Sunday, 20 April 2008

Book Review: New Lives for Old

The story of children from charities, workhouses and city streets migrated to Canada, and other former British colonies, through programmes of various philanthropic organizations is seemingly little known in Britain. New Lives for Old, a January 2008 publication from The (UK) National Archives, brings the story, warts and all, before the British public.

Starting with the experiences of two women, Maria Rye (1829-1903) and Annie Macpherson (1825-1904), who pioneered child migration to Canada, the first chapter moves on to deal with the 1875 report by Andrew Doyle (1809-1888) who was especially critical of Rye, the way children were assigned to hosts, and lack of inspections.

Chapter three treats some of the other agencies associated with names like Rudolf (Waifs and Strays), Quarrier, Fegan and Middlemore, and illustrates the children's experiences with anecdotes. It tells of the history of the Allen Line that transported many of the children, and outlines the typical child's migration experience to the time they found a placement.

Responsible for more child migrants to Canada than any other was the agency founded by Thomas John Barnado (1845-1905.) Chapter three is devoted to Barnardo and Dr Barnardo's Homes; chapter four to Catholic child emigration. The farm school movement, most associated with Kingsley Fairbridge (1885-1924) is the subject of chapter five.

It is surprising in a book otherwise dealing with child emigrants to find a chapter devoted to WW2 British child refugees. Unlike the home children they knew they were returning to Britain at the end of the war, and authorities went to considerable lengths to maintain family ties. That certainly applies to those children who came under the government Children's Overseas Reception Board (CORB) programme. It is the experiences of these children that are dealt with in chapter six, despite the fact that more than twice as many children were evacuated to Canada in 1940 outside the CORB scheme through schools, businesses and fraternal organizations.

The final chapter treats the last years of child emigration with an emphasis on Australia. There are notes for each chapter collected at the back, a compilation of sources for tracing records of child migrants; useful addresses; websites; a bibliography and index.

The book is likely all the casual reader will need. For those wanting more depth Marj Kohli's book The Golden Bridge is recommended, and cited frequently in this book. For a more detailed treatment of CORB I recommend Michael Fethney's The Absurd and the Brave.

The situation and prospects for most if not all of these children in Britain were poor, if not bad. If Britain had in place a more humanitarian approach to dealing with its destitute children, and the social conditions that were the root cause, this might not have been the case.

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