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FEATURE: The history of Dr Barnardo’s children’s charity

Wickham Skeith school in 1913 ANL-141217-111915001
Wickham Skeith school in 1913 ANL-141217-111915001

Maggie Brook, one of the first Barnardo’s girls who came to Wickham Skeith in 1891, died of tuberculosis in 1900, seven years after she left the village and went to live with a family in Canada.

Her tragic death was grieved at a “beautiful and solemn burial service” according to an extract from the Barnardo’s ‘Ups and Downs’ magazine in 1900.

The number of children supported by Barnardo’s in Suffolk from circa 1890-1950 has been an area of particular interest in the research of Peter Davidson, chairman of the Wickham Skeith history group. It is a little known fact that between 1890 and 1950 thousands of children from Dr Barnardo’s were fostered with families in rural East Anglia. His research was showcased in an exhibition held at Wickham Skeith village hall this summer, near Eye, which traced the stories- both happy and sad- of some of the children affected. Dedicated to the memory of Doris Mullenger, a local Barnardo’s girl who died on Christmas Day 2013, Mr Davidson claims that the event was a great success which enjoyed a good turnout. Former Barnardo’s foster children who came included Lionel Brett from Dorset, aged 97, who was fostered in Wickham Skeith from 1923-1927, and the event was also attended by two ladies from Barnardo’s ‘Making Connections’.

A particularly shocking aspect of Mr Davidson’s research has been the number of children who, like Maggie, were migrated under the direction of Barnardo’s. Indeed, Barnardo’s policy in 1911 appealed for funds to transform ‘nobody’s children’ into ‘Empire builders’- labelling the entire enterprise as something of an imperial investment.

Thirty of the children boarded in the local area before World War One were sent to Canada, often only at the ages of nine or ten. In total, Mr Davidson was astounded to find that more than 100,000 children were sent to Canada in total between 1870 and 1930. Of these, 30,000 came from Dr Barnardo’s.

He said: “it’s an important aspect of the history of rural East Anglia which needs to be better known”.

Child migration- a policy which had been mainstream child care practice- occurred particularly between the years 1882 and 1939.

It was believed that by moving to a different country a child would be given a new start in life and be exposed to new opportunities.

The policy was supported by British and overseas governments alike and Dr Barnardo’s was one of many children’s charities involved in the programme.

The charity stated in 1906 that,‘for many of our children, emigration cuts the cord that in this country would bind them to degraded relatives and seriously handicap their futures’.

Overall the organisation was responsible for relocating around 27,000 children to Canada between the years 1882 and 1928, the annual outflow constituting between 14 per cent and 19 per cent of the total number of children in the care of Barnardo’s until 1907 - when the practice started to decline.

There was of course opposition to the migration scheme, as shown by the case of William Collins and his wife Ethel from Wickham Skeith. When Barnardo’s proposed that their two fostered girls Alice Jessup and Julia Stevens should be migrated to Canada, the pair protested.

They fought so hard in fact that the two were adopted in July 1922- a principle which had been strongly opposed by Dr Barnardo himself, who considered himself to be adoptive father to all children in his charity’s care.

Evidence such as this illustrates the enormous amount of love which was channelled towards some of the Barnardo’s children within the community as well as the fact that not everyone unquestioningly supported the child migration scheme which has, in recent years, been exposed for its many damaging consequences.

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