Saturday, March 29, 2014

Britain’s Sea Evacuees: “The child, the best immigrant”

by Joan Fallon

Because children were young and malleable they were seen as the best category of immigrant - easy to assimilate , more adaptable and with a long working life ahead of them. The British Dominions loved them.

Something that only came to light a few years ago was the fact that thousands of children had been sent as child migrants to countries such as Australia and Canada from Britain and never knew their own parents. A social worker called Margaret Humphreys stumbled on this by accident in 1986, when a former child migrant asked her for assistance in locating her relatives. She has since formed the Child Migrant Trust and subsequently helped many people to be reunited with their families.

Throughout the late 19th century thousands of children were routinely sent out to the overseas British Dominions to start new lives, and this continued during the 20th century until as late as the 1960s. They were taken from orphanages run by religious and charitable institutions and despatched to Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Some were as young as four and five; others were teenagers. Most of the children came from deprived backgrounds and it was considered to be for their own good that they were plucked from poverty and sent to a country where there was good food and new opportunities for them. The receiving countries welcomed them - they needed people and children were so much easier to mould into their way of life than adults.

So when World War II broke out in 1939 there was already a precedent for sending children abroad to start new lives. June 1940 saw the start of heavy bombing raids across London and, with the threat of an enemy invasion becoming more and more real, it was then that the British government decided to set up the Children’s Overseas Reception Board to send children, whose parents could not afford to send them to safety, to the Dominions. They enlisted help from charities with experience of child migration, such as the Barnado’s Homes, Fairbridge Farm Schools, the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church. However the plan was not warmly received by everyone - Winston Churchil thought it was a defeatist move and others warned of the disruption it would cause to families. Nevertheless within two weeks CORB had received over 200,000 applications from parents who wanted to send their children to safety. Parents often volunteered the names of relatives or friends who would look after the children in their new country and homes were found for the others by CORB representatives or the charities.

In the first few months CORB despatched over three thousand children to the Dominions. Then tragedy struck. All shipping traffic was subject to attacks from German U-boats and on 17th September 1940, the City of Benares, sailing from Liverpool for Canada with 197 passengers on board, was torpedoed and sunk in the Atlantic. Ninety of the passengers were children. It was a dreadful night, gale-force winds and driving rain - 131 of the crew and 134 passengers killed, among them seventy CORB children.

The reaction in Britain was one of horror and recrimination. It had already been suggested that it was too risky to send children overseas during the war; now the sceptics had been proved correct. It was decided that no more children were to be sent to the Domninions unless their ship was in a protective convoy. As there were not enough ships to use in the convoys that meant the end of the Sea Evacuee scheme. The children had to take their chance in Britain. Unlike other child migrants, most of the sea evacuees returned to Britain once the war was over. But child migration continued until 1967 when the last nine children were sent to Australia by the Barnado’s Homes charity.

In my novel ‘The Only Blue Door’, the three children are sent to Australia under the CORB scheme in one of the last ships to take sea evacuees to the Dominions. Unlike the other CORB children they are sent from an orphanage which had taken them in, believing them to be orphans.

If you want to read more about this topic I can recommend New Lives for Old by Roger Kershaw and Janet Sacks, Innocents Abroad by Edward Stokes and Margaret Humphreys’ book Empty Cradles.


Joan Fallon was born in Scotland, but spent most of her formative life in the south of England.    After a brief spell working in industry, she became a teacher and later a management consultant specialising in Behavioural Studies.  In 1998 she and her husband moved to Spain to live.  At last she could do what she had always wanted to; she took a creative writing course and began to write.  Her novels are aimed mainly at the women’s commercial fiction market and, almost invariably, centre on a strong female character and explore the emotions and relationships of the protagonist.  Being a History graduate, Joan enjoys setting her novels in a historical context, researching either English or Spanish history.,fallon-joan-9780957689138


  1. Many of the child migrants who came to Australia were treated abominably. The horrible irony was that they were transported on luxury liners and given new suitcases, but once they got here their new suitcases were taken from them and they were sent to isolated institutions, many run by the Catholic Church, where they were treated as slave labour and given little if any education.

    1. Yes, Pauline, as I show in my novel, The Only Blue Door, the time spent on the ship going to Australia was the best time the children ever had. Once they arrived at the orphanages their new clothes and shoes were taken away from them.

  2. Yes, they were often told their parents were dead, siblings were split up. It was dreadful!

  3. ... There's a very good children's novel about this, Orphans Of The Queen, by Ruth Starke, set in the early 50s, when the young Queen Elizabeth visited Australia.

    1. There was also a wonderful TV series called The Leaving of Liverpool

  4. This was amazing. I've heard about Orphan trains to Canada, but I had no idea that programs like that were still in existence in the 1960s. The books mentioned, in the post and in comments, all sound very interesting.


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