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Our Children in Old Scotland and Nova Scotia
Chapter V - German Children


IN 1883 a very strange thing was brought to my knowledge at the Day Nursery. It happened in this way :—

One day, about the end of May, a man called to apply for the admission to the Day Nursery of his motherless child, aged about four years. He said he was a German, and could speak very little English. He gave the name of N—, and said he was a chemist’s labourer. The nurse supplied him with the usual certificate. He seemed unwilling to go away, and after a time made her understand he now wished a certificate for the Home, the existence of which he had discovered since he entered the house. She told him she must ask me for that, which she accordingly did at my next visit. It seemed to me a most necessary case, being, as I was led to believe, that of a little motherless foreigner, who had no other means of being taken care of. In a few days the child was brought, but instead of being four years old, looked about six or seven. She remained in the Home all summer. N— visited her frequently, and seemed very anxious about her; in fact, was inclined to be intrusive, and to disregard the hours at which visitors were expected. However, we made all due allowance for his ignorance of our ways, and things went on smoothly enough. All this time I had never met him, though I had several times sent him a message that I should like to talk to him. In August I was away from home, and received a letter from him, not very coherent, written partly in German, partly in broken English. So far as I could understand it, the point was to beg me to admit another German child into the Home, whom he expected shortly to arrive from Germany. I felt provoked at his presuming to bring children from Germany for no apparent reason but to take advantage of the Home. However, as I could not decipher the letter to my own satisfaction, and was to be absent for some weeks, I thought it safer to ask our doctor to go and see him, to find out the truth of the matter, and, if necessary, receive the other child. After some correspondence Dr. Notley wrote to me that he could not understand the man; he had changed his address once or twice; that sometimes he said one thing, sometimes another; that the second child had dropped out of the question, and was not coming to Scotland in the meantime; that I had better make a point of seeing him (the applicant) as soon as possible, adding, he could speak English as well as any one.

On my return to Edinburgh I arranged for N— to come and see me at the Home. He at once began the conversation by asking me to receive another little girl.

I said, "Is this the one you expected in August?" He replied, "No; that child stopped in London, where she has been put into a Home for German orphans; this, madam, is another, a third little girl."

Startled out of all caution, I remarked, "How very extraordinary! What do you mean by it? What are you doing with all these children?"

He said, "Oh, madam, it is quite natural; the first is my own child; the second—well, her friends’ plans for her are changed; the third, it is still well. I want a companion for my own child, and I prefer a German to a Scotch girl."

I felt it was not all well. The man looked odd. I suspected something wrong, but could not tell what. I thought the best thing was to be quiet and let him go on telling me anything he chose; so I made a good listener, and, except by a question now and then, did not interrupt him in a long and circumstantial account of his wife’s illness and death, when his little girl was born in a poor neighbourhood close by where we were then sitting. The truth of this I never doubted, and expressed my sympathy.

At last it occurred to me to say, "Who helped you to take care of your little girl after her mother’s death till now?"

He said, "She was with my friends in Germany."

I asked, "Why didn’t you leave her there? or why don’t you send her to them again? "

His English failed, he no longer understood, until at length he informed me his object in getting the third one was to have her as his housekeeper very soon, and by-and-by to make his wife. I felt the only safety for the poor child was to receive her into the Home as quickly as possible.

Accordingly I gave him the certificate required, which he got filled up, and in a few days there arrived from the German boat, a fair, pretty little child of nine years old, who could not speak a word of English, and seemed dreadfully afraid of N—. She was in the Home about a fortnight, when he claimed the privilege of taking her out, as our children were allowed to go to their friends once a week, and arrived at Burntisland with her (where I was staying for a short time). He insisted on my allowing him to send her back to Germany. This I positively refused to do; and having warned him that I should inquire thoroughly into the circumstances, I allowed him to take the child away with him, having promised to take her straight to the Home. No sooner had I done so than I felt miserable, and after a sleepless night got up in time for the early boat from Burntisland to Granton at 8 a.m.; drove quickly to the Home at Stockbridge, only to hear, as might be expected, there had been no tidings of them. From thence I proceeded to a German pastor in the neighbourhood. From him I learned it was a dreadful business altogether. That this man had had a succession of little girls, each personating his motherless child; that they had come and gone no one knew whither; that unless these children, now in his hands, were to have an awful fate, I must get and keep hold of them by any means, even if I had to get the police to help me. To this I not unnaturally responded, "Then will you come and help me?"

"No, he could not do that; he was afraid." I could not understand it, and wasted a few moments in coaxing and arguing with him. Finally, he advised me to go to the German Consul, who was bound to interfere. This I did, was courteously received, but obtained no sympathy nor any promise of help. Mr. R— was strongly of opinion I should leave the whole thing alone.

Finding I was obstinate, he decided to tell me all he knew, and taking out a bundle of papers, translated for my benefit what sounded to me like a revelation of the greatest wickedness I had ever heard of. I need not say I left the office more determined than ever to rescue the child.

On returning to the Home, and finding the Nurse too frightened to be capable of helping me very much, I despatched one of the working girls to the "land," or block of houses where N— lived, and told her to ask the women on the stair if they could help me, charging the girl to bring the child to me at once. E— was an active, well-grown girl of about seventeen, and set off, nothing loath. When she got to the stair where the wretched abode was, she heard a child crying piteously, and at the top of the stair the sound seemed to come from an empty attic where the poor little thing had been locked in. But there was a broken window opening on the landing; and having satisfied herself that it was A—’s voice, she, E —, persuaded her to climb up on the inside of the wall, while she could help her through the aperture, and by a good jump get free. So that in a very few minutes the little prisoner found her way back to me, having apparently cried till she could cry no more. I thereupon decided to take her to Merelton, Wardie (my own house), believing she would be perfectly safe, and no one dare to molest us there. In this I reckoned without my host. The events of the forenoon I have described took place on Friday; and the Sunday following being the Communion Sabbath, all the grown-up people in my house wished to go to Church. To allow them to do so, a big girl was brought from one of the country Homes to cook the dinner and look after the little children, of whom there were three or four besides the German child.

I having a very bad headache, could not go to Church, and stayed in bed. After the rest of the party had started, the children came to say their hymns to me for Sunday for a little, and then I believe I fell asleep. I was awakened by a knock at the door. "Please, ma’am, a gentleman wants to see you."

I speculated in vain what gentleman it could be. Visitors are rare in Church hours in Scotland. At length the girl hit on a name not very unlike N—. I jumped out of bed in perfect horror, and was told he was downstairs. On opening my bedroom door, I saw to my surprise the man standing at the top of the staircase close to my room door.

"What do you want?" I said. "What are you doing here? I am in my room, and can’t be disturbed. You must go downstairs at once."

Rather to my surprise, and much to my relief, he obeyed me, but after getting to the bottom seemed to gain determination and proceeded to demand the child. Where was she? Was she in the house? A good deal followed that I did not understand. Again the question, Was she in the house? I did not feel called on to tell him; so contented myself with generalities and civilities,—asked him to be quiet, to see this person and that; above all things to leave the house.

The truth was my real position began to dawn on me. Here I was in a lonely house with no grown-up person within hearing; our neighbours had all gone to Church; what could I do? I could pray to God, not audibly. I went on speaking quietly to the man, whose threats had now waxed furious. "He would kill us all. He would empty the house. He would either have my life or the child. He could take both. He had brought this with him (showing me a stick loaded at the ends), and he would let me feel the weight of it." All this, and a great deal more, accompanied by a perfect torrent of bad language in English, and apparently in German. I could only stand still at the top of the staircase, and try to remonstrate. I heard my own voice like a millwheel far off; I was getting very faint, but all the time in my heart I was talking to God, and praying Him not to let that man get the child. I believed her to be in the nursery with the other children, and the door was just at the bottom of the staircase. I prayed Him not to let the little ones open it. This went on for twenty minutes. Why N— did not give me the knock on the head he said he wanted to, I don’t know, except, I suppose, that God did not let him.

At last help came: the children began to come home from church. The first was a little orphan girl who lived in the house, and hearing the man making a noise, and my voice speaking as if in distress, she could not bear it, but rushed past him and got upstairs to me, and then went for a man a little way off. Then the little boys from the Boys’ Home on Granton Road, who in those days always dined with us on Sunday, came in, and when the little messenger brought the neighbour she had gone to seek, and others began to appear from church, our visitor thought, I presume, he had better make off. Then policemen came, and one of these, an old friend in the neighbourhood, insisted upon bringing it to the notice of the authorities at Leith, and for the sake of the children I felt it would be better to have a full inquiry.

In a day or two a man and his wife—Germans—who who had been supposed to be respectable, but who turned out to be accomplices, called on me separately and used every argument to dissuade me from this course. The man even again threatened my life, say ing, "It is for your own sake, I warn you. You had better think while you have time." To which I replied they must do as they liked: I could not make bargains with a man like N—.

I am very thankful I made no compromise, as after a full inquiry through the Foreign Office, involving no doubt much that was painful to me, the Home Office gave instructions that the port of Leith should be watched by the police, so that no children should be allowed to land unless accompanied by their parents or well accredited people in charge of them, and that immediate notice should be given to the authorities of the arrival of any such; and thus the trade in German children was stopped in Scotland. I was the means of seven children being delivered from this man. I may mention here that no sooner was the Criminal Law Amendment Bill passed than the man N— was safely lodged in prison for a similar offence, and his accomplices found it convenient to leave Edinburgh, so that the gang was broken up. The following is an extract from a personal letter received from the Procurator Fiscal for the county of Midlothian. Referring to this case, he says:—

EDINBURGH, Nov. 1st, 1884.

MY DEAR Miss Stirling,-

I can see no possible objection to your making reference in your paper to the case of the German children. The result fully justified your interference. And all friends of the movement for the protection of children should be indebted to you for your persevering endeavours to get to the bottom of the business.

Yours very truly,

ROBERT L. STUART.

I had also the great satisfaction of receiving the thanks of the German Government in the accompanying letters from Count Münster, the German Ambassador

IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY,

LONDON, March 8th, 1884.

MADAM,— In reply to your kind note of February 26th, I beg to state that the question therein contained has received my most careful attention. The report which the Consul-General has, on my request, just made on this matter, shows that all necessary steps have been taken to prevent, and to cause a thorough inquiry in the matter by the competent authorities in Germany. In thanking you most sincerely for the great interest you take in the fate of these poor German children, I have the honour to be, Madam, very truly yours,

MUNSTER.

Also from the Imperial German Consul, Leith:—

Leith, March 1st, 1884.

DEAR Miss STIRLING,—

I am directed by Burgomaster Dr. Carl Petersen, the President of the Board of Foreign Affairs at Hamburg, to intimate to you the safe arrival in good health and spirits of the girl A. N—. I am at the same time instructed to express to you the best thanks, and the recognition of the High Senate of Hamburg, of the humane and carefully loving manner in which you have protected a daughter of a subject of that State.

The Imperial German Consul,

ADOLPHE ROBINOW


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