Home Children was the child migration scheme founded by Annie MacPherson in 1869, under which more than 100,000 children were sent from the United Kingdom to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and South Africa. The programme was largely discontinued in the 1930s, but not entirely terminated until the 1970s.
Later research, beginning in the 1980s, exposed abuse and hardships of the relocated children. Australia apologised in 2009 for its involvement in the scheme. In February 2010 UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown made a formal apology to the families of children who suffered. Canadian Immigration Minister Jason Kenney stated in 2009 that Canada would not apologise to child migrants, preferring to “recognize that sad period” in other ways.
As a labour source
The practice of sending poor or orphaned children to English and later British settler colonies, as a means to get rid of them, as well as to help alleviate a shortage of labour in the colonies, began in 1618, with the rounding-up and transportation of one hundred English vagrant children to the Virginia Colony. In the 18th century, labour shortages in the overseas colonies also encouraged the transportation of children for work in the Americas, and large numbers of children were forced to migrate, most of them from Scotland. This practice continued until it was exposed in 1757, following a civil action against Aberdeen merchants and magistrates for their involvement in the trade.
As social reform
The Children’s Friend Society was founded in London in 1830 as “The Society for the Suppression of Juvenile Vagrancy through the reformation and emigration of children”. In 1832, the first group of children was sent to the Cape Colony in South Africa and the Swan River Colony in Australia, and in August 1833, 230 children were shipped to Toronto and New Brunswick in Canada.
The main pioneers of child migration in the nineteenth century were the Scottish Evangelical Christian Annie MacPherson, her sister Louisa Birt, and Londoner Maria Rye. Whilst working with poor children in London in the late 1860s, MacPherson was appalled by the child slavery of the matchbox industry and resolved to devote her life to these children. In 1870 she bought a large workshop and turned it into the “Home of Industry”, where poor children could work and be fed and educated. She later became convinced that the real solution for these children lay in emigration to a country of opportunity and started an emigration fund. In the first year of the fund’s operation, 500 children, trained in the London homes, were shipped to Canada. MacPherson opened distribution homes in Canada in the towns of Belleville and Galt in Ontario and persuaded her sister, Louisa, to open a third home in the village of Knowlton, seventy miles from Montreal. This was the beginning of a massive operation which sought to find homes and work for 14,000 of Britain’s poor children.
Maria Rye also worked amongst the poor in London and had arrived in Ontario with 68 children (50 of whom were from Liverpool) some months earlier than MacPherson, with the blessing of the Archbishop of Canterbury and The Times newspaper. Rye, who had been placing women emigrants in Canada since 1867, opened her home at Niagara-on-the-Lake in 1869, and by the turn of the century had settled some 5,000 children, mostly girls, in Ontario.
In 1909, South African-born Kingsley Fairbridge founded the “Society for the Furtherance of Child Emigration to the Colonies” which was later incorporated as the Child Emigration Society. The purpose of the society, which later became the Fairbridge Foundation, was to educate orphaned and neglected children and train them in farming practices at farm schools located throughout the British Empire. Fairbridge emigrated to Australia in 1912, where his ideas received support and encouragement. According to the British House of Commons Child Migrant’s Trust Report, “it is estimated that some 150,000 children were dispatched over a period of 350 years – the earliest recorded child migrants left Britain for the Virginia Colony in 1618, and the process did not finally end until the late 1960s.” It was widely believed by contemporaries that all of these children were orphans, but it is now known that most had living parents, some of whom had no idea of the fate of their children after they were left in care homes, and some led to believe that their children had been adopted somewhere in Britain.
Child emigration was largely suspended for economic reasons during the Great Depression of the 1930s, but was not completely terminated until the 1970s.
As they were compulsorily shipped out of Britain, many of the children were deceived into believing their parents were dead, and that a more abundant life awaited them. Some were exploited as cheap agricultural labour, or denied proper shelter and education. It was common for Home Children to run away, sometimes finding a caring family or better working conditions.
The emigration schemes were not without their critics, and there were many rumours of ill-treatment of the children by their employers and of profiteering by the organisers of the schemes, particularly Maria Rye. In 1874 The London Board of Governors decided to send a representative, named Andrew Doyle, to Canada to visit the homes and the children to see how they were faring. Doyle’s report praised the women and their staff, especially MacPherson, saying that they were inspired by the highest motives, but condemned almost everything else about the enterprise. He said that the attitude of the women in grouping together children from the workhouses, who he said were mostly of good reputation, with street children, whom he considered mostly thieves, was naive and had caused nothing but trouble in Canada. He was also critical of the checks made on the children after they were placed with settlers, which in Rye’s case were mostly non-existent, and said that: “Because of Miss Rye’s carelessness and Miss MacPherson’s limited resources, thousands of British children, already in painful circumstances, were cast adrift to be overworked or mistreated by the settlers of early Canada who were generally honest but often hard taskmasters.”
The House of Commons of Canada subsequently set up a select committee to examine Doyle’s findings and there was much controversy generated by his report in Britain, but the schemes continued with some changes and were copied in other countries of the British Empire.
In 2014–2015 the Northern Ireland Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry considered cases of children forcibly sent to Australia. They found that about 130 young children in the care of voluntary or state institutions were sent to Australia in what was described as the Child Migrant Programme in the period covered by the Inquiry, from 1922 to 1995, but mostly shortly after the Second World War.
CHILD EMIGRATION TO CANADA The attention of the Dominion Government has been drawn to the fact that the children sent to Canada from England are street waifs and workhouse paupers, and that the professional philanthropists engaged in the work are largely prompted by mercenary and not charitable motives. A demand will be made that parliament should investigate the matter before voting any money to promote this kind of immigration. The Star, 18 April 1891
Exposure and apologies
In 1987 British social worker Margaret Humphreys carried out an investigation leading to the exposure of the child migration scheme and the establishment of the Child Migrants Trust, with the aim of reuniting parents and children. Full details of the scheme only emerged as late as 1998 during a parliamentary inquiry in Britain, which found that many migrant children were subjected to systematic abuse in religious schools in Australia, New Zealand and other countries.
In 1994 Humphreys published a book concerning her research entitled Empty Cradles. In 2010, this book detailing Humphreys’ work, political obstacles, and threats on her life along with the crimes and abuse done to thousands of children by government and religious officials was depicted in the film Oranges and Sunshine.
In Australia, “Child Migrant” children are part of a larger group known as the Forgotten Australians – a term the Australian Senate has used to describe the estimated 500,000 children who were brought up in orphanages, children’s homes, institutions or foster care in Australia up until the early 1990s. “Child Migrants” refers specifically to the 7000 children who migrated to Australia under assisted child migration schemes. Child migrants were adopted or brought up in children’s homes, institutions, orphanages or foster care. Many of these children experienced neglect and abuse while in institutional care.
At the urging of the “Care Leavers Australia Network”, in August 2001, the Senate Community Affairs References Committee published “Lost Innocents: Righting the Record – Report on child migration,” and followed this in August 2004 with the “Forgotten Australians” report. Both reports concluded with a number of recommendations, one of which was a call for a national apology. The Prime Minister of Australia, Kevin Rudd, apologised on behalf of the government of Australia on 16 November 2009. As of 2009, there were an estimated 7,000 “Child Migrants” currently residing in Australia. The Australian government had contacted about 400 British child migrants for advice on how the apology should be delivered. Australia’s Roman Catholic Church had publicly apologised in 2001 to British and Maltese child migrants who suffered abuse including rape, whippings and slave labour in religious institutions. A £1 million travel fund was set up by the British Government for former child migrants to visit their families in the UK. The Australian Government later supplemented this fund.
The federal government designated the “Immigration of Home Children” a National Historic Event, in 1999. A plaque from the national Historic Sites and Monuments Board commemorating the event stands in Stratford, Ontario. The Ontario Heritage Trust erected a provincial historical plaque to the Home Children the year before, in Ottawa.
After the apology by the Australian government, in 2009 the Canadian Immigration Minister, Jason Kenney, said that there was no need for Canada to apologise: “The issue has not been on the radar screen here, unlike Australia where there’s been a long-standing interest. The reality is that, here in Canada, we are taking measures to recognise that sad period, but there is, I think, limited public interest in official government apologies for everything that’s ever been unfortunate or tragic event in our history.”
The federal government proclaimed 2010 the “Year of the British Home Child” and on 1 September 2010, Canada Post released a commemorative stamp to honour those who were sent to Canada. In the province of Ontario, the British Home Child Day Act, 2011, makes 28 September each year British Home Child Day to “recognize and honour the contributions of the British home children who established roots in Ontario.”
On 23 February 2010, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Gordon Brown issued an official apology for the “shameful” child resettlement programme, he announced a £6 million fund designed to compensate the families affected by the “misguided” programme.
In 2020 it was reported that the Prince’s Trust was providing funds to allow people sent as children from the UK to Australia by the Fairbridge Society to make claims for compensation for sexual and physical abuse. While Australia had a national redress scheme for people sexually abused as children in institutions, those sent by the Fairbridge Society were not eligible as the Society no longer existed. The Prince’s Trust had previously been criticised for “covering its backside” by denying it had knowledge of abuse suffered by Fairbridge Society child migrants.
“A child migration timeline”. Toronto Star. Retrieved May 29, 2019.
“Annie Macpherson was a philanthropist who is accepted as the pioneer of child emigration to Canada”. British Home Children Descendants website. Canada: British Home Children Descendants. Archived from the original on 25 July 2011.
“English Orphan Transports: Fairbridge Foundation”. Historical Boys Clothing.
“Ordeal of Australia’s child migrants”. BBC News. 15 November 2009.
“Cornish children sent abroad after migration stop: Unwanted children were sent to Australia by Cornwall County Council years after the practice had been discredited, BBC Cornwall has learned”. BBC News. 1 February 2010.
“UK child migrants apology planned”. BBC News. 15 November 2009.
“Australian church apologises to child migrants”. BBC News. 22 March 2001.
“Adoption & Forgotten Australians”. Research Guides. State Library of Victoria. Retrieved 8 May 2010.
“Adoption & Forgotten Australians – Child migrants”. Research Guides. State Library of Victoria. Retrieved 8 May 2010.
“British Home Child Day Act, 2011”. 24 July 2014. E-laws, British Home Child Day Act, 2011, S.O. 2011, c. 14.
Bowcott, Owen (24 February 2010). “Brown apologises for Britain’s ‘shameful’ child migrant policy”. The Guardian. London:
“Abuse survivors sent from UK to Australia as children given fresh hope of redress from Prince’s Trust”. The Observer. Australian Associated Press. 17 May 2020.
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