Child Migration

Once again I am foraging into the world of modern history for ‘out-of-comfort-zone’ month, and I have chosen to look into the actions and movements of child migration in the middle of the twentieth century. I originally had a different idea for this post but watching series four of Call the Midwife last night, the aspect on the ‘Child Migrant Programme’ sparked curiosity. The idea of sending supposed vagrant children to English colonies began in 1618 to populate the Virginia Colony as cheap labour, but for this post I shall be focusing particularly on the children in the post-war era of Britain. This behaviour of removing children from their families and homes, often without consultation, is nothing new and occurs across the world, usually in times when a country is in crisis or dealing with an aftermath of a crisis.
By the 1950’s, Britain had a long history of shipping children as young as three away from their homelands through to around 1975. Most popular destinations were America, Australia and New Zealand and most were placed in institutions or sold to farmers to work in the fields. Most of these children had been subject to neglect in their homelands, were orphans or were placed in the adoption system. Yet these early hardships could be nothing compared to what they would experience in these apparently new ‘hopeful lands’ which Britain wanted to populate with ‘good white England stock’. The average age of being sent away was between seven and fourteen, the age which a child could seem capable of leaving the homestead and beginning menial land work. However if a child was found in neglectful circumstances in their homeland, they could be removed from the ages of three to four. Any younger the child would be attempted to be adopted in their home country as more families are willing to take in babies rather than older children, a sad fact still true of today. There are numerous accounts documenting that fact that the majority of children travelling were often not healthy enough to survive, a quote from the Fairbridge Society on Child Migrants in 1950 states:
“This party is the worst which we have ever received. From whichever aspect they are considered, there is nothing to recommend them… We have in the past featured that it is an advantage to Australia to have immigrants of good sound British stock. If they are neither good nor sound we must modify our statements and lose one of our most profitable items of propaganda.”
Once they arrive in their destination after what usually would be a lengthy and tedious boat ride halfway across the world, they would be segregated into institutions, sold off to farmers or placed in an equivalent of the British workhouse in the early twentieth century. Many of the children were those from over-crowded orphanages, placed in short-term foster situations and homeless children. On the other hand there are actual cases of children from loving family homes being removed without parental consent and placed onto the next ship that leaves the docklands. This action was particularly prevalent in London, Manchester, Liverpool and Southampton due to high populations of children in destitute areas and nearest to boat yards. This does not mean it did not occur further inland, but the majority of children came from high density cities and towns and well-connected rural villages.
Removing children from England was popular to ensure an increase of a ‘white population’ in newly developing westernised societies. Places like America, New Zealand and Australia had a history of rehabilitating English criminals, yet it was thought had children would have better time adapting to new surroundings. The government thought this would ensure a population increase during a time when segregation between white and black people was still in extremis. Although child migration had been occurring for centuries, this particular bout started during World War Two as a way of removing children from the dangers of being bombed in a city. But the key idea was to populate countries like Australia which had a high native population with British children to balance against the vast quantity of people in Asia between England and Australia. Indeed a quote from the Archbishop of Perth in 1938 confirms this:
“At a time when empty cradles are contributing woefully to empty spaces, it is necessary to look for external sources of supply. And if we do not supply from our own stock we are leaving ourselves all the more exposed to the menace of the teeming millions of our neighbouring Asiatic races.”
Although several countries such as Germany, Finland and Russia have used Child Migration as a last resort, Britain has the longest sustaining use of this abhorrent act. Child Migration to Virginia, North America began in 1618 and the last group of children arrived in 1970, totalling a couple of million children over the three hundred and fifty-two years. There was a strong prejudice against children who were chosen to go as countries are known to have refused physically disabled children or black children. The case in Virginia meant that once the children arrived in America they would be separated from siblings and sent to different institutions across the country. Most were sent without proper documentation such as birth certificates, passports or medical histories. The work would range from farming to factory work, considering that the children their own age in England would be at school, not working.
Many of the children never made it back to their country of birth, several settled to a life of hardship some equivalent to slavery. All had a consistent disregard for their homeland that had ‘abandoned’ them. Several charities have been set up to attempt to get the now adult children back in touch with their family in the UK, yet many would never succeed or would not bother.
All information gather from the Child Migrants Trust, for more information please visit:

2 thoughts on “Child Migration

  1. How awful! I knew Native American children were taken from their parents in order to “assimilate” them into American culture, but I had never heard of this. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.


    1. Lillian C.G

      I think children do suffer a lot in circumstances like this. I can think of examples of lost or exchanged children during the Spanish Civil War and the Francist period. It is an absolute case of misplaced context and identity dismissal. As a cultural historian, it kinda gives me chills having that idea of identity and citizenship denied or misguided


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