Note: There is a very insightful presentation (38:26) at the UK National Archives on the subject of British child migration that is of much relevance to this article and can be listened to in accompaniment (you can also read the presentation transcript here).
There’s a fair chance that if you live in Australia or Canada, you may have a ‘home child’ somewhere in your ancestry. Between 1869 and the 1960s, at least 150 000 children between the ages of three and fourteen were sent abroad to other locations in the British Empire/Commonwealth (primarily Canada and Australia, but also in significant numbers to New Zealand and South Africa. Ostensibly a scheme to relocate orphans and impoverished children to places where they could find better opportunities, the results were far from positive for many of the children the scheme was designed to benefit.
While many children sent abroad did indeed find good families to live with, far too many did not, as many children were placed in institutional farms or with families merely looking for cheap sources of labour. Children sent abroad often found themselves quarantined, then given nametags and put on trains en route to their new ‘home’. Many Home Children had brothers and sisters that were sent abroad with them, only to lose touch with them completely upon arrival since little attention was paid to familial relations when it came to placing children in homes or farms. Others were falsely told that they were orphans when instead they had actually been abandoned or separated (and in some cases, simply removed from squalid family homes).
Upon arriving at the farms or homes, male children were typically placed into an apprenticeship (essentially an indentured labour contract bonding the child until adulthood), where the idea was that they would pick up some sort of trade they could then employ themselves with upon reaching adulthood. Female children were placed into service as domestics, and younger children were expected to be adopted outright. Were most of these children properly supervised, this could have been a positive experience (and for many thousands who did wind up in good situations, it indeed was a welcome change from the poverty of their homes; others saw both the good and the bad of it all). Instead, lacking regular inspections by government authorities, many suffered through a wide range of physical, mental, neglectful, and sexual abuses and never received the wages they were entitled to for their work nor the educations they had been promised. Many families often used them as ‘spare children’: a way to ensure their own children could receive high-end educations at good schools without losing out on labour. There was also the shame and stigma of being an unwanted child.
The term ‘Home Children’ derives from the institutional children’s homes and workhouses that sent many of the children abroad. While homeless and destitute children had been sent to settler colonies abroad since at least 1618, mainly to alleviate labour shortages, 1869 was the pivotal year for child migration within the British Empire/Commonwealth. This was the year that philanthropists such as Annie MacPherson, Maria Rye, and Thomas Barnardo inaugurated charitable schemes that would ultimately send thousands of British and Irish children overseas permanently in cooperation with a British government eager to relieve itself of the stresses of overpopulation brought on by continual industrial expansion and urban migration following the Industrial Revolution.
MacPherson, a Scotswoman who had converted to evangelical Quakerism, had been greatly affected by the poverty she had witnessed after moving to London; in particular, the horrific conditions experienced by many in the East End in the wake of the 1866 cholera epidemic. Destitute children of the era were typically forced into labour conditions equivalent for many to child slavery. Those who resorted to pickpocketing for sustenance were often placed in adult prisons. In 1869, MacPherson opened her first children’s home, the Home of Industry in Spitalfields. She also arranged for 50 families to be sent to Canada to find better opportunities for themselves. Within a short amount of time, this led to MacPherson establishing a network of group homes in Ontario and Quebec during the following year; one that would grow over the next few decades until World War I. The MacPherson organisation would merge with that of the Liverpool Sheltering Home in 1920.
8 100 children came through this MacPherson home in Stratford, Ontario between 1883 and 1919 before being ultimately being placed on farms or in private homes. Some would go on to find good homes; most were obtained as domestic labour. Note the commemorative plaque in front.
Maria Rye, based out of Liverpool, worked primarily with female children, having already established herself as an assistant to educated adult females looking to move abroad (a conservative woman born of privilege, Rye felt it important that emigrant men be able to marry women of their own social standing). Once turning her attention to from women to girls in 1869, Rye’s agency would be responsible for over 3 600 children being sent abroad to here reception centre at Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, after which they would be moved into the employs of various families as domestics (Rye also sent boys to farms; for each child, she would collect £10 from local authorities. When one considers she sent at least 10 000 children to Canada, and that £10 then is the equivalent of £450 today, that’s an intake equivalent to £4.5 million (US$7.078 million) in modern-day funds).
Other philanthropists of the day also began paying for children to be housed, most notably Thomas Barnardo, an Irish Protestant doctor working in London and the man who would ultimately send the most children abroad of anyone. Barnardo not only practised medicine but evangelised to London’s working class, leading him to become all too aware of the city’s poverty. In 1870, Barnardo opened his first children’s home in Stepney; by his death, there would be 115 such homes across the UK. The ability to operate and maintain these homes was dwarfed by the number of children sent off to the homes by parents and relatives who could not afford to pay, or did not wish to pay, for their care. It was in the 1880s that Barnardo began arranging for removal of children to places such as Canada, where the kids could be hired out as apprentices, farmhands, and domestics if there were no families willing to adopt them. By the turn of the century, nearly every second child immigrant to Canada came via the Barnardo’s organisation.
Left: Thomas John Barnardo. Right: A turn-of-the-century child ploughing at a Barnardo’s Industrial Farm in Manitoba.
Barnardo’s homes and farms paid for themselves via the various money-making schemes employed within them to keep the children occupied. His care homes and farms were accused of not maintaining proper sanitary conditions, and Barnardo himself was accused of not maintaining proper control over the children and the people running his myriad institutions (keep in mind, there were thousands of children in dozens of homes within the Barnardo’s system at any given time). The last Barnardo’s orphanage closed in 1989, and the organisation has admitted culpability in the child migration scheme. Today, its widespread operations are geared toward assisting local children’s services, serving over 100 000 children across the UK.
Though the intentions of MacPherson, Barnardo, and most of the philanthropists were found to be honest, the manner in which their charitable schemes were actually carried out left much to be desired; as early as 1875, there were formal investigations into the conditions child migrants lived in. For Barnardo, one of the criticisms levied against him included kidnapping children from parents without their consent – which he openly admitted, believing that he was rescuing children from parents leading ‘infamous and immoral lives’. Maria Rye, who was not motivated out of religious belief but rather out of class standing, was derided as being detached, inattentive and brusque with her charges (witness this cartoon by the famous illustrator of Dickens, George Cruikshank, of Rye and her accomplices shovelling dozens of gutter children into the back of a wagon to be hauled away).
In Australia, the child migrations of this sort accelerated after World War II, beginning in 1947 and continuing into the late 1960s (although there were people such as Kingsley Fairbridge who were sending children to Australian institutions as early as 1912). Here, the goal was not just to remove children from the United Kingdom, but also to supply the recipient country with sufficient ‘white stock’. Home Children in Australia may be included alongside institutionalised Aboriginal children (the Stolen Generations) and other non-indigenous children in institutional care within the larger the broader term ‘Forgotten Australians’ – the half-million children who suffered through various levels of physical and emotional abuse after being placed in orphanages and foster homes administered by various state, charitable, and religious groups).
Unaccompanied migration of minor children was banned in Canada beginning in 1925, largely due to the tales of abuse surrounding Home Children (it’s not a coincidence that it was after this that children began being shipped to Australia). The Canadian government designated 2010 the ‘Year of the British Home Child’ but has stated that it will not issue an apology for its role in the scheme similar to those issued by the Australian government in 2009 and the United Kingdom in 2010, citing ‘limited public appetite for official government apologies for tragic events of the past’. The province of Ontario has declared every 28 September since 2010 to be British Home Child Day. It is believed that at least 100 000 of the children involved in the programme ended up in Canada, and at least ten percent of the Canadian population are descended from Home Children (including the former leader of the Canadian opposition, Gilles Duceppe). For all of the countries involved, the saga of the Home Children is just one of the many institutional abuses committed against children during the 19th and 20th centuries that they are only in recent years coming to terms with.
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