22 January 2013

Recruiting British adolescents to work in Australia: 1922-4

The Australian states federated into a nation in January 1901. From 1910 on, the Australian Government, churches and a range of private and philanthropic institutions sponsored a dozen migration schemes for young British workers. These workers were regarded as ideal immigrants – single, adaptable and not seen as competition for adult jobs. In short, the schemes aimed to populate the young burgeoning ex-colony and provide much-needed agricultural labourers and domestic workers.

By January 1919, the need for young migrant workers was urgent. The loss of tens of thousands from a generation of Australians in the WW1 trenches was devastating. Returning soldiers were allocated land under the government’s Soldier Settler Scheme but there was a shortage of fit young men, to help clear the land and establish viable farms. Migrant worker schemes established in 1910 had to be abandoned during the war, so in 1922 the South Australian premier started again. He launched a three year apprenticeship programme called The Barwell Boys. Let me examine Lydia McLean’s story then ask the questions at the end.

One shipload of Barwell Boys that arrived in Adelaide
Winter 1922
A copy of this group photo was sent to each set of parents back in the UK 
Photo credit – State Library of South Australia

Henry Newman Barwell was elected Member of Parliament for Stanley, South Australia in 1915, becoming leader of the Liberal party and Premier of South Australia in 1920. He received a knighthood during his visit to Britain in 1922 to promote trade and migration.

In London Mr Barwell brought a message of loyalty and devotion from the Government of South Australia and of good will and affection from the Australian people. They were proud to call themselves members of the British Empire, he said. The greatest need of Australia at the present time was the early and rapid development of the illimitable resources of that really wonderful country. They wanted active, industrious people from the Mother Country.

These were the days of ‘Populate or Perish’ and the ‘White Australia’ policy. Australia’s population in the 1920s was only 5 million. Barwell wanted a bigger population so that Australia would be one of the greatest countries in the world in the future. Great hopes, Barwell said, centred in a scheme of migration for boys between the ages of 15-18. The ideal, which aimed at the replacement of the 6,000 South Australian soldiers who were killed in the war, was an instalment of practical Imperial reciprocity.

The picture of very warm, well-fed and spacious Australia would certainly have appealed to young men from a crowded, rain-soaked post-war Britain with its millions of unemployed. By the time the first ship sailed, 14,000 applications from would-be farm apprentices had been received. Of the £38 fare, the boys paid £10 cash and the South Australian government contributed £12. The remainder was advanced by the government as an interest-free loan, to be repaid from the boys’ wages of 15 shillings/week.

South Australian landowners in country centres were told the scheme would ensure that South Australia would soon have thousands of young men trained in agricultural and horticultural pursuits. The Commissioner of Crown Lands invited farmers, who wish to secure one or more boys to train, to apply at once to the State Immigration Dept in Adelaide. They were told that many of the boys selected would probably be sons, possibly orphans, of British ex-service men. This would tend to strengthen the bonds of Empire.

100 teens embarked on a six-week voyage on each and every ship, travelling steerage with eight berths to a cabin. The Minister addressed the boys at a dinner when each boatload arrived in Adelaide: “We sent for you to come out to help us to develop the country. We desire you to go on the land and eventually to become producers. If you possess the good old British characteristics of pluck & determination you are sure to make good. You lads are the type Australia wants: you will be treated like sons. Good luck!”

Within 48 hours of their ship docking, the boys were sent on another long journey by road, rail or sea to their new employers all over rural South Australia. At the distant train stations, a representative from a welfare organisation escorted the lads to their employers/ foster parents.

These lads had not been on farms in Britain, and it was inevitable that there would be disputes between farmers and their new British employees. The inexperienced boys frequently suffered accidents in handling unfamiliar farm equipment or animals; some committed suicide. A select committee established in 1924 to report on the two year scheme revealed that of the 1444 boys who migrated to Australia, nine had died, 467 had been transferred and 222 left the programme completely.

Sir Henry Newman Barwell, Premier of South Australia in 1920-4.
Knighted 1922
Photo credit – State Library of South Australia

Some farmers, on the other hand, reported that their Barwell boys were splendid types of farm youth. After completion of their apprenticeships, many of the boys stayed on the land to farm in their own right. Others moved to the cities, or interstate; a few returned to England. Later in life, many of them joined the Australian forces and served in WW2.


Sir Henry Barwell had originally aimed to recruit 6,000 farm apprentices to help ‘restock’ the state after the heavy loss of young lives during the War. However the scheme was stopped when Labour came to power in 1924, so only 1,444 Barwell Boys had had a chance to arrive.

How successful was the programme, for the boys and for their new country? These young migrants certainly performed many of the basic, but extremely rigorous tasks that underpinned the settlement and agricultural development of South Australia after WW1. But at what cost? Some Barwell boys were sent to farms with warm, loving families while others told stories of horrible mistreatment and rank exploitation. Some lived with the host family in a proper house, while others were dumped in a shed with no furniture or facilities. They were paid 15 shillings a week to start with, at a time when the average wage was 2-3 pounds a week. And they were putting in VERY long days, 16-18 hour days, for their low pay.

South Australian Department of Immigration gave their Director the responsibility of supervising the scheme, being responsible for the boys' reception, assigning employment and welfare. The records show that he did correspond with the boys and their farming families. But what accountability was there in the day-to-day sense, and did anyone supervise the placements locally?

Elspeth Grant found it intriguing that Australia began participating in adolescent migration at the same time that Canada was scaling back its involvement, due to ethical concerns!

I presume the ethical issues raised by the Barwell Boys’ programme did not dampen Adelaide’s ardour for more young, fit farming apprentices. When a Liberal government returned to power in 1927, the programme was revived once again. This time, however, the newly named Little Brothers Scheme ensured that each young migrant was to be supported by a prominent South Australian citizen. 125 Little Brothers arrived during 1927–28.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Helen:
An intriguing story of the 'Barwell Boys' and their involvement in the reconstruction and development of Australia.It is so sad to note that, as is often the case with well intentioned ideas, there are those who will exploit it for their own ends and by their own means. However, it was clearly a success for some and, as you say, there were many who saw little future in England and so, probably, felt that had little to lose by taking this chance.

Andrew said...

I had not heard of the Barwell Boys. Most interesting and it does sound like it was less of a disaster than for some other schemes. Australia has a fine record for exploiting immigrants and it has not ceased.

Parnassus said...

In order to be fair, we have to compare the fates of these workers to the lives of children who grew up on farms and were expected to work. Still, they could have predicted the mixed results. Old books are full of stories of orphans and apprentices who were taken in as free labor under the guise of benevolence. One is reminded of James Whitcomb Riley's famous lines:

Little Orphant Annie's come to our house to stay,
An' wash the cups an' saucers up, an' brush the crumbs away,
An' shoo the chickens off the porch, an' dust the hearth, an' sweep,
An' make the fire, an' bake the bread, an' earn her board-an'-keep...

Hels said...

Jane and Lance

The replacement of the 6,000 South Australian soldiers who were killed in WW1, often from farming families, was truly an admirable goal. And I don't blame 15-18 boys from Britain, who faced unemployment and bleak conditions, from looking for a better life.

But it must have broken their parents' hearts, thinking that they would never see their boys back in Leeds or Nottingham again. I am always on the parents' side :)

Hels said...


the scheme was not a disaster. The Select Committee report showed that the two year scheme had made a large difference to farming families who desperately needed assistance. Most of the 1444 boys successfully migrated and the numbers would have been more, had it not been for the change in government.

But the potential for exploitation was not seen by the organisers, or was wilfully ignored. How can a scheme involving very young teenagers not have local supervision? Why were the boys paid so little and made to work so many hours?

Hopefully the later schemes got this problem sorted.

Hels said...


exploitation of the young, the unemployed and the poor most certainly did not start with a post-WW1 scheme, agreed. The difference with this scheme was it was to be cheap labour under the guise of _mutual_ benevolence. Hopefully it was, for most participants.

Auriel Ragmon said...

I had not heard of this. It reminds me of the 'Orphan Trains' in 19th cent. USA.

Hels said...


The motives were very similar - to give young people, living in deprived conditions, a better chance in life. And the ethical concerns were very similar - that sibling groups were broken up and reallocated to new families, willy nilly. And I can imagine that some children were exploited.

The Orphan Train children travelled in far greater numbers, of course and the children were much younger than the Barwell Programme. But did the organisers of the Barwell Programme know what happened in the USA before WW1 and after?