For the origins of child and juvenile migration from the United Kingdom to what were once British overseas colonies we need to look to British demographic history. Until the early decades of the 20th century the proportion of the population we would class as children and juveniles now appears disproportionately high, but that of their parents’ generation seems low, compared to the age structure today of populations in industrialised countries. Large families and the early deaths of adults left many youngsters without sufficient family support. A father who lost his wife and yet needed to work (often on low wages) could often not also care for his children; and a widowed wife lacking a wage-earning husband might struggle to feed and clothe her offspring. Orphaned children and deserted, abused and homeless youngsters were also a recognised social problem. Juveniles might have been able to fend for themselves, but children (here defined as those under the age of 14) had few options. When all else failed, many such youngsters, even some with parents, became the responsibility of Poor Law authorities and were accommodated in workhouses. However, increasingly from early in the 19th century, many youngsters were taken into the care of local or national charities. Often they were accommodated in large barrack-style buildings, though in the 20th century some were sent to live in estates of so-called cottage homes, where something more resembling families managed by ‘house mothers’ were established. All the major church denominations were involved, as well as private charities like Externer Link: Dr Barnardo’s, Externer Link: Quarriers Homes, Externer Link: National Children’s Homes and the Externer Link: Fairbridge Society.
The problem was that, wherever housed, the supply of children in need exceeded available accommodation. Funding their care was a challenge. Some juveniles were distributed outside as apprentices or young workers within the UK, but Poor Law authorities from 1618 pioneered the practice of shipping some youngsters to the American colonies, until blocked by the American revolution in 1776. Thereafter, from the 1830s, many charities were attracted by the opportunities apparently beckoning in the white settler societies of the British Empire (which later became the self-governing Commonwealth). Here it seemed were careers for youngsters lacking in the UK. Since most ‘rescued’ children taken into care in the UK had been growing up in cities, often rightly judged to be unhealthy, it was also expected that they would be redeemed physically and indeed morally by new starts in rural areas. Importantly, these young migrants were not going ‘abroad’: they were contributing to the development of a ‘Greater Britain’ overseas. Numbers are inexact. A few juveniles were dispatched early on to South Africa, but overwhelmingly from 1869 most children were sent to Canada mainly to work on farms, probably as many as 90,000 by 1924, plus an additional 329 between 1935 and 1948. Growing opposition by Canadian childcare professionals and trade unions (objecting to cheap imported labour), then diverted more of the flow to Australia (6,900, 1913-70) where there was a desperate demand for ‘white British stock’, and smaller streams went to New Zealand (549, 1949-53), and to Southern Rhodesia (276, 1949-56).
Child and Juvenile Migration – A Hidden Practice?
There was nothing covert about the practice of shipping children and youths overseas. The UK government subsidised child (and separately juvenile) migration by legislation which was repeatedly renewed from 1922 until 1972, as part of a wider empire settlement scheme. Overseas governments, especially Australia, also provided financial and administrative support. Charities, when soliciting cash donations, also advertised lyrically the benefits of migration for supposedly carefully selected children. However, child migration had its critics in the UK. As early as 1875, a prominent Poor Law official was concerned about the well-being of child migrants who were too rarely inspected on the remote farms to which they had been sent. Then post-war, when the Welfare State was being developed in Britain, an official report on child care in 1946, plus increasing numbers of professional child welfare officers, doubted whether child migration was acceptable now that the Welfare State was being developed at home. There was also growing concern that children were being relocated overseas into the care of adults who were almost without exception untrained, and many were ill-equipped to nurture children who were often already disturbed by the absence or breakdown of a normal home life. British government officials also had serious doubts about the quality of care and aftercare which child migrants were receiving. Nevertheless, child migration was still not stopped or even adequately regulated by the UK government, which was anxious not to offend its Australian partner or British-based and well-respected charities. But child migrant numbers declined and in 1970 the practice finally ended, partly because several childcare charities from the 1950s had themselves opted instead for domestic solutions for childcare problems, but largely because better state-funded family support services in the UK, the fall in the birth rate, and improved life expectancy reduced the number of youngsters in need of institutional care by the state or by charities, except temporarily.
However, child migration overseas left a distressing legacy. It was publicly exposed by a social worker, Margaret Humphreys, who in 1987 founded the Child Migrants Trust. She had met adults who revealed to her how as children they had been separated from family and migrated to Australia, and had suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse. Publicity and political lobbying then generated in Australia four official inquiries and revelatory and disturbing reports between 1996 and 2017 and also three in the UK between 1998 and 2018, with one more currently in progress. Charities and governments have been blamed; official apologies have been made; court cases have followed; family reunions have been effected; support groups have been formed; counselling has been provided; memorials have been erected in Australia and Canada; financial compensation has been demanded – and perhaps, most importantly, truth has been told.
Constantine, Stephen (2002), 'The British Government, Child Welfare, and Child Migration to Australia after 1945', Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, vol. 30, no. 1, S. 99-132.
Harper, Marjory/Constantine, Stephen (2010), Migration and Empire, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kershaw, Robert/Sacks, Janet (2008), New Lives for Old: the Story of Britain's Child Migrants, Kew: The National Archives.
Lynch, Gordon (2016), Remembering Child Migration: Faith, Nation-Building and the Wounds of Charity, London: Bloomsbury.
Parker, Roy (2008), Uprooted: the Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867-1917, University of Bristol: Policy Press.
This article is part of the policy brief on