THE UN­WANTED New light shed on one of the Sec­ond City’s most shame­ful his­toric se­crets

Birmingham Post - - FEATURE - Mike Lock­ley Fea­tures Staff

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

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