28 May 2011

Child migrants/deportees from Britain to the Empire

“On Their Own - Britain’s Child Migrants” is a collaborative exhibition that came out of the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney and the National Museums Liverpool in the UK.

An organisation known as the Church of England Central Home for Waifs and Strays opened for business in 1881. By 1905 the Society had 93 homes throughout England and Wales, accounting for 3410 children in care. Two thirds of these lived in Society's homes, a few hundred in affiliated homes, and the rest were fostered. Because there weren't enough beds for all the children needing assistance, many of these young British citizens were sent to Canada.  The National Children's Homes, a Methodist organisation established in 1869, also emigrated over 3,000 of the children they took into care.

Under the Empire Settlement Act of 1922 and 1937, the British Government formally assisted private organisations to help people who wanted to settle in His Majesty’s Overseas Dominions. Most were adults. But some 130,000 children were also sent from Britain to Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries through child migration schemes.

The child migrants were largely lied to; they were told their parents were dead so that they were being sent on holiday to a place where the sun always shines and fruit can be picked off the trees. But few of the children were true orphans; many had originally been placed in the British orphanages because their parents had been unable to care for them, temporarily or for the long term.

Child migrants from Fairbridge, setting out for Australia, 1938.
Photo from Merseyside Maritime Museum, Liverpool

Child migrants were sent abroad without passports, social histories or full birth certificates. Thus it was easy to tell the children that their parents had died and that there was no member of the family who could ever care for them or adopt them. And as the majority of the transportees were only between seven and ten years of age, they were in no position to have argued with the authorities.

The British government thought that they would offload their needy families and save the British economy a fortune. But the charitable and religious organisations in Britain often had a more moral and less financial motive. The Fairbridge Plan for caring for British child migrants originated with Kingsley Fairbridge’s “vision splendid”. He was truly appalled at the conditions of the thousands of under-privileged children with no future other than poverty. He wanted to transplant such children to the wide-open spaces in the colonies; the orphanages agreed and were very happy to send their charges overseas.

For their part, the Australian and other British Empire governments hoped these schemes would supply them with much needed population and labour. They could have imported cheap labour from any country, but they wanted sound, British stock. “Stock” was always the word that was used. In 1913 the first children arrived in Western Australia to take up residence on The Fairbridge Farm near Pinjarra, south-east of Perth. In 1937, The Fairbridge Farm Schools were opened in New South Wales.

"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".

The Britain’s Child Migrants Exhibition’s own documentation notes that the lives of these children changed dramatically and fortunes varied. Some succeeded in creating new futures for themselves. Others suffered lonely childhoods, brutalised and exploited by the church organisations that were supposed to protect them. All experienced disruption and separation from their families and from the British towns they grew up in.

Exploitation and misery were not exclusively the fate of those children sent to Australia. The Child Migrants Trust said that while children in New Zealand were often placed with foster parents, those in Canada could be entrusted to the care of farmers, often without sufficient supervision. Some Canadian farmers were charged with manslaughter, such was the extent of their cruelty. Very few children were legally adopted in Canada and the vast majority spent their entire childhoods in farm schools or large, impersonal institutions which accommodated up to 350 children.

These child migration schemes received poor publicity from the outset, yet they continued until the 1960s. So why didn’t the schemes attract the critical attention of historians and welfare workers until the 1980s? And even then it was accidental. Margaret Humphreys was a social worker in Nottingham, specialising in child protection. One day an Australian woman contacted her, saying she had been taken from a children’s home in Nottingham and sent as a toddler to Australia by boat after WW2. Could Humphreys help her find her mother?

Humphrey’s pursuit of the scheme took her across the British Commonwealth. To her great credit Humphreys also founded the Child Migrants Trust, to help those who suffered under the policy. What seems improbable to me was that Margaret Humphreys was the first concerned professional to raise the issues of involuntary child migration. Perhaps she was just the bravest. Or perhaps the others had been turned away by obdurate government officials.

Fairbridge Farm children on the SS Ormonde, 1950
Photo from the State Library of WA

Even so, it took until 1999 for the British government to set up and endow a travel fund to be spent on onetime visits for family reunions. Unfortunately there were so many restrictions that only 300 of the 10,000 post-WW2 migrants to Australia were able to go back home. The travel fund expired in 2002, but in any case, how many mothers and fathers who placed their children in care in 1938-46 would still have been alive in 2002? Formal apologies from the Australian Government in 2009 and British Government in 2010 were late, but were welcomed by the transportees.

The Australian National Maritime Museum has suggested the following reading list:

1.Bean, Philip & Melville, Joy Lost children of the Empire. London; Sydney Unwin Hyman, 1989.
2.Coldrey, Barry M Good British stock: child and youth migration to Australia.  National Archives of Australia, 1999
3.Gill, Alan Orphans of the Empire: the shocking story of child migration to Australia. Milsons Point Vintage, 1998.
4.Humphreys, Margaret Empty Cradles. London, Corgi, 1995.
5.Sherington, Geoffrey & Jeffery, Chris Fairbridge: Empire & child migration. University Western Australia Press, 1998
6.Wagner, Gillian Children of the Empire. London Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982.
7. Wheeler, Charles Carried away, in BBC History, October 2003. Great article!

Months after writing this particular post, I saw the film Oranges and Sunshine, starring Emily Watson as the Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys and directed by Jim Loach. The film, which opened in Britain in April 2011 and in Australia in June 2011, focuses on the individuals' experiences of Britain's semi-secret child migrant programme to Australia. I say semi-secret because, although the relevant government ministers and church authorities thought they were doing the best thing for the unfortunate children, they destroyed the children's paperwork on purpose and lost the children's true identities. The film skilfully depicts the impact of this loss of identity, 50 years or more after the children had been deported from their homeland.

Young migrant children put out to labour in the fields,
Australian National Maritime Museum, Sydney


Andrew said...

Nice work. I suppose you saw Margaret Humphreys on tv this week past. Most children are better off and happier with their parents, even if it is a life of poverty.

Hels said...

after the preview showing of Oranges and Sunshine a couple of days ago, the audience was given the very special treat of meeing the real Margaret Humphrey. Although older now that she was in 1981 (duh), she answered everyone's questions to the best of her recollection. It was a very moving evening.

Hermes said...

"They could have imported cheap labour from any country, but they wanted sound, British stock."

Thank you Helen, great post on a British disgrace. I don't personally blame the recipient countries, as the children were marketed as 'stock'.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
We are deeply shocked and appalled. This is something upon which the lid has been firmly kept by successive British governments and, even now, this whole dreadful business is not widely known. That it should have happened at all in any age is, in our view, close to a crime against humanity; that it is part of our comparatively recent history is almost beyond belief.

Clearly agencies such as the Fairbridge Plan attempted to do something but were, as far as we are able to see, going along with something which was both morally wrong and totally unacceptable.

And we wonder about ethnic cleansing in parts of Europe today!

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P. M. Doolan said...

Much harm can flow from good intentions.
On the other hand, this does remind me of the SS Lebensborn programme from 1935-1945. After 1939 this Nazi programme did include the adoption and transfer of about 200,000 children from Eastern Europe to Germany. Some parents were still alive when their "orphans" were taken from them. An unknown number of "Germans" today are descended from Ukrainian and Polish parents. Of course the racial aspect of the Nazi Empire's programme does make a major difference with the British Emoire's programme.

P. M. Doolan said...

Sorry, I meant to provide the following link to the Lebensborn or Fountain of Life programme: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Holocaust/Lebensborn.html

Nancy Housten has written a brilliant novel about it.

Hels said...


attaching responsibility in this saga is like trying to pin mercury to the wall with a safety pin.

1. The orphanages in the UK told the children that their mothers were dead and told the mothers that their children had been adopted. Both appalling lies, meant to deceive.

2. The British government had legal oversight for all wards of the state. Wards should not have been allowed to leave the country without the consent of the relevant Minister, but the government denied and denied and denied knowing about any children leaving.

3. The Christian institutions in Australia and Canada exploited the child migrants, denied them formal education and used physical/mental torture when they chose to.

4. The Australian and Canadian governments had the responsibility to supervise the child migrants, until they were adopted or reached their majority. Clearly the governments trusted the church organisations to get on with the task, totally unsupervised.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

even if social welfare organisations and governments of the time thought they were doing the right thing by the children (which I am prepared to accept), why the lies, the destroyed records and the faked up names?

It was as if people were saying "slums are terrible, these children cannot be cared for by their negligent parents, the best thing to do for the children would be to send them to wide open lands full of opportunity". Then immediately burn all documents and photos, to hide everything that had been done for those very children.

Either they were proud of their work with the deprived children, or they were ashamed of the child migrant programmes they were running. But not both.

Hels said...

Mr Doolan,

at the end of the film Oranges and Sunshine, starring Emily Watson and a fine cast of actors, there was some _real_ footage of hundreds of British child migrants being put onto the ships, bound for the new world. They were in their best clothes, laughing and smiling at the cameras.

This reminded me so much of footage I had seen from the Lebensborn programme, I had to stop and have a second look. Happy, smiling children with blond hair and smart clothes.

Hels said...

welcome aboard. If you haven't read much in the area, I suggest a nice place to start would be G Wagner, Children of the Empire. London Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982.

Toyin O. said...

Interesting post, thanks for sharing.

Hels said...

sad story isn't it? I wonder if governments ever learn to watch very carefully what voluntary agencies are doing to citizens. Especially to vulnerable sections of the community.

Heather on her travels said...

Such a sad story, at the time I'm sure many people thought that they were doing the best thing, but our sense of morality can be so easily warped by financial interest, and unforgivable to destroy those records. I'll have to try and see the film

Hels said...


glad you said that. We need to emphasise that organisations made the best decisions they could, given the knowledge and practice of social welfare _at the time_. It is no use criticising 1940s policies with 2011 values.

However the governments and the voluntary agencies lied and hindered for decades, until the last of the mothers who lost their children decades ago finally died from old age. Now it is too late to apologise to the child migrants

sewa mobil said...

Nice article, thanks for the information.

Hels said...

sewa mobil

Depending on where you live, I warmly recommend you visit “On Their Own - Britain’s Child Migrants”. Both Sydney and Liverpool did a great job.

Study in UK said...

Great post, I admire the writing style :) A little off topic here but what theme are you using? Looks pretty cool.

Hels said...

Study in UK
thanks :)
I am not sure what a Theme is, but I write about the topics I lecture on - art, architecture, history and travel. Although this post eventually included a film review, it started off as a history post.

ChrisJ said...

Another angle to all this is the deplorable things done through adoption in many countries throughout the world, and the many outrages that continue to this day.

This reminds me of the "butterbox" babies of Nova Scotia several decades ago, although firmly in the 20th C - sorry I haven't more details. Also the story of the girls in the service/slavery of the Magdelene Sisters (don't know the dates here either, except that a now-retired colleague of mine was in one of their laundries).

Always unbelievably sad what we humans will do and how we will twist things for money.

Hels said...

welcome back to the land of the living :)

I don't know the specific story about the Canadian girls in the service of the Magdelene Sisters, but I bet I would just KNOW what happened. And I don't think we can explain these stories away as being merely an artefact of colonial or of 19th century life.

Last night on the tv programme called Find My Family, a middle aged man was remembering the early 1950s when The Welfare was lurking, waiting for aboriginal children to be out of their mother's vision for a moment. Then the five toddlers were put into separate children's institutions thousands of ks away and never saw their parents or siblings again.

The staff at Find My Family did manage to get the five siblings back together in 2011, but what was the cost of losing their loved ones for 55 years? The Stolen Generations absolutely.

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of the 'Orphan Trains' in the USA from 1854 until 1929! Around 20,000 children from destitute families in eastern cities (some were actually orphans!) were shipped off on the railroads with overseers who 'placed' them with farm families in the midwest, as cheap labor.

James Morgan
Olympia, WA

Hels said...


thanks for that. I didn't know about the Orphan Trains in the USA, but the dynamics sound similar.

Two charity institutions, The Children's Aid Society and The New York Foundling Hospital, really
wanted to help children out of poverty and dire neglect. But without careful supervision, it sounds as if this programme led to exploitation and even worse neglect.

The reference you gave is a great one.

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Hels said...


it is still an important topic, isn't it, even after all these decades. I suppose there are two concerns:
a] Looking after the victims, now they are becoming a bit elderly themselves and
b] Ensuring it never happens again.

Hels said...

Tony said...

Dear Helen,

I am Tony: Anthony Chambers a former British child migrant sent to New Zealand in 1951 at nine years.
I see your blog article on us social historic former British child migrants. You may be interested to view my 20 minute film documentary of aspects of my case history. http://vimeo.com/6249351

If you find you are in harmony with my story with your understanding of the wider child migration saga... you are invited to offer a short blog that would be printed in my pending book.
This is a non financial venture... all sales returns go back to my area heritage Trust archive memorbrilla... therefore no finance is given or offered.
Should you be interested please request our editorial format for contributors.

Helen said...
Hi Tony

Good luck with the project; I hope it does well. Feel free to give a reference to my blog post, citing my name and blog title in full.

Jim said...

Fascinating. Thanks for the link.