Welcome to British Isles Friday! British Isles Friday is a weekly event for sharing all things British and Irish — reviews, photos, opinions, trip reports, guides, links, resources, personal stories, interviews, and research posts. Join us each Friday to link your British and Irish themed content and to see what others have to share. The link list is at the bottom of this post. Pour a cup of tea or lift a pint and join our link party!
Last week, I shared my excitement about getting a front-row seat to the play, Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley, a sequel to Pride and Prejudice. Tina reviewed London and the South-East, which has the title and cover of a guidebook, but is actually a novel. Jean reviewed Down and Out in London and Paris, a “slightly fictionalized memoir” by George Orwell. Becky gave us three posts about Charles Dickens’ stories, appropriate to the season: The Cricket on the Hearth, The Chimes, and quotes from A Christmas Carol.
When I watched the Call the Midwife series recently, I was taken by one of the stories in Season 4, Episode 1. Neglected children were championed by the eldest brother, but he wasn’t up to tasks that needed adult attention. The story works its way around to what appears to be a happy ending — smiling children headed off to a new life in Australia. A postscript, though, tells us that the child migrant program didn’t deliver the expected happy homes.
While researching more of that story, I learned about the film Oranges and Sunshine, a biopic of the social worker who recovered the British history of sending children off to the colonies. Margaret Humphreys campaigned on behalf of families who were separated and adult children who thought, often erroneously, that they’d been abandoned by their mothers. Humphreys uncovered a child migration scheme established in 1869 by Annie McPherson and other Christian women who were appalled by the working conditions of children in the matchbox industry and other workplaces after the Industrial Revolution.
But, the practice was much older than that. As I learned from White Trash by Nancy Isenberg, urchins from the streets of London were shipped to the Virginia Colony, some of them arriving in the Americas before the Pilgrims.
I want to be careful, though, about relegating this practice to our distant past. The children’s migration program didn’t end until 1970 — those were the living people who Margaret Humphreys helped in the late 1980s, continuing to today. A similar program in Northern Ireland was still operating in 1995.
The people involved in the scheme, for the most part, were trying to do good. They wanted to bring better opportunities for children who were not growing up in ideal situations. By sending those children far away, they imagined that the children would have a life filled with oranges and sunshine. In their new locations, the people who ran the institutions or fostered the children on farms, believed that they were instilling important values and skills to disadvantaged children. The methods were harsh, many now considered abusive. Keep in mind that conditions at British boarding schools were also harsh, and those students grew up to be the men who ran schemes and institutions like these.
I also don’t want to make the mistake of assuming that Brits are worse than Americans in how we handle children. We inherited the habit of believing that middle and upper class privileged people know more about what’s best for poor children than their families do. In trying to do good, we invented elaborate structures and systems to take children away from their mothers and place them in foster care, but we have never put in any where near as much effort to create supports and systems that strengthen families and prevent problems or diminish their impact.