On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants

This exhibition in London at the V and A’s Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green was a poignant reminder of how good intentions can go wrong.  Between 1869 and 1970 about 100,000 British children were sent to countries of the Empire (and later Commonwealth) as part of migration schemes run by religious groups and other charities.

The offer of a better life overseas was an appealing one for some, but the truth is that not all children were given a choice and not all parents knew what had happened to their children.  As a result, families that could have been reunited were not and a lot of pain that could have been avoided was not.


Working through the exhibits here, photographs and letters being the most affecting, I was struck by the appeal of the message.  Who would not have wanted to give the poorest and most desperate children a better life?  The countries of the Empire, particularly Canada and Australia needed people.  The combination of needy children and countries in need of a workforce proved too powerful to resist.  Governments supported these schemes.

However, as the schemes developed it seemed that protecting organisations became of higher importance than protecting people, as often happens.  There is evidence here that church leaders did their best to obstruct parents and children finding out information that would have helped them get back together.  Decisions made at the point of highest desperation could have been undone when circumstances improved other than this may have brought the scheme into doubt or, worse, allowed stories of mistreatment to escape.

Behind the scheme were stories of farmers who wanted servants and farm hands, not new family members.  Mistreatment of children was rife and the children were powerless in a church run, government backed system.

This was a powerful exhibition.  The photographs, always of smiling children looking optimistic about the journey they were about to take, did not match the content of many the letters.

‘On their Own’ is in my hinterland.  What’s in yours?


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