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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 14: Welfare •


Portrait of Thomas Barnardo

Thomas Barnardo

Child migration: philanthropy, the state and the empire

Stephen Constantine, Lancaster University

It is now recognised that the development of state social services in Britain in the 19th and 20th centuries did not eliminate the voluntary sector. (1) Moreover, it is often better to think of a partnership rather than a boundary between the two and of a relationship repeatedly renegotiated. A broader interpretation of the history of welfare should also find room for responses to perceived social problems that include imperial programmes as well as domestic practices - programmes that lasted deep into the 20th century. Some official and voluntary sector reactions to adult unemployment and to the perceived social problem of a surplus of unmarried women in Britain (and of unmarried men in white settler colonies) fit into this category. (2) The emigration of deprived and neglected children is a further striking example. (3)

Between 1618 and 1967 perhaps as many as 150,000 children, mainly in the care of poor law guardians or philanthropic organisations, were sent overseas unaccompanied by a parent to begin new lives in British colonies. (4) Most of them were between the ages of eight and fourteen, though some were younger, especially if they left with an older sibling. During the first couple of centuries, children were being sent as indentured servants to Virginia and other American colonies, some as convicted criminals, and others were later transported to the penal colonies in Australia. (5) However, the emigration of children in need rather than children in prison mainly took place between the 1860s and the 1950s. A few went to New Zealand, Southern Rhodesia and the Cape, but most went to Canada - probably as many as 90,000 between 1869 and the 1920s. A further 6-7,000 were despatched to Australia in the 20th century, half of them after 1945. (6)

At the peak of activities over 50 charitable organisations were involved in child (or juvenile) migration. Some were solely dedicated to the collection and despatch of orphaned or neglected children. One early practitioner was the philanthropist Captain Edward Brenton, whose Children's Friend Society sent over 1,150 youngsters mainly to the Cape between 1832 and 1841. (7) The operation which Maria Rye began in 1869 had by 1896 taken about 5,000 children to Canada. Similar organisations set up by Annie Macpherson in London in 1870 and by her sister Louisa Birt in Liverpool in 1873 had together resettled over 14,500 children in Canada by 1928. Likewise the homes founded by John Middlemore in Birmingham in 1872-3 had taken in and sent to Canada about 5,000 children by 1932. The Child Emigration Society, founded in 1911 and better known as the Fairbridge Society, was also dedicated solely to child migration, sending by 1960 nearly 3,000 children to its farm schools in Australia and British Columbia and to a college in Southern Rhodesia. (8)

For many other philanthropic enterprises, child migration was an attractive welfare option to be considered alongside continuing care in their refuge homes in the UK or fostering or adoption. For example, Quarrier's Homes, the first opened in 1871, sent just over 7,300 children to Canada by 1938 - around a third of the total number of children taken into their care. The Church of England Waifs and Strays Society, founded in 1881, sent over 3,000 children abroad, only about 5 per cent of its intake. National Children's Homes, a Methodist organisation established in 1869, also emigrated a modest proportion of the children they took into care, although still over 3,000. The largest operator came to be the homes established by Dr Barnardo. His organisation sent nearly 27,000 children to Canada between 1882 and 1928, and nearly 2,800 to Australia between 1921 and 1965. The annual outflow constituted between 14 and 19 per cent of children in the care of Barnardo's until 1907 when it declined, though substantial proportions were still sent.

While the charities raised huge amounts of money themselves to finance child migration and other activities, a partnership with public authorities was also secured. The Poor Law Act of 1850 (modifying that of 1834) allowed guardians in England and Wales to finance the emigration of suitable children in their care. However, boards did not themselves despatch parties overseas but used charities as their agents and supplied them with cash subsidies as well as with children. Although at times the Local Government Board and some guardians were hostile to child migration as a child care strategy, (9) some local authorities were still financing the exodus in the 1950s. (10) The work of voluntary societies engaged in child migration was still more evidently blessed officially when they began to receive substantial taxpayer subsidies from central government to meet the costs of passages and the outfitting of children under the terms of the Empire Settlement Act of 1922. The prestige of the charities involved also helps explain why such subsidies regularly survived scrutiny when from 1937 the legislation came up for renewal every five years, until the law was finally allowed to lapse in 1972. (11) Financial subsidies and other assistance provided by the governments of Canada and Australia further underlines a voluntary sector partnership with the state.

Child migration to the colonies was consistently presented as an appropriate method of coping with the large numbers of unsocialised, undisciplined, neglected or orphaned children, and those who were simply the children of the poor, crammed into British towns and cities. It was commonly feared that children not contained within conventionally constructed and properly-performing families were a danger to society as well as to themselves. Crime was one concern. Children above the age of seven were held to be criminally responsible (raised to the age of eight only in 1933), and hence about 1,500 boys and 100 girls convicted as criminals were transported to Australia before the practice stopped in 1853. (12) Child migration was also conceived as a form of rehabilitation for young criminals or to prevent youngsters slipping into bad ways. Between 1842 and 1852, a further 1,500 boys (after serving time in Parkhurst prison) were resettled in Australia (a few in New Zealand); and following legislation passed in 1854 and 1857, young offenders from reformatories and 'difficult' children from industrial schools were resettled in Canada - over 9,200 by 1914.

The notion that early emigration might in fact prevent later juvenile delinquency had inspired Captain Brenton and influenced later philanthropists. Pressing cases included children who apparently needed to be protected from 'immoral' parents or other family members by despatching them to new homes and new lives overseas, sometimes without parental knowledge, let alone consent. Barnardo's publicly stated in 1906 that 'For many of our children, emigration cuts the cord that in this country would bind them to degraded relatives and seriously handicap their futures'. (13) It was also plausibly, though often superficially, argued that job prospects for youngsters were brighter in under-populated Canada or Australia than in the overcrowded labour markets of Britain. The 'push' factor was particularly high when there were economic downturns in Britain as in the late 1860s or 1920s; and the demand for cheap labour in the developing rural areas of Canada and Australia was often high. The Fairbridge Society claimed in 1922 that thousands of children in Britain faced 'nothing better than casual labouring, unemployment and the streets' unless they were helped to seize the opportunities 'in our sparsely populated Empire'. (14) Moreover, rescuing children largely from grim urban and industrial Britain and relocating them in the rural spaces of Canada and Australia as farm workers (boys) or domestic servants (girls) was expected to benefit their health and also their morals. Middlemore Homes claimed in 1893 that the children it rescued were 'placed on Canadian farms, where, for the first time in their lives, they have looked Nature healthily in the face, and filled their lungs with fresh air and driven a cow to pasture'. (15) Several of those who launched child migration programmes had also been touched by evangelical zeal, like Annie Macpherson, William Quarrier and Thomas Barnardo, and all the major Christian denominations were involved. Hence a pressing concern was to secure the spiritual well-being of deprived children by settling them with Christian families in Canada or initially in denominational schools in Australia. Furthermore, especially from the early 20th century, supporters of child migration employed an imperial rhetoric to generate support. In 1911, Barnardo's appealed for funds to turn 'Nobody's children' into 'Empire Builders', (16) and in the 1920s the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society employed the concept of empire unity to describe a party of boys sent to Canada as 'more links fresh from the forge'. (17) 'This is not a charity', declared the Prince of Wales in 1934 of the work of the Fairbridge farm schools, 'it is an Imperial investment'. (18) In sum, sending children overseas to enjoy the resources and opportunities which the overseas empire was judged to contain was expected to benefit its white settler societies while easing social problems in Britain.

Children sent to Canada arrived at receiving homes, from where they were distributed mainly to farming folk in need of young workers, for example in rural Ontario. Few were adopted. Most were given bed and board and, as they got older, some wages. Others and especially those going to Australia in the 20th century were contained and trained in residential schools until they were of employment age. Many children 'made good' in the sense that they got jobs and enjoyed (usually) modestly successful living standards. A few untypical cases did exceptionally well, but some experienced abuse, in all forms. Moreover, probably the great majority suffered from the trauma, first, of their disadvantaged (or worse) backgrounds in the UK, then from the separation from that which was familiar when they were shipped overseas, and next from difficulties of all sorts endured in rural Canada and Australia (climate, hard physical work, loneliness, lost identities, living with a family but not being of the family). (19)

Only reluctantly with respect to child care and child migration did the British state redraw the line between public welfare services and private charity. By the early 1920s, the practice of allowing British children to be sent to Canada, as in effect, workers when child labour was no longer acceptable in Britain, was being criticised. (20). This coincided with a growing hostility from trade unionists and so-called child care specialists in Canada who, touched by eugenicist 'thinking', condemned child migrants as degenerate 'slum kids'. (21) Child migration to Canada virtually ceased following tighter government regulations introduced in 1925. But this blockage merely diverted the flow (though in diminished volume) to Australia where especially during and after the Second World War it was judged politically imperative to accelerate the growth of Australia's white and preferably British stock, even by importing 'orphans'. The British government remained broadly sympathetic to those calls and was reluctant to risk imperial rupture by turning off the supply. In effect, official British support for child migration was only eroded and then ended when, from the 1940s, child psychologists and child welfare workers in Britain came to place more emphasis upon family support, fostering and adoption for the well-being of children in difficulties, and consequently the supply of child migrants dried up. The reports of the Curtis and Clyde committees in 1946 and the substance of the Children Act of 1948 affected voluntary sector as well as public sector child welfare professionals. (22) Even so, the last party of Barnardo's children did not leave until 1967. When from the 1980s many distressed former child migrants drew public attention to their experiences, another common bond emerged between child care charities and government: their joint condemnation of the child migration programmes which formerly and jointly they had both so enthusiastically endorsed. (23)

  1. Compare the emphases of, for example, M. Bruce, The Coming of the Welfare State (London, 1961) and G. Finlayson, Citizen, State, and Social Welfare in Britain 1830-1990 (Oxford, 1994). Back to (1)
  2. S. Constantine, 'Empire migration and social reform 1880-1950', in Migrants, Emigrants and Immigrants: a Social History of Migration, ed. C. G. Pooley and I. D.Whyte (London, 1991), pp. 62-83. On single women see also A. J. Hammerton, Emigrant Gentlewomen: Genteel Poverty and Female Emigration 1830-1914 (London, 1979), L. Chilton, Agents of Empire: British Female Migration to Canada and Australia, 1860s-1930s (Toronto, 2007) and, for a contemporary account, G. F. Plant, S.O.S.B.W.: A Survey of Voluntary Effort in Women's Empire Migration (London, 1950). Back to (2)
  3. Early important studies are J. Parr, Labouring Children: British Immigrant Apprentices to Canada, 1869-1924 (London, 1980) and G. Wagner, Children of the Empire (London, 1982). More recent publications include M. Kohli, The Golden Bridge: Young Immigrants to Canada, 1833-1939 (Toronto, 2003); R. Kershaw and J. Sacks, New Lives for Old: the Story of Britain's Child Migrants (London, 2008); and R. Parker, Uprooted: The Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867-1917 (Bristol, 2008). Back to (3)
  4. Imperfect records have left uncertain figures: this total is cited in P. Bean and J. Melville, Lost Children of the Empire (London, 1989), p. 1. A. Gill, Orphans of the Empire: the Shocking Story of Child Migration to Australia (Sydney, 1998), p. 85, offers a range of 100,000 to as many as 180,000, though the larger totals include juveniles over the age of 14. Back to (4)
  5. B. M. Coldrey, '"...A place to which idle vagrants may be sent": the first phase of child migration during the 17th and 18th centuries', Children and Society, 13 (1999), 32-47. Back to (5)
  6. Figures here and below are mainly derived from sources cited in note 3. Back to (6)
  7. G. Blackburn, The Children's Friend Society: Juvenile Emigrants to Western Australia, South Africa and Canada 1834-42 (Northbridge, 1993). Back to (7)
  8. G. Sherington and C. Jeffery, Fairbridge: Empire and Child Migration (London, 1998). Back to (8)
  9. Between 1875 and 1883 the Local Government Board refused to sanction the emigration of pauper children following a critical report on the practices of Maria Rye, and anxieties occasionally resurfaced. Back to (9)
  10. J. S. Heywood, Children in Care: the Development of the Service for the Deprived Child (London 1978), p. 173. Back to (10)
  11. S. Constantine, 'The British government, child welfare, and child migration to Australia after 1945', Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 30 (2002), 99-132. Back to (11)
  12. Based on 5 per cent sample figures in L. L. Robson, The Convict Settlers of Australia (Carlton, Victoria, 1965), p. 182, 187. Back to (12)
  13. From the Streets and Highways, 1906, D236/A1/17/6, Liverpool University Archives. Back to (13)
  14. Our Children, c.1922, D296/F1/2, Liverpool University Archives. Back to (14)
  15. Birmingham Children's Emigration Homes, 20th Report, 1893, Birmingham City Library. Back to (15)
  16. Something Attempted, Something Done, 1911, D239/A3/1/43, Liverpool University Archives. Back to (16)
  17. Leaflet reproduced in Bean and Melville, Lost Children of the Empire, facing p.146. Back to (17)
  18. Morning Post supplement, 3 Oct 1934, D296/B4/1, Liverpool University Archives. Back to (18)
  19. Such concerns were addressed in two recent official reports: House of Commons Health Committee, Third Report, The Welfare of Former Child Migrants, HC755- I, 1997-8, and Australian Senate Community Affairs References Committee, Lost Innocents: Righting the Record. Report on Child Migration (Canberra, Commonwealth of Australia, 2001). See also Parker, Uprooted, pp. 277-93. Back to (19)
  20. Report of the Delegation Appointed to Obtain Information Regarding the System of Child Migration and Settlement in Canada, Cmd 2285, 1924. Back to (20)
  21. A. McLaren, Our Own Master Race: Eugenics in Canada, 1885-1945 (Toronto, 1990), pp. 46-67. Back to (21)
  22. Constantine, 'Child emigration to Australia'; K. Paul, 'Changing childhoods: child emigration since 1945', in Child Welfare and Social Action, ed. Lawrence and Starkey, pp. 121-43, and J. Grier, 'Voluntary rights and statutory wrongs; the case of child migration, 1948-67', History of Education, 31 (2002), 263-80. Back to (22)
  23. See M. Humphreys, Empty Cradles (London: Doubleday, 1994) for the work of the Child Migrants Trust, formed 1986, in assisting former child migrants and prompting the official British and Australian inquiries to be held. See also B. M.Coldrey, 'The child migration controversy: a survey and analysis of the debate over child migration and residential care in Australia, 1987-2000', The Australasian Catholic Record, 78 (2001), pp. 62-77, and S. Constantine, 'Children as ancestors: child migrants and identity in Canada', British Journal of Canadian Studies, 16 (2003), 150-9. Back to (23)

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