Young Immigrants to Canada

UWInfo | Young Immigrants | 19th Century Immigration | Genealogy | Local History

Emigration as a Solution

(The following information is an extract from an early draft of Chapter One of my book, The Golden Bridge: Young Immigrants to Canada 1833-1939) which was published in 2003.
©Marjorie Kohli, 1999-2010, all rights reserved.

As the young Queen Victoria ascended the throne of Britain in 1837, she inherited a nation in the throes of transition. Industrialization and innovations in transportation were changing the face of the country and old ties to the land were quickly disappearing. As industries developed and mechanised, rural inhabitants, in search of work, moved to the cities. This influx of humanity into the cities of nineteenth century Britain created situations hard for many today to imagine. Cities swelled with populations doubling, tripling or in some cases increasing by as much as tenfold in as little as ten years. It took people such as Lord Ashley, who became the 7th Earl of Shaftsbury (will be referred to as Earl of Shaftsbury throughout), Mary Carpenter, Dr. Guthier, William Booth and other reformers of the time to draw attention to the plight of the inhabitants of the inner city, especially the children.

Victorian attitudes towards children were vastly different from those of today. "Childhood", they said, "was a time of preparation for adulthood, for work and responsibility."(1) Children of the lower classes did not play but rather worked to help support the family. A father with children could actually be refused Parish relief, as it was felt that the children could help support the family. Many families could not afford having a mouth to feed that did not pay its way. There were precious few schools for the masses to attend and even less opportunity to consider the luxury of an education. For many, just keeping food on their table, a roof over their head and clothes on their backs was a daily struggle.

As Shaftesbury started his work for reform he became more and more aware of the desperate situation in London.

He found, in some cases, hundreds of human beings - equal to the population of a whole village - compressed and hidden in a dozen small and wretched houses packed in a court, the houses and court occupying less than the area of a good-sized barn, or a village church, or a moderate-sized emigrant ship.(2)

London was not the only city in the British Isles faced with the problems of over population. Liverpool, being a major port of entry for many Irish fleeing starvation, also saw its population skyrocket. Other centres such as Glasgow, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol found themselves in similar situations. In 1847 and 1848, the streets of many cities in England and Scotland were overrun by Irish driven from their home in search of food. The Mendicity Society, in the month of January of 1848, had 18,589 applications for assistance from Irish families who had been in London less than a year.(3)

After a visit to England, an American reporter named Daniel Kirwan, wrote of London:

... from all this misery and destitution of a quarter where the inhabitants are packed like rabbits in a well-stocked warren, the road leads through the Upper March down to the rare pleasurance or garden of the palace of the Archbishop of Canterbury, one of the most sumptuous ecclesiastical retreats in England. The Archbishop's gardens, although located in the heart of a populous city, cover as much ground, it is calculated, as gives sleeping and eating room to 11,000 human beings in the New Cut district.(4)

Children from lower class families were sent out to work in mines, brick yards, woollen mills, and factories of all kinds from the time they were very young. Children were a source of income and so were put to work as soon as possible to add even a few pence to the meagre family income. They were employed as farm labourers, chimney sweeps, rag pickers, matchbox makers and beggars. Small children were sent into cold, dark mine shafts in places where men could not fit or into woollen mills where they could scurry under equipment, like rats along the floor, to fill bobbins, collect waste or check machinery. A child of suitable size was often stolen, sold by parents, obtained from workhouses or apprenticed to a chimney-sweep and was forced up chimneys to clean them, sometimes becoming wedged in the bends and dying of asphyxiation or succumbing to disease. Children were mutilated and used as beggars to invoke the sympathy of the passers by. Thousands lived in ditches, under bridges, or in flop houses for a penny a night.

Legislation was passed at various times to improve working conditions. The 1802 Restriction of Hours Act was passed to reduce the number of hours children worked to only 12 hours a day, exclusive of meals, and no nightwork was allowed. Previously some children worked as many as 16 or 18 hours in a day, in shifts, so that as one child tumbled from the bed another would crawl, total exhausted, into it. Better clothing and food were also called for but this act only affected children working in cotton factories. In 1819 no child under 9 was allowed to work in a cotton factory and those under 16 were restricted to 12 hour days, exclusive of meals. By 1825 the cotton factories could not have a child under 18 work more than 69 hours in a week and night work was not allowed in specified departments.

The Ten Hours Bill of 1831, which tried to reduce the working hours to 10 in a day, received great opposition, since the gentlemen who voted on these bills were in many cases the owners or investors in many of the businesses affected. This bill was followed in 1833 by the Factory Act which was a watered down version of the Ten Hours Bill and came into effect over time, not all at once. The Factory Act Amendment Bill stated that no child was to work in more than one factory in a day and that two hours of schooling each day were to be provided for the children. The fact that this act had to be passed suggests that many factory owners were finding ways around the earlier legislation or around the inspectors sent out to see that they complied with the law.

The Collieries Bill was passed to protect children, as young as 4, who were working in mines 12-14 hours a day and who never saw the sun but on Sunday. Sometimes they would work 36 hours continuously. A Royal Commission was set up to investigate the mining situation and in 1842 they presented a report which shocked many. The horror stories of children naked and beaten working in the mines were told to members of the Commission and documented in their report. As a result of the report, the Mines Act of 1842 restricted the employment of children going underground to the age of 10.

Single mothers, having no alternatives, often took their infants to work with them. There are reports of infants being drugged to prevent them from crying. They were given drugs such as Godfrey's Cordial, Atkinson's Royal Infant's Preservative and Mrs. Wilkinson's Soothing Syrup.(5) This kept them quiet while their mothers worked to earn enough to keep food on the table and possibly a roof over their heads.

Government passed legislation making the care of an orphaned child the responsibility of the members of the parish, not the state. It was the duty of the parish wardens to see that the child was cared for and in many cases this lead to the child being indentured or apprenticed to some tradesman. Shaftsbury observed:

Under the "Apprentice System" bargains were made between the churchwardens and overseers of parishes and the owners of factories, and the pauper children - some as young as five years old - were bound to serve until they were twenty-one.(6)

Reports from the Old Bailey trials show that these children were treated very badly. "Many were victims of murder, manslaughter, assault and rape and although legislation had been passed in 1793 providing for the punishment of masters who ill treated apprentices few children knew of this or had courage or opportunity to invoke it."(7) It was not uncommon for the children to run away, many becoming common thieves or "street arabs," a term commonly used at the time to describe the children who made the street their home.

Since gin was cheap drinking was a major problem among the poor. Parents sent their children into the streets to beg in order that they might buy their gin. Some were maimed to attract all the more sympathy from the passer-by. Others were trained to pick pockets or rob houses so their parents could obtain the necessary funds to acquire their gin. To make matters even worse, many very young children also drank the gin and became addicted at an early age.

Housing in London's East End was wretched and made worse by the removal of many dwellings to allow for the railway. As one observer noted, "It is necessary first to get rid of some hundred, or even some thousand, people. So they are turned out, commonly by pick and crowbar, and no one asks where they go."(8) The effect was to increase the population density in the remaining buildings and the effect was odd indeed. For example, if one entered Soho, bordering on St. Giles,

...In this district you may enter long passages, and perceive numbers of rooms on either side, then at the end ascend a flight of stairs into another long passage, with rooms on either side-'a forest of rooms'- then cross a kind of bridge over a small yard and find, still further on, more galleries and passages, as if there had been once a garden to the first house, and these had been built out into it. So little light and air can penetrate into these rookeries, that the people may well prefer sitting out on the curb-stone, with their feet in the gutter.(9)

When it came to the poor there was no separation of the chronically poor and the temporarily unemployed. They were all treated the same and all fell under the jurisdiction of the Poor Law which was controlled by the Poor Law Commissioners, who made the laws, and the elected members of the Board of Guardians, who saw to the day to day workings. It was up to the guardians to see that relief was given to the poor. Some in Glasgow begged that the church get more involved in the problem of the poor "instead of leaving it to the cold, harsh, cast-iron machinery of the Poor Law."(10)

In the time of Queen Elizabeth I, under the Poor Law Act of 43rd Elizabeth, the care of the poor became the responsibility of the parish.(11) In the late 1700s, however, it was felt that a united effort might be more efficient and some parishes were joined together to create Poor Law Unions. With the passing of the Poor Law Amendment Act in 1834, the guardians of the poor were given dramatic new powers, including the ability to raise funds for use in emigrating their wards.

It was felt that many of those on relief were taking advantage of the system. Many were on outdoor relief, that is, they received money and were allowed to remain in their own dwelling place. Some people lived on relief and did not even bother to look for or hold a job. To remove these abuses of the system, the Unions introduced the "workhouse test," by which the guardians could refuse to pay outdoor relief and force the destitute into the workhouse. Life in the workhouse was to be made as undesirable as possible. Unfortunately the guardians, in their zeal to remove abuse, turned the workhouse into a place of last resort.

For those who did get outdoor relief, payments were made sparingly, so sparingly in fact that many elderly would die of starvation, exposure or illness.

What wonder that the average guardian was gradually drilled into a system under which the aged had to choose between starvation on half a crown a week out-relief and the penal servitude of the workhouse; that the children were cooped up within the workhouse itself or herded in barrack schools, and driven to start in life with the minimum of general education and no training for anything save the lowest grades of unskilled labor.(12)

After the passing of the Amendment, a husband and wife could be separated in the workhouse. As well, the children could be separated from their parents and placed in workhouse schools. Here they were taught for up to three hours a day in reading, writing, Scriptures and some sort of manual training. This training, however, did nothing to help the children prepare for a productive adulthood and after some years, it was decided that the children would be better off attending local schools.

London had room in its workhouses to accommodate about 150,000 people "...for which the residents or freeholders of every parish in the metropolitan district are taxed at an annual rate of fourteen pounds ten shillings per pauper, and yet men, women, and children die of starvation, weekly, in the slums of St. Giles, Saffron Hill, Bethnal Green, and Shoreditch."(13) But, the guardians had done their jobs well and the workhouse was the last place many wished to go, preferring death to this most hated of all places.

Ireland did not have workhouses until 1838, when they were introduced against the wishes of the people. However, unlike the English Act, "there was one notable omission - the absence of a legal or statutory right for the Irish poor to be provided with relief, whereas in England every destitute person had such a right."(14)

Ireland's situation was unique in another way. Twenty-five percent of the English population was involved in agricultural work at this time but in Ireland, that figure was more like 66 percent.(15) This dependancy on the land lead to the relief system, little as it was, being completely over burdened during the crop failures of 1846 and 1847. The workhouses were brought to their knees during the famine years with many of them going bankrupt.

In her book, Children in Care, Jean Heywood states that, "The inadequate and sometimes inhuman methods, which the poor law administrators used in order to fulfil their statutory obligations to the homeless and orphaned children were responsible for the development of alternative forms of care pioneered by humanitarians and philanthropists."(16) This realization lead these evangelicals to take matters into their own hands to try to help the poor, destitute children of the cities, " for they are waifs and strays whom it is no one's interest to claim."(17) Indeed, although the Poor Law guardians were suppose to look after the poor, they did not have to seek them out and so, at close to the same time, individuals in Dublin, Glasgow, Edinburgh, London, Bristol, Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester began the job of child saving.

Many of these workers got their start in the Ragged Schools, which gained their name from the ragged condition of their pupils. These institutions began to spring up in the 1840s in various cities offering a little reading, writing and scriptures to those who attended. Often they were held on Sundays or in the evening so as not to interfere with work. Sometimes the students were given a meal and could spend a few hours in a warm room away from the squalor in which many of them lived. Annie Macpherson, Thomas Barnardo, Ellen Billbrough, Dr. Guthier, Mary Carpenter, and many others first became exposed to the youth of the city through the Ragged Schools.

Other children, who found themselves on the outs with the law, were first placed in the same prisons as the adults. It was not until 1838 that the first Reformatory came into existence. This was followed by the establishment of a number of Industrial Schools and Reformatories in the late 1840s and 1850s by philanthropic societies and some church groups. Mary Carpenter and other reformers worked diligently to try to help these children. These groups wanted to reform the child by teaching them a trade and by giving them an opportunity to start a new life in one of the colonies. Training, they believed, was the key.

As an Evangelical Revival took place in Britain in the 1860s, it lead to the formation of many religious humanitarian organizations. Groups took up various causes including those of children, apprentices, widows, sailors, and others. Buildings, or rooms in buildings, were rented and used to feed and house a few of the destitute children. These Homes, as they were called, grew in size and number. The primary objective was to teach the children about God and to give them a little food. Soon they were teaching sewing classes, training boys to chop and deliver wood, and organizing groups to deliver parcels and newspapers. But the major change was that these homes were truly becoming the homes of these waifs.

Mrs Smyly in Dublin, Ireland stated her homes by the early 1860s while Annie Macpherson set up her first home in the East End of London, England in 1867 and Dr. Stephenson soon followed. William Quarrier was working in Glasgow while Dr. Thomas Guthrie was busy in Edinburgh. In Birmingham John Middlemore began his work with children while Leonard Shaw was organizing homes in Manchester. Thomas Barnardo, who worked with Annie Macpherson in the Ragged Schools in the East End of London, set up his home at Stepney Causeway in 1870.

Unlike the Poor Law guardians, these evangelists played an active role in seeking out the children. As the children were taken into the homes they had to learn a new way of life. "After having them washed, we had beds prepared for them, little thinking that we had to teach them to sleep in them," wrote Annie Macpherson.(18) They were still children though, and, "After being put to bed, the light extinguished, we were often obliged to go and stop them fighting, and stay in the room till silence was restored." She went on, "It was the same in everything. They had to be taught the most common usages of social life. But these early difficulties were overcome, and they learnt to play, laugh, work and sit still like ordinary children."

Some children came to the homes because they had no place else to go and had heard that they could get a meal and a place to sleep for free. There were some, who having crossed paths with the law, were delivered to the homes on divulging the fact that they had none to care for them. Still others were brought by parents or other relations because they could not feed and clothe the child. Illegitimate children were refused entry in some homes so this fact was often concealed when requesting admittance to a home. But, come they did, and the homes soon found they could not continue to take children in because the buildings were filled beyond capacity.

The staff at the homes tried to find jobs for some of their children but the demand for space for incoming children increased faster than they could place current residents. There had been talk of sending children to the colonies. In 1833 the Children's Friend Society and the West Kirk Workhouse had taken over 200 children between them to Canada and placed them out as apprentices. The workhouses had been sending young men and women abroad for many years and the prisons, reformatories, and even the ragged schools, had been sending prisoners, released prisoners, and students to the colonies for some time. Thus it was that in 1869 Maria Susan Rye, who started her work by helping young women to emigrate, turned her attentions in a different direction and took her first group of children to Canada.


1. Ivy Pinchbeck and Margaret Hewitt, Children In English Society. (London: 1973) Vol. II, p. 170.

2. Edwin Hodder, The Life and Work of the Seventh Earl of Shaftsbury, K.G. (London, 1887), p. 354.

3. Ibid., p. 127.

4. Daniel Joseph Kirwan, Palace and Hovel. Edited by A. Allan. Hartford: Belknap and Bliss. 1870. Reprinted Toronto: Abelard-Schuman, Ltd., 1963. p. 41.

5. Pinchbeck, p. 406.

6. Hodder, p. 76

7. Jean S. Heywood, Children in Care, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 19xx) p. 19. Heywood suggests Dorothy George, London Life in the Eighteenth Century. Kegan Paul Trench, Trubner and Co. Ltd., 1925, for further insights into the evils of this practice.

8. L.N.R. Missing Link or Bible-Women in the Homes of the London Poor, (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1860), p. 12.

9. L.N.R., p. 27.

10. John Urquhart. The Life-Story of William Quarrier, (London:1900), p. 41.

11. Fabian Society, The Abolition of Poor Law Guardians, Fabian Tract #126, (London: The Fabian Society, 1906), p. 4

12. E. Pease, The Abolition of Poor Law Guardians, London: 1906. In Fabian Tracts, #126, Germany, 1969.

13. Kirwan, p. 14.

14. John O'Connor. The Workhouses of Ireland, (Dublin, Anvil Books: 1995), reprinted 1997, p. 66.

15. W.A. Carrothers. Emigration From The British Isles, (London: Frank Cass & Co. Ltd.: 1965), p. 85.

16. Jean S. Heywood, Children in Care, (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1978), p. 34.

17. Emigration from Ireland; being the Report of the Committee of "Mr. Tuke's Fund," together with Statements by Mr. Tuke and Major Gaskell., June 1882. In Canadian Institute for Historical Microreproduction (CIHM) #57135, p. 25. (This was a quote from Major W.P. Gaskell who was reporting to Tuke's Committee that their work in Ireland was not getting to those most in need.)

18. Lilian M. Birt, The Children's Home-Finder, (London: 1913), p. 52.

UWInfo | Young Immigrants | 19th Century Immigration | Genealogy | Local History

© Marjorie P. Kohli, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, 1997-2010
Last updated January 13, 2010 and maintained by Marj Kohli