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Child emigration to Canada

Find out about the British child emigration schemes from 1618 to 1967 as Roger Kershaw examines the reasons and the records behind the schemes to Canada, Australia, South Africa and beyond.


Thank you for coming here today. What I’m going to do today is really talk to you for about 30 to 40 minutes about child migration movements to North America and, specifically, I really want to cover where it’s relevant within The National Archives and our holdings here.

I’m going to give you a brief history of the child migration schemes which operated from as early as 1618 to as late as 1967, but I’m very much going to focus on the schemes to Canada, and it was very much a unique part of British history, something which I wasn’t really aware of until I joined the office and started to work through the records. A lot of people are amazed to learn that up to 150,000 children were evacuated through government approved schemes across 350 years. The peak was really between 1870 and 1920, when as many as 80,000 children were dispatched to Canada alone. But you also had other parts of the British Empire, such as Australia, New Zealand, and to a lesser extent, South Africa, but also Rhodesia which again would, would accommodate children from, from Britain.

So we’re going to look at the type of children who were migrated, and they were very much pauper children; so children from the cities, children normally on the streets or housed in institutions such as workhouses, and we’re going to see what kind of records we have here. By and large, we don’t hold case files or files relating to particulars of children who were migrated. It’s more really policy files, but you will get lists of children’s, and some case, files within, particularly Home Office records, local government board papers and dominions office records. We’ll come onto that later.

Dominions office records are a small selection of files specifically to the evacuation of children overseas during the Second World War, in what was known as CORB, which was the Children of the Overseas Reception Board, and Canada was one of the main recipients of those children. So again, it’s fairly relevant to this talk.

If you wanted to take this subject further, in March of this year, together with a colleague called Janet Sacks, we produced a book – which is on sale in the shop downstairs and there’s a library copy just outside this room on the shelves – called New Lives for Old, which was looking at the whole policy of migration from 1618 through to 1967.

So, looking at Home Office sources, these are the types of series of records you may want to consult if you were to take this further. As I say, it’s mainly policy papers but you do have some case papers within these series, which are predominantly Home Office records but also children’s division of the Home Office and, and children’s department. As I say, DO131 is something very specific, very 20th century, looking very much at the emigration of children during the Second World War, specifically during May and September 1940.

Most of the records relating to children, or the case files that we’ve got, were originally closed for 75 or 100 years on grounds of data protection and sensitivity. Most of the policy files were as well, but relatively recently, under the Freedom of Information Act, the policy files have generally now all been opened, but you will still find some files closed for 75 or 100 years and you can request for a review of those files, as you can with any file which is currently closed, following the promise on the catalogue.

It’s not just Home Office sources, though. We’ve also got local government sources here, particularly the correspondence between the Poor Law Union records and local government; the correspondence of which is in the series MH12, which is one of the biggest series of records of the National Archives. It’s arranged by Poor Law Union and by County and it’s really correspondence between the government offices and Poor Law Unions. At the moment, there is a separate project going on which is trying to open up these records using volunteers from up and down the country, staff at local records offices and volunteers in England and Wales, and it’s trying to open up 20 Poor Law Union records, because they are probably, undoubtedly, the most difficult records to use. There’s no easy way into them. It’s just a case planning through correspondence on any subject for a given year in a given union. But correspondence does include lists of children who were migrated from the workhouses to Canada towards the end of the 19th century.

And also related to local government sources is a series, MH32, which contains a fairly damning report on the policy of child migration, and it led to the suspension of children being migrated from local authorities and workhouses for a period of two to three years. And that report was put together by someone called Andrew Doyle, and we’ll look at the evidence of his report a little bit later on in the talk.

But let’s have a look at some of the reasons behind why children were migrated and the actual history of child migration. So, who were the early pioneers of child migration schemes and, and why did this country make a decision to actively migrate children overseas? Well, the bulk of my talk is really going to start around about 1870 when schemes were set up to migrate children, specifically to Canada, but it was nothing new. As I say, the earliest evidence or known case of actively sending children overseas was in 1619 when the Virginia Company took 100 street children from the city of London to Virginia to supply labour to plantation owners. And this kind of use of child labour would continue, but not in big numbers over the next couple of centuries. And coupled with this, was the policy of transportation, which actively exiled prisoners overseas. Initially, between 1615 and the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1776, they were sent to Americas and the West Indies and it would include convicts who were male and female, but also child convicts. So, children were being transported, exiled to the colonies in the 17th century and 18th century, and that continued to Australia between 1787 and 1868.

But what happened in 1870 was fairly new and fairly different, and it was really a reflection of what was happening in Victorian Britain. In the mid, late 1870s, it was clear that Victorian Britain didn’t smile upon the poor, and particularly in big cities: London, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow; particularly big ports, Bristol as well, tens of thousands of people were coming into the cities from the rural areas as the rural economies collapsed, and the numbers of people going into the cities were, were actually, were, were too high for the cities to accommodate. And it wasn’t just from the rural Britain, it, it was also, significant numbers were coming across from Ireland as well. So, an awful lot of pressure was, was being put upon the cities, and as a result food became scarce and epidemics such as cholera and smallpox were out breaking. There was also an acute shortage of housing, because at the same time this was happening, housing was being demolished to help accommodate for the realm network which was beginning to thrive in the second part of the 19th century. And one of the, I guess, the victims of, of this situation were, increasingly, children, because crime and lawlessness had flourished and children would often grow up with very little food and very little education, and sometimes they were abandoned by their parents and other times they were actually exploited by their parents into leading a life of crime.

So, into this chaos would step a number of philanthropists and they would set up work with energy and dedication to try and protect the children from this, this kind of situation and there were some significant people who would help bring about the child migration movement, which we’re going to be looking at today.

Clearly, unemployment also rose. In the 1860s, unemployment particularly became higher, and charities and Poor Law Unions began to send adults overseas to help develop the economies of colonies. So, there were active promotional immigration schemes for adults and their families throughout the 1850s and ’60s and ’70s. One of the ways of, of helping the children was to extend this kind of active promotion of migration to children from� who were living on the street, who were destitute or in work houses. So, up stepped two pioneers in the late 1860s: Maria Rye someone called Annie Macpherson. They were two people from two very different backgrounds. Maria Rye had a fairly privileged background. Annie Macpherson’s background was, was, fairly humble. One, Maria Rye would operate schemes very much in the South of England, specifically in London. Annie Macpherson would set up homes and schools in the northwest, particularly Liverpool. And later, you’d get other people who would come forward to also be pioneers of child migration, such as people like Father Nugent, Thomas Stevenson, William Quarrier and John Middlemore, and all of these people would actively bring together parties of, of children from public institutions and arrange for their transfer and migration to Canada.

Fairly late into this came Dr Barnado and Dr Barnado’s homes became active in child transport, sorry, child migration, from about the 1880s, so it was about ten years later than Maria Rye and Annie Macpherson. Having said that, Dr Barnado’s homes would be the biggest player in the sense that if 80,000 children went to Canada between 1870 and 1914, Dr Barnado would be responsible for sending half of those, so in excess of 35,000 children would be migrated through schemes that he operated.

But there’s also James Fegan, and also later the Catholic Immigration Association would migrate children. The numbers started from several hundred in the late 1870s – the annual number – and then by about 1888 there were two to three thousand children going each year. So, if you added it all up, by the beginning of the First World War, you were approaching 80,000.

There were some other players. Kingsley Fairbridge was someone who strongly believed that children should be given agricultural skills and develop the lands to take them out of urban squalor and sent to work on the farms. And he tried very much to set up schemes in Canada, but he came into it fairly late, and by the time he came into the, the whole business of child migration, they were looking for alternative places than Canada, so he was more responsible for sending children to Australia. As I said, the government supported this, either through local government or through government boards such as the Overseas Migration Board.

Other schemes would continue beyond Canada, as I said, to Australia, as late as 1967. There’s also a slightly separate scheme which would emigrate children, older children, 16 or 17 and that was known as the Big Brother Scheme. But it was slightly different from any of these other ones which would really look specifically at children from poor backgrounds, orphans, workhouses’ children, pauper children on the streets.

[Shows image]

So, that’s a picture of Maria Rye. As I said, she came from a privileged, professional family and she was able to enlist the support from the establishment. Initially, she was involved with promoting the emigration of women. As I said before, she was actively involved, particularly when unemployment rose, to help migrate women and families to Canada, and she did this very much so in the 1860s. And she was very frustrated with the limitations that Victorian societies placed on women in Britain and there seemed to be more, more of a liberal attitude in Canada. But it was on a visit to Canada in 1868 that she became convinced that the Canadians wanted help on the farm and they wanted children to actually help develop the farm and help populate the land. And there was particularly a shortage of domestic servants, so she had an idea of, if they sent children, girls, there, they would be developed with the skills of providing domestic servants, and boys would go there and they’d be developed with skills to actually work on the farms and agricultural pursuits. And this is really what inspired her to take what she described as the ‘gutter children’ of London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool to Canada, and she set up a distributing house at Niagara, on the lake and also one in Peckham in London. So, obviously, they, they’d go from one distribution house to another and then they’d be farmed out to various families who would require their work and they’d help develop their skills.

And she was soon taking 10,000 children from the city workhouses, so, she was responsible, probably, for taking 10,000 children from the late, well, from the early 1870s through to the turn of the century, so not quite as big a player as Dr Barnado, but obviously very significant. And she would be paid £10 for each child she took out of the workhouse and she sent to Canada, and just before this, I checked what £10 would be in today’s money and it was £450. So, it was quite, quite a payment from the local authorities.

As I say, Barnado came in a bit later. He arrived and became a supporter of child migration; after initially criticising the actual policy he came to embrace it in the 1880s, and, as I said, he would take over thirty to thirty-five thousand children there between 1882 and 1939.

[Shows image]

That’s a cartoon, a sketch from the cartoonist and temperance campaigner George Cruikshank, which I think comes from the Illustrated London News.  And that very much disagreed with Maria Rye’s opinion that she would take the gutter children from London and simply pick them up and put them somewhere else; so, out of mind, out of sight. And she received a lot of criticism about her schemes, initially, for the first ten years and many people thought that the resources should be spent more wisely to actually improve the conditions in this country rather than simply sending 80,000 children into exile.

I mentioned about these, these homes that were set up – one, to receive them before they embarked on the journey to Canada and this is the one which is in Canada. [Shows image] This is actually a distribution house set up by Annie Macpherson who was another of these key pioneers. She, she really was more to do with emigrating children from the North of England, and particularly Liverpool. But they’d arrive here, at this distribution house, well this is an example of one, in a place called Bellview in Ontario, and from there they would be distributed, as I say, depending on, on which families wanted to, to actually take them on board, and they’d be given skills, either agricultural or through domestic servants.

[Shows image]

This is an example of the types of lists of children you will find in Poor Law Union records. This is within the correspondence for the Union of Poplar, Poplar in London. And as you can see, this is a list of children which was posted on the town hall or the parish, the parish hall, listing all the children who were to be sent to Canada, and they describe these children as having been deserted or otherwise abandoned by their parents. And the lists of these particular children ranged from the age of one to the age of 13. So, you have a list at the bottom here of, of six children presumably from the same family ranging from one year to 12 years and it’s, it’s unlikely that, that they would have stayed as a family unit once they had arrived in Canada. But they’d all go together and this particular one, I think, was being migrated through Dr Barnado, which I think this is 1884, ’85 when Barnado became a key player.

Once they arrived, this is, this is – a lot of these images that you’re seeing on the screen actually come from the library and archives of Canada – and this is a photograph of children or boys arriving or on their way to Stratford in Ontario where Annie Macpherson had bought a lot of farmland to actually help develop the land and accommodate the boys and give them a trade.  Not all the children necessarily came from the big cities. [Shows image] This is a photograph of children who were preparing to leave Painswick, which is in Gloucester, in 1886, and they travelled up to Liverpool where they would join other children and set sail for Canada.

[Shows image]

And this party is a bit later. What you saw before was 1886. This we think is in the early 1920s and these are girls likely to be from Barkingside Girls School that Dr Barnado set up in Ilford and they are setting sail – well, I think this is taken at St John in New Brunswick in the 1920s and again, this is part of the library archive photographic collection in Canada.

[Shows image]

As is this one. This is an example of the fact that boys would learn agricultural skills and trades, not exclusively agricultural. So, brick-making, shoe-making and carpentry were listed as other skills that they would have developed.

But I mentioned earlier that there was a report by Inspector Andrew Doyle which temporarily suspended the support of the migration of children to Canada in the 1870s, and this is actually the report. [Shows report] It’s within record MH32, piece 20, and if you are tracing or if you are interested in tracing cases of children who were migrated in or around 1872, 1873, there’s a high chance that you might find reference to them in this particular document.

The document’s not arranged by name of child in any way. It’s correspondence that you need to wade your way through. But it took Andrew Doyle about six months to prepare and write his report, and he went out to Canada. And he was actually appointed by the Poor Law commissioners of the local government board and he was an inspector. And it was really the first time that the government had gone into any kind of detail about the policy of migration, which was increasing all the time by the time he went there in 1872, and his plan was to visit all the receiving homes where children from the workhouses were sent. So, he would visit homes which were being administered by Maria Rye, but also Annie Macpherson and the other pioneers at that time, and it took him six months to write his report. It was published in 1875 and, as I say, it’s very detailed.

This is a particular entry here which describes the fact that the children were seemingly, relatively happy. There was obviously a situation where the children would arrive at this place called Marchemont, which is a distribution house. Someone would actually come and select this particular boy, because he had no son of his own, and then he intended to keep him and he gave him what he had, and one of the other girls went there as well. So, it’s a very good document in, in describing exactly the process of when they arrived to where they actually went to. But it was, essentially, very critical of the idea of child migration movements. What Andrew Doyle couldn’t really get away from was the fact that in more cases than not, these were simply a case of getting cheap labour to do the work of paid labour. And farmers were identified as really abusing the, the situation which had been set up, as I say, by Maria Rye initially.

He also found that the receiving homes that they went to lacked any cleanliness or washing facilities and there were inadequate arrangements for looking after the sick and he also found that the homes, or many of the homes, actually didn’t provide any training at all in terms of providing someone with a skill or a particular vocation. And there’s also evidence of cruelty to particular children, as well. So, the upside of this report was that the government withdrew any support of sending any more children from institutions.

It was very important because the report was the first time the British government had ever looked into any depth and detail of the policy of emigration of pauper children. It was significant because, as I say, local government would suspend sending any children from the work houses there, and it made key recommendations that placements and houses that accepted the children needed to improve on, on the way that they treated the children if the government was to actually start to send children again. And it was much to the annoyance of Maria Rye and Annie Macpherson that this report was ever published and there’s evidence that they became very bitter about the role of Andrew Doyle in this, who I think had always been quite open in his criticism of the policy, at any rate.

But, having said that, the, the actual policy did start again two or three years later. The government was convinced that changes had been made to enable their support again. As I said, The National Archives do not hold many case studies relating to children who were transported. These are really in the archives of the transporting organisation, so Dr Barnado’s has its own archive. Many of� it is actually with the University of Liverpool and, similarly, Annie Macpherson will have her own archive, or records will actually be donated to archives, and similarly with Maria Rye. But we do have, within the Home Office records, certain cases have survived. This is one, which I guess is very typical.

[Shows record]

This, as I’m sure you can read there, is, is, is kind of a summary of two sisters – one called Eva May Celina Roe, who was 13, and her younger sibling, Hilda Kate Roe, who was nine, and they were both committed in 1907, probably because they were begging on the street. So they were taken into care and it, summarised, the father was living but the mother had died two years previous and the father, who was a painter, was said to be of lazy and drunken habits and he spent his time in and out of prison, sentenced to six months hard labour and repeatedly neglected his children. So, the children were taken into care and they were taken into the care of, well, initially, the local authority and then Dr Barnado’s home in Barkingside. And a short while later, their father was written to by the authorities to basically indicate that the children, who were now living at the Girl’s Village School in Barkingside, had been selected for the next party of children to go to Canada. And he replied to this, making it very clear that he thought it was� he writes here:

‘I was surprised to receive a letter from you telling me that you’re sending my two little girls to Canada, which I do not approve of, and if there are any means of stopping it, I shall do so, and I think they are far enough away from me already.’

What we do find later on, is that the children did indeed go to Canada. About 12 months ago, Find My Past, with the National Archives, digitised and indexed the names of up to 30 million passengers who left the UK between 1890 and 1960, and I just did a search for Eva Roe and her sister and she does appear, indeed, at the bottom of the list of girls or party of children who went out with the ages of 13 and eight. So, obviously, the letter or the plea from the father fell on deaf ears and it was unlikely that he would have ever seen his children again.

I took it one stage further because the library and archives in Canada have their own database of passengers or children as they enter the country. So again, it confirms that Eva Roe arrived on a ship called the Sicilian in 1911, aged 13. And as is often the case, details of incoming lists or databases into the country are more detailed than those leaving. So, the incoming list actually identified that these two girls were part of a larger party of girls through Dr Barnado’s party, and they were destined for a place called Peterborough in Canada, and presumably that’s, that’s where Dr Barnado’s had one of his clearing houses.

I thought I’d just finish off with talking to you about the children of the Overseas Reception Board. And, as I say, this was a very unique part of British history during the Second World War, when 2,663 children were evacuated overseas, the majority of which went to Canada, 1,500. About 600 went to Australia, 300 to South Africa and a couple of hundred went to New Zealand.

At the start of the Second World War, Operation Pied Piper had successfully evacuated about a million and a half children from London through to the safety of the countryside, and it was an extremely well-prepared plan which was executed on the first and second of September and it brought together the skills of the, the local government and the Home Office and everybody else who was involved in actually putting together that plan. But, increasingly during 1940, there was unease that the children, even though they’d been migrated out of the cities, they were still at threat, particularly as the bombing would start, and the Blitz, in May and June 1940. So, coupled with this anxiety, governments from Canada, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, and also America, began to offer accommodation for children outside the UK, and already about 12,000 children had been evacuated outside the UK through private schemes. So, this was a way of actually having government schemes, so people from poorer backgrounds could, could get involved.

America pulled out of the offer through its, its position of neutrality in 1940, but there was still an incredible amount of support from Canada, Australia, South Africa and New Zealand and a huge government machinery was set up, known as the Children of the Overseas Reception Board, and there was over 200,000 applications had been received by July 1940. So, it was set up in May; within two months, they had details of 200,000 children who had been selected – obviously, they had their parents’ consent – to actually be evacuated.

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And that’s a picture of children being prepared to leave, I think it’s Southampton going to New Zealand. In total, there were about 20 parties of children who would go out on ships between May and September 1940, and that’s a typical party. Each, each group would have at least two escorts; a female escort, a male escort. Groups were arranged by their religious denomination and they’d age from the range of five years-old to 15.

And what we’ve got of the National Archives in the series DO131, are what’s known as history cards of the 2,664 children who actually safely reached the shores of, of Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, and this is a typical card for someone called William C-.

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As you can see, he was born in 1927, so he was 13, so he was eligible to be part of this scheme. Roman Catholic; his mother was a widow, Margaret C-, and his address – he was obviously 13 years old and he’d been brought up in Glasgow. And this is where he was going to be placed. He was going to go to Canada…Got a bit here that says, ‘N’ or ‘U’; ‘N’ stands for nominated and ‘U’, un-nominated. If the child had any relatives in Canada, or whatever, the likelihood is that the mother or parents would have nominated an address for him or her to go to. So, in this case, it looks as if he was allocated to stay possibly at his uncle’s or aunt’s, or something, but obviously, they’re related because they have the same surname.

And last year we catalogued all this information by name of child, so you can actually just type in ‘William C-‘ in the catalogue and you’ll get an exact reference to this particular sheet.

So you’ve got this information on the front, and on the back you’ve got information about his education, how long he stayed there, medical history, and this is quite unusual in the sense that this is an example of a child who didn’t settle there. As it says, he was in prison for three months for being in possession of and driving a car without the owner’s consent, and he arrived back in Scotland on 4 December 1943, a difficult boy, see file for reports.

These files, by and large, were destroyed under statute in 1959. So what you tend to have is just the front and reverse of these sheets here. But to be fair, you know, a lot of these children were being taken out of their, I suppose, safety zone. You know, he would have been brought up in Glasgow. No doubt he would have found it difficult to settle on the other side of the world. He may have had a very strong accent. He may have found himself being quite, quite, vulnerable and isolated there. But, in many cases, I mean, a lot’s been written about CORB children, the children who went out there, settled particularly well and were well-received and it, it was seen as a positive policy from, from that point of view.

Of course, the sad thing is that it was a very dangerous policy and only 2,663 children actually reached the destinations. They were, in September 1940, planning the evacuation of another 20,000 until the torpedoing of the City of Benares – and that was a ship that was taking children to Canada – and it was torpedoed on the 17th of September 1940.

[Shows image].

And this is the newspaper report at the time, which identified the children who died or were missing and there you have a situation there of two children from Sunderland, called Peter and William S-. As I said, most of the personal files of the children were destroyed under statute in 1959, but about 20 or 30 of them do survive in the series DO131 including one for, I think it’s William S-, because, despite the newspaper report, only one of the sons actually died and this is a letter from their father, Mr J. S-, thanking the board for the cheque; no doubt for the, in part, loss of�one of his sons. And he goes on to say that he, I don’t know if you can read that in the back, but it says:

‘It would have been grand if I could have had both of my boys saved, but I thank God for sending one. The homes that have not got any back must be terrible because I know what it is like to miss one.

So, that’s, that’s, that’s really it. In terms of CORB, as I say, in the end I think the newspaper reports said that 87 died. Seventy children died in the end. A number of boys were picked up on life boats three or four days after the actual torpedoing. But it was significant. You know, this, this tragedy did bring an abrupt end to the scheme and the, and the children who had been evacuated, over 2,600 of them, did actually stay there, and they all returned at the end of the year, but some stayed on. Three girls married. When you think about it, the children were going out there in 1940 at the age of 15. By the end of hostilities, they were 20 and a lot of them were beginning to, to make a life out there as well. Some of them were actually� joined the Allied Forces overseas as well, and fought and two or three of them died in service, but the majority of them did return to the UK after the end of the war.

But that’s really all I was going to say. Thanks very much for listening and I hope you learned something. Thanks [applause].