Born of Good Intentions

June 13, 2012 § 4 Comments

ImageVictorian England, the years Queen Victoria ruled, spanned 64 years from 1837 to 1901. This was a period in time which was marked by great changes in people’s lives brought on by the Industrial Revolution. In 1837 the average family lived in villages and worked on the land. The industrial revolution brought people into the cities from the country side and by 1901 most lived in town and worked in offices, shops and factories. During this period, Britain became one of the most wealthiest countries in the world and its population doubled. Despite the growing wealth, many of the working people, who actually produced the wealth lived, worked and died in very poor conditions. The cities were simply not prepared for the growth in population. This led to problems with over crowding and unsanitary living conditions. Children from lower class families were expected to work from very young ages in very poor conditions. They lived in squalid conditions with poor nutrition, many not surviving. How impoverished persons lived in and even survived these conditions is often beyond our comprehension in this modern age.

It was during this age that social reformers such as Marie Rye and Annie Macpherson, said to be the pioneer’s of the Home Child movement, saw migration of the children from the impoverishment of Victorian England to the clean fresh lands of Canada as salvation for these children. Canada,  eager not only settle the country, openly welcomed and encouraged the migration of these children to be used as workers on our farms and households. Almost 40 years before the Home Children movement began, Robert Chambers, a police magistrate in London appeared before a government inquiry and had put forth the idea that the children who cluttered the streets of that city be gathered up and shipped to Canada. These children, after all, were begging in the streets, sleeping in the gutters and turning whole neighbourhoods into dens of thievery. In 1833, The Children’s Friend Society brought the first shipment of children to Canada, but it wasn’t until 1869 that the migration of these children began in earnest.

In 1869 Maria Rye would bring her first shipment of children to Canada, followed in 1870 by the first shipment of  Annie Macpherson’s. Other philanthropists, such as Father Nugent, William Quarrier, John Middlemore, Thomas Stephenson and in 1882, probably the best known of them all, Dr. Thomas Barnardo also started bringing children to Canada. All children were unaccompanied by their parents. In fact, only a small percentage of the some 100,000 children brought throughout  the following years were in fact,  true orphans. Now, if the migration of the “problem” children was not a new idea to England and if populating Canada was an objective, one wonders why they didn’t migrate the entire family instead of just the children and where this complacency  in the separation of poor children from their families was born.

Looking back to the New Poor Law of 1834, we can see that this law addressed poverty by attacking the rights of poor parents, and by forcing, within the workhouses, the division of parents and children. This was a trend which only accelerated over the course of the century. 1870 reformers introduced the idea of building institutions for pauper children, completed with cottages run by foster parents, thus increasing the physical separation of children and an increased attack on parental rights. This attack on the parental rights culminated in the inception of the 1891 Custody of Children Act, which effectively stripped parents of their rights when their children were either relinquished or taken into care by these institutions. It can be said that most institutionalized children were not true orphans. Indeed there were great numbers that were, and as there was many truly unfit parents. However, from the start, it appears and it can be argued, that the vast majority of children housed in institutions of all forms came from parents who turned to these institutions in times of need – as the result of illness, death of a partner, or extreme poverty.

In the early years of the Home Child migration movement, it is understandable that given the social conditions of Victorian England and the attitudes towards the impoverished, social reformers such as Maria Rye and Annie Macpherson truly had the best interests of these children at heart. It is indisputable that this migration movement gave many children a better life. However, indisputable is the fact that many children suffered terribly as well. So, where did the good works and the atrocious results divide?


§ 4 Responses to Born of Good Intentions

  • So, where did the good works and the atrocious results divide? It’s a good question Lori. I go along with most of the analysis which as ever is well written and gets to the heart of the issues. I suppose on one level it was the activities of those who received the children in Canada. But that does not absolve the sending organisations. Was it ignorance which made them not act quicker to deal with abuses? Certainly despite the denials of some apologists there was evidence that things were not good. Doubts were expressed along with questions by members of the Chorlton Union of Guardians at the beginning of the 20th century. And the apologists consistently refuted these over the 30 odd years from 1870 and when pushed argued that the abuses were mostly limited to the earlier period or when they still happened were because it was difficult to visit the more remotes host farms and homes.
    I guess we are into the numbers game for which I suspect that there is not always the evidence. How many children were abused or mistreated over the whole 60 or so years set against the total? Not easy figures to get hold of given the number of organisations even if these records still exist. Now I know even one case is one too many but those figures are important if we are to make judgements about the treatment of the children and the validity of the scheme. Which was the Commission whose findings in the 1870s alerted people to the abuse? How did they come across the figures? Are the accusations that these findings were exaggerated true?
    How far do the abuse cases stack up against the persistent reports from sending organisations that things were ok in the last years of the 19th century? Were they wrong, misinformed or deliberately being obtuse for vested reasons?
    It is interesting that despite appalling overcrowding in rural areas and no doubt parental cruelty it was from the urban areas that the children came. Or were there children from the countryside sent?
    Why they didn’t migrate the entire family instead of just the children? I suppose in the early years these were children very much on their own and in the later period some were from problem parents who clearly might not have any interest in them. I would like to know more about the policies of the sending organisations in respect to splitting siblings. Kershaw and Sacks make the observation that in some cases the children were asked to choose the continent individually rather than as a family group with the older ones hoping the youngest would make the same choice. Back in the 1840s there were schemes to migrate whole families but these were because of the trade depressions not family abuse.
    Were the policies of the sending organisations the same?
    Looking back to the New Poor Law of 1834, we can see that this law addressed poverty by attacking the rights of poor parents, and by forcing, within the workhouses, the division of parents and children. True, but I see this not as a deliberate policy of attacking parental rights but more a mean way of imposing the authority of the Guardians on those seeking relief, and while we rightly judge this as vindictive it was a logical way of dealing with large numbers of people seeking help in the most uniform and efficient way as possible. Remember the splitting up of families applied to the very elderly as well despite the fact that they may have been together for thirty of more years.
    Whatever else the system of the Poor Law Bastilles was it was meant to be a logical cost effective way of dealing with the poor which stretched to the scientific calculation of the amount of food inmates were to have and the annual review of every aspect of the workings of the system, Union by Union and issue by issue.
    It is a logical argument given that this attack on the parental rights culminated in the inception of the 1891 Custody of Children Act, which effectively stripped parents of their rights when their children were either relinquished or taken into care by these institutions. But as I said once before the Custody Act almost falls into that dammed if you dammed if you don’t argument. At what point does the State step into protect the rights of a child? Regardless of how Barnado may have used the legislation the principle that authorities should have the power to act is one that comes with the development of a welfare state.
    Clearly as your research has shown there were cases where parents who had turned to these institutions in times of need – as the result of illness, death of a partner, or extreme poverty had their children taken from them. But was this the fault of the system or of individuals who for whatever reason had wrongfully misinterpreted the legislation and pursued at best an overzealous approach and at worse a vindictive and callous one? Now I know you might argue that if the system allows such things to happen then the system is at fault. But like the social worker who takes a vulnerable child into care can be criticised for a callous and wanton disregard of the child’s need to be with her parent, or alternatively by leaving the child with a problem parent open up the chance of that child being at risk. Either way it’s a hard call.
    Now having thought more and more about the debate I am less sure I know what my judgement is. The conditions in Britain were bad, and whatever some people might like to think those in power were not going to change the system which created and tolerated those problems. True there were critics but they were not yet in a position to transform the situation.
    The philanthropists mostly did act from a genuine conviction that they were doing the right thing and were part of a culture which did see the wide open spaces as opportunities to give the disadvantaged a fresh start. We were wrong but we Europeans did see the world as a blank canvas upon which to stamp our values and more importantly our flags and economic interests.
    That is not to say we can criticise the whole scheme. It was wrong that we should have managed the problems at home by sending the children away, but we had a track records of dumping what we perceived as problem people across the world from the 17th century onwards.
    Should the philanthropists have channelled their energies into challenging the system and demanding change? Well yes, there were plenty who did from the Chartists, trade unionists, socialists, radicals and even a few liberals but in most cases these philanthropists came from a class which had a vested interest in the economic system.

  • Great post, Lori! It puts into perspective the dilemma that so many British parents wrestled with. My great-great grandma had suffered through the death of her youngest daughter, Alma, of rickets. I’m sure that was uppermost in her mind when she agreed to send her oldest daughter, Daisy, and later her son, William, to Canada. Separation was the lesser of the two evils.

  • Elaine Stevenson says:

    I have followed this article with great interest and although it was a terrible thing to separate the parents from their children, I can see both sides. Considering the times, the population explosions, the poverty, the mental state of these people that were down-trodden to the point they felt they had no choice whatsoever. Take in the fact there was no medicines, vitamins, birth control, women who were badly abused and the list goes on! God help us all if we ever had to cope with what they did – it is unimaginable!!!! How many children died at birth or during their first few years living like this! If these wee ones had ANY chance of a better life elsewhere, it would take a terrible toll on most parents to do what they thought was right. The pain for all concerned must have been horrific.

  • I really don’t understand the “good intentions” here. This “woman” saw children working in a sweatshop for very little money, and she took them away from any family or support and sent them to foreign countries where they worked for nothing and when abused had no one to turn to. Basically they because second, no third class persons with no right, even god given, and no hope. Anne Macpherson was an opportunic monster. The children weren’t even allowed in the main house. Seriously come on. How much money did these jerks make off these kids? How much family wealth was built from these children’s labors? Forget apologizes the families that prospered off the backs of those kids owe their heirs the wages they should have been paid and interest. Good intentions my ass!

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