Before the poor law – British orphan emigration

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In 1619, the London Common Council began the organisation of poor children by dispatching one hundred vagrant children to the first English settlement at Jamestown in North America.

In 1620 more were sent, and more again following the massacre by the Indians.

In the 1600’s hundreds of children were kidnapped and illegally shipped to Britain’s colonies as a result of them crying out for labour. These children were the beginning of the controversy known as the British Orphan Emigration, British Pauper Emigration and other names.

Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners

In 1848 the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners (CLEC) changed the previous bar against applicants in receipt of poor relief, enabling orphans between the ages of 14 and 18, with industrious habits, having been vaccinated against smallpox and healthy to be considered.

The current drive was for emigration to South Australia and New South Wales, and the CLEC was hoping for 10,000 from Britain and 4,000 from Ireland. They needed to be able to read and write, do arithmetic and to follow Christian principles.

What was an orphan?

Orphans were deemed to have lost one parent, and girls were preferred as males outnumbered females in the colonies. They would travel from Plymouth to Sydney or Port Philip.

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Irish orphan emigration

This idea was taken by the Poor Law Commissioners in Ireland as the great famine was beginning to subside, but they decided to confine the scheme to females with 2,219 leaving in the first year and 1,056 leaving in in the second.

It was, however, less prevalent in mainland Britain by the newly created Poor Law Commission. Changes in the law increased the popularity, the first being that due to the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1848 the emigration could be charge to a common fund, rather than a parish, and the second, the 1850 Poor Law Amendment Act decreed that the Poor Law Union could permit the emigration of any orphan or deserted child in its care. This increase the take up to 3,271 in 1852, but declined quickly to a few hundred per year.

In the late 1860’s some British children’s homes began sending groups of children to the colonies, with Canada being a favourite. Prominent individuals included the Misses Annie Macpherson and Maria Rye. They were aided by a relaxation in the regulations between the Poor Law Unions and the emigration agents in 1871.

Miss Maria Rye 150x150: I’m, your Nan

Miss Rye began helping people emigrate in early 1860, with young, educated women wishing to migrate to the British colonies. She co-founded the Female Middle-Class Emigration Society and spent several years escorting parties of females to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Then her interests turned to orphans and street children. Her first party in June 1869, consisted of only three children, which increased to 75 girls from 4 to twelve in October 1869. She set up a Canadian base at Niagara-on-the-lake, and the home named Our Western Home was acted as a holding unit for 120 children.

She also acquired a house in London, called the Avenue House for Destitute Girls to live and be educated. Her financial support came from grants from the Canadian Government, funding from the British poor law authorities and donations from the readers of The Times.

Andrew Doyle

In 1874 an inquiry was conducted into Miss Rye by the Local Government Board Inspector Andrew Doyle. Reports had been received about Miss Rye and her work, with allegations including severe concerns regarding the children’s welfare and aftercare and that she was profiting from the funds she was raising.

Doyle findings showed the children were from infancy to 15 years and when they arrived, they were under the parental control of the misses Rye and Macpherson. They then began placing them with the younger children being adopted and older ones apprenticed or placed in service. The majority were put into service on farms. Many of these children who were sent into service suffered from ill-treatment of different kinds. The younger children who were adopted were generally well cared for and happy. The report recommended a few things:

  • More discrimination when placing children
  • Greater supervision when placed
  • Safeguards put in place for the children’s protection
  • The Canadian Government provide a system for the visiting and supervising the children (many children were lost and had not been checked on for 2-3 years
  • Girls should not be set after the age of 8. Females aged 9-15 were placed into service and homesickness was very common
  • Finally, the emigration of pauper children had to be disconnected from the street children

Miss Rye disputed all Andrew Doyle’s findings, but the relocations were stopped until 1883. Miss Rye continued after they restarted and over 25 years she placed 5,000 girls homes in Canada.

In 1895 she handed her home and work to the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society.

300x250 Free Genealogy Search blueAnnie Macpherson

Annie Macpherson was Scottish and opened the Home of Industry in early 1869 in London. She organised the emigration of poor families and children to Canada. In spring 1870 she escorted 100 children; this was her first group.

Miss Macpherson established a home in Belleville, Ontario, which she named Marchmont, later adding ones in Galt, Ontario and Knowlton, Quebec.

The children she sent were from her own house in London, Dr Barnardo’s, William Quarrier’s Homes (Scotland), Smyly Homes (Dublin) and workhouses.

After the publicity regarding Miss Rye, (who she did not work with,) Miss Macpherson had a reorganisation and handed the control of the Belleville Home to a colleague, Ellen Biborough, and the Knowlton Home to her sister.

By 1893, she had helped 5730 children, boys and girls,  to emigrate to Canada. She continued until 1920 when Liverpool Sheltered Housing took over.

New procedures

The Local Government Board agreed on new procedures with the Canadian Department of Agriculture regarding emigrant poor law children in April 1883. During the same year, the Board approved 133 pauper children’s emigration to Canada. Approval was also given to 293 people to emigrate to 9 various colonies.

From the 1830s onward other agencies began sending children to the colonies. These included The Children’s Friend Society, Dr Barnardo’s Homes, Quarrier’s Homes, The Smyly Homes and the Salvation Army, who by 1938 had sent almost a quarter million men, women and children to the colonies.

My conclusion

These children didn’t always want to go, some were poorly treated, and some had parent or parents and siblings alive here, but were sent, illegally, anyway. The children homes and poor houses were overflowing, and with no state help, many were stuck for life. It was an answer, but the number of complaints and investigations show how difficult it was to manage. Many children were sent to the colonies and just lived the same life there. Was it a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind’ for many British people?

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I am a genealogist with over 30 years experience. When I started my family tree I had to drive all over the country and site for hours in libraries and archives. Today it is much simpler as usually you can find the information on the web.

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