Between the 1860s and the 1930s, about 100,000 British children from urban slums were sent to Canada, where they were usually apprenticed as agricultural laborers or domestic servants until they came of age. Most of them were sent by “homes” such as those run by Dr. Thomas Barnardo, Christian and philanthropic institutions seeking to provide hope to destitute children.
In the colonial period, almost all children immigrated to British North America as part of a family group. As the general practice of indentured servitude came to an end in the early 19th century, a small number of children were being apprenticed to farms in Canada. This process underwent a dramatic change in 1868 when British philanthropists Maria Susan Rye, Annie Macpherson, and Louisa Birt initiated an organized campaign to remove young children from urban slums to a more healthy physical and spiritual life in Canada or Australia. The perennial problem of poverty had grown worse throughout the 19th century as urban industrial centers such as London, Liverpool, and Manchester expanded without providing adequate housing or effective sanitation. In the wake of London’s last great cholera outbreak, Rye, Macpherson, and Birt appealed to the public for funds and negotiated with the Canadian government for grants-in-aid and transportation subsidies. Though there was considerable criticism from both humanitarians who objected to “herding” young children abroad like cattle and Canadian Nativists (see nativism), who complained that home children were taking local jobs, there was no shortage of Canadian applicants for the apprenticed labor of young British children.
Problems associated with the apprenticing of young children were highlighted in the sensational case of George Everitt Green, a young agricultural apprentice who died in 1895 under the care of his spinster employer, seven months after his arrival in Ontario. The public was shocked when they learned that he had been starved and that his body was covered in sores and his limbs gangrenous. Some safeguards were installed, but the suicides of three home children in the winter of 1923–24 led to further investigations by the British government and a ban on all immigration by children under 14 who were not accompanied by a parent. As the Canadian economy worsened in the 1930s, labor groups intensified their opposition, and by 1939, the apprenticeship of Britain’s poorest children was finally halted.