Between the years 1869 and 1939, 100,000 children were sent by Britain to Canada.
The story of the British Home Children is not well-known today, yet they were the ancestors of 11.5 per cent of the modern Canadian population.
Who they were and why they were sent are questions which take us back to Victorian Britain and the Industrial Revolution.
At this time people were flocking to large cities such as London, Liverpool and Glasgow in search of work.
Poverty was widespread and many children lost their parents to cholera, smallpox and other contagious diseases and were placed in workhouses.
In 1869, philanthropist Maria Rye took a group of workhouse girls to Canada to work as domestic servants.
Migration to Canada, organised by charities such as Dr Barnardo’s Homes, became an increasingly common solution for children in need of care.
Supporters of child migration argued that it was much cheaper than keeping children in workhouses paid for by local rate-payers.
It was also thought that migration would protect children from the criminal influences of urban slums, while increasing the population in Britain’s Canadian territories.
The Home Children’s journey
The children were taken by train to Liverpool where they left for Canada on the mail ships of the Allan Line.
They were taken out by tender and boarded onto the ship where each of them had a medical examination and were returned to shore if they did not pass.
The children were unprepared for the sea voyage and seasickness worsened their first experiences.
However, once they had become used to their surroundings, they began to enjoy themselves.
One girl in 1912 wrote: “We were happy on board with the other girls. We played games… The sailors and the captain were very good to us.”
Destinations in Canada were Halifax, Quebec City, Montreal, and St John in New Brunswick.
From their point of embarkation, the children journeyed by train – often for three days – before arriving tired, hungry and bewildered at the receiving Home.
The children did not stay long at the Home as it was important that they were settled in their new places as soon as possible.
Farmers had put in their applications for a Home Child backed up by recommendations from clergymen and other well-respected figures, and all that remained was for them to choose who they wanted.
Unfortunately this was a humiliating event for the children, as one Catholic girl describes: “We were called inside – 12 boys and 12 girls – and lined up on each side of the room. There were four people there. The woman who was later my adopted mother came over to the little fair girl beside me and said, ‘I like this one.’ My adopted father kept watching me. Every time I looked at him he was smiling at me. He said to my mother, ‘I like this little dark one,’ and patted my head. So my mother said, ‘Well, I guess that’s it.’ And that was all that was said.”
The children were taken away to the farms and their new lives in Canada began.
Sometimes the children were treated very badly. One man looking back to his time on a farm in the early 1900s said: “Those seven years were hell. I was beat up with pieces of harness, anything that came in handy… I herded cattle for five years – no horse, no dog – nothing to tell the time by. I had to have the cattle home by 5.30 in the afternoon. If I was late I got beat up. My dinner was put in a 10-pound syrup pail… when it was time to eat it was dry as old toast… I never had a coat when it was raining. Just a grain sack over my shoulders and no shoes.”
There were those who had happy memories of their new life. Let us leave the last word to a man who was sent to Canada in 1894: “Today I pay tribute to the memory of William Quarrier and my foster parents. They gave me shelter, food and care when I was adrift in poverty and despair. I thank him for the day when I first stepped on Canadian soil.”
Top 5 websites for tracing British Home Children
LAC has a database of more than 245,000 names of Home Children from records held at Library and Archives Canada and elsewhere.
If your ancestor was taken to Canada or Australia by Barnardo’s, the charity will provide access to their records for a £25 fee. The request forms are available on their website.
The BHCARA has a registry of around 35,000 home children, which it is in the process of updating. Its website also has advice on how to trace Home Children, and links to a Facebook group where you can connect with fellow family historians.
If you know the locality where your ancestor lived before they were sent abroad, local record offices throughout England and Wales hold Poor Law Union papers and Board of Guardian records that provide detailed information relating to Home Children. Some local archives’ catalogues are listed on The National Archives’ Discovery catalogue.
Ancestry has a good collection of passenger lists for voyages from Britain to Canada in this period. Travel records are also available on Findmypast.