One day in May 1912, eight-year-old Grace Griffin, along with older sister Lillian, boarded the SS Corsican. The London-born girls were to start new lives in Canada, after childhoods spent in care – their father committed suicide, their mother’s new husband refused to have anything to do with them and, in 1911, their mother died.
Across the Atlantic, they hoped to meet loving families that would look after them. Shipping children to other countries may sound an extreme measure today, but the arrangement was by no means unusual at the time. Grace and Lillian were two of an estimated 100,000 youngsters sent overseas on assisted emigration schemes in the 19th and 20th centuries.
With disease and overcrowding rife in British children’s homes, charities felt that transportation – mainly to Canada, but also Australia, New Zealand and South Africa – was best.
For many, this belief was to be misguided. Already saddled with feelings of rejection, ‘Home Children’ found themselves in a strange, hostile new land. After stepping off the boat, they would be taken to receiving homes to be picked out by host families, but many were separated from their siblings. Grace never saw her sister again.
Boys and girls were usually indentured to work as household servants or on farms, where they spent their days undertaking tough, rural labour. Their troubled existence was not helped by the deep-seated distrust of Home Children felt by large numbers, who believed their countries were dumping grounds for British ne’er-do-wells.
“These waifs and strays are tainted and corrupt with moral slime and filth, inherited from parents and surroundings of the most foul and disgusting character,” declared Toronto politician Frederic Thomas Nicholls in 1891. “There is no power whatever that can cleanse the lepers so as to fit them to become desirable citizens of Canada.”
There was little fun to be had, as some of the newcomers were even prevented from mixing with local children. “You did not get out to play with other boys and girls,” former Home Child Joseph Betts would later recall. “It was all work.”
After moving from home to home and enduring years of neglect, Grace Griffin settled with a caring family in Northern Ontario and went on to live a long, happy life. But there were thousands of Home Children whose stories remain untold – all victims of a chapter in British history that has been conveniently forgotten.
In 2010, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown formally apologised for the migration of children – the “deportation of the innocents”, as he termed it. “Instead of caring for them, this country turned its back,” he remarked.
Learn about Grace Griffin’s life in Promises of Home: Stories of Canada’s British Home Children, a book of experiences by her granddaughter, Rose McCormick Brandon. The British Home Child Registry has details of more than 80,000 children.