The Prime Minister’s Apology

The media has given considerable prominence to Gordon Brown’s forthcoming apology for the State’s encouragement of the shipment of thousands of British children to Australia. However, little has been said about the other destinations to which tens of thousands of children were also shipped: principally to Canada. This is probably because it occurred mainly before the First World War. It is also surprising that there has been no comment on the failure to have learnt from this earlier shameful affair. Certainly, it did not prevent the switch to Australia that followed in the 1920s. What beggars belief, though, is that a third wave of child trans-shipment should have begun after the Second World War and been continued well into the 1960s. Why did it take 100 years for these schemes to be brought to a halt, despite mounting disquiet about the suffering that so many endured?

There are several reasons. One is the cavalier disregard for history. Another is that such awful schemes were driven forward by a powerful combination of economic interests, imperial aspirations, population concerns and the demand for cheap labour. There was also the enthusiasm of voluntary bodies and private individuals that fed upon such seductive slogans as ‘child saving’ and the ‘fresh start’. Furthermore, the religious credentials of most of the ‘emigrationists’ cloaked the movement in an aura of legitimacy. All these factors undermined any opposition or criticism that materialised, whether from socialists, women’s groups, local authorities or, indeed, from the children themselves.

Roy Parker, Professor Emeritus, University of Bristol and author of Uprooted: the Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867-1917 (Policy Press, 2008 – paperback available January 2010). Pre-order your copy at 30% discount.

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