Monday, 7 May 2018

Making the story of British Home Children messy

Now, I continue to maintain that the migration of young people from Britain during the 19th and 20th centuries was a flawed exercise.

Solidarity, 1887
There were plenty of people who argued that the economic and social system which created the inequality and poverty was not inevitable, and that there were alternatives which would usher in a more democratic and egalitarian society.

And this would have made the need to send destitute children and those from poor families unnecessary.

The awful “Sophie’s choice” faced by many unemployed or single parents of whether to send a child abroad and if so which one, can only be defended because a capitalist mode of production assumed that low wages were one of the driving forces that made it work, and that equally, trade depressions and the consequent periods of unemployment of working people were inevitable.

Added to which the prevailing attitude of the Establishment to the poor and the belief that the State should limit itself to a “night watchman’s State” compounded the problem.

Overlaid on this was the terrible neglect and abuse suffered by some young people and the impact of being separated from loved ones which bit deep and stayed with some all their lives.

But, and there is a but, because history is messy, the motives of some who migrated children were genuine and came from a profound belief that  Canada offered a better alternative than a life of grinding hard labour interspersed with bouts of unemployment in smoke filled cities where much of the housing was old, unsanitary and a health hazard.

Thomas Alan Simpson, circa 1916
And for those living on the street and prey to all manner of vice, there was the hope that by removing them from such an environment there was a real possibility that their lives could be turned around.

It is easy and understandable to rage against what was done, especially if the neglected and abused child was one of your own family, but the question remains in a world where dire poverty was the norm in many inner cities and rural areas what would we have done given that the authorities remained mute?

The evolution of the State into an interventionist agency was slow and in its infancy.  In the late 19th century much of the move against abusive and neglectful parents in Britain was the work of children’s charities as was the campaign to protect children hawking on our streets.

The Curtis Report and the subsequent legislation which made local authorities responsible for looked after children only dates from the late 1940s, as does the Welfare State and the introduction of universal benefits for those unemployed or too sick to work.

All of which makes the 19th century a very different place than today.

Of course the continued migration of young people to Australia until the 1970s sits very uncomfortable with my argument, but history is messy and as the work of Margaret Humphreys shows not everyone working in the field of Social Services was aware of the practice.*

Charles Homeymoon Simpson, circa 1915
In the same way the Governments of Britain and Canada during the migration period, do not come out of the affair very well and nor do the Poor Law Unions who accepted that migration was cheaper than maintaining some young people in their care and did not always maintain a rigorous monitoring system of those sent.

To these we can add rogue farmers and employers in Canada and the alleged dubious practices on the part of some charities.

But our approach must always remain historical, and while we can all feel anger and despair, the big picture must always be kept in view, so as the study of British Home Children matures and we learn more the picture will get more complicated.

Location; Britain, Canada and Australia

Pictures; Solidarity, Walter Crane, 1887, and members of the Simpson family, from the collection of Andrew Simpson

*Empty Cradles, was published in 1994. Its sales of 75,000 copies helped to fund the work of the Child Migrants Trust at a critical time when British government grants had been stopped. Empty Cradles has been dramatised as the 2011 feature film Oranges and Sunshine.

The Child Migrants Trust was established in 1987 by Margaret Humphreys CBE, OAM. It addresses the issues surrounding the deportation of children from Britain. In the post-war period, child migrants as young as three were shipped to Canada, New Zealand, the former Rhodesia and Australia, a practice that continued as late as 1970.


  1. Thank you for putting an alternative view. The BHC in my family were the subject of court proceedings, which mean that I've been able to get the full story from the Canadian organisation. It's a very sad story - but perhaps the saddest part is that I've calculated that there were perhaps 10 families in a square mile radius of those 5 children who were directly related to them, and yet they all failed to intervene while their father descended into alcoholism after the death in childbirth of his wife. Given that, there is no doubt that Canada was the best place for those children.

  2. It is a complicated picture Chris