Child migrants

Child Migrants from the United Kingdom

E-Brief: Online Only issued October 2001
David Watt, Information/E-links
Coral Dow
, Information/E-links
Social Policy Group

Background to the scheme

Between 1922 and 1967 about 150 000 children with an average age of eight years and nine months were shipped from Great Britain to help populate the British Dominions of Canada, Rhodesia, New Zealand and Australia with 'good white stock'. Estimates of the number of children sent to Australia vary from 5 000 to 10 000, most of whom were sent to charitable and religious institutions. The Australian Government welcomed the scheme and encouraged non-government organisations such as Barnados and Fairbridge to continue settling child migrants who were regarded as adaptable with long working lives. However many child migrants later claimed that they were ill-treated in the institutions to which they were sent.

Child migrants are represented in Britain and Australia by a number of organisations. The most prominent is the Child Migrants Trust which was established in 1987 to assist child migrants seeking family reunions. Child migrants and the Child Migrants Trust have lobbied for compensation and an apology from governments.

Other bodies which offer assistance are the Child Migrant Friendship Society, and in Perth, the Christian Brothers' Ex-Residents Services (C-BERS Services) and the Catholic Migrant Centre.

Australian responses and initiatives
  • In 1990 the Australian Government announced financial assistance to the Child Migrant Trust branches in Melbourne and Perth. This assistance continues to fund a case worker and counselling services.
  • In 1993 the Christian Brothers issued a public apology for the abuses that they admitted had taken place at their child-care institutions. They have funded travel by former child migrants to make family reunions.
  • In 1997 the Rockhampton Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy apologised to former residents of St. Joseph's Home, Nerkool.
  • In August 1998 the Western Australian government apologised to former British child migrants who suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse in Western Australian orphanages and institutions. However, the Western Australian government voted against a proposal to re-establish a select committee set up by the previous government to investigate the needs of former child migrants, or to implement the recommendations of the Select Committee's Interim Report.
  • The treatment of child migrants in Queensland was included in the wider Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions, chaired by Leneen Forde and tabled in the Queensland Parliament on 8 June 1999. Following the tabling of the Forde Report, a formal apology was issued by: the Premier of Queensland, Peter Beattie; the Minister for Families, Youth and Community Care, Anna Bligh; the Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane; the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane; the Moderator of the Uniting Church in Australia (Qld Synod); the Territorial Commander, Australian Eastern Territory, of the Salvation Army; the President of the Baptist Union of Queensland and the Conference President for the Churches of Christ in Queensland.
  • In 1999, the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy and the Poor Sisters of Nazareth launched PHIND: the Personal History Index for former child migrants to Catholic Homes in Australia.
British Government response and initiatives
  • In 1997 the British House of Commons Health Committee accepted that responsibility for matters relating to the welfare of former British child migrants rested with the British Department of Health.
  • The House of Commons Health Committee chaired by David Hinchcliffe MP reported on the scheme and welfare of surviving migrants. The committee took evidence in Australia in June 1998 and tabled its report: The Welfare of Former British Child Migrants in July 1998.
  • In December 1998 the Health Secretary Frank Dobson accepted the report's main recommendations. He accepted the policy had been misguided and promised assistance to former child migrants by setting up a central database of information in the UK to help them trace their records and a Support Fund of £1 million over three years to help pay for family reunions. To qualify for assistance under the Fund, former child migrants must be able to show that they have traced a close family relative, (mother, father, brother, sister, aunt or uncle), and that they wish to reunite for the first time, but cannot meet the costs of travel to the UK.
Australian Government Response to British Government Response
Information resources

The National Archives of Australia has published a research guide to archival records on child migration: Good British Stock: Child and Youth Migration to Australia 1901-83. It includes an overview and history of child migration to Australia as well as a guide to the National Archives records. A brief guide is also available in the National Archives of Australia Fact Sheet 124.

Child migrant experiences have been portrayed in the television documentary Lost Children of the Empire, broadcast by the ABC in 1989, and in the television mini-series The leaving of Liverpool broadcast on ABC TV in 1994. A number of books document the scheme and tell individual stories. These include:

  • Philip Bean, Lost Children of the Empire, Unwin Hyman, London, 1989.
  • Alan Gill, Orphans of the Empire: the shocking story of child migration to Australia, Random House, Sydney, 1997
  • Margaret Humphreys, Empty Cradles: one woman’s fight to uncover Britain’s most shameful secrets, Doubleday, London, 1994.
  • Perry Snow, Neither waif nor stray: the search for a stolen identity, Universal Publishers, 2000. A Canadian perspective which is also published on demand on the Internet.

An alternative view of child migration to Australia is presented in: Geoffrey Sherington. Fairbridge, Empire and Child Migration. University of Western Australia Press, 1998.

Various ABC radio and television programmes have covered the issue. Transcripts are available by searching 'child migrants' on the ABC’s search engine.

Organisations involved in assistance to child migrants to Australia are:

  • International Social Service (ISS) with branches in Melbourne and Sydney. ISS administers claims on behalf of the British Government.
  • Child Migrants Trust with branches in Perth and Melbourne.

For copyright reasons some linked items are only available to Members of Parliament.


"Forgotten Australians"

Home of (no) Mercy


no voices break the silence
as they walk into the room
no light will breach the darkness
nor infiltrate the gloom

the giant mangle rumbles low
the linen whispers through
and women toil in silence
it’s what they must endure

a hiss of steam escapes the press
and draws the sister’s eye
she pauses as she looks around
all black and closed to life

her fingers sigh on each new bead
lips move in silent prayer
hail Mary bless these penitents
and take them in your care

 their day is set in tedium
it is but another test
to keep their silence as they  must
‘til sister says god be blessed

these words will break the quiet
if only for a while
they look at sister shyly
and offer her a smile

but the silence remains unbroken
for what is there to say
between these fallen women
who struggle day to day

with sins too great to mention
and a burden of carnal shame
because they bore a baby
who didn’t have a name

there are no words of comfort
in the purgatory of their grief
there is no light to show the way
to give them a belief

that god will grant a better day
in this life or the next
and let them feel again the joy
of their child against their breast

The History of Child Migration and Children's Homes

A really good Child Migration Timeline can be found here:

Ironically (?) it's information from a Children' s Home in the UK, started by Thomas John Barnardo, Irish philanthropist, founder and director of homes for destitute children. From the start of his founded homes in 1867, (to the date of Barnardo’s death -1905), nearly 60,000 children had been "rescued, trained and placed out in life". Barnardo’s ran hundreds of children’s homes across the UK until the 1970’s. 

Barnardo, Thomas John (1845 - 1905)
philanthropist, entrepreneur and founder of Dr. Barnardo's Homes, a private boarding agency in Britain. Founded in 1870, his agency was responsible for successfully placing the bulk of the orphaned English home children sent to live and work with rural families on the Canadian Prairies. Between 1882 and 1939, this agency sent more than 30,000 children to live and work as cheap labour in Canada. (see: canadian reference/biographies)

Of course, he was not alone in such child-placement interests. "Between 1869 and the early 1930s, over 100,000 children were sent to Canada from Great Britain during the child emigration movement. Pauper children were thought to have a better chance for a healthy, moral life in rural Canada, where families welcomed them as a source of cheap farm labour and domestic help." (see: Dr Barnardos )

NCH (formerly National Children's Home and at one time National Children's Home and Orphanage) was established in 1869 by the Rev'd Thomas Bowman Stephenson, a Methodist minister, and a group of fellow-Methodists. The organisation is historically closely linked with the Methodist Church of Great Britain. Throughout its history Methodist churches in the UK have taken a close interest in the work of NCH and have organised large-scale fund-raising in support of its work, both within the church and directed to the wider public.  NCH is a United Kingdom-based charity providing services for children. Some of its major areas of work are services for disabled children, family and community services, work with young people leaving care and rural children's services, and today runs upwards of 500 projects for vulnerable children and young people and their families. Originally supported entirely by voluntary contributions and mainly providing residential homes for children who had been orphaned or taken into care, NCH now acts mainly as a provider of statutory non-residential services purchased by local authorities and other government bodies. 

The concept reads really well.  How did the human experience compare?  


100,000 British Home Children (alleged orphans) were sent to Canada by over 50 British Child Care organizations between 1870-1957.  These 4-15 year old children were emigrated/deported to work as indentured farm labourers and domestic servants until they were 18 years old.  Over 7,000 children were sent to Canada without parental knowledge or consent.  The British Child Care organizations professed a dominant motive of providing these children with a better life than they would have had in Britain, but they had other ignoble and pecuniary motives.  They rid themselves of an unwanted segment of their society and profited when they sold these children to Canadian farmers. 


Siblings in care in Britain were separated from their families and each other.  Siblings were separated from each other when they were sent to Canada.  Most never saw each other again.  Many spent their lives trying to identify their parents and find their siblings and most were unsuccessful.  An unknown number of children ran away from their indentured labour in Canada to the United States.  Millions of Americans may be descended from British Home Children.  The 4-5 million Canadian/American descendants of the British Home Children have 20 million British Grandparents, Uncles, and Aunts.  How could this many people not know they are related to one another?  Their mutual searches have been hampered by the unwillingness of the childcare organizations to readily release vital personal information.


My National Children's Home File

Hidden Lives Revealed

Home Children and Migrant Children

England Orphanages

Pound Pup Legacy