A search is underway for the families of up to 15,000 vulnerable children from Scotland’s children’s homes who were shipped to Canada in a programme of forced emigration and cheap labour that lasted almost 100 years.
Researchers in Canada are supporting families to secure the records of those transported by charities, including Quarriers and Barnardo’s, as part of the British Home Children programme that lasted from 1863 until the 1970s.
The programme was originally to free children from the hardships of the slums and the poorhouse and give them a fresh start in the clean air of rural Canada that was desperate for a workforce.
While some did fare well, many young ones suffered further trauma after being split from their brothers and sisters and in some cases told they were unwanted and even that their parents were dead.
Parents were sometimes told of their child’s departure long after they had set sail, according to Lori Oschefski, the founder of the British Home Children Advocacy & Research Association (BHCARA).
She said: “The British Home Children were sent away to work, some never to see their families again.
“Our mission is to bring the true stories to light and to reunite families with the truth.”
She has helped at least 12 families in Scotland connect with the facts surrounding their ancestors and plug huge, often painful, gaps in their histories.
“There are families in Scotland who have lost family members to this programme who have no idea what happened to them.
“When we look back on our histories, it may not be pretty but it helps to put the pieces together.”
Children aged between six and 16 were transported with the younger ones adopted and the older boys and girls sent to work as indentured domestic servants and farm labourers.
Some had originally ended up in care due to parents poverty or sickness. Only two per cent of the children sent to Canada were actually orphans, according to researchers.
Both the British and Canadian governments supported the programme and paid a grant- either $2 or $3 - for every child resettled. In addition, Canada paid bonuses to homes that provided large volumes of children.
More than 100,000 children were sent from the UK in total to Canada, Australia and New Zealand with Gordon Brown apologising for the country’s role in the scandal.
In Canada, only a handful of the emigrant children are known to be still alive.
They include John Vallance, originally from Ayr, who arrived on a farm in Quebec in 1939 aged 13 after being housed with Barnardo’s following the death of his mother.
Mr Vallance, who later joined the Canadian Army, recalled a good life at his new home but had no contact with his brothers and sisters for 50 years. He has since been reunited with relatives in Scotland.
Rachel Angus, born in 1875 in Largs, arrived in Quebec on 6 June 1882 with her twin brother. Both had been earlier dropped at an orphanage in Glasgow by their grandmother.
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John Rolland, from Burntisland in Fife, was sent to Quarriers after his mother was forced to go into domestic service. Within a year, he was sent to work on a farm in Ontario with his mother’s protest was not enough to stop his passage.
Tommy Armstrong, from Glasgow, left his overcrowded home aged 13 to live at an agricultural school near Paisley run by philanthropist Dr George Cossar. Within a year, he was on isolated farm run by a bachelor in Manitoba from which he later escaped.
Ms Oschefski was motivated to set up the group following the experience of her own mother who was shipped to Canada from a workhouse in Herefordshire aged just two.
Although she was placed in a good home, she was badly traumatised after learning of her true past when 17. She did not tell her own children of being a British Home Child until she was 86.
“British Home Children were badly stigmatised. They were thought of as the dregs of the UK and given derogatory labels. Many carried that shame throughout their lives and many weren’t given an education, Ms Oschefski added.
Both Quarriers and Barnardo’s is working with the BHCARA to share information with
A spokeswoman for Quarriers said that 7394 children migrated from Quarriers to Canada between 1872 and 1939.
The organisation, amongst others, is also sharing information on its emigration policy with the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry.
She added: “When William Quarrier established the Orphan Homes of Scotland in 1871, as Quarriers was then known, it was with the specific intention of children migrating to Canada as an alternative to the slums of Glasgow or the poorhouse.
“After decades of sharing information with migrants and their descendants, we have developed a greater understanding of the life-long impact of being a Home Child.
“Quarriers remains in regular contact with Canadian descendants of children who came from the Orphan Homes of Scotland. We understand the importance and value of family history, and provide family members with access to all historical records we hold about their relatives.”