Toward the end of the 19th century, Britain was facing significant social and economic trouble. Deprivation, homelessness and neglect were endemic throughout Britain’s overcrowded cities, and child migration emerged as a solution.
Britain was in the midst of empire building and the colonies not only provided enormous wealth and resources – they also provided alternative homelands for the unwanted peoples of Britain. Many Britons emigrated throughout this period of history; yet few know of the many thousands of children who were rounded up and sent abroad. Child migrants became the brick and mortar force on which the Empire could continue to expand.
Children as young as three were routinely shipped abroad – primarily to Australia and Canada – through government-sanctioned child migration schemes. Charities were even established to support the emigration efforts, as children were gathered from across the UK. They were brought to major British ports such as London, Glasgow, Liverpool, and Southampton where they were given a trunk of clothing and shipped off to their new homes. The vast majority never returned to their homeland.
Approximately 100,000 children were sent to Canada, over 7,000 to Australia, and several hundred were shipped to New Zealand and Southern Rhodesia. Prior to 1900, the majority of the children were collected from workhouses, city streets and declining rural areas where they were often found destitute and homeless. After the turn of the century the children were sent from orphanages and children’s homes. In some cases, parents were unable to provide for their children and chose to send them abroad with the migration schemes.
Many of the children hardly knew what to expect. They faced the future with fear, but also with excitement as in many cases they were simply leaving behind a life of neglect, hunger and hardship. They were promised new sights, new places and the excitement of exploration. They were treated to tea parties and visited by popular entertainers, powerful benefactors, and even by royalty. Each departure was highly publicized to promote the work of the various charities.
The children were actually treated very well in Britain and all throughout the voyages. They enjoyed the luxury of passenger liners, sleeping in comfortable cabins, eating hearty meals, and even enjoying games, swimming and schooling on board the ships.
Unfortunately, upon arrival in their new homes the children were faced with lands completely foreign and often harsh. In Canada, the children were distributed to rural homes where they lived and worked with farming families. Some fared better than others; however the majority faced hard physical labour in a harsh climate, compounded by the loneliness of being with a family but not being considered part of the family.
In Australia the children fared no better. Their smart wardrobes were stripped from them and exchanged for khaki work clothes and bare feet. The children were placed in religious institutions or farming schools where they were subjected to harsh discipline and backbreaking labour. The children were expected to continue in agriculture, and thus received little to no education.
At the height of the child migration scheme, as many as 300 children would travel aboard a single ship, chaperoned by staff from their designated charity. The numbers dropped lower and lower as the 20th century progressed; however, the schemes weren’t officially ended until 1967.
When the Child Welfare Act was passed in 1948, the child migration schemes came under scrutiny. Investigations were carried out and several of the participating institutions received strong condemnation. The schemes continued, however, for another decade. The last group of child migrants was sent to Australia by air in 1967, and the institutions began to close in the 1970s.