A child migration timeline

1607 First permanent English settlement at Jamestown, Virginia, on the north American coast.
1615 Labour shortage. The Privy Council sanctions the transportation of convicted felons to Virginia and the West Indian island colonies such as Bermuda.
1617 London Common Council and the Virginia Company consider sending ‘vagrant’ children (street kids) to Virginia.
1619 First 100 vagrant children rounded up and despatched to Virginia; venture declared a success; second group planned.
1620 (January) Opposition to child migration; first group sent illegally, but 31 January the Privy Council authorises child migration. Second 100 children sent to America.
1622 Indian massacre of 350 settlers in Virginia in the wake of which another 100 vagrant children were sent among the reinforcements.
1645 Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England arranges the emigration of some 200 poor children (not, however ‘vagrants’) to North American colonies. The children were escorted to the colonies by members of the society. ‘Spiriting’ (ie kidnapping) children for work in Americas had grown to meet the perennial labour shortage in the colonies. Bristol the main port of emigration. Parliament passes an ordinance to make spiriting a felony.
1664 An office was created, under Roger Whitely, to register intended emigrants leaving British ports for the Americas. Spiriting continues; registering not a success.
1682 Privy Council creates another department to register young persons leaving for the colonies to counter the activities of unscrupulous emigration agents and ‘spirits’.
1698 (September) Flying Post newspaper reporter claims he observed ‘about 200’ kidnapped boys held on a ship in the Thames awaiting departure for the colonies.
1740s Aberdeen (Scotland) and environs saw some 500 young people kidnapped for the colonies.
1756 Marine Society founded by Jonas Hanway and Sir John Fielding to train ‘boys from 12 to 16’ found roaming the streets for service in the Royal Navy.
1757 The Extraordinary Adventures of Peter Williamson exposes kidnapping of children in Scotland for service in the Americas. The book led to a celebrated civil action against certain Aberdeen businessmen and magistrates for complicity in the traffic.
1783 American War of Independence confirms the Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen seaboard colonies in North America; end of adult convict transportation to the American colonies.
1788 New South Wales established as a penal colony; many of the convicts transported were under eighteen years of age.
French revolutionary wars; Napoleon Bonaparte. The wars involved many thousands of young men who would formerly have gone – freely or otherwise – to the North American colonies.
1830 Captain E P Brenton founded the Children’s Friend Society whose policy was reformation plus emigration for outcast youth. In the 1830s the Children’s Friend Society despatched some 700–800 boys as child migrants to the Cape Colony with a few children going to Toronto in Upper Canada (Ontario).
1838 Parkhurst prison established on the Isle of Wight where convicted boys under sixteen years of age passed some of their sentence before (possible) emigration to a British colony. Some Parkhurst boys went to New Zealand; others to Western Australia.
1844 Ragged School Movement founded with Earl of Shaftesbury as President.
1849 Ragged Schools received a grant of fifteen hundred pounds to send 150 children to New South Wales.
1850 Parliament allowed the Poor Law Guardians with the consent of the Poor Law Board to fund the emigration of any child in their care.
1849–51 St. Pancras Poor Law Guardians emigrated small numbers of children to the British colonies in the West Indies.
1853 In New York, the Congregational Minister, Rev. C L Brace, founded the Children’s Aid Society.
1854 The Children’s Aid Society sent its first group of ‘orphans’ from New York – by train – to be adopted or indentured to farming families in the middle west states of Iowa, Michigan, Kansas and Ohio. Between 1854 and 1930 the Children’s Aid Society and the New York Foundling Hospital sent between 150 000 and 200 000 children on the ‘Orphan Trains’ to the western farming states.
1869 Scottish-born evangelist, Annie Macpherson, opened her Home of Industry at Spitalfield in the desperately deprived East End of London. The more famous Thomas Barnardo also commenced his work for the poor in London.
1870 Macpherson escorted her first party of one hundred children to Ontario, Canada. Rev. Charles Brace of ‘Orphan Train’ fame was, in part, her inspiration. Her centre in Ontario was at Belleville; her receiving home’s name was ‘Marchmont’. Father Nugent of Liverpool pioneered Catholic child migration to Canada.
1872 Macpherson opened two additional Canadian receiving homes at Galt in Ontario and Knowlton in Quebec. She arranged emigration parties from Barnardo’s, the Orphan Homes of Scotland (Quarrier) and the Smyly homes of Dublin as well as from her own London ‘Home of Industry’.
1875 Senior Poor Law Inspector, John Doyle, reported unfavourably on some aspects of child migration to Canada, especially that arranged by Maria Rye. The result was that fewer workhouse, industrial school and reformatory children were sent as child migrants; most young emigrants came from private care facilities.
1881 Dr Barnardo embraced child migration wholeheartedly – he was already the dominant child care personality of the age – his organisation sponsored 20 000 children to Canada by 1930.
1888 William Quarrier, founder of the Orphan Homes of Scotland, Bridge of Weir, near Glasgow, started his own Canadian receiving home called ‘Fairknowe’ at Brockville, Ontario.
1891 The Custody of Children Act (so called ‘Barnardo’s Act’) legalised the work of the private emigration societies where previously they had acted in a legal grey area.
1899 Catholic child migration was centralised through the Archdiocese of Westminster ‘Crusade of Rescue’. Its leaders in London included Fathers Richard Seddon and Archibald Douglas and in Birmingham, Father John Hudson.
1901 Australian colonies federated as the Commonwealth of Australia. Immigration Restriction Act enshrines the principle of a ‘white Australia’. The Pacific Island Labourers Act was passed under which all Pacific Islanders on contract in the colonies were to be returned to their places of origin by 1906.
1903 The tone of child migration rhetoric was becoming less religious and more imperial. A new departure came when Mrs. Elinor Close advocated the training of workhouse children in Canadian farm schools before their placement with Canadian farmers. No support from Poor Law Board, but some private assistance. Training farm established in Nova Scotia.
1911 Kingsley Fairbridge popularised the farm school movement with the support of an Oxford-based committee and an offer of land near Perth by the Western Australian Government. The Dreadnought Trust – with Government assistance – subsidised youth migration to Australia, mainly to New South Wales. The youths were intended for farm work after an initial three-months training at the Scheyville centre near Windsor.
1912 Thomas Sedgwick popularised the benefits of youth migration to Australia or New Zealand for farm work. Youths sent were often around 15–19 years of age; child migrants were under fourteen years of age. Sedgwick’s first party of 50 youths selected from London and Liverpool was sent to New Zealand.
1913 The first home sponsored by the Child Emigration Society of Oxford was established at Pinjarra, some forty kilometres south-east of Perth by Kingsley and Ruby Fairbridge. The first few years were an epic struggle for survival.
1914 First World War ended all emigration from Great Britain.
1920 The British care societies recommenced sending children to Canada, but their efforts were on a smaller scale than before.
1921 The Joint Commonwealth and States Scheme allowed for new cooperation in the field of immigration between Federal and State governments in Australia. The Commonwealth took responsibility for recruiting, medical examination and transport of immigrants to Australia, while the states advised the Commonwealth on the number and type of immigrants required and arranged reception, employment and after-care. Directors of Immigration were appointed both in Australia and London.
1923 The Empire Settlement Act provided monies for the British Government to assist emigration, including child and youth migration. The first Barnardo’s child migrants arrived in New South Wales. Kingsley Fairbridge received substantial assistance from the Overseas Settlement Board in London to place his farm school at Pinjarra on a permanent footing.
1924 Kingsley Fairbridge died but the farm school movement was accepted as a superior approach to child migration as a result of his work. Sir Richard Linton founded the Big Brother Movement in Sydney to encourage youth migration on a large scale.
1926 Catholic leaders in Perth plan for a farm school at Tardun, west of Geraldton, as an extension of Clontarf Orphanage, and staffed by the Christian Brothers.
1930 In the wake of the Great Depression, child migration to Canada ended, except to the Fairbridge Farm School in British Columbia, which was established later. Most immigration to Australia was severely curtailed although Fairbridge was permitted to bring children to its Pinjarra farm school and Barnardo’s to continue with its work at Mowbray Park, Picton, NSW.
1937 New farm schools on Fairbridge principles were established at Molong, near Orange, New South Wales and at Bacchus March near Melbourne. This latter was the Lady Northcote Farm School. Renewal of the Empire Settlement Act for a further fifteen years.
The first 114 child migrants under Catholic auspices arrived in Western Australia as part of the Tardun scheme. This was part of a partial renewal of assistance schemes by the Commonwealth Government.
1939 The outbreak of war in Europe in 1939 led to the suspension of child and youth migration schemes.
1940 There was fear of a German invasion in Britain and the Children’s Overseas Reception Board arranged to send 577 children to Australia for the duration before the risk of submarine attack rendered the scheme unworkable.
1941 The fear of Japanese invasion led the Government to plan for large-scale immigration after the war. Child and youth migration was to be a major part of this effort.
1944 The Curtis Committee Report in the UK heralded a different thrust in child care principles.
1945 War ended. For two years no ships available to bring migrants to Australia. Meanwhile, social change meant that few British children were available for child migration. Youth migration to Australia was much more popular. However, the Dreadnought Scheme did not survive the war.
1947 First post-World War II child migrants arrive in Australia. The majority were placed in Western Australian institutions and about one-half now came under Catholic auspices. Big Brother Movement, NSW and Tasmania, renewed its youth migration to Australia and during the 1950s brought some 400 young men per year, fifteen to eighteen years of age, to Australia. Overall, some 12 500 teenagers came to Australia under this scheme since its inception in 1925.
1950 Maltese child migrants – all boys – arrived in Australia for the first time. All were placed in the Christian Brothers institutions in Western Australia. Eventually about 280 Maltese child migrants came to Australia.
1952 John Moss, retired Home Office Inspector, and member of the Curtis Committee, toured Australian child care institutions. In general, Moss remained sympathetic to child migration for certain deprived British children.

Home Office Fact-Finding Committee visited Australia to study Australian institutions taking child migrants as the Commonwealth Settlement Act was due for renewal the following year. Committee’s secret report to the Home Office was very critical of some Australian institutions and cold to the whole idea of child emigration. British Catholic care institutions terminated all plans to send further children to Australia.


The Commonwealth Settlement Act was renewed by the British Parliament but few child migrants arrived in Australia, although small numbers arrived under Barnardo’s and Fairbridge auspices. In all, some 3,500–4,000 child migrants came to Australia after World War II.

1967 The last nine child migrants came to Australia by air with the Barnardo’s organisation.
1973 The new Labor Government ended preference for British migrants in Australia’s immigration.
1983 Big Brother Movement ceases to sponsor youth migrants to Australia.

Nottingham social worker, Margaret Humphreys, received her first request from a former child migrant for assistance in finding her relatives and commenced her efforts to reunite former child migrants with their families. This initiative led to the formation of the Child Migrant Trust (CMT) with some financial support from the Nottingham City Council, together with the British and Australian Governments over time.


Margaret Humphreys’ research visits to Sydney, Canberra and Melbourne. In both Western Australia and the United Kingdom the child migration controversy commenced in the media with a series of major articles in The Observer. In Perth, Western Australia, the Child Migrant Friendship Society was founded as a support group for former child migrants.

1988 Research visits to Canada and Zimbabwe by Margaret Humphreys.

Philip Bean and Joy Melville publish Lost Children of the Empire which was soon afterwards filmed and distributed as a television documentary. Both publicised child migration widely and encouraged popular and academic interest in the subject. Thousands of calls received on help lines following the screening of this documentary.


Child Migrant Trust receives a three-year grant from the Australian Department of Immigration and Ethnic Affairs.


Child Migrant Trust opens an office in Melbourne, Victoria and appoints qualified and experienced social worker.


The ABC and BBC co-produced a mini-series, The Leaving of Liverpool, which explored the child migration phenomenon. In Perth, the VOICES organisation was established to press for compensation for former residents of Christian Brothers Boys homes in Western Australia.


In July, The Leaving of Liverpool was shown in the UK by the BBC. Nottinghamshire County Council provided free telephone help lines staffed by the CMT for two evenings. Computer monitoring revealed that over 10 000 calls were made. The Christian Brothers published nationwide a public apology in regard to physical and sexual abuses committed in their Western Australian homes and provided a counselling service and travel assistance to some former child migrants to visit the UK.

1994 CMT Director’s book Empty Cradles was launched at a function at the House of Commons in London.

Following the CMT’s submission, citizenship fees were waived for former child migrants, thus effectively recognising their unique position in Australian society, as well as the expertise of the Trust in verifying the bona fides of former child migrants seeking Australian citizenship. The Trust opens an office in Perth, Western Australia.

1996 The civil action sponsored by the VOICES organisation was settled out of court with $3.5 million distributed among some 250 former students, many of whom were former child migrants. A Western Australian parliamentary committee investigated child migration. Over the next three years, the Christian Brothers produced a raft of measures to meet the needs of former child migrants which included: funding for a project to produce a computerised index to records of former child migrants who came to Australia under the auspices of the Catholic Church; and commissioning a survey of accommodation needs among former residents of Christian Brothers homes.
1997 The United Kingdom Health Committee announced an inquiry into the welfare of British former child migrants, after ten years of campaigning by the Child Migrant Trust.
1998 A UK Parliamentary Committee on Child Migration visited Australia to investigate this former aspect of British social policy. Its report, issued in August, was critical of child migration policy in general and of the treatment many former child migrants experienced in Australia, especially in certain Catholic homes in Western Australia and Queensland. The Western Australian Legislative Assembly passed a motion on 13 August apologising to former child migrants for any abuses they suffered in the state’s institutions during their childhood.


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