Britain’s Child Migrants

Between 1869 and the late 1940s as many as 150,000 children – some as young as young as four – were sent to Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the former Rhodesia as indentured servants. These were the “surplus” children of Britain, begging in the streets, sleeping in the gutters. They were generally believed to be orphans but in fact most of them had families. In most cases, however, their parents could not support them and the children became what we’d refer to today as wards of the state. Parental consent, or consent of the children themselves, was not an issue, especially as many of these children were runaways and abandoned youngsters, beyond the control of their families.

The idea of shipping children off to the colonies didn’t originate with the Victorians. In 1618 one hundred vagrant children between the ages of 8 and 16 were rounded-up from the streets of London and sent to the Virginia colony to be “industriously employed”. The scheme was declared a success and in 1620 another 100 children were sent, followed by 100 more after the massacre of 350 settlers in 1622.

Over the next 200 years juvenile migration schemes flared up whenever there was a perceived need for labour, whether it was in the American colonies, South Africa, or elsewhere. Many of the children were kidnapped or “spirited” from towns close to the ports and sent overseas to be bought by farmers and plantation owners. In one of the worst examples, some 500 Scottish boys were kidnapped and trafficked to the Americas to be sold as slaves.

By 1869 the child emigration movement was in full sway. Dozens of well-meaning individuals and charitable organizations set up refuges for abandoned and pauper children – some of whom were orphaned – and transported them to across the ocean to be used as cheap farm or domestic labour. The “home” children, as they were known, were considered to be of inferior stock, coming from “the gutters of London and Liverpool” and many were abused. While some were taken in and treated as part of the family, many weren’t. Some ran away, and some died of abuse and neglect.

British immigrant children from Dr. Barnardo’s Homes at landing stage, Saint John, N.B. (Courtesy Library and Archives Canada)

In November 2009 the Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, formally apologized to former child migrants and their families. The following year the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, also made a formal apology for the “misguided” emigration program and announced a £6m fund to reunite families that had been torn apart.

“To all those former child migrants and their families,” he said, “we are truly sorry. They were let down. We are sorry they were allowed to be sent away at the time when they were most vulnerable. We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back”.

On February 15, 2017, a Private Member’s bill was passed in Canada’s House of Commons calling for a formal apology from the Canadian government. You can read the text of that motion here.

My grandfather, Edward Morgan Taylor, was a “home” boy. Unlike his younger counterparts, he was 16 and made the decision to emigrate believing Canada held a brighter future than England. His mother was alive, and he had two older sisters, but he hadn’t had any kind of real family for many years. His father deserted the family shortly after Edward was born, leaving his mother with no choice but to enter the workhouse with her three children. When Edward was seven, his mother placed him in a Roman Catholic boys home. From then until he left for Canada he had little contact with her, and only occasionally saw his sisters.

Harrow Road is the first book in a projected trilogy based on the life of my grandfather. It tells the story of the Union workhouses, life as a Victorian domestic, and how the poor were treated in the 19th Century. Edward’s story, the next book in the series, will tell the story of the “home” children.

Read more about British Home Children in Canada.

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“A moving and convincing account of a promising young woman’s descent into poverty in 19th century London, Harrow Road tells the story of Annie Taylor who finds herself in workhouse with three young children in tow after being abandoned by her husband. This novel really underlines the vulnerability of women in society and the cruel criminalization of poverty as a moral failing, both still realities in our world. Yet Annie is a strong, positive and empathetic woman who finds a way to rise up above her desperate situation, with the help of the many other compelling characters who she meets along the way. Harrow Road really stayed with me.”

Valerie B.