Child Migrants from the United Kingdom

Current Issues

Child Migrants from the United Kingdom

E-Brief: Online Only issued October 2001

David Watt, Information/E-links
Coral Dow
, Information/E-links
Social Policy Group

Background to the scheme

Between 1922 and 1967 about 150 000 children with an average age of eight years and nine months were shipped from Great Britain to help populate the British Dominions of Canada, Rhodesia, New Zealand and Australia with 'good white stock'. Estimates of the number of children sent to Australia vary from 5 000 to 10 000, most of whom were sent to charitable and religious institutions. The Australian Government welcomed the scheme and encouraged non-government organisations such as Barnados and Fairbridge to continue settling child migrants who were regarded as adaptable with long working lives. However many child migrants later claimed that they were ill-treated in the institutions to which they were sent.

Child migrants are represented in Britain and Australia by a number of organisations. The most prominent is the Child Migrants Trust which was established in 1987 to assist child migrants seeking family reunions. Child migrants and the Child Migrants Trust have lobbied for compensation and an apology from governments.

Other bodies which offer assistance are the Child Migrant Friendship Society, and in Perth, the Christian Brothers' Ex-Residents Services (C-BERS Services) and the Catholic Migrant Centre.

Australian responses and initiatives

  • In 1990 the Australian Government announced financial assistance to the Child Migrant Trust branches in Melbourne and Perth. This assistance continues to fund a case worker and counselling services.
  • In 1993 the Christian Brothers issued a public apology for the abuses that they admitted had taken place at their child-care institutions. They have funded travel by former child migrants to make family reunions.
  • In 1997 the Rockhampton Congregation of the Sisters of Mercy apologised to former residents of St. Joseph's Home, Nerkool.
  • In August 1998 the Western Australian government apologised to former British child migrants who suffered sexual, physical and emotional abuse in Western Australian orphanages and institutions. However, the Western Australian government voted against a proposal to re-establish a select committee set up by the previous government to investigate the needs of former child migrants, or to implement the recommendations of the Select Committee's Interim Report.
  • The treatment of child migrants in Queensland was included in the wider Report of the Commission of Inquiry into Abuse of Children in Queensland Institutions, chaired by Leneen Forde and tabled in the Queensland Parliament on 8 June 1999. Following the tabling of the Forde Report, a formal apology was issued by: the Premier of Queensland, Peter Beattie; the Minister for Families, Youth and Community Care, Anna Bligh; the Catholic Archbishop of Brisbane; the Anglican Archbishop of Brisbane; the Moderator of the Uniting Church in Australia (Qld Synod); the Territorial Commander, Australian Eastern Territory, of the Salvation Army; the President of the Baptist Union of Queensland and the Conference President for the Churches of Christ in Queensland.
  • In 1999, the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy and the Poor Sisters of Nazareth launched PHIND: the Personal History Index for former child migrants to Catholic Homes in Australia.

British Government response and initiatives

  • In 1997 the British House of Commons Health Committee accepted that responsibility for matters relating to the welfare of former British child migrants rested with the British Department of Health.
  • The House of Commons Health Committee chaired by David Hinchcliffe MP reported on the scheme and welfare of surviving migrants. The committee took evidence in Australia in June 1998 and tabled its report: The Welfare of Former British Child Migrants in July 1998.
  • In December 1998 the Health Secretary Frank Dobson accepted the report's main recommendations. He accepted the policy had been misguided and promised assistance to former child migrants by setting up a central database of information in the UK to help them trace their records and a Support Fund of 1 million over three years to help pay for family reunions. To qualify for assistance under the Fund, former child migrants must be able to show that they have traced a close family relative, (mother, father, brother, sister, aunt or uncle), and that they wish to reunite for the first time, but cannot meet the costs of travel to the UK.

Australian Government Response to British Government Response

Information resources

The National Archives of Australia has published a research guide to archival records on child migration: Good British Stock: Child and Youth Migration to Australia 1901-83. It includes an overview and history of child migration to Australia as well as a guide to the National Archives records. A brief guide is also available in the National Archives of Australia Fact Sheet 124.

Child migrant experiences have been portrayed in the television documentary Lost Children of the Empire, broadcast by the ABC in 1989, and in the television mini-series The leaving of Liverpool broadcast on ABC TV in 1994. A number of books document the scheme and tell individual stories. These include:

  • Philip Bean, Lost Children of the Empire, Unwin Hyman, London, 1989.
  • Alan Gill, Orphans of the Empire: the shocking story of child migration to Australia, Random House, Sydney, 1997
  • Margaret Humphreys, Empty Cradles: one woman’s fight to uncover Britain’s most shameful secrets, Doubleday, London, 1994.
  • Perry Snow, Neither waif nor stray: the search for a stolen identity, Universal Publishers, 2000. A Canadian perspective which is also published on demand on the Internet.

An alternative view of child migration to Australia is presented in: Geoffrey Sherington. Fairbridge, Empire and Child Migration. University of Western Australia Press, 1998.

Various ABC radio and television programmes have covered the issue. Transcripts are available by searching 'child migrants' on the ABC’s search engine.

Organisations involved in assistance to child migrants to Australia are:

  • International Social Service (ISS) with branches in Melbourne and Sydney. ISS administers claims on behalf of the British Government.
  • Child Migrants Trust with branches in Perth and Melbourne.


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