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Quarriers - Scotland's Child Emigrants

Quarrier's kids outside a receiving home in Canada 1889 (credit:thescotsman)

From 1870-1930 over 100,000 child emigrants left Britain from institutions such as Quarriers, Barnardo’s, Aberlour Orphanage and more. Quarriers alone sent over 7000 children from Scotland to Canada, then later to Australia in smaller amounts. The treatment and practices of Quarrier's children both at home and abroad serve for a really broad study, so this article will serve as a broad introductory study of the basics of child emigration prior to several more in-depth studies in the coming weeks. This will be on top of our usual Sunday upload. Child Emigration was the practice in which children from backgrounds of destitution, incarceration, depravity and hardship were taken into Children’s Homes prior to being sent abroad without their parents, guardians and often, without their siblings. These children were then sent to Receiving Homes, such as the Quarrier's Fairknowe Distribution Home in Canada, before being placed in homes across the country.

There were several reasons for child emigration. Firstly, in the 1870s there was increasing public concern for children in main cities, who, with insufficient poor laws in place, were often living in utter destitution. Child emigration became a way in which Britain could effectively reduce the numbers of children living in city slums and send them to destinations like Canada. Canada needed cheap labour and so the children that Britain provided were typically employed on farms as child workers. For British Evangelicals, many of whom became involved philanthropically in the scheme, child emigration was about the removal of children from depravity, which would not only save them physically from starvation, illness and death but also signal the redemption of their soul. Rural air was believed to be morally restorative and as a result, the majority of children emigrated were sent to rural areas – which caused issues all on its own. However, by the 1900s the removal of children became more about securing the future of the British empire and the health benefits of country air, rather than the spiritual ones.

Quarriers was created in 1871 by William Quarrier. However, his Bridge of Weir property, affectionately known as the Children’s City, opened in 1878. Quarrier had hoped to replicate familial dynamics, and so he separated children into cottages. The children came from a variety of different backgrounds, though they were rarely orphans. Widowed mothers or fathers could sometimes not provide for their children any longer and so put them under the care of Quarriers in the hope of providing them with a better life. Where appropriate, attempts were made to try and find family members that could care for the child, but if this could not be found, Quarrier’s did not turn children away. However, this in itself posed an issue. With a seemingly endless stream of children going into the homes and Quarrier's policy of not refusing a child, they were quickly going to run out of room and resources. Thus, Quarriers operated a revolving door policy which meant that in order to continue taking children under their care, they regularly emigrated others so as to make room. Emigrating children was expensive, and Quarriers did not receive government funding, nor did they actively fundraise, rather they relied on freely given public contributions. They developed an ‘Annual Report’ which detailed their progress in the previous year. The report typically contained details of all the contributions received, as well as several letters from happy children who had already been emigrated to Canada. However, the letters are extremely similar in format and content, indicating the children were telling Quarrier’s what they wanted to hear based on previous Annual Reports which were shipped directly to the children’s addresses in Canada. It is also likely that children who were not happy wouldn’t have detailed their struggles in a letter. Of course, Quarrier's only published the very best letters as part of their appeal for funds.

Once the children arrived in Canada, they were sent to families that had requested a Home Child. These homes had to be inspected and declared suitable prior to placement. Each home had to agree to sign an Indenture. Young children were usually placed with homes that received a wage for their care until the child reached age 11. After these payments stopped, if the family could no longer afford to care for them they would then be moved to a home that signed an Indenture agreeing to provide the child with an education, clothing, food, and board in exchange for household chores. After, they could be placed as a labourer in exchange for a wage. Labour was hard, with some children working up to 17 hours a day or more. The nature of the work itself was often a shock for children. One child emigrant recalled being laughed at by the farmer's sons for not being strong enough to do some of the heavy lifting. Another recalled his horror at seeing a cow for the first time, having not realised their size, and being told he would have to milk it. Many children were vastly underprepared for country life. Prior to their emigration, there were, in some cases, classes they could attend however, it is speculated that in the early days at least, these taught little more than literacy and table manners. Children did not seem to understand geographically how far away Canada was – several later admitted that they had looked on emigration similarly to how they would look at a day trip to the beach. The long hours and backbreaking work further prevented many children from attending school. Schooling was hard for child emigrants, they were usually small, often bullied for their broad accents and had minimal or interrupted education. As they were typically labourers, and girls assisted around the home, many employers were reluctant to send the children to school at all. The children being sent were primarily under 14, the school leaving age in Britain from 1901, and in Canada from 1891. So many emigrant children missed out on their education, as they were being shipped primarily to work. Contemporary legislation in Canada did try to protect the schooling of children, and in 1925 it was recommended that only children over 14 should be allowed to emigrate to ensure that their education was completed in Scotland prior to gaining jobs in Canada. Child emigrants in Canada were not only isolated in school, but in society as a whole. They were called ‘Home Children’. This was a derogatory term that was used to isolate the children and identify them as orphans and emigrants. They were often ostracised from society and regarded as social outcasts. Canada suffered bouts of depression in the 1870s and 1880s, and it was during this time that feelings towards the child emigration movement turned. The unemployed blamed the children for taking their opportunities. Fears that Britain was using Canada as a day-care for their undesirable destitute population increased, as did concerns of moral and physical pollution. In 1895 a 15-year-old boy called George Green was murdered by his guardian, a woman called Helen Findlay. Helen went on trial accused of manslaughter of which she was not convicted despite witnesses testifying to her cruelty towards the boy. It was revealed in George's autopsy that he had a condition related to tuberculosis and was partially blind. This led some to believe that the children being sent over were bringing diseases and were not of the superior standards that William Quarrier had claimed. Children were given medical examinations, and those who were unwell or had underlying health conditions were not emigrated, however this depended on the doctor being able to recognise various conditions. Quarrier's sent children into an environment that essentially did not want them, creating lasting mental and often physical trauma for many children. The shame of being a home child stayed with many child emigrants, and it was revealed in 1994 that even in their old age, many had not told their families their origins.

In the last decade or so, there have been countless Child Abuse Inquiries, including one in Scotland in 2020 which looked into the ways in which these child emigrants were abused in the Children's Homes and the ways the Homes failed to protect them once they had been placed. Firstly, the children were spread across Canada, often with several miles between farms. Their isolation was ill-thought-out - not only did it make inspections harder, but it also isolated the children from people who could help them if they needed it. Children were encouraged to write to Quarrier's and Fairknowe regularly, updating them on their progress. However, children that were suffering were highly unlikely to ask for help in a letter. We know from emigrant testimony that abuse and mistreatment were common, and that even if children did speak out, they were unlikely to be believed. Though many children were removed from insufficient placements, Quarriers themselves admitted in an 1888 annual report that "We find it advisable to make a change, in nearly all cases". Although the removal of children from unhappy circumstances was standard procedure, it was not all-encompassing. It has further been suggested that when Quarriers did choose to hastily remove children, this was done more for the benefit of their reputation, than the benefit of the child.

The extent of sponsored child emigration, particularly through Institutes is not well known or discussed, despite having been in the news as recently as 2020. In 2010, then-prime-minister Gordon Brown made a public apology to the British Children sent abroad from the 1870s to 1967. Australia publicly apologised for the role they played in the schemes in 2009, whilst Canada declined to apologise, stating that they felt an apology wasn’t appropriate in this context. Individual Institutes such as Quarriers have all issued apologies to the children that were in their care, for any harm, abuse, stress or unhappiness they experienced as a result of their emigration.

Quarriers maintained that they tried to do the best for the children they cared for, and there are many child emigrants that are truly grateful to them for having improved their lives and their prospects. However, there are others who regret having ever left Scotland and admit that they did not have a genuine understanding of emigration at the time. This is not something Quarriers has ever tried to hide, they have owned their history and mistakes. As such, each article in this series will articulate the positives and negatives of the scheme – the ways in which Quarrier’s tried to protect their children, as well as the ways in which they failed.

The next article will focus on child emigrants as cheap labour. 

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