What follows is an extended version of my presentation at the Child Care History Networks’ conference on child migration held at the Maritime Museum in Liverpool on the 15th October, 2012. It does not contain references and sources but these may be found together with an extensive bibliography in my book Uprooted: the Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867-1917, published in 2008 by the Policy Press. A suggestion of some wider ranging references is offered at the end.

Roy Parker



I. Preamble

In this conference we are asked to consider what lessons may be drawn from the history of child migration. The assumption, of course, is that there are some; but that conclusion needs to be examined rather carefully. In particular, because we have to be clear about which migration, or which kind of migration, we have in mind.


To start with there is the difference between emigration and internal migration. For example, soon after its formation in 1853 the Children’s Aid Society of America organised the ‘orphan trains’ that, by the end of the century, had taken some 100,000 ‘homeless’ children from the cities to be placed on farms in the mid-west and the south. Some such trains ran as late as 1929. There are many other instances of children being sent or taken elsewhere in their own countries: sometimes for their safety, as with our wartime evacuation scheme; sometimes to put distance between them and parents who are considered to be unfit to have their care, and sometimes for administrative convenience. Even now, in Britain, children in care may be placed far away from family and friends because no local facility is available. Is there, we should ask, a significant difference between the effects on children of being sent away to other parts of their own country and being shipped abroad?


Another important difference in the nature of child migration is whether or not children are accompanied by and can then remain with, their parents. In the 1930s certain mothers and their children were sent to the gulags by the Stalinist regime in the Soviet Union. When mothers died, as many did, their children were first placed in orphanages and, when they were older, discharged and left to their own devices. That emphasises the dissimilarity between voluntary and forced migration. Take, for example, the exodus of some 35,000 children from Spain during its bitter civil war; most were sent abroad for their safety by parents (often Republican activists or sympathisers) who hoped that it would only be a temporary separation. Four thousand came to this country; others went to France, Belgium, Denmark, the Soviet Union and Mexico. Some were able to return, others not. However, there are situations that may seem voluntary but are in fact compulsory, particularly in the case of children where enticement or persuasive coercion has been used. Then there are the children who are really too young to appreciate what is happening to them. After the devastating earthquake in Haiti many infants were gathered up to be adopted in the United States, France and Germany whilst others were spirited across the frontier to the Dominican Republic to suffer various forms of exploitation.


So, before seizing upon lessons from the past we should be clear about the nature of that past, at least as far as that is possible. An important way of obtaining clarification is to try to explain why this or that migration occurred. That is my principal aim this morning, although I will be saying something about ‘consequences’ and about ‘lessons’. There are, of course, some obvious explanations for certain child migrations; for example, for the 10,000 Jewish children who came to this country by the kindertransport in 1938 and 1939.

Conventionally, studies of migration have investigated the relationship between the ‘pull’ factors and those created by the ‘push’. Let’s start with that distinction but concentrate upon what might be termed the political economy of the process. In doing so I’ll be drawing almost wholly upon my study of the emigration of unaccompanied children to Canada in the 50 years from 1867 to 1917. In those years perhaps as many as 80,000 children, typically between the ages of 10 and 14, were shipped across the Atlantic, although much younger ones were also included in the parties. Girls were usually sent at a younger age than boys, although boys outnumbered the girls by about two to one.



II. Explanation


The push from Britain

What, then, were the main ‘push’ factors operating in Britain? I would select three. The first would be the evangelical revival that swept the country from the end of the 1850s. Missionary work grew apace and zealous evangelists sought to find practical expressions of their faith. ‘Outcast‘ children offered a ready opportunity. Not only might they be saved from destitution, criminality and pauperism but also be saved for God, and the prospects of success seemed much greater than they were with adults. Children were, it was thought, not irredeemably set in their ways. In response, numerous child–saving organisations sprang up during the 1870s, in particular the NCH, Barnardos, Fegans, the Manchester and Salford Boys and Girls Homes and Refugees, the Liverpool Sheltering Homes and Quarriers in Scotland. All had an evangelical rationale, albeit subscribing to different versions of the movement. There were the Methodists, the Baptist, the Presbyterians, the Brethren and so on. The children who they gathered up were provided for in Homes of one sort or another; but this posed a problem. Each wished to outdo the other in their child-saving activities, for recognition and for the financial support that that brought with it. There was much rivalry. But the limited capacity of the Homes restricted the expansion of the work unless a through-flow could be created. As there was no wish to discharge children back to the conditions from which they had been rescued emigration suggested itself as an obvious solution: it secured the sought-after outflow. Nonetheless, this was not the only factor. There were other influences at work that we will consider shortly. Before that however we should note the position of the Catholic Church and the Church of England.


If anything the Catholic provision for vulnerable children was in even more pressing need of the ‘emigration solution’. It had fewer facilities but an enormous demand upon them. Furthermore, it was much exercised about what was termed the ‘leakage from the faith’, particularly amongst the children, not least because it was believed that many were being accepted into essentially protestant institutions, particularly those run by the poor law. How much better if these children could be saved from both destitution and from protestant influences by being placed in suitable Catholic families. These were hard to find in Britain but more readily available in Canada. Children began to be sent there, mainly from Liverpool and starting in 1870, the venture being organised by Father Nugent. Rather later this initiative was followed in the dioceses of Westminster in 1880, in Salford in 1889 and in Southwark in 1893, with an eventual amalgamation into the Catholic Emigration Association in 1903.


It is important to emphasise the extent to which the emigration of Catholic children to Canada wasa means of saving them from the perils that were considered to beset them, of ensuring that they received a Catholic education and that they were protected from what was seen as a predatory Protestantism. Placement in devout Catholic families in Canada, particularly in French speaking Quebec, met all three requirements despite the difference in language.


The Church of England Waifs and Strays Society had been established largely in response to its disquiet about Barnardos’ organisation and the nature of its ‘undenominational’ Protestantism. Edward Rudolf, its secretary, had written that he was ‘deeply concerned that after receiving Church teaching’ boys admitted to Barnardos found themselves ‘where the religious teaching would be of a totally different kind, with the result that they would be lost to the Church of England’. In order to guard against this it established its own child-saving organisation that, in 1885, also embarked upon a scheme of child emigration, albeit with somewhat less enthusiasm than its contemporaries.


Thus, what we see is not only the importance of sectarian rivalry in the growth of the voluntary children’s organisations in the 1870s and 80s but the relationship of that to the considerable zeal with which emigration was embraced, on the one hand as a solution to the problem of how to take in more children without blocking limited facilities and, on the other, as a means of demonstrating their organisation’s achievements in comparison with their competitors. The number of children who were emigrated came to be regarded as a measure of an organisation’s success in general. Furthermore, it was justified on two telling grounds: first, that it separated children in danger, once and for all, from unfit parents, squalor and eventual pauperism and, secondly, that it was a public manifestation of the religious calling by which its instigators felt themselves moved.


However, religious convictions did not stand alone in providing the ‘push’ for child emigration. It benefited from, and merged with, the pervasive imperialism of the time. The settlement of under-populated parts of the British Empire (preferably with British stock) had a popular appeal that served both political and economic ends. Politically such emigration was seen as strengthening British power and, economically, as helping to develop the primary resources of countries like Canada as well as creating better markets for British manufactured goods. Not surprisingly, child emigration was carried along on the tide of a widespread enthusiasm for ‘the imperial project’.


In addition to the religious and imperial components of the ‘push’ for poor children to be sent abroad there was a fear that the growth of an underclass, or of the ‘residuum’ as it was also called, threatened social disorder at worst and, at best, the mounting cost of public relief. The census of 1881 added fuel to the fire. It revealed a significant growth in population, a growth that was believed to be concentrated amongst the lower classes. Surely, it was argued, emigration was the answer to over-population and to the widespread and permanent unemployment that would follow in its wake. What better than to encourage or direct the British ‘surplus’ to those countries of the Empire that struggled with a shortage of labour and where it was obvious that there were better opportunities and where new and prosperous lives could be forged? And wasn’t this a particularly appropriate ‘solution’ for endangered and deprived children who were otherwise destined for a life of unremitting poverty and hopelessness?


These, then, were the three major ‘push’ factors that provided the impetus and rationale for the child emigration movement and, of course, they tended to be mutually supportive.


The pull factors operating in Canada

Let us turn now to the ‘pull’ factors that operated to draw that movement towards Canada in the 50 years up to the First World War. One was predominant: the demand for cheap agricultural labour. This is best explained by reference to the following tables. The first shows the generally small size of Canadian farms. From 1871 until the end of the century 70% occupied less than 100 acres.


Table 1: Distribution of farm sizes (%), Canada, 1871-1921








Under 10




























Over 200
















These were principally family farms, dependent on the family’s labour but usually needing more; but many lacked the means to employ extra hands. Short growing seasons concentrated the demand for labour in just a few months; but it was uneconomical to employ help throughout the year since there was little to be done in the winter months. Yet farmers wanted that help but wanted it when everyone else wanted it. Ideally they sought labour that could be called upon just when it was needed. Furthermore, few farmers on small farms had the capital to invest in the new machinery that was becoming available. Though less efficient than adults the labour of children offered a solution; and it was inexpensive. However, that labour was needed in and around the farm as well as in the fields. Women had to do the domestic chores, look after young children and devote much of their time to farm work as well. Domestic servants were unaffordable and in any case few women were prepared to come to the rural areas when better jobs could be obtained in the towns and cities. Hence, both girls and boys were in demand, but a demand that could not be met from a supply of Canadian children.


If we turn to table 2 we see why most of the British children sent to Canada were placed in Ontario, Quebec and the Maritimes and not further westwards – the dramatically different size of farm holdings speaks for itself.


Table 2: Size of occupied holdings (acreage): percentages by Canadian provinces, 1881-1921


50 or



Over 100






































Nova Scotia


















New Brunswick







































Yet there was a further factor that accentuated the demand for child labour in the settled provinces of Canada; that was the pattern of internal migration. This is vividly shown in table 3. The opening up of the west (not least by the completion of the trans-Canada railway in 1881) drew population away from the east at an accelerated pace, particularly from Ontario. Typically, it was young men and women who left, many from their parents’ farms. There was thus a haemorrhage of family labour upon which so many farms depended. Furthermore, there was a similar movement of young people within the eastern

provinces away from the rural areas to the towns and cities. Replacements were needed: British children met a good deal of the shortfall.


Table 3: Estimates of the net internal migration of the ‘native born’ population in Canada, 1881-91 to 1901-11







The Maritimes
















Saskatchewan and Alberta




British Columbia





The effect of these factors upon the demand for British children is clearly demonstrated in table 4, although figures are only available from 1900 onwards. From then until the outbreak of the First World War the average ratio of applications to children available was 8.5 to 1. From 1911 that ratio rose to over 10 to 1. At no time was the Canadian demand met, and despite frequent expressions of dissatisfaction with the children who did arrive, that demand continued unabated.



Table 4: The supply of and demand for British child immigrants, 1900-01 to 1913-14 (financial years)






Ratio of applications to

children available






























































One further element on the ‘pull’ side of the migration equation was the Canadian government’s concern about the dilution of British stock in the face of the waves of immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe. British children would help to redress the balance.



Even with the existence of strong push and pull factors working together it was by no means a foregone conclusion that as many children would be emigrated as were. It also needed to be facilitated. Several propitious factors merged to serve that end. By the 1870s steam was replacing sail, making the trans-Atlantic crossing faster, cheaper and safer. In Canada the railway network was expanding rapidly: in 1875, for example, 2,276 miles of new track was laid. Such development made it more feasible to distribute children to the country areas from the ports of disembarkation. Both the steamship and railway companies were eager for passengers, especially those who were emigrating. It was a highly competitive business. Shipping agents in Britain were recruited (some amongst the emigrationists) and paid according to the tickets bought. Then there were the subsidies being offered to those who could bring the ‘right’ kind of immigrants into Canada. Initially the Federal government offered $2 a head for each child brought out but later excluded any who had been in the care of the British poor law. In addition, the province of Ontario offered $6 a head for children placed there. In short, there was money to be made or, at the very least, expenses to be offset.


All that was needed to bring all this together were agents who would arrange what was required for children to be taken to Canada. The emerging children’s organisations that, as we have seen, wished to develop the emigration side of their activities, filled the bill, as did numerous, often dubious, individuals. Boards of guardians relied upon these services when they sought to emigrate children in their care. Neither in Britain or Canada were the activities of these ‘emigrationists’ regulated although, as we shall see, some restrictions were placed on which children they were permitted to include in their emigration parties.


One thing that might have made young British children less useful in Canada would have been an enforced requirement that, once there, they should attend school. However, in Canada the responsibility for education was devolved to the provinces and each developed its own legislation at its own pace. Furthermore, considerable autonomy was then delegated to the local school districts and in the rural districts these were allowed to decide whether or not they would do those things that they were permitted to do. Attendance was partial and irregular, being concentrated in the winter months when youngsters were not needed on the farms. For example, in 1871 Ontario only required that all children between the ages of seven and 12 should attend school for four months of the year (later raised to 100 days); but this was widely ignored in country districts, enforcement officers being employed almost exclusively in the urban areas. What we see, therefore, is a more sluggish development of effective compulsory education in Canada than in Britain, thereby making children available for work when they would not have been at home. Indeed, compulsory education was not introduced in New Brunswick until 1905 and not until 1942 in Quebec.


Given the convergence of so many factors that favoured the emigration of British children to Canada and the considerable unmet demand for them a rather different question from that usually asked arises: that is, why were more not sent? What were the restraining forces? There were those to be found at home and others that operated in Canada. Let us consider each in turn.


Retarding factors in Britain

In Britain permission had to be obtained from central government departments for the emigration of any child in the care of the poor law or in industrial schools and reformatories. The Local Government Board’s (LGB) approval had to be given with respect to poor law children and that of the Home Office for the others. Despite a certain amount of encouragement being given to child emigration by the LGB during Liberal Party administrations the Board’s inspectorate was throughout uneasy about such a ‘solution’. How could the well-being of the children be ensured and therefore how could the poor law guardians (who retained a responsibility for any child sent abroad) fulfil that role? Canadian authorities had neither the means nor the will to undertake adequate inspections. There was also a particular concern about the level of payments being made by boards of guardians to the emigrationists for their services, and this included the voluntary children organisations as well as freelancing individuals. Matters came to a head when the LGB received a number of serious complaints about the activities of one of these freelancers – Maria Rye. A senior inspector – Andrew Doyle - was dispatched to Canada in 1874 to investigate. His report was sufficiently damning to convince his department to impose a moratorium on the emigration of poor law children that lasted for nine years until certain reassurances were received from the Canadian government that inspection would be improved and regular reports on each child submitted. Even so, a ceiling of 300 emigrations a year was imposed and, later, the emigration of girls over the age of 14 and any child under seven was prohibited. Hence, the ‘availability’ of children from the poor law was considerably restricted throughout most of the 50 years before the First World War.


Furthermore, if a poor law child was proposed for emigration that child had to appear before magistrates to consent to what was to happen. As part of my research I examined archival sources which suggested that perhaps as many as 10% of the children said ’no’ and that their decision was respected. Then there were the parents whose consent was not legally required but whose approval it was advised should be sought if possible. However, few were able to prevent the emigration of their children or to recover them once they had been sent to Canada.


It was the local boards of guardians that decided to propose that certain children for whom they were responsible should be emigrated and although it may be thought that most would have been eager to do so there were many that turned their face against such a ‘disposal’. There were several reasons. One related to the state of the local labour market, particularly the market for domestic servants. Why send girls abroad when there was an unmet demand for their services at home? In the mill towns the demand was even greater because so many adult women were employed in the industry and therefore unavailable as domestic servants. Girls could replace them. More generally, certain employers were anxious that if many young people were emigrated labour would not be readily on hand when the economy was buoyant. This concern was heightened because the Canadian government became increasingly insistent that only the ‘best’ of the children were wanted. Why, asked some guardians, send away the most readily employable in their own country? Whether or not boards of guardians decided that some of the children in their care should be emigrated tended to turn upon the composition of the board’s membership. Local employers, landowners and, later, socialists were likely to oppose emigration. Clerics and the comfortably-off middle classes were usually supportive. The position of women guardians saw something of a shift as time passed. In the early days of the movement they tended to favour emigration. Later, many became uneasy about it, especially in relation to girls. Given such differences of view decisions about emigration were rarely unanimous but settled on a majority vote.


Hence, there were a number of reasons why the availability of poor law children for emigration was more limited than might have been expected. Furthermore, almost none came from Scotland where boarding out in the Highlands and Islands was well established and where guardians saw no good reason to alter the practice. Indeed, the demand for children on the crofts was much the same as that on Canadian family farms. Even so, Quarriers, the largest voluntary agency in Scotland, did not follow suit, wishing to distance itself from all poor law activities and turning to emigration much like its English counterparts.


The emigration movement was, therefore, concentrated in the voluntary societies that had an almost completely free hand in the matter with respect to the destinies of children taken into their care. Even so, there were certain restraining factors and policies. For example, the Waifs and Strays Society decided that only girls over 14 should be sent abroad (an opposite policy to that adopted by the Local Government Board) and Fegans only sent boys.


Opposition in Canada

Let us turn now to consider what limited the immigration of British children in Canada. Though wishing to encourage such immigration most governments were obliged to tread rather carefully because of the opposition that existed. In the first place there were legal issues. Legislation prohibited the immigration of certain categories: paupers; those with a criminal record; those who would be unable to support themselves and those found to be medically unfit. A strict interpretation of these criteria would certainly have exclude unaccompanied British children; but ways round these restrictions were found, in particular by classifying and describing the children in a manner that obscured their actual status. So, for example, it was not unusual for poor law children brought out by the voluntary societies to be listed as having been in their care in Britain. Likewise, the offending backgrounds of those arriving from industrial schools or reformatories were camouflaged by dropping those words and simply saying that they came from training schools, especially those that provided training in farm work.


As well as these legal impediments that had to be circumvented there were important centres of opposition. The emergent trade union movement was one, believing that the children represented a threat to both wages and jobs. Certain city authorities (such as those in Toronto and Hamilton) raised objections, fearing that, sooner or later, the children would gravitate to such places, fail to find employment and become a drain on their limited resources. The same apprehensions were expressed by the urban charities and for much the same reasons. Later, as social work organisations developed they too became uneasy about the likelihood that British children without any family connections in Canada would skew their work and burden them with responsibilities that they would find it difficult to meet.


However, the most virulent opposition to child immigration in Canada centred around fears that it was importing a contaminated ‘stock’. Many regarded the children as being drawn from the dregs of British society and bringing with them genetic deficiencies and incipient disease, most notably syphilis. Although this view of the children was quite widespread it was articulated most forcefully by the medical profession whose assumed expertise lent it a particular authority. Let me give you a taste of the rhetoric. Here is a doctor speaking to the Standing Committee on Agriculture and Colonisation in 1888: ‘… you might as well import the virus of disease and spread surgeons among our people and inoculate them with the disease [syphilis] … The majority of these children are the offal of the most depraved characters in the cities of the old country.’ Medical inspection, it was argued, did not identify latent venereal disease for it would only erupt later. Furthermore, these diseases were popularly assumed to be closely associated with illegitimacy and low intelligence. The anxiety about syphilis as a public health problem was understandable, there were no effective treatments, its transmission could not be readily controlled and its spread was encouraged by movements of population. Hence the fear of what immigrants brought with them, especially those who were believed to originate from contaminated backgrounds.


All of this obliged Canadian governments to ‘manage ‘ this ‘home-grown’ opposition to child immigration as best it could. Three ways in which it did this were first, to foist responsibility for it on to the shoulders of the British emigrationists; secondly, to insist that they only brought in ‘good stock’ and thirdly, that each party that arrived was not so large (usually not more than 100) that it offered a ready target for the opposition.


III. The Effects


As the title of my presentation indicated my plan was to divide what I intended to say into the causes and effects of child migration. What I had in mind for the ‘effects’ half was to concentrate, in a general fashion, on the most common consequences for the children. However, I think that other speakers will be focussing on this, so I have restricted my contribution to highlighting a few themes that emerged from my study and from a number of other sources. In particular I draw upon a collection of children’s letters in the archives of the Together Trust (formerly the Manchester and Salford Boys and Girls Welfare Society) and from reading all the letters sent by former child migrants as evidence to the Health Select Committee that examined the subject and which David Hinchliffe chaired. Of course, the letters are selective; most children did not write letters or, if they did, these have not survived. Nonetheless, I believe that they are reasonably representative of the wider reality, particularly those sent by the now elderly former child migrants to David’s committee. What, then, was that reality for the children? I suggest that it had six dominant features.


Loss of identity

I was most forcibly struck and moved by how often these letters emphasised their authors’ lack of a clear identity and the painful sense of detachment and isolation that this produced. It was not unusual for children not to know when their birthday was or, indeed, exactly how old they were. In one form or another the question that was repeatedly asked was: ‘who am I?’ Not only was there the pain of severance from family attachments but from country as well. Furthermore, for many a feeling of being a stateless person persisted for many years. Am I British or Canadian or Australian? Did I ever become a Canadian or an Australian? Those of us who are secure in our nationality – and our citizenship - may underestimate its contribution to our overall sense of identity. The sense of a lost identity, of course, was accentuated for so many by a profound lack of information about their past, particularly about their family – especially mothers. I can do no better than offer you an extract from one of the letters sent to David Hinchliffe’s committee in order to convey the centrality of an uncertain identity in the anguish that so afflicted child migrants: ‘I’ve been grieving a lifetime for a lost country, lost family, lost childhood, lost identity …’



So many of the Canadian letters that I read spoke of the loneliness that the children felt, usually placed alone, often on remote farms. Despite reassurances to the contrary many had been separated from brothers or sisters. Many too yearned for the companionship of the children with whom they had lived in Homes in Britain or with whom they had made the journey to Canada. It was not unusual for them to seek information about these other children’s whereabouts. The trauma of emigration seems to have been heightened for the children by being scattered. Indeed, one of the ‘protective’ factors that now tends to be overlooked may well be being able to remain near or in a familiar ‘group’. The child refugees from Spain, for example, wanted to stay together, albeit in groups that reflected the political affiliations of their parents. Indeed, staying together is how so many immigrants and refugees have coped with resettlement in a new land and new culture. Placed alone and without family or a known group around them it would be surprising had the emigrated children not suffered from loneliness. Here is a letter that captures those feelings. It was written from Canada in1921 by a girl to the secretary of the Manchester and Salford Society: ‘… I am hoping I will get one of your Christmas letters I did not get one last year and I misted it very much I live 9 miles from a town and three miles from a village I get very lonsom at times and often wish I could hear from some of the girls or see some of them that came out hear to Canada …’ And, as one of her respondents explained to Phyllis Harrison in her study, ‘the feeling of utter loneliness would be hard to describe’ whilst another emphasised the lack of any ‘companionship’. Even those who did go to school did not necessarily find the companionship and support of other children: so much set them apart that they were liable to be taunted about their background. One wonders, of course, what difference today’s social networking makes to problems of loneliness.



The unaccompanied emigrated child was vulnerable to numerous dangers. First, one needs to be reminded how young many were. Then there was the lack of adequate supervision. When visits of inspection were made the question at issue was usually whether the child was ‘giving satisfaction’ to their employers. Although the formalities usually required that the child was paid and that they attended school there was little or no enforcement of either. In Britain the emigrationist portrayed the child being welcomed into a caring family and becoming a part of it, with all the benefits that that would confer. For a fortunate few that did happen, but for most it did not. There was no family membership that ensured that the normal expectations and taboos were observed, not least the sexual taboos. Girls in particular were unprotected from sexual exploitation and if they did become pregnant they were usually sent back to Britain to an equally uncertain future. Boys more often simply ran away, many not to be heard of again. Essentially the children’s vulnerability to all kinds of risks (including farm accidents and frostbite) sprang from the fact that they were defenceless against the many depredations to which they could fall prey. On the rare occasions when the adults around them were charged with abuses of one kind or another the child’s story was usually discounted; nor were they always moved to a new placement. There was rarely anyone to speak up for them or anyone to whom they could appeal, even if they had the confidence to do so.




The sense of abandonment

The feeling that there was nobody to champion them was closely related to the children’s sense of being abandoned: by their country, by the organisation that brought them to Canada and sometimes by their family. What had they done that was so wrong that nobody wanted them and had ‘sent them away’? When they failed to satisfy their employers they were, once more, sent away. It is not surprising then that many felt themselves to be worthless. Why had no one written to them? Why did no one seem interested in what had happened to them? A letter written in 1890 to the secretary of the Manchester and Salford Society by a girl in service with a minister (and therefore not in a remote rural area) conveys the despair of ‘abandonment’: ‘ … look I am 100 miles away from Sarah … the only girl that I trust as a friend to me I am beginning to think that you have forsaken me altogether as I have roat to Mother [a member of the Home’s staff in England] three times already and she has never roat to [me] once yet nor Miss Fogg nor Miss Slater nor Miss Potter and I have roat to Miss Hudson and she had not roat to me so I think you have forgotten me …’



If you have no family in reach and no close friends there is no one to whom you can run if bad things are happening to you. Moreover, rural locations, harsh winters, no money and an uncertainty about exactly where they were made that even more difficult for the children, as did their young age. Nevertheless, some children did run away, usually the boys, but usually not far although some disappeared without further trace. It seems to have been the girls in particular who experienced both the feeling and the reality of entrapment. For some this was accentuated by the kind of religious instruction to which they had been exposed. Here is how one girl explained her sense of fatalism: ‘… something tells me that if it was not God’s will i would not have been here, and i know that whatever we have to do or whatever we have to bear all comes from above …’



Many of these effects of emigration on the children reflected their considerable confusion and uncertainty, largely from the want of information. Time and again their letters contained questions about their past and about what had happened to them as well as to their family members and friends. Why did our family have to be broken up? Please tell me where my mother is. Where is my sister or brother who came to Canada with me? When is my birthday? Not only was there concern to know the whereabouts of those they cared about but also a wish to know that they were safe and well. Sometimes their questions were answered but often there was no record of a reply. One gains a strong impression of children being plagued with unanswered questions: who? why? when? where? what? Let me offer a few examples. The first is a letter from a boy written to his grandparents in 1889 in which he asks them to ‘try to get to know where my mother and father is send me my mothers address and tell her where I am. Give my brothers and sisters my best love … please … tell me where they are.’ A second example comes from a letter written to the Manchester and Salford Society in 1898 by another boy. This was his plea: ‘I came from the Ashton union workhouse ... I wish you would write to that home and get the address and send it … I am anxious to know where my mother is … some day when I am able I can have her out here with me and make a home for her.’


IV. Key Lessons


So, what lessons might be drawn for today and tomorrow from the history of child migration? Although that question is frequently asked when past events are being scrutinised I would want to sound several notes of caution. First, we should be sure that those events are reasonably comparable (that is, that they are similar phenomena) and, secondly, when these events have occurred a long time ago we must ask how far it is justifiable to draw lessons from them. As far as the nineteenth and early twentieth century experience of child emigration is concerned I believe that the answer to both these matters is ‘yes’, as long as we are careful about which lessons those are. With that in mind I will suggest a few cautionary lessons of a general nature first and then a few others that relate more directly to the children themselves.


Some general lessons

We should beware fashion or, in Galbraith’s words, ‘conventional wisdom’. In child care, as in other fields the power and danger of the bandwagon ought never be underestimated. The remarkable, and mostly uncritical, enthusiasm for child emigration largely eclipsed the mounting evidence that all was not well. Once entrenched, fashionable policies tend to be hard to counter or to displace. The unhappy history of sending unaccompanied children abroad should also warns us to be on our guard against false confidence and against those who express no doubt and drive forward policies and practices based upon zealotry rather than evidence.


The history of child emigration also emphasises the care that needs to be exercised in deciding how policies should be evaluated. During the period that I have been considering the number of children who were emigrated became a touchstone of ‘success’ for several of the voluntary societies. Numbers overrode any more sensitive assessment. Furthermore, the measure of the eventual success of emigration was commonly taken to be a child’s material achievements in their adult life. Had they obtained a farm of their own? Had they gone on to further education? Had they become businessmen or women? Let me offer an extract from Lilian Furst’s book Random Destination that illustrates the danger of relying upon material achievements as indicators of success. She was a survivor of the kindertransport. This is what she wrote: ‘Even now, an American citizen, tenured in a major university, holder of an endowed chair, with savings, investments, disability insurance, a retirement pension, a beautiful house, a car, a long list of publications; still, I am liable to agonies of anxiety and insomnia because alone, at some level, I still feel so terribly vulnerable to the contingencies of an untrustworthy world.’


There are two other cautionary lessons of a general nature to be drawn from the history of child emigration. One is the danger of failing to have an adequate regulation of those agents and agencies that involve themselves with the destinies of children. In the events that we have been looking at the emigrationists were allowed a free hand, partly for political reasons and partly because they were able to exploit the fragmentation of, and lack of co-ordination between, official bodies. Not only were two countries involved but various levels and arms of government in each.


Finally, if we are to learn from past events we have to understand why and how they occurred. In order to do that it is crucial to uncover the structural factors that underlay them; and that applies just as much to understanding why we fail to take heed of what the past is able to tell us.


Lessons to be taken from what the children wrote

As well as the need to understand why practices like child emigration emerge and continue for so long we must also understand their impact on the children themselves. What did their uprooting mean for them and what, in its turn, should that mean for those who are charged with shaping the care of today’s and tomorrow’s vulnerable children?


The first message is that we must pay careful attention to the preservation and enhancement of children’s sense of identity. Certainly, we have to do whatever we can to avoid damaging it any further. Many of the children with whom we are concerned already feel devalued, unsure of themselves and at sea. Providing children with honest information suitable to their age is essential, but sometimes we fail to appreciate what it is that they do not know but want to know.


Thesecond lesson that we have to learn (or learn again) is that we should strive not to heap one disadvantage on to the existing disadvantages that children suffer. In the emigration context we did the opposite, sending away children who were probably the least able to cope with such a drastic upheaval.


The third clear implication of the history that we have been considering is that we have to acknowledge the deep and enduring damage that can be done by the cumulative effect of emotional assaults on a child. Those who offered evidence to David Hinchliffe’s committee often made the point that they could and did recover from the physical damage that was done to them but that the emotional injuries remained. The sufferers of such injuries require and deserve support and therapy of the highest order.


A fourthand obvious lesson that must be taken from the history that we are looking at today is one that is now widely acknowledged but still not always observed; namely, that the testimony of children must be respected and opportunities created for them to give that testimony.



Some Suggested Titles Not Included in the Programme



Parr, J (1980) Labouring Children: British Immigrant Apprentices to Canada, 1869-1924. London/Montreal: Croom Helm/McGill-Queens Univ. Press.


Bean, P & Melville, J (1989) Lost Children of the Empire. London: Unwin/Hyman.


Wagner, G (1982) Children of the Empire. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson.


Kershaw, R & Sacks, J (2008) New Lives for Old. London: National Archives.


Robins, J (1980) The Lost Children: A Study of Charity Children in Ireland, 1700-1900. Dublin: Inst. of Public Admin.


Abrams, L (1998) The Orphan Country: Children of Scotland’s Broken Homes from 1845 to the Present Day. Edinburgh: Donald; esp. ch. 4.


Harrison, P (1979) The Home Children. Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer.


Scholes, A (1932) Education for Empire Settlement.: a Study of Juvenile Migration. London: Longmans Green.


Bell, A (1996) Only for Three Months: The Basque Refugee Children in Exile. Norwich: Mousehole.


Samuels, D (1995) Kindertransport. London: Hern (a play but an with interesting introduction).


Furst, L (2005) Random Destinations: Escaping the Holocaust and Starting Life Anew. New York: Palgrave Macmillan (an enlightening commentary on the literary representations of this child migration).


Holman, R (1995) Evacuation: a Very British Revolution. Oxford: Lion.


Zajde, N (2012) Les Enfants Cache en France. Paris: Odile Jacob (a study of the trauma experienced by Jewish children who were hidden and, in order to survive, had to change their identity and, after the war, try to rediscover it).


David Hinchliffe will probably give you this but, just for the record …

The Welfare of Former British Child Migrants (1997) vol I ‘Report’ & vol II ‘Minutes of Evidence and Appendices’; HC 755 I & II. Session 1997-98, Health Committee Third Report. London: TSO (Don’t ignore vol II).









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