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Bringing to light British Home Children’s stories

Between the 1860s and 1970s, over 130,000 children were sent to live in overseas dominions by the British government. Known as British Home Children, many of their stories have been lost to history.

Who are the British Home Children?

Founded in 1867 by Scottish Christian campaigner Annie MacPherson, the Home Children migration scheme saw boys and girls from the United Kingdom sent to Commonwealth countries - in particular Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. The practice of sending poor children abroad continued in waves up to as late as 1970, as philanthropists and organisations sought to solve the problem of England's 'juvenile vagrancy'.

While some of the children were orphans, many were separated from their parents without their knowledge - their guardians may have entered the workhouse or otherwise fallen upon hard times that made it difficult to provide for their family. Care homes like Barnardo's and the Fairbridge Society, as well as local authorities and the church, played a key role in the Home Children scheme.

What happened to the Home Children?

Upon receiving foreign citizenship, many Home Children were put into harsh jobs as farm labourers. Some were denied adequate housing and were not given an education. While the experience faced by each child could vary widely, the sudden transplantation of a child into an unfamiliar country meant that abuse and mistreatment were common.

As early as 1874, commissioner Andrew Doyle published a damning report. Although he found that the organisers had the 'highest motives' of wanting to give poor children a better life, he condemned the entire scheme: 'Thousands of British children, already in painful circumstances, were cast adrift to be overworked or mistreated'.

Although some small amendments were made to the migration scheme, the policy of sending children overseas continued on for over 60 more years.

Seeking justice for the British Home Children

It wasn't until 1998 that a British parliamentary inquiry brought the details of the scheme to light, thanks to an earlier investigation carried out by social worker Margaret Humphreys. Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised on 16 November 2009, and in 2010, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a formal apology in the House of Commons for the 'shameful' programme.

Despite commemorating the cause with British Home Child Day on 28 September each year, the Government of Canada is yet to issue an apology for its involvement in the scheme.

Around four million people around the world are descended from a British Home Child. Now - over 50 years after the last British Home Child was sent to live overseas - having a conversation about the impact that the scheme had on those involved is more necessary than ever.

Image credit: ΙΣΧΣΝΙΚΑ-888, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons.

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British Home Children: your questions answered

Header image credit: Isaac Erb, Library and Archives Canada, PA-041785, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.