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What is child migration?

Thousands of child migrants were sent to Canada, Australia and elsewhere - here's how to find out more

A party of child migrants about to leave for Canada, 1929

When did child migration start and end?

British child migration schemes operated from 1618 to 1967. One of the largest, the British Home Children scheme, ran from 1869 to 1939, and involved sending 100,000 children from Canada to Great Britain.

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What was child migration?

Some 150,000 children were sent to the British colonies and dominions, most notably America, Australia, and Canada, but also Rhodesia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean. Most child migration schemes were run by charitable organisations, with the aim of finding homes for orphaned or abandoned children and providing labour in the colonies. The experiences of child migrants varied widely – many suffered neglect and abuse from foster families or children’s homes, but some credited child migration with giving them a new start in a new home.

How to research child migration

1. Begin at home

If you have a child migrant in your family, try to find out as much as possible from family members and personal papers. An elderly relative may remember where your ancestor was placed, or a personal document – like a letter – could provide a valuable clue.

2. Use Poor Law Union records

If you know the locality where your child migrant 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 child migrants including Home Children. For example, within the Greenwich Board of Guardians’ papers at the London Metropolitan Archives are papers relating to child emigration to Canada covering circa 1907 to 1920. These papers contain details of orphans and pauper children who were sent to Canada through a number of agencies including the Salvation Army, Catholic Church and various children’s homes. You can use Discovery, The National Archives’ database, to search local archives in England and Wales. The National Archives holds Poor Law Union correspondence between 1833 and 1900 in the series MH 12. The records are arranged by name of Poor Law Union and date, but can include lists of Home Children selected for emigration to Canada.

3. Search passenger lists

Surviving passenger lists, including records of child migrants, can be found on Ancestry, Findmypast and TheGenealogist.

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4. Other resources

Charities responsible for child migration such as Barnardo’s may have records of former children in their care which you may be able to access. Library and Archives Canada and Home Children Canada both have records of British Home Children. An important resource for anyone researching children who were sent to Australia, New Zealand and elsewhere can be found via the Child Migrants Trust and the National Archives of Australia has a guide to records held in Sydney. London’s Migration Museum also has a podcast on Deported Children.