Emma Maitland Stirling (1839-1907)
‘a prickly, perhaps injudicious, but forceful pioneer’
Background: Emma Maitland Stirling was born in Edinburgh on 15th December 1839 as the youngest of 12 children into a relatively well-off family: her Scottish father, John Stirling of Eldershaw, was a goldsmith, her North American mother, Elizabeth Stirling (nee Willing), a descendant of the first president of the Bank of the United States.
While born in Edinburgh, Emma grew up in St Andrews. Her childhood experiences in the town had a profound impact on her. The family home, Deans Court, was placed opposite the ruins of St Andrews Cathedral and close to the town’s relatively poor fishing quarters. Seeing and interacting with the people living in these quarters, particularly the children, led to Emma stating:
‘Ever since I can remember the suffering and cries of these children, ‘my neighbors,’ were a great distress to me…From that time to help them in some way or other became the business of my life.’
From the age of 12, Emma thus started to work in and around St Andrews on issues relating to children’s welfare and education. This included writing ‘The History of a Pin’ (1861), a book offering moral lessons for children. This gained prominence in the UK, and subsequently also the US. Her philanthropic activities, begun in earnest when she moved to Edinburgh in 1876.
Philanthropy: Having become well off through inhering a substantial sum of money from her parents, as well as from the income provided by her book, Emma was touched by the needs of Edinburgh’s children. Thus, in 1877, she funded and opened the Stockbridge Day Nursery. From Mondays to Saturdays, the Nursery provided care for young children of working mothers. Later that year, Emma decided to expand her activities and set up a shelter for homeless children. Within a short time, and heavily reliant on Emma’s own resources, the organisation was running eight Homes across Edinburgh, including Edinburgh’s first home for abused children.
Initially referred to as ‘Miss Stirling’s Homes’, the appointment of an advisory committee in 1884 led to a renaming of her initiative as the Edinburgh and Leith Children’s Aid and Refuge Society. Merging with a similar organisation from Glasgow in 1885, this society is considered as the root of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. It is estimated that during the first decade of Emma’s organisation, Emma had a total of 300 children in her care and spent around £8,000 (around £700,000 in 2018 money) of her own funds. However, after squirrels with what she considered to be her ‘advisory’ board, Emma resigned from the organisation in 1887, stopped her subsidies, and started to pursue other avenues independently.
One idea that had previously caught Emma’s eye – and which was more widely discussed in the UK at the time – was child emigration. With land and resources cheaper abroad, transporting children to countries such as Canada appeared to be a cost effective way of removing children from poverty and cruelty, and of offering them better chances. After initially exploring opportunities in Canada in 1882, Emma thus started a child emigration scheme to an estate she had bought and moved to in Aylesford, Nova Scotia, in 1886. This scheme grew and was used by a number of other Scottish organisations in the children welfare field up to 1895.
However, the scheme ended badly for Emma; the emigration of children to Canada resulted in a number of major legal disputes involving parents, carers, the Edinburgh and Leith Children’s Aid and Refuge Society and Emma herself. Areas of concern included questions as to whether some parents had or had not agreed to their children being moved abroad, the treatment, placement and whereabouts of children in the scheme, as well as legal responsibilities and associated costs.
Unpopular with her previous colleagues in Edinburgh who felt left abandoned after Emma’s departure, unpopular with parents whose children she had removed without their consent, and unpopular with Nova Scotians who felt patronised and resented her litigious attitude, the final straw for Emma’s work in children’s welfare came on 3rd April 1895: under mysterious circumstances, her house and a barn on her Canadian estate were burnt down. She thus decided to close down the estate in July 1895 and retired to the US. Emma died in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, USA, on 2nd September 1907.
As Ewan at el conclude: taken together all of “[t]his has contributed to the loss from the record of a prickly, injudicious, but forceful pioneer”.
Ewan, E, Innes S, and Reynolds S (eds) (2006), The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women. From the earliest times to 2004, Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh
Kohli, M (2003), The Golden Bridge, Young Immigrants to Canada 1833-1939, Natural Heritage Books: Toronto
Willard, FE and Livermore, MA (eds.) (1893) , Stirling, Miss Emma Maitland, in “A Women of the Century. Fourteen Hundred Biographical Sketches Accompanied by Portraits of Leading American Women in all walks of life”, Charles Wells Moulton: Buffalo NY, 688-689
Illustration: Based on and modified from illustration ‘Auntie and her School’, p. 141 in E.M.S (1868) The History of A Pin, London: T. Nelson and Sons, Paternoster Row; Edinburgh and New York
Deans Court: https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/media/residential-and-business-services/studentaccommodationservices/residences/deanscourt/Deans_Court_03.jpg
Emma’s gravestone https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/95696751#view-photo=65953730