Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence

Memorandum by the Department of HealthCHILD MIGRANTS (CM 129)


This memorandum sets out :

  • the Government's position on the former policy of child migration
  • the historical aspects of child migration policy
  • former child migrants and UK social security
  • rights of former child migrants to UK citizenship
  • legislative history and British nationality law—Annex A
  • statistics—Annex B
  • Government files—Annex C
  • extracts: Moss Report 1953—Annex D (Not Printed)
  • extracts: Ross Report 1956—Annex E (Not Printed)
  • support for the Child Migrants Trust UK—Annex F
  • access to birth records—Annex G (Not Printed)

GOVERNMENT POSITIONThe Government's present position is:

  • Child migration as a policy was, in a social climate very different from that of today, a well-intended response to the needs of deprived children. At the time this was seen to be in the best interests of the children concerned, providing them with a fresh start in countries which potentially offered them greater opportunities. There were many success stories.
  • The migration schemes were run by respected national voluntary bodies. The schemes were sanctioned by laws passed in both the UK Parliament, and in the colonies, Dominions and countries receiving children. There was much public debate, including discussion between the governments concerned, official reports and visits.
  • All historical UK Government files are in the public domain and may be accessed through the Public Records Office at Kew. Even files subject to restricted access have been made available by way of privileged access to the Child Migrants Trust (UK), and are similarly available to other bona fide researchers.
  • The Government welcomes the fact that a number of voluntary and religious organisations are helping former child migrants.
  • The Department of Health is providing financial assistance to the Child Migrants Trust UK, to assist them in their record tracing, advisory and counselling service. To date the British Government has provided grants totalling £146,000 to the Trust, and further funding amounting to £45,000 has been agreed for the next two financial years 1997-98 and 1998-99.
  • Social security benefits are not widely available to persons from abroad. People coming from outside Europe are subject to immigration controls and enter this country on the strict understanding that they do not become a charge upon public funds.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND1. It is impossible in a few pages to give a representative account of the views of various governments over a considerable period of time. What follows is a very selective set of quotes from those who have studied the history in much more detail.

Early Migration

2. Child migration has been an important part of our history for nearly four hundred years. It is an even more important part of the history of certain countries both inside and outside the current Commonwealth.

3. Gillian Wagner[1] notes that as early as 1618, only eleven years after founding colonists sailed from Falmouth to Maine, the City of London agreed to send 100 children (without their parents) to Virginia.

4. The next year King James I was also troubled by idle young people. He wrote to Sir Thomas Smyth, the Treasurer of the Virginia Company:

  "Whereas our Court hath of late been troubled by divers idle young people, who though they have been twise punished still continue to followe the same havuing noe employment; we have noe other course to cleer our Court from them have thought fitt to send them unto you desiring you att the next opportunitie to send them away to Virginia and to take sure order that they may be sett to worke there, [otherwise] they will never be reclaimed from the idle life of vagabonds."[2]


5. The peak of child migration appears to occur about the turn of the twentieth century. Joy Parr[3] estimates that:

  "Between 1868 and 1925 eighty thousand British boys and girls were sent to Canada to work under indentures as agricultural labourers and domestic servants. All were unaccompanied by parents, although only one third of them were orphans."

6. The statistical annex (Annex B) gives the most precise estimates that we are aware of. There seems to be a consensus that about 150,000 children emigrated under various schemes and that most of these children (more than 100,000) went to Canada. Well under 10,000 children went to Australia in the final period of migration from 1947 to 1967. All these numbers are relatively small in comparison with the total number of families that emigrated or with the total number of children in public or private care through voluntary organisations within Britain at the time.

Philanthropic Rescue

7. A strong driving factor in child migration was the British philanthropic, religious and benevolent organisations, who were rescuing children from poverty, destitution, vagrancy, criminality or neglect and saw better opportunities for such children in the expanding colonies and Empire. At the time the choice was seen to be between begging, thieving, disease, prostitution and early death in the British Isles; or learning farming or domestic skills with good prospects for decent family living in North America.

8. There was also seen to be a mutual economic advantage to Britain and the colonies. However, most of the early initiatives were led from the voluntary sector by people such as Maria Rye and Annie Macpherson.

9. Patricia Rooke and R Schnell[4] note that:

  "The children were drawn from three major sources:

    orphan and Poor Law children with parental consent (sometimes overlooked);

    children placed in industrial schools under the various child protection acts;

    and abandoned, destitute and orphaned children in private orphan asylums.Probably only 10 per cent came under the Poor Law Unions."

British Legislation

10. A brief history of the relevant British legislation is attached (Annex A). This legislation initially affected children in public care (that is under the Poor Law or child protection legislation and only later under local authority care). The legislation reflects British Government views of the time.

11. However, it should be noted that there was also legislation in the receiving countries and dominions, and there were official and unofficial reports in the various countries that would have reflected the views of the authors rather than those of the governments involved.

Public Debate

12. There appeared to be much public discussion about the merits or disadvantages of child migration and boarding-out endangered children, but official concern at the time was mainly directed to the outcomes for Poor Law children. A report by Andrew Doyle, Her Majesty's Poor Law Inspector for the Local Government Board in 1874 drew attention to strenuous living conditions and isolation in Canada.[5] In response the philanthropic organisations re-emphasised the advantages for these children of migration in contrast to the social conditions they would otherwise have to face in Britain.

13. Roy Parker[6], in a report to the Economic and Social Research Council, initially considered for his research the question as to why so many British children were sent to Canada, but on reflection decided that the key question was why did so few go.

  "It is plain that the Canadian demand for child labour was never able to be satisfied. The call was either for children (mainly boys) to work on family farms in the well-settled areas or for girls as domestic servants. Partly because of the nature of the land grant system there was a premium on large family units. Work was hard and children were vital. But families were typically small and with the opening up of the west and with the development of industrialisation and urbanisation Canadian youngsters were increasingly drawn away from the parental farms. Replacement labour was needed."

  "The most significant resistance to child emigration, however, 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. Although they had little control over what the children's organisations did with their "own" children they could and did oppose the recruitment of children from workhouses, poor law schools and industrial schools."

Most Active Period for Child Migration

14. Thomas Barnardo led the rescue movement in the latter part of the nineteenth century. Barnardo's alone sent some 30,000 to Canada and much later a further 3,350 to Australia. Joy Parr notes that :

  "Among the Barnardo emigrants between 1882 and 1908, 6 per cent of boys and more than 8 per cent of girls were shipped to Canada illegally, without their parents' consent. A further 3 per cent of boys and 6 per cent of girls were sent under court order with the permission of the Home Secretary rather than that of their parents."

15. Amongst the former group of children there was a strong concern that the child would be in jeopardy if he remained with the family. In 1870 Thomas Barnardo[7] stated:

  "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 . . . but to know that thousands of unfortunate boys and girls commence life thus and grow up to a degraded manhood and a dishonoured womanhood . . . to know this and to witness the process being repeated from day to day—to be quite certain as what it must all grow to and yet to be quite helpless to deal thoroughly with the evil, is absolutely maddening".This led to philanthropic removal (where the perceived interest of the child was paramount over the stated interests of the parents). In some cases custody was contested in court. The 1891 Custody of Children Act limited the previously incontestable right to guardianship of negligent parents.[8]

Empire Settlement Act

16. Following the first world war the British government developed an interest in land settlement schemes, especially for ex-servicemen, and this led to state-supported migration. The Oversea Settlement Committee was established in 1919. In their 1921 Report[9] they note:

  "Juvenile migration from this country is at present carried on through Dr. Barnardo's Homes and similar voluntary organisations. These organisations, beside sending out the children in their charge, make the necessary arrangements for children sent overseas by Board of Guardians, etc. But up to the present the only part of the Empire which has a system of regulated and supervised juvenile immigration is Canada. Dealing with that Dominion, the Dominions Royal Commission, in their fifth interim report, said :

    "There is no doubt that child migration under proper conditions is of immense advantage both to the children themselves and to the Dominion . . ."

17. In 1922 the Empire Settlement Act provided authority (for 15 years and renewable thereafter) for the British government to act in association with dominion governments and with approved private organisations in migration schemes through assisted passages, initial allowances, and special training.

18. These schemes went much wider than child migration, but for logistical reasons used the (private) voluntary societies, so that even much later in the twentieth century almost all child migrants were sent under the care or control of these organisations.

19. R Schnell[10] estimates that during the period 1922 to 1931, approximately 885,000 Britons (adults and children) migrated to other parts of the British Empire. Some 345,000 were assisted by the Empire Settlement Act.

20. The schemes supported through the Empire Settlement and Commonwealth Acts supported children migrating to Canada, Australia, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), South Africa, the Caribbean and later New Zealand.

21. As in the nineteenth century most children came from those supported directly by voluntary and religious organisations, although a small percentage of children were previously in public care and required approval by the Secretary of State[11] before they could be sent. In general the voluntary organisations sought and gained consent of the child's parents or guardians both on admission to their own care and more specifically for approval for any subsequent emigration.

22. At various times demand for more children first from Canada and then later from Australia grossly exceeded the actual supply. There was a strong pull factor but this was balanced by concern both for the welfare of the children, so far from home, and a concern in the receiving countries that such children could be disruptive, or antisocial.

23. Official support for the Empire Settlement Schemes is highlighted by the text of a speech by the Prince of Wales in support of the Fairbridge Farm School in Western Australia.[12]

  ". . . by sending out these carefully selected children and training them for useful careers in the land which is to be their home, the system should be capable of providing a steady flow of good citizens to the Dominions and the Colonies. The days when we could have been accused of regarding these new countries as a useful dumping ground for the inefficient or for the black sheep of the family are, fortunately, long past. On the other hand I think one can say with some truth that both in Canada and in Australia there is a growing conviction that, in self-defence against their special dangers, it is good from time to time to recruit stock from the home of the pioneers, and settlers such as the Fairbridge system produces cannot be other than valuable assets to any country."

  "This venture is backed by His Majesty's Government, represented here by Mr. Baldwin. His Majesty's Government is anxious to see an extension of the scheme and is actually giving it some financial support. The Governments of Australia and Western Australia have helped the existing Farm School in many ways, and the Society hopes that a proposal for the establishment of other farm schools would be likely to meet with sympathetic consideration. Then the consent of the Canadian Government and of the Provincial Government in British Columbia has already been secured for the starting of a school in that great province in the Great West."

24. Western Australia was also the focus of work by the Christian Brothers, documented by Barry Coldrey.[13]

  "Some 10 per cent of the youngsters emigrated passed through Catholic Agencies. It was to be an irony that the Catholic Church was a major player in sponsoring child migration only in its last phase—after the second World War. Then Australia was the venue, not Canada, and church agencies were sending about half the children migrated."

25. Their work was modelled on the Fairbridge Farm School. Kingsley Fairbridge's vision was that:

  "Little children would shed the bondage of bitter circumstances and stretch their legs and minds amid the thousands of interests of the farm."

26. Before the second World War the Canadians became more selective and critical of the type of child migrant they were willing to accept. This seemed to coincide with less enthusiasm from British parents to allow their children to be sent to Canada and so such migration gradually stopped.

After the Second World War

27. However, the second World War led to an increased demand in Australia for some 50,000 war "orphans". This was never realised partly because there were few orphans, who were not adopted, and because British social security legislation made life more tolerable for lone parents and their children.

Moss Report

28. In the course of a private visit to Australia in 1951-52, John Moss made enquiries at the request of the Home Office into the conditions in Homes where children emigrating from Great Britain were received. His report was published in 1953.[14] His views are his own, and not Government policy, but they do reflect public knowledge at that time. The list of contents of his report indicate the topics where there was public concern. His main conclusion was:

  "I hope this report will give an impetus to the emigration of children from the United Kingdom to Australia as I have no doubt that many children who are in children's homes here would have much better prospects in Australia if they are carefully selected and are of suitable ages."Extracts of his report and the full conclusions are attached at Annex D Statistics from the report are at Annex C.

Ross Report

29. A more formal report, referred to as the Ross Report,[15] was commissioned by the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Relations. Extracts, which summarise aspects of the history of child migration to Australia and statistics in the period immediately following the second World War, are attached at Annex E. The report was more critical, and child focused, than earlier reports, but nevertheless assumed that child migration would continue through better arrangements for the children.

30. Although the report concluded that the child migration societies should be required to obtain the consent of the Secretary of State for the migration of any child, it did not spell out how such regulations would improve the practice of the voluntary organisations at that time. The Children Act 1948 had provided powers to make regulations concerning child migration through voluntary organisations. In 1982, following the 1980 Childcare Act, such regulations were made.

Later Evidence

31. Phillip Bean and Joy Melville[16] noted that child migration finally ended in 1967 when ninety children left Southampton for Australia. Their book presented detailed descriptions from the children themselves including allegations of serious abuse overseas, that had not been documented in the previous reports.[17] The abuses that occurred are, of course, a matter for the authorities of the country concerned to investigate and take appropriate action.

32. The 1996 report of the Western Australian Select Committee[18] considered the issues from the point of view of the host country. In its overview it notes;

  "Throughout the centuries, the empire settlement schemes took many different forms and involved a host of individuals and organisations including philanthropists, church bodies, charitable institutions and governments. It was not one single continuous policy; rather it was a complex tangle of personalities, competing ideas, priorities and agendas. Thus, it would be more appropriate to say it consisted of a multitude of Schemes, operating at a governmental and individual agency level, and even in some cases at a personal level."

33. Policy concerns now are focused on the welfare of former child migrants, as highlighted in Margaret Humphreys book[19], and on what is best for today's children who need to be supported through public or private care outside their families. The Government supports the work of the Child Migrants Trust (see Annex F) in helping former child migrants to come to terms with their childhood and family history. The Government also welcomes the parallel work of the voluntary and religious organisations who were previously involved with child migration, and the similar work of the governments of the host countries.

Children Act 1989

34. The Children Act 1989 brought together legislation affecting children in public care with that affecting children in the care of voluntary organisations. It emphasises that parents are usually the best people to bring up their children, and requires local authorities to help parents bring up their children at home wherever possible. The child's voice must be heard when decisions about his of her future are being taken. The courts now have responsibility for approving the emigration of children in care.[20]

35. Unfortunately, no law can eradicate all forms of abuse, as we know only too well from recent incidents in children's homes in this country, where children are supposedly in the care of local authorities. It is salutary to be reminded of what can happen today and what happened, on occasions in those distant countries to which the children were sent. Sir William Utting's recent report,[21] makes recommendations to further safeguard children living away from home.

Government Files

36. In the Adjournment Debate in 1993[22] the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health stressed that "at the time the schemes were seen as opportunities and not as dumping grounds for unwanted children". The Minister also announced that all the files, previously the responsibility of the Home Office, would be made available for scrutiny, some through privileged access. Details are given in Annex C.

37. A recent letter from Home Children Canada to the Prime Minister[23] in response to the current work of the Select Committee notes the importance of child migration to the history of Canada. It notes the trauma due to isolation, separation and abuse. But public meetings have tried to erase the stigma and replace it with pride. The letter ends with a footnote:

  "P.S. Unlike their counterparts sent to other countries, Home Children sent to Canada and their descendants, at our second Annual Reunion in Renfrew, Ontario, moved that they would never ask for restitution, retribution—not even an apology—because they are proud Canadians and glad to be in this country."


38. On 22 November 1993, an Adjournment Debate was held in the House of Commons to discuss various issues arising from the child migration schemes. John Bowis MP, the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department of Health, at that time, agreed to make public all the previous Home Office historical files that were known to exist on the child migration schemes. Some of these have been opened up on an "accelerated opening" basis and others, because they contain details of named individuals are subject to extended closure, but are available on a "privileged access" basis. The Child Migrants Trust has access to all these files, and they are similarly available to other bona fide researchers.

39. All these Government files are in the public domain and may be accessed through the Public Records Office. Named employees of the Child Migrants Trust and some Catholic organisations that were involved in the schemes were allowed access to all files to facilitate tracing histories when requested by former child migrants.

40. If the Committee wish to examine any or all of the files, the Department will make appropriate arrangements. The list of files is attached as Annex C.

Confidentiality of Government Files

41. Details of 30 year/extended closure rules—The Public Records Act 1967 reduced the period after which records must be made available to the public from 50 years to 30 years. The 1993 Open Government White Paper (Cm 2290) reconfirmed "the 30 year rule" and the proposed Freedom of Information Act will do the same as detailed in the White Paper Your Right to Know (Cm 3818) presented to parliament in December 1997.

42. The Public Records Act also allows for earlier or later opening under certain conditions and with the approval of the Lord Chancellor. Prior to 1993, there were three established criteria for extended closure with the normal closure period being 50 years, but closure of 75 or even 100 years if the circumstances of the case justified it.

43. The Open Government White Paper of 1993 introduced the application of a guiding principle that:

  "All records not retained in departments should be released after 30 years unless (a) it is possible to establish the actual damage that would be caused by release, and (b) that the damage falls within the set criteria"

44. The three criteria remained virtually unchanged apart from some additional clarification and in particular the introduction of the word "substantial" in relation to the level of distress which would be caused by disclosure of information about the persons affected, or their descendants. The minimum extended closure period was reduced to 40 years but still with the option up to 100 years if justified.

45. In the case of files containing medical and/or social history of named individuals, extended closure has always been applied to protect that individual during their lifetime, hence a 75 year closure where children are involved, or exceptionally in the case of very young children, 100 years.


46. The Government welcomes the fact that a number of voluntary organisations are helping former child migrants. To assist former child migrants who want to make contact with their families are enabled to do so, the Government encourages constructive contacts between the Child Migrants Trust (UK), whose activities we help fund, and the voluntary bodies which ran the schemes. The Department appreciates that, for many, the chances of being reunited with their lost families reduces with each passing year.

47. The Government supports the Child Migrants Trust (UK) which is a voluntary organisation that provides a record tracing, counselling, and advisory service to the former child migrants. Annex F provides details.

48. In addition, where children sent abroad and were subsequently adopted, they can apply to be entered on the Adoption Contact Register (managed by the Office of National Statistics), as an adopted person and await any response from relatives wishing to be put in touch with him or her—information leaflet attached Annex G.


49. Access to UK income-related benefits—Social security benefits are not widely available to persons from abroad. People coming from outside Europe are subject to immigration controls and enter this country on the strict understanding that they do not become a charge upon public funds.

50. Former child migrants coming to the United Kingdom, who have retained British citizenship, will have the right to enter and live in the United Kingdom without restriction. Income-related benefits such as Income Support and Income Based Jobseekers Allowance are therefore available on the same basis as to any other British citizen, although this does include satisfying a test of habitual residence. Whether a person is habitually resident depends on their circumstances. The independent adjudication authorities who decide benefit entitlement will consider a wide variety of factors including the claimant's reasons for coming to the United Kingdom and their future intentions when they are here, the claimant's employment record both in the United Kingdom and abroad, the length and continuity of residence in another country and the claimant's centre of interest.

51. It is unlikely that a person who has been absent from the United Kingdom for most or all of his life will satisfy the test immediately on arrival in the United Kingdom. There is no set period of time after which the test will automatically be satisfied, but time spent in the United Kingdom is a positive factor towards establishing habitual residence here. However, if a person's stay is of temporary nature, it is unlikely that he will satisfy the test at all.

52. The adjudication authorities will make findings of fact on whether a claimant is habitually resident in the United Kingdom after taking into account the full circumstances of each individual case.



53. There is a reciprocal social security agreement between the United Kingdom and Australia which can help people who come to live permanently in the UK to qualify for certain UK benefits. The agreement would not, therefore, assist former child migrants if they were only visiting the UK.

54. The agreement does not cover income-related benefits. Retirement Pension is the main benefit covered. The agreement allows periods of residence in Australia to be treated as periods for which UK National Insurance contributions were paid. This means that a person coming to live in the UK from Australia may qualify for state retirement pension based on residence in Australia, if any Australian pension they are receiving is less than the UK pension for which they can qualify. The Australian pension is then topped up by the UK pension.


55. There is a very limited social security agreement with Canada which can help people who have lived in Canada to qualify for a UK retirement pension. However, it applies only where a person is now resident in the UK and has also lived in the UK for at least 10 years after the age of 18, so is unlikely to assist former child migrants.


56. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) is aware that a number of former child migrants who wish to claim British citizenship have no identity records and therefore no proof that they were born in the United Kingdom. The FCO would look at such cases individually, and sympathetically, in conjunction with any other documentary evidence or information that the applicants could provide.

57. It may well be that these individuals now have an entitlement, through residence, to another nationality, e.g. Canadian, Australian etc, but this would be a matter for governments of Canada and Australia to decide. Acquisition of another country's citizenship would not affect their eligibility for British citizenship.


58. The Government is now concerned to ensure that former child migrants who want to make contact with their families are able to do so. The British Government has been, and will continue to be, active in addressing this important issue.

1   Gillian Wagner Children of the Empire Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1982.  Back

2   Gillian Wagner op cit page 4. Back

3   Joy Parr Labouring Children Croom Helm 1980. Back

4   Patricia Rourke and R Schnell Imperial Philanthropy and Colonial Response: British Juvenile Emigration to Canada, 1896-1930. The Historian, Volume November 1983. Back

5   Select Committee on Immigration and Colonisation First Report Journal of the House of Commons 1875.  Back

6   Roy Parker, unpublished summary of a report to the Economic and Social Research Council, June 1983.  Back

7   Gillian Wagner op cit page 102. Back

8   Joy Parr op cit page 68.  Back

9   Report of the Oversea Settlement Committee for the year ended 1921, February 1922.


10   R Schnell The right class of boy : youth training schemes and assisted emigration to Canada under the Empire Settlement Act, 1922-39 History of Education 1995 Vol. 24 No. 1 pages 73-90.  Back

11   The approval of the Home Secretary would be given on his behalf by civil servants who had examined the case papers and were satisfied that the relevant legal requirements had been met.  Back

12   The Times June 21 1934.  Back

13   Barry Coldrey The Scheme : The Christian Brothers in Western Australia 1993.  Back

14   John Moss CBE Child Migration to Australia 1953.  Back

15   Child Migration to Australia : Report of a Fact-Finding Mission Cmd. 9832 August 1956.  Back

16   Phillip Bean and Joy Melville Lost Children of the Empire 1989.  Back

17   A scholarly analysis of some abuse is included in The Scheme op cit.  Back

18   Select Committee into Child Migration Western Australia Legislative Assembly, presented by the Hon Mike Barnett JP, MLA, November 1996.  Back

19   Margaret Humphreys Empty Cradles Doubleday 1994.  Back

20   Schedule 2, paragraph 19 of the Children Act 1989, Chapter 41.  Back

21   Sir William Utting People Like Us: The Review of Safeguards for Children Living Away from Home 1997.  Back

22   David Hinchliffe MP, 22 November 1993, Official Report, volume 233, column 301 replied to by John Bowis MP Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health.  Back

23   Letter from David Lorente, Home Children Canada, to the Right Honourable Tony Blair MP.


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