Kyril FitzLyon

Human Cargo

Children of the Empire

By Gillian Wagner

Weidenfield & Nicolson 248pp illus £10.95 order from our bookshop

The frontispiece to this remarkable book reproduces an 1882 advertisement in a weekly evangelical magazine – a strip cartoon representing, consecutively, children in a doss-house, huddled together under a bridge, being led and carried away by a rescue worker presumably to a waifs-and-strays home, on a railway platform setting out for Canada, and meeting their adopted parents there. In the last picture of all a boy behind a plough with its team of horses, joyfully waves his cap. From misery to happiness, from sickness to health. Another strip from a different magazine illustrates the transition from a life of destruction and crime (boy stealing a loaf of bread) to an Arcadian existence in Australia (same boy who in the preceding generation would not have escaped the gallows for stealing the bread in the first place, reading a book in the shade of a tree, with a shepherd’s crook in one hand, guarding – somewhat absent-mindedly – a flock of Douanier Rousseau-like sheep). An alternative view is expressed in an 1869 cartoon by George organisers of child emigration. This protracted (over 300 years) episode in British history has by now been almost forgotten. A Freudian forgetfulness perhaps, for the ‘episode’ came to an end only thirty years ago and affected the lives of thousands of English children. About a hundred thousand of them were sent across the Atlantic in the movement’s heyday which lasted for half a century from the 1870s to the 1920s.

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