The British Child Immigration scheme was originally created to rehome orphans, waifs and strays from the city streets of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales to the colonies of Canada and Australia as indentured servants in households and farms. What began in the 1860s continued until at least the 1940s in Canada. Children from infancy to adulthood were shipped without families or parents, across the ocean to new countries where they were established in receiving homes and then sent to service placements across the country.
There were at least 58 organizations that took up the cause of Child Migration. Larger names such as Barnardo Homes, Maria Rye, Annie Macphearson, Salvation Army, Fegan Homes, Quarrier Homes and Church organizations such as the Church of England Waifs and Strays and the Catholic Emigration Association sent tens of thousands of children to serve as much needed labour in young colonies. Official numbers estimate 118,000 children came to Canada alone, but poor record keeping and worse accounting for lost documents makes it nearly impossible to estimate exactly what these schemes were accountable for. Extensive research is still being compiled by volunteer organizations attempting to record each child, each shipping manifest and to reconnect the families affected.
What might have started out as philanthropic in nature quickly took a turn to financial gain and the solution to resolving social issues for the poor, destitute and unwanted. Parents were forced to sign release forms allowing their children to be shipped offshore even if their position improved – They could not reclaim their children once they were surrendered to an organization. Children were passed off as ‘orphans’, often leaving home with one or both parents behind them. Less than 2% of all recorded Home Children were actually orphans. Illegitimate children were given up to organizations to save the parents, sometimes single women, the stigma and burden of raising their child alone. Workhouses unloaded their nurseries and schools through Union Emigration. Siblings had little chance of being placed together, and often never saw each other again once departing their homeland.
Once the children arrived in their foreign placement they met with resistance from local communities because they were simply different. Social reformers questioned the type of moral and physical character of these immigrating children, often accusing them of disease and degeneration. Children suffered the stigma of being unwanted, of not knowing where or how their families ever fared. Accents and language barriers caused communication difficulties. The children were expected to work, schooling and education were not a priority.
At best, yearly visits were made by the Canadian Board of Guardians responsible for judging how many Inspections each child would rate dependant on their age. Each child was to receive wages for their labour, the funds put into accounts that the child might achieve upon adulthood. However farmers and employers were free to tax the children clothing, supplies and their personal needs against their wages. As well, each child was encouraged to pay back their shipping fees, donate back to the homes that placed them, and vastly taught to give great thanks for their treatment no matter if it was good or bad.
Organizations received bonus funds for headcounts per children shipped. Ships carrying 400 or more children at a time were not uncommon. Farmers and placement families were charged at least $3.00 (A modern equivalent to $75.00) per application just for the chance to have a Home Child placed within their care. There were Insurance schemes. Everyone was encouraged to donate, from children involved, to the rich and middle class. Papers sported articles where destitute mothers would claim if they could just surrender one child, perhaps their families could survive. Requests for certain amounts to send particular children were common. The program was supported by the Government and the Church, few questioned to impact any of these actions were having socially or emotionally on the children involved. Eventually, when questions were raised, recommendations were buried under political agendas and the programs carried on the same as they had for decades longer.
Was the British Home Child program really in the best interest of the children?
Socially and emotionally modern practices demand that children be kept with their immediate families if and when at all possible. When parents or guardians are unavailable, kinship placements are the second most sought best option possible. Finally, placing a child into Foster Care or a Group Home within their own community is the last and final option and is exercised when it is within the best interest of the child. One in Ten Ontarians is likely a British Home Child descendant. Most are vastly unaware of their familial past for one reason. The children were ashamed to publicly admit that they were unwanted, illegitimate, unloved, that their family couldn’t keep them and they had humble beginnings. Stories of being shunned from social events or being raised separately from their host families are common. In at least one case the Home Child had to fight for his own right to attend school, and old newspapers are riddled with court cases questioning abuse or suicides. Most children didn’t even realize that they had the potential to defend their own rights.
Ultimately, even one case of abuse or death denies the worth of this social solution, and unfortunately there are so many more cases than we’ll ever be aware of. There is no written statistic, but the rate of abuse, malnourishment and mistreatment, even for the time, among British Home Children is outrageously high. Murder, Suicide, Rape and Abuse cases continue to be discovered as researchers look into the lives of what begins simply as a name on a ship manifest. Original Organizations will only proved information to Next Of Kin with a sufficient processing fee paid up front, without any disclosure as to what information or files they might have in their possession. In short, families of British Home Children are still paying into the organizations that originally took their families away from each other in the first place.
There were lucky children. Children who received placements with families that loved them, that accepted them and treated them as their own. Children who became educated, valued members of Canadian society that grew to love their new country and pass bits and pieces of themselves onto the next generation. But these happy stories don’t excuse the treatment of so many who suffered and didn’t find belonging between Canadian coasts. More so, happy, sad, angry, indifferent, righteous, courageous, depressing, loving and important, all of these stories deserve to be discovered, uncovered and explored as a part of our history. These children deserve to be remembered, each and every single one of them. They did something remarkable… They helped to found this nation. They are equal to every other historical group and social class. They have every right to be recognized for their accomplishments and their historical contribution.
In 2010 Australia and England both made governmental public apologies to the British Home Children and their families for their trials and the failure to protect these children’s innocence. Canada, usually a leader in social practice, failed to acknowledge the public request for an apology and continues on in ignorance. Instead the governement declared 2010 the ‘Year of the Home Child’ and released a commemorative stamp. Survivors and descendants of the British Home Children in Canada do not believe this was adequate acknowledgement of the lives, personal and historical contributions that were made to this society. We request that the Government of Canada make a public apology to British Home Children and their families, a motion that has been brought before parliament repeatedly. We request this history is taught right along with the Fur Trade and the War of 1812 in our children’s history classes. We request acknowledgement of those who served, both in the First and Second World Wars. For those who gave all, when they had nothing to give after their citizenship was stripped and they were forced to the commonwealth colonies as minors.
There is a British Home Child Advocacy and Research Association on Facebook that eagerly helps individuals research and locate information about their ‘BHC’ and their families. There is a petition that you can sign to support a public apology – http://canadianbritishhomechildren.weebly.com/apology-petition.html – But you must be a Canadian resident to sign it.
Some people have voiced the opinion that requesting an apology is pointless. It has been said that history happened, people suffered, and we can’t go around apologizing for every ‘little thing’.
Our response to this statement is simple.
First, children are sacred. The future of not only this country, but this world demands our protection and our strongest efforts in doing what is best for them. These children were not immigrants, they were minors and indentured servants. This was child slavery in Canadian History.
When a wrong action is committed, an apology is issued to aid in correcting the negative action. Although the damage cannot be undone, it must be acknowledged to being a healing process of reparation. Even those that are not personally responsible issue an apology because they are acknowledging that a wrong action was committed. Colour, class or creed should NEVER define the course of justice. Humanity is a communal society, now more than ever people are aware that even the smallest action on this planet can have an effect for generations. Simply bullying through every situation with the attitude of supremacy and infallibility in our ancestors is what has brought us to this place and point in time. Only once a wrong has been admitted can we learn from our mistake and teach others how to avoid making similar mistakes in the future. Growth and evolution demand comprehension of the past. The British Home Children have a past, they have a legacy. It’s time for the Canadian people to be educated in their own history.
Bleating of the Lambs – Lori Oschefski (Including an article written by one of our very own researchers based on the First World War Project)
British Home Children: Their Stories – Compiled by the British Isles Family History Society of Ottawa
Quarriers Story – Anna Magnusson
Nation Builders: Barnardo Children in Canada – Gail H. Corbett
Mary Janeway: The Legacy of a Home Child, and Whatever Happened to Mary Janeway? A Home Child Story – Mary Pettit
The British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association’s Facebook Link:
Lori Oschefski’s British Home Children Website:
British Home Children Advocacy and Research Association – Including monthly News Letters:
Marjorie Kohli’s Website:
Library and Archives Canada – British Home Children Databases:
Promises of Home – A Blog written, compiled and edited by Rose McCormick Brandon:
British Home Children – The British Child Emigration Scheme to Canada (1870-1957) By Perry Snow:
British Home Children Mailing List:
British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa – British Home Children:
Tweetybird’s Genealogy: A compilation of information from the British Home Children Mailing List:
Hidden Lives Revealed – The Waifs and Strays Publications:
The Olive Tree Genealogy – Maria Rye’s Pecham Homes of 1881:
Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21:
Cyndi’s List – Genealogy Sites on the Internet – Canada Home Children:
By Town – Home Children:
Black Creek Pioneer Village – British Home Child Day – New Display: