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«By SUSAN BRAZEAU Integrated Studies Final Project Essay (MAIS 700) submitted to Dr. Nanci Langford in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the ...»

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Integrated Studies Final Project Essay (MAIS 700)

submitted to Dr. Nanci Langford

in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of

Master of Arts – Integrated Studies

Athabasca, Alberta

December 2012



They Were But Children: The Immigration of British Home Children to Canada This essay draws attention to a little known era in Canadian history in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which nearly 100,000 British children came to this country as child labourers. Research indicates that there was political and social support in both countries, especially at the outset, for poor or homeless children to be sent to live with Canadian families. The result was that several benevolent societies and religious organizations developed and carried out child migration schemes, bringing children to Canada to be trained as domestic servants or farm labourers. Controversy, doubts and suspicions eventually grew around the organizations, and also extended to the children, many of whom came to be looked upon as having criminal tendencies or low intellect and moral standards or being without feelings. Further, recent research carried out with some Home Children, as they were called, points out the devastating effect such views had on the children. Perceptions of shame and unworthiness and believing they were not as good as other people persisted throughout their adult lives.

The research for this essay was drawn from several recent books and articles that investigated child labour, child migration, specific benevolent organizations and the historical context in which child migration took place. Books in which the focus was the stories and experiences of the Home Children, themselves, were also accessed.

They Were But Children 3 Introduction Research into the social and political values of the late 19th Century in Great Britain reveals that benevolent and religious organizations were allowed to carry out child migration to Canada for the purpose of providing child labour, often, with little regard for the well-being, of the children. For almost sixty years, between 1869 and 1930, these philanthropic societies, often called child-savers, arranged for anywhere between 80,000 and 100,000 British children to be brought to Canada (Kohli, 2003; Murdoch, 2006; Parr, 1980, 1989; Sherington, 2003). Some of these children were homeless and found on the streets. Most, however, were typically from broken or single parent homes or from families who were poverty stricken. The intention was to take the children, from what was believed to be unhealthy and socially and morally unacceptable living conditions in England, and place them in Canadian homes, farms and families. Here, it was expected the children would learn skills and become productive members of the working class, training as helpers of some sort: house servants, child companions, and farm labourers were the most common. They came to be known as “Home Children” (Harrison, 1979;

Kohli, 2003; Parr, 1980, 1989; Waldock, 2012).

The author’s paternal grandmother, Grace, was one of these children. The search for my grandmother’s story, her family and, ultimately, my own family roots and history, were challenging and emotional, for Grace’s story was one she never told her own children, friends or grandchildren. It is told here. Other Home Children were like Grace and also chose to remain silent. Some children never lived long enough to tell

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English and Canadian history –a history that is relatively unknown and should be remembered.

To understand the stories of the children, it is important to have an introduction to the history of the child migration movement that took place between Britain and Canada in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. It is a history that is presented in this essay from three different yet fully inter-related perspectives. The first is the social and political climate that enabled child labour and child migration to this country and, ultimately, reshaped the laws for children not only living within, but entering Canada. The second introduces some of the most well- known organizations that were given financial and political support to remove children from Britain and relocate them in Canadian homes and farms as inexpensive labour. The third view presents some of the realities of life in Canada, as experienced by the children – children whose perceptions were often radically different from the perceptions of the governing bodies, the organizations, and of Canadians.

Thus, the premise for this paper is that there was a political and social culture in Britain and Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that led to the development and implementation of child migration schemes and that the experiences of the children who came to Canada were vastly different from the expectations promoted by the benevolent organizations that brought them to this country.

Annie Macpherson: A Woman of Note The year is 1867. Annie Macpherson, a young Scottish woman, had dedicated her life to working “among the poor in London, in the East End, where, for an entire

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only release was death itself” (Bagnell, 1980, p. 19). One evening changed not only her life, but also the lives of thousands of children, most yet unborn, and set the stage for a child immigration scheme that lasted well into the twentieth century. According to Bagnell (1980), on this eventful day, Annie Macpherson walked into a filthy, dark house in which several young children lived. She heard voices from the attic and, upon opening a hatch in the ceiling, found over thirty little girls, “their arms thin as broomsticks, at work making matchboxes” (p. 21). Most were between the ages of 8 and 10, but some were even younger. One slice of bread was the daily meal- a meal for which each child paid out of her meager wages of a penny a day (Bagnell, 1980; Kohli, 2003).

Two years later, in 1869, Annie Macpherson had raised enough public awareness and money in both England and Canada to send the first of hundreds of groups of children to what was believed would be a better home with opportunities to have an education, to develop work skills and to lead a healthy and productive life (Bagnell, 1980; Bean & Melville, 1989; Corbett, 1981, 1997, 2002; Harrison, 1979; Kohli, 2003; Parr, 1980, 1989). A question to be asked then, is, what was happening in England that created the opportunity for the creation of a child migration movement- a movement that was carried out by Macpherson and other philanthropic individuals over the next sixty years? Part of that answer is the Industrial Revolution.

The Climate of the Times in England The arrival of the Industrial Revolution in Britain in the 18th Century was the single most important factor in the development of benevolent societies and the eventual

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Canada (Corbett, 1981, 1997, 2001; Kohli, 2003). Corbett (1981, 1997, 2002) points out that once the feudal system - peasants working the land of privileged owners -“snapped” (p. 13), families began to move to the large cities, especially London, seeking work.

Often, there was none or little to be had. Machinery had taken over jobs that a pair of human hands would have accomplished at an earlier time. The result, for many people, was poverty-subsisting from day to day (Bean & Melville, 1989; Kohli, 2003; Murdock, 2006; Parr, 1980, 1989). Corbett (1981, 1997, 2002) further states “masses of humanity sought to bury their despair in the cities’ gin parlours, brothels and rat infested alleys.

Families disintegrated” (p. 13). Some children were abandoned and left to fend for themselves on the streets. Some were sold into prostitution; others were sold to, or taken in by employers, looking for inexpensive labour. (Bean & Melville, 1989; Kohli, 2003;

Parr, 1980, 1989). By all accounts, it appears that thousands of poor and destitute families were living in squalor in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. “The human spirit sickened of injustices, bestiality, oppression and inequalities. The Evangelical and Humanitarian movements swept…across the British Isles. The philanthropic movement was born, shining light into the caves of despair, making paths straight in the wilderness, creating Ragged Schools, free hospitals, missions, Y.M.C.A.’s [Young Men’s Christian Associations] and Y.W.C.A.’s [Young Women’s Christian Associations]” (Corbett 1981, 1997, 2002, p. 14).

A less kind view of children in poverty was put forward in the 1820’s by a police magistrate, Robert Chambers, who complained of the increasing delinquency in Britain

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cluttered the streets [of London] should be gathered up and shipped to Canada” (Bagnell, 1980, p. 23). He obtained supports from government officials in other communities in the United Kingdom all of whom suggested that “children who were down and out…should be sent to Canada, where they were badly needed, to be apprenticed to persons who…would be glad to receive them as workers on the land” (p. 23). Not only would this group of children include “abandoned children-street arabs, as history would name them-but…the many thousands of children who lived with their parents in the misery of workhouses” (p. 23). A common theme that arose and persisted was “the Mother Country could only benefit from the absence of young paupers, the future inmates of our workhouses, our trampsheds and our jails” (Pinchbeck and Hewitt as cited in Parr, p. 28). It was a theme that eventually created resentment by Canadians towards the child emigrants and the organizations that brought them to Canada (Bagnell, 1980; Bean & Melville, 1989; Corbett, 1981, 1997, 2002, Kohli, 2003).

Shortly after, however, in 1934, the Poor Law Act was passed that seemed to solidify the trend toward child migration. This law permitted the raising of funds to support emigration of persons, including children, who were in poverty (Kohli, 2003; Parr, 1980, 1994; Sherrington, 2003). During this period, workhouses were on the rise for those who could not pay their debts. They were intended as temporary places that offered little in the way of comfort or opportunity. Often, it was a widowed, abandoned, indigent mother and her children that were eventually forced into workhouses. “These institutions were cold and draughty and often had high stone walls around them in a prison-like style. The

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institution. In short, life in the workhouse was to be made as undesirable as possible” (Kohli, 2003, p. 7). Kohli (2003) goes on to describe some of the conditions as a place where all family members lived, with basic necessities, sleeping on mats of straw and often in separate areas of the building. Usually, each person, no matter the age, carried out some type of work, in order to help pay for his or her keep. The future was grim, especially for children (Kohli, 2003).

At this same time, church groups set up financial relief funds to assist parishioners of good moral conduct (Bagnell, 1980). By the late 1860’s, many of religious and community benevolent organizations arose agreeing with the view that immigration to Canada was a viable solution to the poverty stricken children typically called orphans or “waifs and strays” (Snow, 2000, p.13). Although it took another few years for the movement to begin in force, the child migration seed had been planted. Send them to Canada! For the boys, placements on farms, as agricultural labourers, were viewed as ideal. Girls could be trained as servants or other domestic help and also could be companions to a family’s children. The expectation was that the children would be breathing in the fresh country air of Canada, doing a good day’s work while at the same time earning wages and receiving some schooling (Bagnell, 1980; Bean & Melville, 1989; Corbett, 1981, 1997, 2002; Kohli, 2003; Murdoch, 2006; Parr, 1980, 1989; Rose 1987; Snow, 2000).

Despite the growth of government and societal supports, the economic difficulties continued; and, they did not only happen in the larger centres. Parr (1980, 1989)

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disability resulting from illnesses, such as cholera, from accident, or from war, left some families with only one income. Frequently this was not enough to support the entire family (Bean & Melville, 1989). Parr (1980, 1989), goes on to say that children, as young as five and six years of age, were expected to help with the family income, especially if there was only one living parent. “Youngsters surrendered to their mothers the proceeds of bottle collecting, dragging barrows and carts in the market” (p. 19).

Children, up to the age of 12, also might have worked in the home “with their parents making Lucifer matches, paper bags, flowers and clothing. Young children were valued in this work for their agility and quickness” (p.18). Thus, child labour was not only expected to support one’s family, but accepted within British society. Yet, when a family could no longer sustain itself, when neighbour and family supports, if any, had all been exhausted, when the relief from the local churches was no longer available, the final solution for a family was most often, to enter a workhouse.

For some families, however, this was not an option. An alternative, instead, was to give up one or more child to a benevolent society –an organization such as the one started by Annie Macpherson- that professed to offer the children a better life.

Meet Margaret, my great grandmother. She was one of the parents who refused the workhouse. In 1899, she was a recent widower with seven children between the ages of two and eleven years and pregnant with her eighth child. The following are excerpts of

the Medical Officer’s report:

This case was brought to the notice of the local Branch of the N.S.P.C.C [National

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