Britain's child migrants: memories of a lost childhood

Fairbridge Society tie
Fairbridge Society tie Credit: Thom Atkinson

Between 1869 and 1970, around 100,000 British children were shipped to Canada, Australia and other Commonwealth countries as part of migration schemes run by charities, religious organisations and the government. The vast majority never saw their homes or families again.

The story is complex; one that a number of official inquiries, books and the 2010 film Oranges and Sunshine have sought to unravel. For every child rescued from a terrible end in a Victorian workhouse were a slew of others deposited on the other side of the world and denied information about their family's whereabouts when they tried to find them.

This weekend, the V&A Museum of Childhood, in London, opens an exhibition that will bring to life the experiences of those unlucky souls. Including photographs, journals and films, the show also has sound - hymns sung to the children as they boarded the ships, and folk songs specially commissioned from poems written at the time.

The meat of the exhibition, however, is an extraordinary collection of objects. From trinkets given to the children by their parents, to cups and saucers used on the boats - for many this was the first time in their lives they had been properly fed - these items are unbearably resonant of the confusion and indignities the children suffered.

Doll belonging to Helen Tatchell, who was sent to Australia in 1939, aged 12 Credit: Thom Atkinson

Once their migration had been signed and sealed, for example, they were supplied with smart new clothes. But when they reached Australia, these were taken away from them and sent back to Britain, to be used by the next batch of children.

"Extreme poverty was the primary reason a parent would agree to send their child," says curator Esther Lutman. "And the charities and religious groups were very clever in the way they presented the scheme - photos of happy, well-fed, well-dressed children walking into the future."

But instead of happy homes, thousands of children were set to work as manual labourers. Others were subject to emotional, physical and sexual abuse from adults who were not qualified to look after children.

Birthday card belonging to Herbert Ernst, sent to Australia in 1929, aged eight Credit: Thom Atkinson

The Child Migrants Trust, set up in 1987, has been the driving force behind the public inquiries of recent years. On one wall are 800 colour snaps of families reunited by the Trust's work. "We wanted you to be able to see that wall from the moment you step into the exhibition," says Lutman. "The effects of these migrations have lasted for generations."

As if to reinforce her point, as I leave the gallery, a middleaged couple from Canada are being shown in, descendants of children sent to Ontario back in Victorian times. Even now, they are searching for their roots, and for answers.

On Their Own: Britain's Child Migrants is at V&A Museum of Childhood until June 12; details at