The secret that never was
They don’t let me out of College much these days, so I spend my time feeding the ravens and exploring the less-frequented shelves of the library.
The other day I was reading the blurb of a book from 1994 which dealt with Barnardo’s and other charities’ practice of resettling orphaned children in Australia and Canada. It began:
In 1986 the author, an ordinary Nottingham social worker and mother of two received a letter from a woman asking for help to trace her parents. She claimed that at the age of four she had been put on a boat to Australia by the British Government. Margaret Humphreys replied that she must be mistaken, yet curiosity drove her to investigate the case.And eventually she wrote Empty Cradles, winning such reviews as “The secrets of the lost children of Britain may never have been revealed if it had not been for Margaret Humphreys” from the Sunday Times. The Independent said it was “a story that defies belief”.
Margaret Humphreys and her reviewers would have been less amazed if they had read Philip Bean and Joy Melville’s Lost Children of the Empire, published in 1989, or Gillian Wagner’s Children of the Empire from 1982.
These two books, dealing with the much same material, were also promoted and reviewed as though they were revealing a long-buried secret, but a little research shows it was nothing of the sort.
Britain began sending children aboard in the 17th century and the practice continued until as recently as 1967. It was done on a massive scale – 3264 children were sent to Canada alone in 1905 – and was widely discussed.
You will find accounts of child emigration in the Curtis Report of 1946, the document which revolutionised childcare after the War, and official delegations went to see how children sent to Australia (1952) and Canada (1924) were faring. Every biography of Dr Barnardo deals with the subject at length, whether it is a near-hagiography like J. Wesley Bready’s Doctor Barnardo: Physician, pioneer, prophet from 1930 or a more balanced modern work like June Rose’s For the Sake of the Children from 1987.
And sending waifs and strays abroad was always controversial. A succession of murders and suicides in Canada kept the subject in the headlines there and back in Britain, thanks to Horatio Bottomley’s John Bull magazine.
Nor was Dr Barnardo himself free from controversy. More than one parent went to court in an attempt to secure the return of children who had been sent overseas. Strangely these children always seemed to have been adopted by wealthy but eccentric figures who made it a condition of the arrangement that their identities would never been revealed.
One mother, a Mrs Gossage, fought the good doctor all the way to the House of Lords and won her case, but she never saw her son Henry again.
We know this, the ravens and I, but if I am invited to conferences I get excited and wave my arms about too much. That is why they don’t let me out of College much these days.