My research into family life during the Second World War keeps throwing up surprises. We have often heard about the evacuation of children from the cities to the countryside, and then later from the coast to inland safe havens, when coastal areas came under enemy attack. But recently I came across information detailing the numbers of children who were sent overseas during the war – as far as Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia – who returned to Britain once the war ended.
The evacuation of several thousand was organised by the Children’s Overseas Reception Board and many others by private arrangement.
My interest was piqued, as the research I completed for my novel, The Forgotten Children, told a very different story of enforced child migration over many decades.
The background to Britain’s child migrant policy is set out in this extract from a Parliamentary paper…
Although the origins of British child migration as a settled and publicly promoted policy can be traced back to the reign of James I, the peak of child migration appears to have occurred at about the turn of the Twentieth Century. It is estimated that between 1868 and 1925, 80,000 British boys and girls were sent unaccompanied to Canada, to work under indentures as agricultural labourers and domestic servants.
Although estimates are very unreliable, the DoH cites figures of about 150,000 child migrants from Britain overall, of whom about 100,000 went to Canada, and the remainder to Australia, New Zealand, Rhodesia and other British dominions or colonies, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The Child Migrants’ Trust describes child migrants as “children generally between the ages of three and fourteen; the majority being between seven and ten.https://publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199798/cmselect/cmhealth/755/75504.htm
In general child migration was halted during the Second World War, but continued afterwards, up until 1970, with the number of children being sent to Australia estimated as between 7,000 and 10,000. The children were often placed in large, isolated institutions and subjected to harsh regimes of discipline and work.
It is proposed that the Commonwealth seek out in Britain and Europe, in each of the first three post-war years, at least 17,000 children a year (i.e. about 50,000 in three years) suitable and available for migration to Australia…”
Statement by the acting Australian Prime Minister, December 1944
To read the heart-rending personal experiences of some of these children – now adults – take a look at Margaret Humphrey’s book, Empty Cradles. It includes many of the accounts bravely shared by victims of this dreadful policy – children who were costing the UK too much to look after within the residential care system. The ‘cheaper’ option was to send them off to Commonwealth countries who were looking for ‘good sound British stock’. It makes your heart break.
These and many other stories inspired me to write The Forgotten Children – in the hope that it will increase awareness about this terrible period in British history.
Since 1970, Margaret Humphrey has dedicated her life to helping child migrants track down their families, as many were told they had no living relatives. Mrs Humphrey helped to set up the Child Migrants Trust, which has gone on to do such wonderful work in helping not only to reunite families, but to fight their corner.
The tireless work of the Child Migrants Trust resulted in an apology eventually being given by the then British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown in 2010. But there is still much to do.
On 29th August 2018 BBC News reported that some of the child migrants who were sent to Australia from the UK were planning to sue the UK Government. The article explains…
Between 1945-70, some 4,000 children were separated from their families and sent to Australia and Zimbabwe.
The Independent Inquiry Into Child Sex Abuse (IICSA) considered the children who were forcibly relocated in the post-war period.
A scheme saw children from deprived backgrounds who were often already in social care – some as young as three years old – sent away with the promise of a better life.
Sadly financial compensation will do little to undo some of the dreadful experiences that so many migrants have had to endure.