British Home Children

For over a hundred years, starting in 1869 until the 1970s, Britain sent children abroad; to Canada prior to the Second World War and later to Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Rhodesia. Over 100,000 children were sent to Canada alone. The children ranged in age from four to fifteen and would be sent from seemingly well-meaning philanthropic or religious organisations, such as Dr Barnardo’s, The Salvation Army, The Church of England and Roman Catholic charitable institutions.

Desperate parents, sometimes on the brink of destitution, would request assistance from benevolent children’s organisations. Whilst there certainly were some placements that were considered permanent from the outset, with parents handing their children over with the expectation that they were going to have a better life with fresh air in the country rather than the grime of a large city, as Barnardo’s publicised the scheme, other parents had every intention of returning when able to house their children. Some pauper children entered the programme when they were picked up for vagrancy. However, the charitable children’s homes were soon over-subscribed and another solution was sought.


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Whitstable Times, Saturday 25 March 1893

Sending children to the outer reaches of the British Empire seemed most beneficial to both the institution and the child. The institution would gain a free bed, albeit for a short period of time, and the child would have the benefit of starting a new life with a new family, in exchange for domestic service or farm labour in the Canadian countryside.

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Dundee Evening Telegraph, Wednesday 22 September 1897

However, communicating the intention of sending a child away was often poor. At least one organisation used their perceived morality of the family as its judge to whether they would inform the parents prior to or after sailing. Parents would return to collect their children to find that they had been sent abroad. Sometimes they would receive notice to inform them of the intention to send the child away the following week, others only received notice once the child had been shipped to their new life. Having handed loco parentis to those governing the children’s organisations the parents then lost their say in how their children were raised and ultimately where they were raised and by whom. Siblings were separated and many families were never reunited, leaving them with a desperate life-long search for their families and their identities.

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The Parisian, One of the ships used to transport British Home Children (1895)

On arrival in Canada the children would be sent to receiving homes across the country. Households were required to apply for children and there were seven applications for every child shipped. Children were indentured and therefore committed to working for a pittance, if any remuneration at all, until they had reached adulthood. Monies owed would be held in ‘trust’ until they reached their majority. If a child died before reaching adulthood then they would have worked for nothing. From their ‘trusts’, regular amounts would be withdrawn by their employers for living and personal expenses. Some Home Children never received money that was due to them because no-one ever told them they were entitled to it. Families who requested younger children would receive a regular stipend for their maintenance. Older children would head to remote farmsteads to work for their living in the countryside, boys as farmhands and girls working in the house and the fields when required. While some children thrived in this environment, the majority were used as cheap labour and suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse.

In 1875 a bonus scheme was implemented ensuring that the British and Canadian governments paid $2 each per child, totalling a bonus of $4, added to which was the $3 fee that Barnardo’s, for example, would charge for each application, giving a grand total of $7. Barnardo’s would make an astonishing $231,000 excluding any charitable donations that would be proffered, on their 33,000 Home Children sent to Canada.

Monitoring post-placement was ad hoc and had no specific structure. Occasional checks would be made with the local parish. Sometimes the placement did not work out and the organisation would have to re-house a child on more than one occasion. Fostered youngsters were frequently stigmatised for being Home Children and were ridiculed for their circumstances. It was seen as shameful and many were told their families had died or had not wanted them. Fear of people’s reactions to being in the company of British Home Children meant that pasts were often kept secret from their own subsequent children so as not to taint the next generation.

Northwich Guardian, Saturday 18 March 1893
Child Emigration to Canada: Conflicting Statements
‘A Times Ottowa telegram says: A keen controversy is being waged in the Canadian Press on the subject of child emigration from Great Britain. Mr Moylan, inspector of penitentiaries, has received letters from certain warders of Dominion penitentiaries confirming his statement that a great proportions of the street arabs of London ultimately find their way into the prisons of Canada. Mr Massie, warder of the Central prison of Toronto, holds a contrary opinion. He estimates that 20,000 children have been sent to Canada by Barnardo’s, MacPherson, Rye and other agencies during the last two decades, of whom 95 percent have done well.’

Barnardo’s argued in 1894 that out of the 7,000 children sent to Canada since the scheme began only two percent had failed. However, what appeared to be a scheme with universal approval did have some detractors. There was some opposition in Canada in 1874 when inspectors from the Local Government Board wrote a critical report on emigration schemes run by Maria Rye and Annie MacPherson. This resulted in the Local Government Board halting the emigration of children from workhouses which effectively suspended Maria Rye’s operations for two years. Subsequently it was reported in the Liverpool Mail in 1877 that the Poor Law Guardians thought that ‘under the existing circumstances, it is not desirable to encourage the emigration of pauper children to Canada except in special cases.’ Nevertheless, the practise continued for another one hundred years.

It took till 1924 to change attitudes regarding sending children under the age of fourteen and yet children still continued to be transported to Canada until the start of World War Two. Over ten percent of the current population of Canada are descended from British Home Children.

Australia’s Prime Minister Kevin Rudd publicly apologised to the children and families of child migrants in 2009.

Britain’s Prime Minster Gordon Brown publicly apologised to the children and families of British Home Children in 2010.

Canada’s Immigration Minister Jason Kenney stated in 2009 that there was ‘no need for Canada to apologise for abuse and exploitation suffered by thousands of poor children shipped here from Britain starting in the 19th century.’ However, in February 2017 Mr Luc Theriault MP asked the House of Commons ‘recognise the injustice, abuse and suffering endured by the British Home Children as well as the efforts, participation and contribution of these children and their descendants within our communities; and offer its sincere apology to the former British Home Children who are still living and to the descendants of these 100,000 individuals who were shipped from Great Britain to Canada between 1869 and 1948, and torn from their families to serve mainly as cheap labour once they arrived in Canada.’ A full public apology, such as from the Prime Ministers of Australia and Great Britain has not yet been made.

To search for your British Home Child click here 


Images from British Newspaper Archives

New Lives for Old, Roger Kershaw and Janet Sacks

10 thoughts on “British Home Children

  1. Enjoyed your interesting article. I have heard some of these children were abused and that’s sad. I wonder about that “ten percent of the Canadian population” statistic, though, since I’ve never met anyone in all my 65 years here who was descended from a Home Child. I met one lady in an Ont nursing home who had been one. As you say, though, not everyone talks of it.

    I’m sure some widows and destitute parents got the idea their children would have a so much better life if they gave them away — and some of them probably did. Things were pretty rough in England at the time. I have a book about life on the poor side back in Victorian England and shows a pretty dark picture.

    Sad as shipping them away seems now, had they stayed in Britain, surviving on the streets as best they could, starving, victims of crime over there, it might have been six-of-one, half-a-dozen-of-the-other. My great-grandfather, a nine-year-old on the streets of London, was kidnapped by a press gang and forced to serve on a ship until he managed to escape four years later. Never saw his parents again—if he had any.

    Those were hard times for everyone, plus it was the mindset of the time to treat children badly. (Think Oliver Twist) If you read homesteaders’ memoirs, children born into Canadian families didn’t fare that much better. My Dad told me his Scottish dad had nothing for them but the toe of his boot. Maybe Grandpa Forsyth was a Home child?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much. The 10% figure came from one of my Canadian BHC sources I would expect them to have come to that conclusion via mathematics – children sent versus population – size of families etc.
      My great uncle was a BHC. He was 11 when taken from the family.
      You’ve surprised me with your great grandfather being press-ganged I thought it was older youths and adults that were taken, but I’ve not researched that topic.
      Doing the research for this article I came across advertisements for emigres that promoted the development of plots of land in Canada in the 19C your grandfather Forsyth could have answered one of those ads.


      1. People poured into Canada from every corner of the globe during those years—and most of them didn’t bring their genealogy along, sad to say. 🙂 A lot of those who came to the prairies were unemployed—or soon to be—and/or destitute. Canadian govt and the CPR (railway) did a real snow job promoting western Canada to immigrants, who got a rude awakening on arriving. I’ve written about that on my blog.

        I chanced to contact a 97 year old distant relative in Ontario and she told me the story of my great-grand, her grandfather. She overheard him tell her father this, otherwise none of us would have ever known. Bit of luck there!

        As for Grandpa Forsyth, all I know is that he came to Canada as a teen and worked awhile before homesteading here in SK. I have no way of knowing whether he came as an orphan, in steerage, or had family back in Scotland who sent him off cheerfully. I know of no siblings—but who cared to keep writing letters way back when. Now I’m curious!

        I corresponded for years with a penpal in Scotland who grew up on an orphans’ farm in the highlands. Wretched life, no affection. It just seems to have been the way to raise children.

        As I said, I do enjoy reading history and hope to read more of your earlier posts as time allows.


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