Alone across the world

Media release: Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Child migration in the twentieth century was not something new. Britain had been shipping children off-shore since 1620 when 100 street kids were rounded up and sent to America. Well into the 1700s poor children were kidnapped and shipped to the colonies to meet the ongoing need for labour.

Mairi Popplewell from the National Archives of Australia's Brisbane office is sharing the secrets of child migration found in archival records, in two public seminars in Brisbane on 15 and 19 June.

'When Australia was settled, it became a new destination for child migrants,' said Mairi. 'Initially large numbers of boy convicts, some as young as 10, were transported to Australia. Most had no parents, no homes and no schooling so a life of crime was their only chance of survival.'

A wide range of religious and charitable organisations had sprung up in Britain in the nineteenth century to ship poor children to what was seen as a better life. While child migrants were generally described as 'orphans', many poor parents were urged to show how much they loved their children by signing over guardianship.

'In the 1910s and 1920s more than 1,500 boys came to Australia under the Barwell farm apprenticeship scheme, which aimed to recruit farm apprentices to 'restock' South Australia after the heavy loss of young lives during World War I,' said Mairi Popplewell.

Then, from 1911, about 7,500 British boys came out under the Dreadnought Scheme to train as farmers. While many found satisfaction, others faced loneliness, homesickness and culture shock, especially city boys who found farm life strange and difficult.

In 1913 the first Fairbridge Farm School was set up in Western Australia but the high ideals of founder Kingsley Fairbridge did not survive his death in 1924. One of the many files held in the National Archives noted that many Fairbridge children bitterly resented the fact that they had no choice about being sent to Australia. In the early 1920s the first Barnardos children arrived and the Salvation Army began sending children to Australia. More than 12,000 boys came out under the Big Brother Movement which began in 1925.

In 1956 the British Home Office sent a fact finding committee to Australia to study institutions taking child migrants, with a secret report to the Home Office very critical of some Australian institutions.

The public seminars will be held on Saturday 15 June and Wednesday, 19 June from 10 to 11.30 am at the National Archives, 16 Corporate Drive, Cannon Hill, Brisbane. More information is available at

Contact information

  • Mairi Popplewell (Assistant director, Brisbane Office)
    t (07) 3249 4205
Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019