The British Isles have had a long history of child migration to former colonies. Some children certainly arrived in Canada before Confederation in 1867, but it is the estimated 100,000 or more who came to our country between 1869 and 1948 whom Canadians call Home Children. These young people, between the ages of six months and their mid-twenties, were brought from institutions in the British Isles to Canada for adoption, or as farm helpers, farm labourers and domestic servants.
BIFHSGO has chosen to place a special emphasis on Canada's Home Children because of the Society's accessibility to the ship and military records at Library and Archives Canada and to the records of the Family History Center of Ottawa (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints). No other place in Canada has such ready access to these vital research tools, particularly important considering that about 70 per cent of Canada's Home Children were settled in Ontario.
We are proud to be associated with Library and Archives Canada in two major Home Children projects, both supported by teams of volunteers:
BIFHSGO acknowledges the influence and encouragement of Dave and Kay Lorente in initiating the Society's indexation projects arising from their outstanding advocacy role on behalf of Home Children and their families in Canada. As the 1991 founders of Home Children Canada, a subcommittee of Heritage Renfrew, they have assisted countless Canadian Home Children families and/or their descendants to access their personal records.
The Lorentes have also been active in raising national and international consciousness through lectures, reunions, the placement of plaques, and the compiling of Canadian Home Children's family histories. In June 2003, the Lorentes signed a memorandum of understanding agreeing that BIFHSGO would take over their work of responding to requests for locating Home Children.
BIFHSGO's role in Canada's Home Children story is to establish databases of information, lodged either with Library and Archives Canada or on our website, about Home Children who came to Canada and to ensure that the information compiled is freely available to all who are interested.
BIFHSGO volunteers continue to transcribe records for inclusion in the Library and Archives Canada website. Back to Top
Canada's Home Children were inevitably poor and primarily between a few months and about 18 years of age when they arrived here from all over the British Isles. Intriguingly, the children were not generally orphans (probably less than five percent were orphans) but for various reasons were mainly living in abject poverty. They had all been institutionalized, perhaps in a workhouse (a resident of which was called a pauper), a residential school run by one or more workhouse unions, a residential farm, a reformatory, or a home run by one of over fifty philanthropic societies.
A child would be in such circumstances usually because he or she was too poor to survive without public support, either because the parents could not support their child, or the local church and government authorities considered the child's moral upbringing was at risk, or one or both parents were dead or in some way incapacitated. In some cases, the children were taken off the streets, seen as trouble-making delinquents by the courts and ordered to a workhouse or home. Often the choice was the workhouse or emigration and the opportunity of a better life.
Both the Canadian and British governments supported this emigration program as it reduced the costs on the public purse in the British Isles and, for Canada, provided workers-in-training (usually aged 12 to 14 and older) or young children (usually aged 10 and under) for adoption by interested and suitable families. Canadians’ requests for children almost always far outnumbered the children available. At the beginning of the program, the Canadian government subsidized the cost of transporting children from the British Isles, but over the years regulations on both sides of the Atlantic changed. Consequently, by 1925 only children who had completed their education in the British Isles and had reached the age of 14 could be brought for settlement in Canada. Back to Top
: The workhouse was an old institution set up by a local parish to care for the poor. After the British Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, many of the communities with workhouses found they could no longer afford the support costs, so they came together to build and administer a single large workhouse or union for the care of their indigent poor. Each workhouse or union was supported by the group of communities involved. After 1872, each workhouse or union was obliged by law to provide an education for its child residents until they reached 14 years of age. Children from this background were usually brought to Canada and settled by one of the philanthropic agencies. After 1880, it was the responsibility of the Canadian government to annually inspect all children having arrived from workhouses.
Reformatories and industrial schools:
These were training institutions for children who had been in trouble with the authorities: reformatories for children who had been in jail, or industrial schools for children who had not been in jail. These children usually received training in trades such as agriculture, woodworking, shoe repair or metal working, so that on release they would have some way of making a living. By today's standards their transgressions were very minor; for example, the charge could have been for stealing a handkerchief and the sentence would have been one week in jail. These children were generally aged 14 to 19 years, arriving in Canada in small groups of two to five, and were usually sent directly into farm work by government agents. However, some were settled and monitored by the philanthropic society that brought them to Canada.
: The majority of Home Children were initially taken in by a registered philanthropic society (usually with a religious affiliation) or were brought to a home by a desperate relative or guardian who could no longer care for them. Some children were ordered into a home by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and the magistrates's court who believed the children were in danger physically and morally. While in the home, the children were prepared for their emigration and the life they were likely to live. Their basic training was mostly social, often with the idea of developing self-respect: how to look after themselves, manners, some idea of service and the importance of obedience, education and churchgoing, and perhaps, in some areas, the basics of farming and domestic service. Most homes were in urban areas, however, and did not have access to farms, so any agricultural training would have been minimal and was left mainly to the farmer with whom a child was settled. Then, usually within a year, the children were brought to Canada by representatives of the British home to its distributing home in Canada and settled with the receiving families. After the First World War, the Canadian government assumed responsibility for inspecting all children brought over by the philanthropic agencies.