Select Committee on Health Third Report



10. The background to British child migration policy is summarised in the DoH's principal memorandum to us, printed with the Minutes of Evidence.[4] Further details are given in several books published in the 1980s and 1990s.[5] A concise history of child migration to Western Australia is contained in the Interim Report of the Select Committee into Child Migration of the Legislative Assembly of Western Australia, published in November 1996.

11. Although the origins of British child migration as a settled and publicly promoted policy can be traced back to the reign of James I, the peak of child migration appears to have occurred at about the turn of the Twentieth Century. It is estimated that between 1868 and 1925, 80,000 British boys and girls were sent unaccompanied to Canada, to work under indentures as agricultural labourers and domestic servants.[6] Although estimates are very unreliable, the DoH cites figures of about 150,000 child migrants from Britain overall, of whom about 100,000 went to Canada, and the remainder to Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia and other British dominions or colonies, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.[7] The Child Migrants' Trust describes child migrants as "children generally between the ages of three and fourteen; the majority being between seven and ten".[8]

12. Child migrants in Canada were "entrusted to the care of farmers often without sufficient preparation or supervision".[9] By and large the children involved were destined to fill menial occupations and were very cheap or free labour.[10] Canadian witnesses laid great stress on the stigma which attached to being a 'Home Child', and told us that many former child migrants hid this fact even from their wives and children for many years, because of the shame which had been inculcated in them.[11] It has been claimed that 11% per cent of Canada's population is descended from British child migrants.[12] This figure is supported by Home Children Canada,[13] who also claim that 67% of the children sent to Canada were abused.[14] In 1925 a Canadian Order in Council banned child migrants aged under 14.[15] Child migration from Britain to Canada was not resumed after the Second World War.

13. Exact number of child migrants to Australia and New Zealand are not known, but it is thought that during the final period in which the migration policy operated, from 1947 to 1967, between 7,000 and 10,000 children were sent to Australia.[16] These children were placed in large, often isolated, institutions and were often subjected to harsh, sometimes intentionally brutal, regimes of work and discipline, unmodified by any real nurturing or encouragement. The institutions were inadequately supervised, monitored and inspected. During the same period 549 children were sent to New Zealand, mainly to pre-arranged foster homes[17] which often proved impermanent, and were also inadequately monitored.

14. Child migration took place within a framework of legislation enacted by Parliament. Full details of the relevant Acts and regulations are set out in the Minutes of Evidence.[18] A particular milestone was the Empire Settlement Act 1922, which provided authority for the British Government to act in association with dominion governments and with approved private organisations in operating migration schemes through assisted passages, initial allowances, and special training.[19] It was under this Act that the Fairbridge Farm Scheme—founded by Kingsley Fairbridge to train orphaned and poor children in schools of agriculture in the Colonies—and the Christian Brothers schemes in Western Australia operated. The Children Act 1948 also provided for the emigration of children, subject to certain conditions. Voluntary agencies such as Barnardo's, the Children's Society, the Christian Brothers (and other Catholic agencies), Fairbridge, the National Children's Home (now NCH Action for Children) and the Royal Over-Seas League had direct charge of most of the migrant children either at the recruitment stage, during their passage, or after their arrival in the receiving countries. In this work the voluntary agencies received the encouragement and financial backing of successive British governments and of successive governments of the receiving countries.[20]

15. The motivation underlying child migration policy was mixed. On the one hand, there was a genuine philanthropic desire to rescue children from destitution and neglect in Britain and send them to a better life in the Colonies. This went hand in hand with a wish to protect children from 'moral danger' arising from their home circumstances—for instance, if their mothers were prostitutes. In 1870, Thomas Barnardo wrote that "to behold young men and women crowded together in pestilential rookeries without the least provision for decency and in such conditions of abominable filth, atmospheric impurity and immoral associationship as to make the maintenance of virtue impossible, is almost enough to fill the bravest reformer with despair".[21] Within a generation, the agency founded by Dr Barnardo would be sending 1,000 children a year to Canada to escape such conditions.[22] Britain in 1870 was however a very different place from Britain in the 1950s and 1960s. The prevailing conditions in the 1950s and 1960s would not justify the description we have cited from Dr Barnardo.

16. Child migration was also seen to be of economic benefit both to Britain (because it relieved the burden on public finances of looking after these children) and to the receiving countries (because child migrants were seen as being potential members of a healthy and well-trained workforce). Evidence shows that they were actually used as cheap labour. Demand for child labour in Canada and Australia often exceeded supply. Mr Tom Luce of the DoH told us:

    "British territories overseas were still at a relatively early stage of their development and, in particular, Canada and Australia. They were fighting very hard to develop their countries and their economies against a background where they faced enormous challenges in bringing successful agriculture into their lands with a very small and scattered population. So they wanted both to increase the population of their countries and they also wanted, it must I think be recognised, more pairs of hands for the labour force, including young pairs of hands."[23]

17. The economic benefits of child migration were described by Canon Christopher Fisher, Chairman of the Catholic Child Welfare Council. He told us that in the 1930s and 1940s:

    "The child care system in England was largely run by voluntary organisations and we were the ones with bulging, inadequately-provided for children's homes. With the greatest respect for the Government at the time—and I am not sure what colour they were—the funding of child care in England was not of a high amount and I would suspect that at the time it was seen to be quite a good financial decision to actually unload some children elsewhere into another responsibility."[24]

Dr Barbara Kahan, OBE, who was a Children's Officer in charge of Oxfordshire County Council Children's Department in the 1950s, and who subsequently became Chair of the National Children's Bureau, wrote to tell us of her memories of local government decision-making in respect of child migration:

    "it was clear from discussion in Parliament around that time (the early 1950s) that the emigration scheme was seen as cost-cutting. When Children's Departments were set up in 1948 the intention was to achieve drastic reform of a dreadful system. Inevitably this led to more expenditure and more children in care because need was much greater than Public Assistance had ever recognised. In 1950 ... a Select Committee on Estimates report pointed out that they were costing more than anticipated. One of the consequences was that great pressure was put on Children's Officers to board children out ... there was a debate in the House of Commons when certain MPs urged the Government to put pressure on 'these sticky-fingered Children's Officers' who were reluctant to emigrate their children. ... The emigration schemes were, in my opinion, a shameful, disgraceful policy and in my memory the financial motivation was quite overt in the early 1950s."[25]

18. A further motive was racist: the importation of "good white stock" was seen as a desirable policy objective in the developing British Colonies. One of our witnesses, Mr John Hennessey, a former child migrant, told us how on arrival in Fremantle he and the other children were greeted by a senior clergyman, who said, "'It's nice to see you children here. Australia needs you. We need white stock. We need this country to be populated by white stock because we are terrified of the Asian hordes.'"[26] Likewise, according to the Child Migrants' Trust, "child migrants were used as a way to preserve a white managerial elite in the former Rhodesia."[27]

19. Child migration has never been without its critics. As long ago as 1875, the Local Government Board sent Andrew Doyle, Her Majesty's Poor Law Inspector, to Canada to investigate the conditions in which child migrants were living. Doyle spent six months in Canada, met 400 children, and concluded that the children were mistreated, and valued solely as cheap labour.[28] A report prepared for the Economic and Social Research Council in 1983 has concluded that

    "significant resistance to child emigration ... was located in central government, especially amongst the ranks of the inspectorate and the senior civil servants. They disliked the cavalier manner in which many of the philanthropic agencies operated. They suspected their motives and their charismatic styles of leadership and, in particular, were conscious of the likelihood of public scandals".[29]

20. It was the charitable and religious organisations who maintained the child migration policy, often apparently motivated by the need to keep the institutions overseas financially viable.

21. In our visits we heard of very few local authorities as having been responsible for any of the child migrants we met. This bears out a statement in the Moss Report written in 1952 attached to the DoH memorandum: "local authorities have taken very little interest in the scheme ... There seems to be a feeling in some quarters that it is wrong to send a child, for whom a local authority is responsible, some 10,000 or 12,000 miles away." Mr Moss regrets this and paints a glowing picture of wonderful institutions—but almost all of his reports are closed to the general public until the years 2027 to 2033.[30] We have not looked at their extent or compared them with the personal testimony we received—but we consider the local authorities were correct. This also strongly suggests that it is inadequate to describe the practice of child migration as simply due to "a different social climate" as the DoH memorandum does.

22. A recurrent feature of child migration schemes seems to have been lack of effective monitoring of the children's welfare by either the British Government or the sending agencies. The post-War schemes, particularly to Australia, were excessively permissive. British Government supervision appears to have been non-existent, except where children in local authority care were involved; in these cases the consent of the Home Secretary was required before migration could take place. Even then the doctrine of 'out of sight, out of mind' quickly reasserted itself. The Child Migrants' Trust says that:

    "child migration selection documents contained scant information and, at times, incorrect factual details about the child. ... At times, children's names and birthdays were changed for administrative convenience. ... Brothers and sisters were not always cared for together or even sent to the same country."[31]

Although evidence on these matters is of necessity largely anecdotal, we heard many first-hand testimonies from former child migrants during our visit to New Zealand and Australia, which confirmed these claims by the Child Migrants' Trust.

4  CM 129. Back

5   See Gillian Wagner, Children of the Empire (London, 1982); Philip Bean and Joy Melville, Lost Children of the Empire (London, 1989); Margaret Humphreys, Empty Cradles (London, 1994); and Alan Gill, Orphans of the Empire: The Shocking Story of Child Migration to Australia (Alexandria, NSW, 1997). Back

6   See Wagner, ch. 1; CM 129, para 5. Back

7   We also met a number of Maltese former child migrants. The new post-War Maltese constitution of 1947 established a Minister for Emigration within the Maltese Government, which was responsible for emigration policy. Any concerns on the part of Maltese citizens who are former child migrants should be taken up with the Maltese Government. Back

8   CM 13A. Back

9   Ibid. Back

10   Bean and Melville, p 28. Back

11   Q69-70. Back

12   Ibid, p 28. Back

13   CM 31A. Back

14   Ibid. Back

15   For further details on child migration to Canada, see the written and oral evidence from the Ellen Foundation and Home Children Canada. Back

16   CM 129, para 6; CM 13A. Back

17   CM 180A Back

18   Ibid., Annex A. Back

19   Ibid., para 17; CM 143. Back

20   CM 129B; Bean and Melville, p 28. Back

21   Wagner, p 102, cited in CM 129, para 15. Back

22   Wagner, p 104. Back

23   Q3. Back

24  Q219. Back

25   CM 183. Back

26   Q88. Back

27   CM 13A. Back

28   See CM 129, para 12, and Bean and Melville, ch. 5. Back

29   Report by Roy Parker (1983), cited in CM 129, para 13. Back

30   John Moss, Child Migration to Australia (Home Office, published by HMSO, 1953). Detailed reports by Mr Moss on institutions in Australia are listed in the Minutes of Evidence in an annex to the DoH memorandum at Ev pp 22 to 25. These reports are currently held in the Public Record Office but are closed to the general public until various dates in the next century. The PRO numbers are 1886, 1887, 1891, 2041, 2042, 2050. Back

31   CM 13A. Back

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