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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course Canadian:Immigration Records by Patricia McGregor, PLCGS. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).
Background of the Home Child Movement
A home child is a young immigrant to Canada who came, under the auspices of one of many philanthropic agencies, from an institution (receiving home) in the United Kingdom to another (distributing home) in Canada. The term home child is uniquely Canadian, and may well be unknown to people in archival and family history circles in other countries, including the UK. Home children ranged in age from infants to teenagers.
Victorian Britain saw major growth in population and economy, making her the most powerful nation on earth. While the middle and upper classes prospered, the unenfranchised poor and infirm suffered. Land enclosure and mechanization of farming meant less need for agricultural labour. Urban areas swelled, but unemployment, crime and disease increased. Working conditions were deplorable and child labour was commonplace. Most of us are familiar with graphic accounts written by Charles Dickens and others. Conversely, Canada and other New World countries were in great need of agricultural workers. Emigration of farm labourers out of England began in the 1830s.
Britain already had some charitable schools (Ragged Schools) dedicated to the free education of destitute children. However, they made little difference to the growing number of children who had neither food to eat nor a place to sleep. Institutional homes were opened to remedy this situation, but they could not continue taking children in without later discharging them as self-sufficient. The British Poor Law Unions and government in general saw child emigration to other countries of the Empire as a seemingly attractive option. The “system” of moving them from an overburdened economy to Canada began in earnest in 1869 and the flood began, interrupted only by World War I.
Receiving and Distributing Homes
Who were these children?Many were from homes of the “deserving poor” and/or large families where unemployment, sickness, mental incapacity or death of a parent placed them at the mercy of Poor Law authorities. Many were abandoned or orphans—children scraping out an existence in the streets and back alleys. Poor Law officials or evangelists would seek out such children to place them in receiving homes, which began to multiply. Some of these were large institutions but smaller ones also existed.
Children were cleansed and dressed better once they were admitted. They were integrated into a daily structured regime of education, work and religious instruction. The schooling stressed literacy and basic work skills for boys (especially farming, if the home was in a rural setting) and domestic service for girls. The work part of the program helped with the economical running of the institution. Part of their education was learning a positive attitude towards emigration. A time came when they were judged to be ready to leave. While younger children scarcely had an option but to emigrate, some older boys might plan to join the military.
Emigrating children went in groups by train to the port of embarkation, often Liverpool, and travelled in steerage—frequently (to them) more luxurious than anything they had previously known. They were escorted by representatives of whichever philanthropic organization was sponsoring them for placements in Canada. Their possessions were carried in a case or box, often inscribed with the child’s and the agency’s name. Quebec City was the port of choice for arrival, although winter weather would dictate Halifax for disembarking. The latter then involved a two-night train journey to Ontario destinations unless a placement in the Maritimes had been arranged.
Distributing homes in Canada were only a stopover, even less temporary than the receiving homes they had left, although institutional discipline was again the order of the day. Demand for children—to provide agricultural or domestic labour in Canada—was usually several times the supply. The arrivals who had been “placed” in advance were soon collected, sometimes even sent off, unaccompanied, to be met at a railroad station nearest their placement. Others were paraded for inspection for the benefit of local farmers who were seeking manual labour and who had passed the organization’s screening.
Placements might initially be on approval, for a trial period. Children could be returned to the distributing home, their legal guardian, if they were deemed unsatisfactory. The usual complaint was that the child was too small or weak to do the expected work, or was a bed-wetter. A form of contract developed and the details depend on the agency and the time period—perhaps including such items as a specified term of placement, conditions regarding schooling, church attendance, and pay—which became more regulated in later years. At the end of the term the placement might be renewed or the child returned to the distributing home.
In the early days, there was no requirement for inspections of the child in the placement. Volunteers, with little experience or inclination to find fault, were often drafted to perform such on-site inspections. The situation improved gradually with governments insisting on regular inspections and reporting by full-time inspectors.
Many children did well, thriving once they adjusted, becoming part of the family and remaining in contact for many years. Many were treated fairly, but as employees, not family. Others suffered abuse at the hands of those entrusted with their care, usually with no recourse given their isolation. Expectations for work by children were different in those days; labourers and domestics were expected to earn their keep and more. Most went to farms, but a small fraction found placements in trades and as shop assistants in towns and villages.
At age 18, sometimes a bit older, the young person would pass beyond the purview of the placement agency. By that time they should have had a small amount of capital, enough to start an independent life, saved through earnings paid by the farmer to the agency.
Almost all the child emigration agencies kept files on their charges from the time the child came into their care. The best information about the child will likely be with the agency. If your ancestor was a home child, your objective should be to obtain the complete agency file. In it, you should find data on birth, the names of parent/s or other person responsible for sending the child to the agency, and the circumstances behind it. Many files contain photographs of the child when they entered. Some files hold letters from the child, or other inquiries. Occasionally files are simply not available, not having survived the vicissitudes of fire, flood, rodents or carelessness.
The major agencies are listed later in the course material. Their files are considered private and they may hold that they have no obligation to reveal them. Pressure on British-based agencies in the last few years has increased access to their holdings. Requests to these agencies have resulted in common backlogs of months, or even a year, so your application must have carefully researched support. You will have to demonstrate that you are the next of kin or descendant, or have that person’s permission. There will be a fee for the request which may depend on how large the file is, or in other instances you may be asked for a donation.
To be successful in your search for a home child, you must have some information about the person’s vital dates, from census or his/her marriage or death sources. The more precisely you can pin down the year (or at least the decade) when the child arrived, the easier will be the rest of the search. If the child kept the case or box they emigrated with, and it passed down to descendants, this could jump start your research. Often the organizing agency gave the child a bible or inspirational book which may have survived, perhaps with the agency name or an inscription. In the other extreme, some children may have changed their birth surnames to please a family they remained with for a long time, or for other reasons.
Innovative and painstaking work by volunteers is increasing access to public domain records in the UK and Canada. A great deal of work has been done to make Canadian archival material more accessible, as we shall see.
Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses Canadian: Immigration Records offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website at http://www.genealogicalstudies.com. We can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
We welcome updates and additions to this Wiki page.