THE UNWANTED New light shed on one of the Second City’s most shameful historic secrets
THEY were Birmingham children ripped from their families and sent more than 4,000 miles to work on farms.
The youngsters often endured a tough life of hard labour and little schooling in the farmlands of Canada.
Some were even abused by the families who took them in, while most never again saw the brothers and sisters left at home again.
Now the often harrowing stories of thousands of orphans and unwanted children forcibly sent away from Birmingham is being reexamined by a city history group.
Some 6,000 children aged from three to 12 were sent out from the Middlemore Children’s Homes in Highgate to far-flung corners of the world between 1873 and 1948.
Most of the children came from the Birmingham slums where, as “street urchins”, they were destined for lives of poverty, grime, crime or hard work in the factories.
They were a mix of orphans who had lost parents to illness or seen them imprisoned, or children whose parents simply could not afford to look after them.
But while some flourished on the farms of Canada living with new families, others were handed over to lives of brutal hard labour or suffered at the hands of abusive adoptive parents.
Now the Balsall Heath History Society has teamed up with Birmingham historian Carl Chinn to highlight the M idd - lemore Homes. They are calling for relatives to come forward with their personal stories along with any photographs and letters. The “Lost Children Project” is being backed by the Heritage Lottery Fund. “The children were taken away from the back streets of Birmingham because they were seen as ‘gutter children’, ” says Professor Chinn. “In that period lots of middleclass people looked down on the poor – and there was a lot of poverty. “They didn’t see neighbourhoods and community ties, so they thought it was better to take children away from their homes, if it was an unhappy home or if there was a widow or an abandoned mother, and send them to the open spaces of Canada. “Some of them were fortunate. They went to good homes and did well but others were used as cheap labour and were very unhappy.” One unfortunate case involved a man, now aged 93, who emi- Children Emigration grated at the age of eight with his younger brother.
They were sent to separate farms miles apart. It was assumed that the boys were orphans – but the family has now found that there were eight brothers and sisters.
Only two of them were sent to Middlemore and abroad. The man and his family are desperate to trace his Brummie relatives before he dies.
The homes were founded by philanthropist Sir John Middlemore in 1872, with financial support from the Chamberlain and Cadbury families.
He would later become MP for Birmingham North.
“The children spent up to a year, on average, at the Middlemore Homes preparing for their epic journey,” says History Society spokeswoman Rowena Lyon.
“The girls were taught domestic duties while the boys were prepared for a life of farm labour.
“They were given a basic education and skills that would make them useful workers and give them an opportunity to prosper in their new life abroad.
“The children were taken overseas in large groups and then distributed to families when they arrived. Canadian farmers could specify how many children they wanted, of what age and which sex.
“For the colonies, it was a source of cheap labour and an opportunity to populate the Commonwealth with “good British stock” or “material” as the children were often called.
“What now seems a hugely misguided policy made sense to the politicians of the day.”
The majority of Middlemore residents have now died, and never made contact with their long-lost families.
Others found it too difficult, given the great distances and effort involved, to trace relatives.
The new research will eventually be turned into a book and major touring exhibition in 2020, featuring the case studies of the children.
The children were taken away from the back streets of Birmingham because they were seen as ‘gutter children’ Carl Chinn, below
> The former Middlemore Children’s Homes in Highgate