Monday 6 August 2012

Frederick Shortt's Lament

 Lyrics by Marion Parsons © 2002, music traditional

True story of an English “Barnardo Boy” who came to Canada as a farm labourer in the early 1900’s.

The waves that took my father’s ship left us a desperate house
Twas more than mother could hope to do to fill three empty mouths
My brother, he was too young to part, my sister was too dear
It fell on me to play the man, and I in my sixth year.

My mother said, “It won’t be far, twill be just for a while.
Be good, be strong, and say your prayers, just like on dear Wight Isle.”
She packed my clothes and my Testament, I put aside my toys
And knocked upon the doorway of Barnardo’s Home for Boys.

    How little did my mother know
    When she begged me, “Fred, don’t cry,”
    The waves would carry me off as well
    That this was our goodbye.

Those lonely months on the mainland, my home and friends I missed
Until the day I found my name at the head of the Canada list
I’d go across the ocean wide to be a farmer’s ward
And sell my small hands’ labour for my schooling, bed, and board.

They brought me pen and paper the morning that I sailed
My news and my fondest wishes to family then were mailed
With a trunk and blessing for each of us, we queued up at the dawn
To board that good ship’s steerage, and set off for Saint John.

    How little did my mother know
    When she led me from her door
    My fortune lay in Canada
    I’d ne’er see England more.

We rode the train to Toronto town, amazed by miles of trees
The farmers came from all around to pick what boy they’d please
I went to a St. Thomas farm, where I spent some decent years
Until my boss sold off his land, left me with nought but tears.

My next boss lived in Utterson, George Truesetter by name
I worked like hell to earn my keep, but got his belt and blame
His children all went off to school, but I was left behind
The cows and pigs I tended were the best friends I could find.

    How little did my mother know
    When she gave me to their care
    The lands that I would travel in
    The burdens I would bear.

As soon as I was old enough I took my clothes and pay
And married sweet little Alice Greer, one bright and blessed day
We built a house on her parents’ land, right here by Skeleton Lake
We cleared the trees and bred the stock for all our children’s sake.

My boys work hard and do their share, but I won’t let them miss school
My girls will never be lone or shamed, though they don’t know wealth or jewel
And as for me and my Alice, well, we’re better off than then
These walls are humble but they’re my own, I’ll never leave again.

Fred Shortt was the great-grandfather of a friend on mine; his life story was related to me by his son via my friend and her father. I was pleased to be able to get a recording to the grandfather (Fred's son) shortly before his death.

I have a special affection for this song as it was the first of the current generation of songs I'm writing, i.e., based in true history and drawing on traditional motifs and melodies.

Set to the melody "Tramps and Hawkers".  There is a good article about the Barnardo "home children" here: Winnipeg Free Press.


  1. As a great niece to a British Home Child... WOW! This was brilliantly put together! You not only summed up one home child's life, but basically the whole lot of them. Truly marvelous. Thank you.

  2. Having recently learned I am related to a few deceased British Home Children and learning of the horror many of them endured I find this song very touching and meaningful. Ty for it. I came across it through Lori Oschefski.