Remembering the British Home Children


Will Robertson

Will Robertson spoke on the British Home Children at the April 7 General Meeting.  He describes his relationship to Glengarry: “My father and 4 of his siblings (2 sisters and 2 brothers) were Quarrier’s children.  Four of the five children came to eastern Ontario between 1925 -1930.  One sister had TB and remained at Quarrier’s.  My father worked for awhile on a farm near Moose Creek (just over the Glengarry-Stormont boundary) before settling in Brockville.  One brother also worked on a farm in the same area and eventually bought a farm there.  The other brother was a member of the SD&G Highlanders  during WWII.  Our family spent many summer vacations on my uncle’s farm and we always attended the Highland Games.”

The early to mid-1800s were challenging times for the United Kingdom.  The country was rapidly changing from a rural to an urban based-society.  Thousands of people were leaving the countryside in search of work in the new mills and mines in and around the rapidly expanding cities.  This mass migration led to deplorable living conditions in the cities.  Explosive population growth produced overcrowding, home2unemployment and poverty.   Crime, alcohol abuse and infectious diseases were rampant.  Young children were sent out to work to supplement meagre family incomes.  Parents who could no longer care for their children due to unemployment, injury, illness or death in the family were forced to send them to workhouses or to a life on the streets.  Government actions to deal with these appalling conditions were inadequate.  As a result, humanitarians such as Annie Macpherson, Thomas Barnardo, William Quarrier and others stepped forward and established homes in various cities to provide shelter, food, clothing and a basic education to needy children.  These homes were soon overcrowded as the demand for spaces quickly exceeded the supply available for children.  As a result the idea of sending children to Canada and other Commonwealth countries was born.  Between 1869 and 1933 humanitarians in the United Kingdom sent some 100,000 orphaned or abandoned children to Canada.  These children, known as home children, worked as farm or domestic helpers through an indenture agreement that covered their work, wages, board, clothing and secular and religious education.   The majority of home children were treated relatively well by their Canadian families.  However their condition was not monitored as well as it should have been and many children were physically and or mentally abused.  In 1939 the changing world economic situation and the outbreak of World War II virtually brought an end to a child migration programme which had been in existence for over 60 years.  In spite of their suffering and hardship home children have made an enormous contribution to Canada.   It is only recently that this contribution has been recognized officially by the countries involved.

Will presented some facts and figures: Some Amazing Facts:

  • UK practiced child migration between 1618 and 1967 –> North America, Australia, Africa
  • Migration of British Home Children to Canada took place between 1833 – 1939
  • “The Golden Bridge” takes children from “destitution in the UK to a life of useful service and comfort in the new land”
  • Estimated that 100,000 children were sent to Canada during this period – about 1,000 per year
  • 12% of our population is descended from these children i.e. >4 million Canadians

Why Child Migration:

  • In the mid-1800s The Industrial Revolution lead to a massive population shift from country to city as people came to work in the factories
  • Explosive population growth of cities lead to rampant overcrowding, poverty, crime, illness and infectious disease
  • Abandoned, orphaned or run away children ended up on the streets (gutter children, waifs and strays, street arabs)
  • Individuals/agencies established homes to provide food, shelter, clothing and education and to find work for street children
  • But, demand for space quickly exceeded pace at which children could be placed
  • Obvious solution was to send children to Canada where there was an expanding need for domestic helpers and farm labourers

Major Individuals/Agencies Involved:

  • 1833 – 1836 Children’s Friend Society (Suppression of Juvenile Vagrancy) – 250 children
  • 1869 – 1896 Maria Susan Rye – Little Gutter Girls’ Home, London to Our Western Home, Niagara  >5,000  children
  • 1869 – 1887 Annie Macpherson – Home of Industry, London to Marchmont Home, Belleville; Eastern Townships’ Home, Knowlton, Blair Athol Farm, Galt and Stratford – 7,000 children
  • 1873 – 1915 Louisa Birt – Liverpool Sheltering Home to Oakfield Estate, Halifax NS and Knowlton Home, Knowlton QC – 3,000 children
  • 1873 – 1932 John Middlemore – Children’s Immigration Homes, Birmingham to Guthrie House, London ON and Fairview, Halifax NS – 5,000 children
  • 1874 – 1934 Thomas Stephenson – National Children’s Home, London to Hamilton – 3,000 children
  • 1882 – 1939 Thomas Barnardo – Stepney Causeway, London to 4 Barnado Homes (Toronto, Peterborough, Winnipeg and Russell, MB) – 30,000 children
  • 1885 – 1932 Church of England – Waifs and Strays Society, East Dulwich to Gibbs Girls’Home and Benyon Boys’Home, Sherbrooke <1,000 children
  • 1905 – 1925 The Church Army – Hempstead Hall Essex to various homes in Canada – 4,600 boys
  • 1884 – 1939 James Fegan – 7 homes in England to Colonial Distributing Home, Toronto – 3,000 boys
  • 1872- 1938 William Quarrier – Orphan Homes of Scotland near Glasgow to Fairknowe, Brockville – 7,000 children

Quarier’s Village School

  • 1000 children in 37 cottages = 25-30 children per cottage
  • Under the care of house parents
  • Highly regulated and segregated environment
  • Children were treated well and fed well but little time for personal attention and affection
  • Girls and boys did all the cleaning, scrubbing, polishing, cooking, mending etc under the supervision of the house parents
  • Outdoor activities encouraged but only after all the work was done
  • Church twice on Sunday and worship every evening after “tea”
  • House parents worshipped on Friday evenings so time for the children to have some fun, games and mischief
  • Sibling contact was strictly controlled outside of school hours
  • Two weeks seaside vacation every summer