One of the saddest family history stories involves the British “Home Children” – orphaned, abandoned, or poor children who were sent from Britain to Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia starting in the mid-19th century and in some cases, continuing well into the 20th century. While some did get a chance for a better life, many were forced to work on farms or in homes, and many were abused.
More than 100,000 children were sent to Canada between 1869 and the late 1930s. They arrived by ship and then were sent to distributing homes and then on to farmers in the area. Some were sent as far afield as the Prairies. Some of these children were very young, and for the most part, they were effectively cut off from any family they still had back in Britain.
After World War II, to as late as 1970, about 4,300 more British children (aged 3 to 14) were shipped to Canada, New Zealand, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), and Australia.
The result, in family history terms, was a huge gulf – children who grew up in Canada not knowing anything about their family in Britiain, while in Britain, siblings often didn’t know they had brothers or sisters who had been sent overseas. For them, and for their descendants, getting the facts that would help them find their family was extremely difficult, if not impossible. Many of them, in fact, seem to have never told their own children that they had been British Home Children.
The internet, and its ability to connect people, changed things. The British Home Children story became much more widely known, largely thanks to British social worker Margaret Humphreys, who created the Child Migrant Trust in 1987 to help children find their birth certificates and their parents.
The British and Australian Prime Ministers apologized for the scheme (although Canada apparently saw no need to do so).. Websites began to spring up; more resources became available; and long-separated families began to be reunited. 2010 was the Year of the British Home Child, Canada – and Canada Post issued a special stamp.
You can read some of the stories of such searches and reunions on the British Home Child Group International site; they are tremendously moving. One example is Susan Brazeau’s story about her great-grandmother Grace, who was sent to Canada in 1902 and did not see any of her birth family again until 1965, when she travelled to England and met six of her seven siblings, and two step-siblings. Learning her grandmother’s story made it possible for Susan, like many other family history researchers, to trace her family in England – in her case, back to the 1400s.
I am so glad that resources like this exist, and can help people find their British Home Children ancestors. I well remember, some years ago, trying to help a woman find out what had happened to her grandfather, who had been sent out to Canada as a young child. Unfortunately, he had a very common name, and without knowing his date and place of birth, or any details from his file, she could not confirm she had found find him in any of the records.
Apart from the British Home Child Group International site and Facebook page, resources exist on the Library and Archives Canada site. The Toronto Public Library has a page of useful links, as does the Ontario Genealogical Society. Pier 21 offers an extremely useful research paper.
Among the men and women, from many countries, who fought on Canada’s behalf in the First World War, there were a number of British Home Children. And on November 11th, the BHCGI will lay a wreath at the Cenotaph at Queen’s Park that commemorates all of them.
You can read more about the children sent to Australia on the PRONI website, and on the National Archives of Australia website. In fact, if you google Home Children, you will discover a wealth of resources.