The Middlemore Experience (book cover)

Emigration of British Home Children (from the late 1860s right up to 1948, over 100,000 children of all ages were emigrated to destinations across Canada to be used as indentured farm workers and domestics) was and remains controversial; many of the children who were forcibly emigrated, and/or their descendants view the experience as traumatic and/or exploitative. This is undoubtedly correct in many cases, no matter whether we view the circumstances through present day glasses or try to justify them in hindsight.

Three of my ancestor's siblings were British Home Children: Frank Leslie Wright (born April 1898), James Daniel Wright (born September 1899) and Dorothy Wright (born circa 1901).  They were all born in Kings Norton or nearby Birmingham, and by 1911 their parents had separated and their mother was unable to support all 5 children with whom she was left. She kept the oldest son still living with her (aged 15 or 16, so he could bring money home) and the youngest daughter (aged circa 10) but surrendered the rest to the Middlemore Children's Emigration Home in late 1911/early 1912. The three emigrants travelled to Canada (Halifax and then New Brunswick) in May 1912.  Frank and Jim Daniel lived and apparently thrived; Dorothy unfortunately died of meningitis in February 1913.

Knowing the agency through which they emigrated, I was interested to discover the book Great Canadian Expectations: The Middlemore Experience by Patricia Roberts-Pichette, published by Global Heritage Press, Ottawa, November 2016, which makes a case that the Middlemore Emigration Homes should not be viewed as negatively as other emigration agencies.  (The Middlemore Emigration Homes sent more than 5,000 children to Canada between 1873 and 1933, so were responsible for only 5% of the total and therefore not one of the biggest agencies.) The book is based extensively on archive records as well as personal family documents and the testimony of Middlemore children and their descendants.

The chapter on 19th century social conditions in Birmingham helped me understand how my ancestors were likely living, and how parlous their situation had to be before the Middlemore Homes would take them in. "The children tended to be truants, spent school money on food, habitually ran the streets, slept out, and maintained themselves by petty theft from parents, friends, market stalls and people in the street. Church workers and police at night searched for children to bring them to night shelters or mission rooms for a meal and a place to sleep. Many children, found this way, were referred to Mr. Middlemore. When questioned, he stressed that the Children's Emigration Homes did not compete with industrial schools, because the children he accepted were inadmissible". It was believed that such children had "an idle, vagrant and criminal life open to them" unless somebody intervened.

Middlemore was not a Christian evangelist; he simply believed in doing good. He aimed to prepare children for emigration (with their parents' consent -- a crucial difference from other agencies) after practical, social and moral teaching in the Emigration Homes.  They went to school and church outside the homes to prevent them from becoming instutionalised.  One newspaper said "Mr. Middlemore accepted only those children with the worst chances in life and trained them himself [to be fit to emigrate]."

Another important difference was that the Middlemore Homes took care where their children were placed, and continued to monitor how well things were going until the child reached adulthood. Poor placements (either from the point of view of the child or those who took the child on) were changed; irredeemably badly-behaved children were sent back to the UK at the Homes' expense and adults who failed to meet the requirements to educate the children and treat them as members of the family could lose the child if there was a complaint (including from the child).

All of which sounds as if emigration via the Middlemore Homes was in the best interests of the child, and the book presents numerous success stories to back up its argument. It does refer to a few children who didn't succeed in the new environment and ran away or returned home to the UK. However, I would like to hear a contrasting argument about the Middlemore homes, so I have a balancing set of opinions on which to make a judgement.

Dec 18, 2016 By ColeValleyGirl

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