Wednesday, 20 June 2012

Who spoke for the children sent to Canada?

There are many debates to have about the policy of sending British children to Canada and it still today provokes emotion and sometimes judgements that owe more to prejudice than historical evidence.

All too often the apologists hide behind that old line that we cannot judge the actions of past people from the standpoint of the 21st century.  Now there is something in that line but only up to a point* and it turns on what actually was said and done at the time.  That is the key and on it hangs the whole issue of the correctness of the scheme.

From the outset there were those in the 1870s who raised doubts about the safety of the children in Canada on remote farms and homes which despite promises and assurance never went away.

But far more promising is the role of the three socialists who had been elected as Guardians to the Chorlton Union in the early years of the 20th century.  They mounted a very public campaign against sending children from the Union, and argued that the children in their care should be given vocational training to set themselves off on a productive life in Britain.  They also expressed their concerns for the safety of the children and asked questions about the degree to which these boys and girls were destined to be cheap labour.

Catherine Garrett and her husband who was a GP remain at present shadowy figures.  They lived in Hulme which was a dense mix of working class houses and industry but neither was from Manchester.  He was born in Exeter and she was from Ireland.  None of their election material has so far come to light but I have high hopes that they might appear in one of the socialist publications of the period.

The third socialist was William E Skivington who had born in Manchester in 1867, and was variously an iron turner and later a shop keeper.  His father was book binder and his mother a book folder.  William’s early married life like so many of his class was spent in a two roomed house in Hulme and equally like so many of that class he died at the early age of just 42.

During first decade of the twentieth century he was not only active as a Guardian defending those who had been forced in to the workhouse by ill health, bad luck or old age but campaigned in the labour movement.  He was at the centre of the campaigns to highlight the issues of unemployment and was active in the Social Democratic Federation deputised for Keir Hardie and met the Tory Prime Minister.

So here are three who must have stood for many more.  Now there is much to do.  All three will have left a trail of evidence, some in the publications of the labour movement, others in their correspondence with the press and much more in the minutes of the Chorlton Union.

And what is certain is that in their words and actions we have a real contemporary rebuttal of the policy of sending countless thousands of young people to an uncertain future in a far away country.


Picture; from the collection of Lori Oschefski

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