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.
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