Mid 19th century London, England.
Poverty is rife. A complete lack of sanitation means that diseases such as smallpox and cholera are prevalent. People are flooding into the big cities in search of work and this in turn is causing unprecedented levels of overcrowding and homelessness. Such high levels of disease means that the mortality rate has skyrocketed, causing hundreds of wives to become widows and children to become orphans, leaving them with little choice but to turn to begging or petty crime to survive.
The government’s answer to this problem is to have such people sent to the workhouses and to make these places so incredibly unpleasant that people will do almost anything to avoid this fate. After witnessing these abhorrent conditions, several trusted public figures, such as Dr Barnardo, see a chance to offer these children a better life in an exotic new land complete with education, a stable family environment and the chance to learn new skills that will set them up for a prosperous future. It’s little wonder why so many people are clamouring to accept this opportunity.
However, is this mysterious relocation program in fact the literal godsend that people believe it to be? Or is it merely a propaganda campaign used to disguise the fact that thousands of children will be rounded up, sent abroad and treated like little more than slave labourers? Let us discover the truth together as we examine the largely forgotten history of The Home Children.
The Children of London
Let me start by saying that conditions in London were indeed dreadful.
One written report from philanthropist Annie Macpherson tells of her discovery of children as young as three years old being forced to build matchboxes in exchange for a few farthings and unfortunately, this was not the only problem affecting children of the time. In order to suppress the pains of starvation, children were frequently given alcohol. In a further report Macpherson would go on to write the following: “While yet in their mother’s arms, gin is poured down their infant throats, and a little later as a natural consequence childish voices beg for coppers to be spent in drink. Alas! No uncommon sight is it to see little girls of ten years old reeling drunk along the streets”. So moved was she by the plight of these children that she would open the Home of Industries. This converted hospital facility in Spitalfields would allow children to live and work under much more acceptable conditions. However, MacPherson was not the only person with concerns. Several other people including Maria Rye, William Quarrier, and Dr Barnardo – whom we will focus on today – would go on to establish similar facilities with the aim of improving young lives in the major cities.
Who was Dr Barnardo?
Born in Dublin on the 4th of July 1845, Thomas John Barnardo’s early life remains largely undocumented. We do know that his schooling included Sunday school, parish day school and St Patricks Cathedral Grammar School, Dublin. We also know that during his years of education he was known as a bit of a troublemaker, often becoming bored with his lessons and quick to challenge the authority of his teachers.
At the age of 16, after failing all of his public exams (roughly equivalent to GCSEs), he was briefly apprenticed to a wine merchant, but it was around this time that he decided he wanted to become a protestant medical missionary in China, and he moved to London in order to study medicine at the Royal London Hospital. Although he would go on to use the Dr title for the rest of his life, he never actually finished his studies, and his application to be a missionary was rejected.
He next turned to trying to improve the lives of the children in London, and in 1867 he opened his first ragged school. Located in the East End of London, the purpose of this establishment was to provide education and care for orphaned children. Shortly after this, one of his students persuaded him to take a night-time walk through the East End of London. After witnessing the sheer number of children sleeping on the streets, he opened a home for poor and orphaned boys on Stepney causeway. A sign on the front of this building read: “no destitute child ever refused admission)”. He would later go on to found the Girls Village Home). Consisting of a collection of cottages in Barkingside, it would provide shelter for over 1,500 girls in similar circumstances and following these two successful projects Barnardo would go on to set up many more similar homes, not just throughout London but in other cities such as Liverpool and Glasgow.
In 1869, Maria Rye arranged for a group of girls from the workhouse to be sent to Canada to work as domestic servants, and from this the idea was born, with a number of philanthropists that included Dr Barnardo joining the cause.
The project was advertised to the public, and too many of the parents who were persuaded to surrender their children, as an opportunity for a better life, away from the poverty, disease and potential exploitation that had become so prevalent in cities such as London, Glasgow and Liverpool. Dr Barnardo wrote: “We in England with our 470 inhabitants to the square mile, are choking, elbowing, starving each other in the struggle for existence;”. It appears that he truly did believe these children would have a better life away from the slums of the big cities and in some cases, he was right.
However, more sceptical members of the British public viewed this as an opportunity for the government, who provided a large amount of funding, to simply get rid of a significant portion of poor, neglected or orphaned children. During these times, poverty was largely considered to be shameful and there were many who believed that this was an easy fix designed to hide the problem rather than attempting to improve the situation. They were not the only ones with concerns: several Toronto newspapers reported fears that Britain would use this opportunity to off load troublemakers and future criminals onto the colonies. In a Toronto Star interview with John Joseph Kelso, (a local journalist and social crusader) a reporter said that Kelso “deserves to be known as the Canadian Barnardo. “The only difference between the famous Doctor and Mr. Kelso, and it is an important one, is that the former gathers up young waifs of London and unloads them on Canada, whilst the latter endeavours to prevent the neglected children of his own province from becoming paupers, dependent on the charity of the public.”
Regardless of the concerns on both sides of the Atlantic, the children went. And while the Barnardo’s homes were by no means the only ones that participated in this relocation, they sent by far the most children, relocating over 35,000 between August 1882 and 1939.
It should be noted that, although many of the children sent were orphans, the majority were not.
There are several documented accounts of parents returning to collect the children that they had placed in care on a temporary basis, only to find that they had been sent away without consent. It was not uncommon for these children to have their names and date of birth changed in order to prevent them from being easily tracked and returned.
Once the children had been selected, they would be sent, usually by train, to Liverpool where they would be transported aboard one of the Allan Line steam ships carrying mail to Canada. Before they left, each child would be given a medical examination and they would be rejected if they were not considered healthy enough. This was done more to prevent the spread of illness on-board ship than out of any consideration for the individual child.
As these ships were not designed for carrying large amounts of small children, conditions on board were often less than ideal. One boy travelling aboard the male ship Mongolian wrote:
“My cabin was in steerage… The cabin was over the works of the ship and the clank of the steering gear together with the whine of the propeller shaft, the smell of hot oil and steam, and no ventilation, drove me out. I spent my nights hidden in a corner on deck against a ventilator shaft for warmth”.
Aside from this, it’s generally accepted that the vast majority of captains and crew members did their very best with regards to the well-being of the children.
One girl who made the crossing in 1912 wrote: “We were happy on board with the other girls. We played games… The sailors and the captain were very good to us.” Even so, some of these children had never even seen a boat, much less had experience with long see voyages and many of them suffered with seasickness for the entire journey.
Once the children arrived, they would be sent to one of four receiving Homes, two in Ontario and two in Manitoba, where they would be ither chosen by local farmers and landowners; or they would be sent to Russell Training Farm in Manitoba, where boys would be taught the necessary skills to become accomplished farm hands. This training facility was held in such high regard that a model was included in the Chicago world’s fair of 1893.
A Better Life
Finally, children would be sent to their new homes along with a prepaid postcard which was to be sent back to the receiving home to confirm that the Home Child had been received.
One such card contained the following message: “John Shaw arrived here this evening. Had expected from what I stated to the Sec’y a more experienced one. However I will do my best for it. Report in a month as requested. Fred Willey”. Even from these few lines of text, it is clear that the child is considered more a piece of property than an actual human being and
from what I have been able to ascertain, this was fairly common.
Another source tells the story of Home Child George Green, who was found dead at the farm of Helen Findlay in 1895. Findlay was charged with manslaughter and during the trial neighbours told the court that she would frequently knock the child to the ground and beat him with a stick. She never denied this, instead insisting that “It was only such chastisement as he deserved”. The trial would result in a hung jury; however, Findlay would go on to serve time in prison on assault charges.
Partly due to this poor treatment, there are numerous reports of children running away from their placements, engaging in self harm and, in extreme cases, committing suicide. Despite all this, it would be wrong to say that the entire project was without merit. As I mentioned previously, most people involved genuinely believed that it was the best option for these children and there are several documented cases where these children word go onto lead happy and successful lives, going on to marry into the families who took them on, and, in the case of the boys, this would often result in them inheriting the farms.
The story of William Bowman Tucker is one of only a few verifiable positive stories that I have been able to find. Orphaned at the age of five, he would spend the next seven years at the boys boarding school which he described as “not unlike a prison”. When at the age of 12 he was given the option to relocate to Canada he jumped at the opportunity, and on arrival, he discovered that he had a true passion for farming and very much enjoyed being out in the fresh air. Even so, he writes that the work was arduous and that he was not encouraged to pursue any form of education until he reached the age of 19. He would go on to become a teacher and Methodist minister completing 2 degrees at Victoria University.
Later, he founded the Montréal City Mission and would spend the remainder of his life travelling the world in order to promote it.
The only first-hand account of positive experiences that I have been able to find is a letter written by an 11-year-old girl to a maiden aunt back in England:
“My dear aunt, it seems long since I have seen you; I would expect you would like to hear from your Nelly. I have got safe to Canada, and I have got a good home. I am with a lady and a gentleman, their family is all gone for themselves but for two sons, the youngest is 18, the gentleman is a rich farmer, he owns 200 acres of land, he is his own landlord, this is a free country, much better than where you be, we have plenty of good wood to burn, it makes butiful fire, we have a nice spring crick running through the farm, and a pump of good water at the door, all without rent, a large orchard of butiful apples, I can’t step in the garden for apples, the boys is gathering them. We have got a sider mill and it makes a bountiful drink, grandmother and a boils it down. i have two dear little calfs for pets and they come and eat out of my hand, i like my new home well, and a have good health ever since a been hear… i have plenty of every thing that is good to eat and drink and i can work better now than I used to., grandmother says i may go to school if a be smart and help do the work in the morning, i have a quarter of a mile to go to Sunday school every Sunday, a wish all the girls come with me got as good home as a have.”
This was subsequently published in the London Times as part of an article promoting the benefits of the child migration project. I do not believe even for a moment that these are the only positive experiences, but I do believe that the negative experiences were far more commonplace.
When viewed with hindsight, there is little doubt that the child emigration project was seriously flawed. However, that does not mean that the people behind it were necessarily bad people, and it certainly does not diminish the other fantastic work carried out by Barnardo’s and the numerous other children’s charities that were also involved. Whilst carrying out research for this piece I spoke with a Barnardo’s representative via telephone and was told the following: “Whilst we acknowledge that mistakes were made, we maintained that a large majority of the children involved did go on to lead considerably better lives than they would have done had they remained where they were.” From what I have been able to find, that does indeed appear to be the official point of view.
In 2010, the government of the United Kingdom made its feelings clear when then Prime Minister Gordon Brown offered a complete and unconditional apology to everybody who was affected by the Home Children program. In a speech made to the House of Commons he said:
“I want to apologise on behalf of the whole nation … to all those former child migrants and their families; to those here with us today and those across the world – to each and every one – I say today we are truly sorry. They were let down. We are sorry they were allowed to be sent away when at their most vulnerable. We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back. We are sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded. And we are sorry that it has taken so long for this important day to come and for the full and unconditional apology that is justly deserved.”
Interestingly, the Canadian government has elected to issue no such apology. In 2009, the then Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said to reporters: “Canadians don’t expect their government to apologize for every sad event in our history.” He would go on to say that” Canada is taking measures to recognize “that sad period,” which includes a parliamentary motion to declare 2010 the year of the home child” adding that he believed these steps to be sufficient.
Regardless of your views, I hope that you believe, as I do, that the story of the plight of these children is one that should be considerably better known than it is today.