Monday, 12 June 2017

Nine years on from discovering my British Home Child ........ reflecting on the history

Now it is very easy to fall into the trap of simplified historical conclusions particularly when the event is a family one.

Admiitted to the Refuge, date unknown
All of us with a Home Child will at some point have questioned the policy of migration.

Most come down against it citing the abuse, neglect and exploitation heaped on very young people, and criticise a policy which appears on the surface to be about shifting a problem of destitute and abandoned children to another country.

And for others the programme has been defended because it lifted a child from an uncertain and dangerous environment to a one of new opportunities.

Both have a degree of validity and both fall short of a balanced analysis.

There is no doubting that it was seen as a cheap and quick fit by many in authority who saw the savings in Work House relief and by others as a convenient way of dumping a perceived social problem elsewhere.

The fault was not so much the children or even the parents but a system which relied on cheap labour in our factories, ship yards and mines, was content not to interfere in regulating the awful conditions and then blamed the poor for their plight.

Boys in the Refuge, date unknown
But that is to be unhistorical because while we can blame the system we have to be careful not to judge mid 19th century people by 21st century notions of state intervention.

Nor should we fall into the trap of just excusing their want of political action by citing the prevailing ideology of the period.

There were plenty during the entire 19th century who attacked the inequalities and offered up visions of the future based on social justice, and there were those at all levels that criticised the policy of migration from the 1870s.

These sat beside those with a genuine conviction that the open lands of Canada were a better bet than the overcrowded tenements and closed courts of our towns and cities where “poverty busied itself.”

And this was a period when many put their hopes of a better life in “the new country” and which fitted with that movement which criticised industrialization, argued for an emphasis on craft over factory production and saw real value in small rural communities.

New-gates, 1908
All of which is another way of saying history is messy and leads me to start exploring the lives of those parents whose children became the migrated.

That is not to let the “system” or the political class of the 19th century off the hook.

It is  more to look at how these parents might have fared when our cities were accumulating great hoards of wealth.

Manchester was the “shock city of the Industrial Revolution.

Its population exploded during the early decades of the 19th century with whole areas given over to cheap housing, check by jowl with factories, mills and iron works.

And into all this would have been born the children of the 1840's and 50's who in turn were the parents of the young people who were migrated.

So that is the series, having explored a bit of the world of the 1870's I want to move back three decades using the census returns, other official reports, along with the observations from the social commentators and where possible the voices of those who grew up between 1840 and 1860.

Location; Manchester in the 1840's and 50's.

Pictures; young people newly admitted to the Manchester and Salford Boys’ and Girls’ Refuge, courtesy of the Together Trust, New-gates, 1908, m8316,  courtesy of Manchester Libraries, Information and Archives, Manchester City Council,

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for posting this, Andrew. I look forward to reading your continuing posts regarding this subjsect.

    Being an avid fan of "historical fiction", my tendency is to look for the personal stories surrounding historical events--in particular, the circumstances that led to my grandfather and his twin brother being placed at Middlemore and then sent to Canada shortly thereafter.

    I would be interested in your thoughts on the statement given by the twins' unmarried mother, Jane Davis, when she admitted them to Middlemore. She said the father of her sons had been providing financial support off and on according to the agreement drawn up by a firm of solicitors. He had eventually gotten married and was no longer sending funds. The boys had been staying with their elderly grandmother, who was ready to give up her home and move in with a married son, leaving Jane to make other arrangements for the care of the boys, while still working to support them.

    My grandfather did not often speak of his younger days in England, but he had fond memories of his mother's younger sister who was still living at home while he and his brother stayed there. We have an old, damaged photo of two little boys standing with their aunt and grandmother in front of her house.

    Another researcher has bluntly told me that the admission record was a "sob story" made up by the boys' mother, who was most likely of questionable moral character. However, I have been able to confirm most of the other details mentioned in the admission record--Jane's employment as a cook at an estate in Yorkshire, her mother's failing health (and subsequent death), and the recommendation by a physician and his wife that the boys be placed at Middlemore. No other details on the unidentified father have come to light.

    If you care to comment on this story, I can be reached at (with the first character of the address being a lower case "L"). Thank you.