Out of the shadows: the British Home Children

By Miriam King, Bradford Times

From about 1863 to 1949, nearly 120,000 children were shipped from the U.K., through a variety of child immigration schemes, to become indentured servants and farmworkers in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).

They were supposedly orphans; street children for whom the new world was going to offer new opportunities and a better life.

In fact, says Lori Oschefski, only 2% of the thousands of children “transported,” alone and without their families, were actually orphans. While some were rescued from abusive and neglectful homes, many were the children of hard-working parents, who temporarily fell on hard times – the result of marital break-up, loss of employment, illness or dire poverty.

And while some of the children sent to Canada by agencies that included the Barnardo Homes and Salvation Army, met with love and acceptance, many others faced abuse, hunger, neglect, overwork – and the stigma of being a “British Home Child.”

Oschefski, author and founder of the British Home Child Advocacy & Research Association, was guest speaker at the September meeting of the Innisfil Historical Society, sharing her research, and her passion.

She first learned about British Home Children in 2008, after learning that her mother, then 86, had been adopted. Her genealogical researches led her into the world of child immigration, British Home Children, and the whole psychology of the late 19th century, that identified poverty with inferior genetics and stigmatized the poor.

It was a time of institutionalized “good works” and good intentions, and many of the organizations involved saw themselves as saving the children from unfit parents. The British Custody of Children Act of 1891, also dubbed the “Barnardo Relief Act,” allowed organizations like Barnardo Homes to take custody of the children, and send them to new placements, without notifying the parents – basically terminating parental rights.

Those who wanted their children back had to go to court – and repay the agencies whatever had been spent on the care of the children while in custody. It was an overwhelming barrier; in most cases, the Home children were “severed from their families forever.”

Oschefski, in her researches, discovered that she had “over 20 Home Children in my family tree.” Some, like her grandmother, had a wonderful life, welcomed by their host families. Others, like her Aunt Mary, faced abuse and trauma.

Mary's home situation in the UK was “very bad,” Oschefski acknowledged - the father charged with abuse and neglect. Mary, when taken into custody, was malnourished and covered with lice. While in a girls' home in Britain, she was well-fed and taught a trade, but once in Canada, she ended up being moved more than 20 times in 8 years, “whipped, beaten, raped.”

It was all part of a negative attitude toward the children, among the public and Canadian politicians. “Back in those days, they believed poverty was a disease,” Oschefski said. Various literature described he children as “begging in the streets, sleeping in gutters, turning whole neighbourhoods into dens of thievery;” “tainted and corrupt;” and “refuse from the workhouse.” More than one Canadian politician spoke against the importation of “gutter children” and “diseased savages” into Canada.

With that kind of public rhetoric, it's no wonder that many of the children felt stigma, and shame.

Walter Goulding, at the age of 104, was interviewed for a film on the British Home Children, “Forgotten.” He broke down in tears as he remembered the sense of shame, of being an outsider.

Cyril Hewitt, a British Home Child sent over in 1938, said of the time, “It was heartbreaking... You're a Home Boy. You're a nobody. You're here to work.”

They were among the survivors. Some children died of beatings, neglect, starvation and overwork. Some committed suicide. There was negative press at the time, and charges laid, but the flow of children didn't stop.

Oschefski has dedicated herself to shining a light on this forgotten corner of Canadian history, advocating for a public apology from the Canadian government for a program of enforced migration and indentured servitude for thousands of children.

“We have over 4 million descendants of British Home Children in Canada,” she told the Historical Society, yet there is little or no mention in the schools. Only recently was the story mandated as a “suggested topic,” for grades 6, 8 and 10.

“It makes you wonder why? It's a significant part of Canadian history.”

Australia and the U.K have issued apologies. For the past four years, Oschefski has been trying to persuade the Canadian government to do the same. “We are making some sort of headway with it,” she said.

Among the descendants of British Home Children is sports icon, Don Cherry. His grandfather, Richard Palamountain, was brought over to Canada as part of a child migration scheme, and later served in World War I.

Oschefski noted that “virtually 100% of the Home Boys that were eligible to enlist (in World War I) did.” Some did it out of patriotism; others saw it as a way to return to the UK and their families. For others, it was a way to escape brutal working conditions.