Descendants of Birmingham children shipped to Canada in the 1930s are calling on the Government for an apology. Neil Elkes reports.
The families of thousands of children shipped from children’s homes in the Midlands to Canada are set to receive an official apology from the Government after years of campaigning.
Among those British Home Children, plucked from orphanages and sent for a better life in the colonies were 5,000 from the Middlemore Children’s Emigration Homes in Birmingham.
Between 1873 and 1936 the home, founded by Doctor John Middlemore, served as the last stop for orphans and children of the poor before they were shipped overseas.
So many children were sent to Canada that it is estimated that 12 per cent of the population, about four million Canadians, are descended from a British Home Child.
It was a mixed experience for the different children, some were parted from loved ones and siblings never to be reunited, some abused by their new guardians, but for others it was a golden opportunity far away from the misery and slums they left behind.
The Canadian government designated 2010 as the year of the British Home Child and next week, the UK Government will issue its apology. Only a small number of those children, now in their 80s and 90s, are alive to see a British government recognise the actions of the past.
Among them is Marjorie Skidmore, formerly Arnison, of Victoria, British Columbia, who will return with her daughter Pat to the UK to hear the declaration in person.
Pat said: “My mother was taken from her family, along with two sisters and a brother.
“They were placed in the Middlemore Emigration Homes in Birmingham. She and a brother were sent to Canada in September 1937; they were not allowed to say goodbye. My mother’s older sister was working in the kitchen and waved to them as they walked down the path – not knowing that they were leaving.
“She told me that this was the worst day of her life, and that she was put in sick bay for a long time. She heard the doctor say that she was suffering from a broken heart. It took over 30 years for her to see her siblings again,” Pat added.
Another descendent, Marion Crawford, from New Brunswick, sums up the feeling.
Mrs Crawford, who is president of the Middlemore Atlantic Society, said: “Many of the children were sent here carrying the feeling of abandonment, not just by their family but by their country.”
She said that families are gaining greater access to the Middlemore Home records and would now like to make contact with their separated families.
It is a view echoed by Cecil Verge, from New Minas, Nova Scotia, whose father-in-law John Arnold Guest was sent from Birmingham aged eight in 1920. Mr Verge, of the British Home Children and Descendents Association, said: “What we desire most is to have the children’s records in the UK released so descendents here can trace relatives.”
Catherine West, of Nova Scotia and current chairman of the association, points out that the experience was not always a negative one and is forgiving of the well-meaning people who sent children from orphanages to what they thought was a better life overseas.
“The home children themselves are the only ones who deserve an apology. The descendents can accept on behalf of those who have passed away, but need no apology themselves because they would not be who they are without the past,” she explains.
She said: “My grandfather Albert William Webster and his sister Nellie (Ellen) Maud Webster were taken from the Aston Union workhouse, aged 13 and 11, on May 23, 1910, by the Middlemore Emigration Home and sent to Canada a day later.
“Their lives were not easy but they survived and made good lives for themselves.’’
The descendents of Birmingham Middlemore Children have found an ally in Birmingham city councillor Reg Corns, who has campaigned for the apology and access to family records.
The Middlemore Children’s Emigration Homes were founded by well meaning Edgbaston doctor John T Middlemore in 1872 in an effort to help the children at risk of falling into lives of crime and those suffering from neglect or abuse.
In 1873 he sent his first 80 children to Canada where he believed they would receive an education and lead a healthier, more productive life. He found the majority settled well and over the next 63 years some 5,000 children were shipped from Birmingham.