the British Home children

the British Home children

For more than 70 years, Britain sent tens of thousands of poor and orphaned children across the seas – some found a land of opportunity, and others found hardship and despair…

Header Image: British immigrant children from Dr Barnardo’s homes at the landing stage, St John, New Brunswick Isaac Erb/Library and Archives Canada

Andrew Chapman, Editor of Discover Your Ancestors Periodical

Andrew Chapman

Editor of Discover Your Ancestors Periodical

In 2010, the then British Prime Minister famously gave a public apology for a government program that had been initiated in the 19th century, sending poor and orphaned children from Britain to new lives abroad, particularly to Canada, but also Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. They were the ‘British home children’, and the impact of resettling around 100,000 of them, mostly between the 1860s and the 1930s, is still felt today by their families.

In his apology, Brown said: “We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back. And, we’re sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded.”

On these pages we track down some of the voices of the people originally involved in sending children to Canada, both the well-meaning if sometimes misguides philanthropists who arranged for the children to leave, and the children themselves.

The leading pioneers of child migration in the 19th century were Scottish Quaker philanthropist Annie MacPherson, her sister Louisa Birt, and social reformer Maria Rye. In 1868 MacPherson had set up a home for the poor children of London’s East End, called the Home of Industry, but she became convinced that the best hope for the children was to send them abroad. In partnership with other home owners such as Dr Thomas Barnardo, the program began to set up new homes for the children in Canada; Rye meanwhile was doing something similar, particularly for girls.

A group of boys at Marchmont, Annie MacPherson’s home, in 1922
A group of boys at Marchmont, Annie MacPherson’s home, in 1922Canadian Government Motion Picture Bureau/Library and Archives Canada

The response of the Canadians was mixed. One newspaper report from 1891 observed that the children were “street waifs and workhouse paupers, and that the professional philanthropists engaged in the work are largely prompted by mercenary and not charitable motives”. Others, however, soon came to see the children as a huge resource of free labour. An inspector sent by The London Board of Governors in 1874, Andrew Doyle, reported that the women were well-meaning but naïve, and that “thousands of British children, already in painful circumstances, were cast adrift to be overworked or mistreated by the settlers of early Canada who were generally honest but often hard taskmasters”. In the decades since the official migrations stopped in 1939 (although some continued into the 1970s), stories have emerged from the children themselves and their descendants, revealing that in some cases they had even been wrongly told their parents were dead. Britain remains the only country that has ever adopted a sustained program of child migration.


The work of Dublin-born philanthropist Dr Thomas Barnardo (1845-1905) is respected to this day, and the charity that bears his name continues to support many thousands of vulnerable children. In his memoirs he wrote: “Well-planned and wisely conducted child-emigration, especially to Canada, contains within its bosom the truest solution of some of the mother-country’s most perplexing problems, and the supply of our Colonies’ most urgent needs… It relieves the over­crowded centres of city life and the congested labour-markets at home… [It] gives to each child whose character is good, and who is successfully absorbed into the colonial population, such an immediate prospect of an independent existence upon a higher plane as could hardly have been imagined as within its reach.” He also observed that maintaining such children would cost half that it did in Britain.

Dr Thomas Barnardo
Dr Thomas Barnardo

Barnardo went to Canada himself to visit the children sent in his name, and was pleased with what he saw. In his memoirs he gave examples of the children. He describes one boy whom he encountered in London’s East End: “I found that he lived on the streets and by the streets. His mother was a woman of the poorest sort, living, he said, in Star Street. I afterwards discovered her to be a drunken and immoral creature, who cared little or nothing for her unfortunate son.”

After “certain negotiations with the mother”, the boy was sent to Canada: “On reaching the Dominion he was admitted to the house of a certain Canadian barrister as a page-boy. The family soon grew to like him, and he quickly became a general favourite… Finally his employer was so pleased with him that after a year’s service he begged to be allowed to enter into articles of adoption, and so Frank became the adopted son of a professional gentleman in a good position.”

Barnardo was not oblivious to Canadian criticisms of the scheme, however. His wife, who edited his memoirs, wrote: “The cry had gone up that Canada was becoming the dumping-ground for the children of crime and vice.” In response, Barnardo drew up six principles to be adopted when children in his care were sent abroad, including avoiding those who were “manifesting criminal or vicious taint”, and that “all children are to come under the care of properly qualified persons connected with our institution on the Canadian side, by whom they are to be dis­tributed carefully into well-selected homes”.

Intriguing article?

Subscribe to our newsletter, filled with more captivating articles, expert tips, and special offers.


In 1910, British novelist and journalist Arthur Edward Copping (1865-1941) set out for Canada to record social conditions, which he wrote up in his 1912 book The Golden Land. Among the many people he meets are ‘home boys and girls’ whom he describes as “the most precious of Great Britain’s exports”. A Salvation Army member, Copping describes the children’s treatment in positive terms: “Each boy is apprenticed to a farmer, and is periodically visited by a Government inspector, who sees that the little chap is properly clothed and fed, that he attends school regularly, and that the farmer treats him with kindness. Dr Barnardo’s Homes, and the other institutions, have their own independent staffs of inspectors, whose sole function is to pay surprise visits to the little agricultural apprentices.”

One such boy was Jim Gray (his newly adopted name), who recalled his early years of homelessness in London, and joining the army. Jim tells Copping how he worked on a Canadian farm for his board and lodging and some wages, which “until he came of age, were banked with the Barnardo organisation”. On his majority, Jim put together those savings held in trust and bought himself some land: “So the boy who once stole potatoes is now worth over £1,000, and is living with his family in growing prosperity on his own extensive and beautiful freehold.”

A boy ploughing at Doctor Barnardo’s Industrial Farm
A boy ploughing at Doctor Barnardo’s Industrial Farm, c1900

Another boy was Tom Green, who had been in the workhouse in Margate before going to one of Barnardo’s homes “at a tender age”. Green tells Copping: “I must say, I was given a good start. First they apprenticed me to a farmer, and after that I had a spell of work on the Barnardo Industrial Farm. Then one day Mr Struthers sent for me and offered me this quarter-section at six dollars an acre, which was very cheap… It was terrible uphill work at first, and I hadn’t turned the corner in 1907 that awful year when everybody’s wheat got frozen. But we’re all right now, thank God.”

Child migrants to Canada aboard
the SS Empress of Britain
Child migrants to Canada aboard the SS Empress of Britain


For some of the home children, life became too much. While Canadian newspaper reports were happy to sensationalise cases where they had turned to crime, there were also many sad stories of suicides after ill-treatment by the children’s employers.

The Nottingham Evening Post carried the following story in January 1924, headed ‘Suicide of another by emigrant’: “Within a few days of one another two English boy emigrants have committed suicide in Canada. News of the death of the second boy, John Page [actually John Payne], aged 15, has been received by Dr Barnardo’s Homes. According to one report Page had his face smacked by the wife of his employer following upon a dispute. Later he disappeared, and was afterwards found in great pain from the effects of poison, from which he died. The other boy, Charles Bulpitt, hanged himself after, it was said, he had been thrashed by his employer – an Ontario farmer…”

A spokesman for Barnardo’s said Payne “was last visited in October, and he then seemed to be quite happy”. He said: “It must be remembered that Dr Barnardo’s Homes have 22,000 old boys in Canada, and for to meet with unhappy conditions out of all these is not a very large proportion.”

Sadly these were far from the only cases. In the same year, The Times reported that another immigrant boy, 15-year-old John Wilson, had shot himself on a farm in Ottawa. In 1906, 17-year-old immigrant Mabel Bell shot herself in the breast in the New Brunswick home where she was a servant. Mary Elizabeth Whittaker, a Barnardo’s girl of the same age working as a housemaid, poisoned herself in Toronto. Most newspaper accounts of these and other cases stress how the children were believed to be happy, though in Whittaker’s case she was “given to fits of melancholy”.

Discover Your Ancestors Periodical is published by Discover Your Ancestors Publishing, UK. All rights in the material belong to Discover Your Ancestors Publishing and may not be reproduced, whether in whole or in part, without their prior written consent. The publisher makes every effort to ensure the magazine's contents are correct. All articles are copyright© of Discover Your Ancestors Publishing and unauthorised reproduction is forbidden. Please refer to full Terms and Conditions at The editors and publishers of this publication give no warranties,
guarantees or assurances and make no representations regarding any goods or services advertised.