Too young to cross the road

‘Too young to cross the road, we were deported to the other side of the world to cold, cruel institutions. We were robbed of our identities, our dignity and our families. Our parents lost their children.’

International Association of Former Child Migrants and Their Families 1

A boy ploughing at Dr. Barnardo's Industrial Farm, Russell, Manitoba, c. 1900. CC Source:

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, around 80,000 children were sent abroad to Canada to work as labourers or domestic servants. They were children of poor families, some were orphans, but by no means all, most under the age of 14.

They were sent by various charitable organisations including Thomas Barnado’s, keen to ‘solve’ the problem of pauper children in Britain without necessarily implementing social change back home.

Last week I had an interesting conversation with an enquirer at one of our research desks regarding a branch of his family, who he had traced to Canada as descendants of British child emigrants. From his research, he told stories of how young some of the children had been when they were sent abroad, and the abuse many had suffered following the often poor checks carried out on the homes they were placed in.

The story has many sides – many children did have happy and successful experiences – but the situation can’t help having an overwhelming sadness attached to it. Young children, generally from struggling families, workhouses or orphanages shipped many miles away from home to an unfamiliar place where they were put to work. Although casework was often carried out, many of the children were left ‘with less supervision than even the English poor law provided at home’, thus leaving them open to abuse and poor treatment. 2 It seems the underlying problem with the schemes was that in the majority of cases, the immigrant children lived as members of a household, not as members of a family.

I pointed the enquirer to our Research guide on Emigration, but decided to take a look at some the records myself, as they seemed to suggest we held personal stories, rather than just policy implementation, which is rarely the case.

As you might expect, there is a wealth of documents relating to the discussions surrounding the various schemes within Ministry of Health files. The popularity of, and social attitudes to child migration schemes varied over time, often depending on the situation at home. In very simplified terms, the harder things got with increasing migration to cities or outbreaks of cholera and smallpox for example, the more pressure was placed on relief services and workhouses, the more attractive the opportunities to send children to what were considered ‘better’ lives in the colonies became.

Some of the most interesting documents relate to the children themselves. In MH 19/9 for example, there is an extensive report from 1888 on children sent to Canada. At various points during the emigration schemes, reports were requested from the Governor General of Canada on the welfare of the children, although many sources suggest this wasn’t often enough. This report appears to be a good example of the variety of experiences the children had:

Extract from report on child migrants to Canada showing a children in a range of circumstances

Extract from report on child migrants to Canada showing a children in a range of circumstances (catalogue ref: MH 19/9)

Owen Smith, age 12: ‘Disobedient and stubborn, cannot manage him, will return him to “Hotel Dieu” if no improvement, not attending school, will if kept.’

Mary E Rush, age 6: ‘Giving full satisfaction, great pet, in superior home, will be sent to school … next year, delighted with her home and treatment.’

It is difficult to know how objective the reports are, they seem to rely on the opinion of one inspector and the ‘look’ of the children, coupled with comments from both the householders and the children themselves. However, this particular inspection did raise concerns about the number of children in unsatisfactory homes or, most alarmingly, ‘Lost sight of.’ A separate list of these children is included with the report, with details of the problems, for example:

Extract from report on child migrants to Canada showing children considered to be of concern

Extract from report on child migrants to Canada showing children considered to be of concern (catalogue ref: MH 19/9)

Example summary notes on children of concern

Example summary notes on children of concern (catalogue ref: MH 19/9)

James Dolan, age 9: ‘Ran away after having been chastised for breaking through or into a cupboard where apples were kept. Egan [the householder] does not know where he is: advised Egan to send for the lad and return him to Rev Father Twohey of Westport.’

Short summary notes are provided on each child in this category, with descriptions such as ‘Not traced’ or ‘Boy of filthy habits’ frequent throughout.

What happened to James Dolan and others like him? We may never know, but research is being done in the area, and recent projects are attempting to gather information and oral histories where possible of the children affected.

If you would like to find out more, our Research guide points to an online exhibition,  On their own – Britain’s child migrants by the Merseyside Maritime Museum and the Australian National Maritime Museum. There is also a podcast on our website by my colleague, Roger Kershaw, which delves in much more detail into the history of child migration and the hidden stories within our records.

For further research, many more documents in The National Archives on child emigration to the colonies can be found through simple keyword searches on Discovery.


  1. 1.
  2. 2. Joy Parr, (1980), ‘Labouring Children’, London: Croom Helm, p. 11.


  1. John says:

    There has been considerable research done on these child emigrants by the British Isles Family History Society of Greater Ottawa – Much of the information produced, including a database of these so called Home Children, is available through the website of Library and Archives Canada at More will be added shortly. Depending on where you draw the line on ages and dates of immigration the numbers may be significantly above 80,000, approaching 100,000 and some suggest many more.

    1. Jenni Orme says:

      Hi John,

      Thanks very much for sharing those research links – the database looks amazingly useful!


  2. Andrew says:

    Great post Jenni, could we have an in depth post on the record collections pertaining to child migration sometime please? I know there is a lot of interest in it, and I have been researching migrant children sent to Canada for 6 years now, and am always on the lookout fro new document series that may lead to snippets of information.

    1. Jenni Orme says:

      Hi Andrew,

      Many thanks for your comment – I will add it to the list of future topics for sure!

      In the meantime, do have a look at the Research guide and podcast mentioned above if you haven’t already done so – there may be something in there to lead you in a new direction.


  3. Roger says:

    Great post Jenni. There are also several books available on this subject including New Lives for Old: the story of Britain’s child migrants, by R Kershaw & J Sacks and published by The National Archives in 2007.

    1. Jenni Orme says:

      Thanks Roger, glad you like the post!

      Yes, good point – there are a number of excellent books, some of which are in our library here at Kew. Anyone can have a look at our library catalogue and search for relevant titles: It’s a reference library, so you can only use them onsite, but they are complementary to the records we hold.

      In particular for this period, I found Joy Parr’s ‘Labouring Children’ very useful (and extremely interesting). However, it goes without saying that there are no better than R. Kershaw’s numerous volumes…


  4. Patricia Skidmore says:

    I received this posting on my google alerts. I am a daughter of British Child Migrant – my mother Marjorie was removed from her mother’s care and was sent to Canada in September 1937. The only way my mother could cope with the loss of her family and her country was to block out her past. I researched and found her missing past and wrote a book about her childhood journey. I also included her return to London to be present at PM Gordon Brown’s 2010 Apology in my book, “Marjorie Too Afraid To Cry” which was published by Dundurn, Toronto, in January 2013. For more information see my website at:
    Patricia Skidmore

  5. Mervyn Humphreys says:

    Child migration from the UK started in the C17 and lasted for over 350 years as it ended in 1970. Obviously, much of this policy is now history but there are still probably nearly 2000 former child migrants still alive – mainly those sent post-war to the former Rhodesia, New Zealand, Canada and Australia.
    This aspect of UK social policy was quite obscure before the campaigning and educational work of the Child Migrants Trust started in 1987.
    For those interested in the last phase of child migration – especially the public apologies in Australia and the UK – and measures to help reunite families, the Trust’s website is a useful resource:

Leave a comment

Visit this page for family history and other research enquiries. Please do not post personal information. All comments are pre-moderated. See our moderation policy for more details.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *