk’s family album.

The Sweeny children resorted to subterfuge to escape the shame of a father’s downfall.  Finding them in the various parts of the globe they finished up in, wasn’t at all easy, but find them we did, and who are ‘we’?

The Sweeny family’s descendants, grand children, nieces and nephews, all of us floating about in far flung corners of the globe...Peter, the two Kim’s, Malcolm countless others and me.  We chased clues, searched through old records, spent hours sitting in front of computers, discovered each other and eventually pieced together the story of an amazing family.  A family with an extraordinary number of secrets.

On my website you can follow the life story of the Four Sisters from Sussex, read the Ancestor Series about my Grandfather from Indiana, his Quaker origin and his showbiz life.

But while the Flemings in England have found this last missing member of their original family, the story of Camilla Maude is far from being complete.  Her life has yet to be traced.  Her movements from the orphanage in England to a life in Canada have yet to be unearthed.

But it is a start, and I for one, feel a warm glow of pleasure, a lost lamb returned to the fold.

As the story evolves I will keep you posted.  Meanwhile it’s marvellous to know we have kin in Canada,  welcome to the family, Linda and Cindy.

Robyn Mortimer November 2011