‘Uprooted: The Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867-1917’ by Roy Parker

Uprooted: The Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867-1917 contains 354 pages of painstakingly researched material (including 60 pages of notes, references etc.), but if that description makes you think that this must be a dry and dusty academic tome, think again. The story it tells is harrowing, and it has a cast of 80,000, a surprising number of them having speaking parts.

Uprooted tells of the children who were shipped off from the UK to Canada, focusing on the years 1867 to 1917, but also telling briefly of the early beginnings and describing the aftermath following the period under study. The current simplistic view is that this practice was awful – painful and damaging for the children, such that people now wonder how philanthropists such as Dr Barnardo could have ever got involved.

As always, such oversimplified views fail to reflect the complexity of the situation – the politics, the relationship between England (the old country) and Canada (the new Dominion), the economic pressures on countries and individuals, the arguments about the acceptability of the practice at the time, the influence of organisations and charismatic individuals, the failures and the successes, the differential approaches to young offenders, Poor Law children and others. Professor Parker’s book is thorough and covers all these angles, such that by the end the reader can build up a much more realistic picture of the issues involved.

It is not a quick read; the arguments and thinking are laid out carefully and they are substantiated with plenty of documentary references and individual examples. If the subject is of interest to you, you will find that this book will tell you all you need to know.

There are fourteen chapters, each broken into an average of five sections on different topics, such as the work of different organisations. As such, the range of material is too great to describe comprehensively in a review, but some tasters may be of help.


The overwhelming message is that the arguments which carried weight were not philanthropic but economic. Canada needed people to help develop the land, especially when there was the big expansion west, for example into Manitoba. There was concern that it was being peopled by immigrants from continental Europe, and British settlers were wanted. Of course, Canada wanted fit upright people – not unhealthy or disabled people or ne’er-do-wells who relied on the Poor Law. In particular they wanted strong lads who could work on farms and reliable girls who could help out in farm houses. Even in Canada there was the drift to the cities and they needed people to work the land.

From the British point of view, objections to child emigration depended to a large extent on the state of the economy too. When times were hard, there were fewer objections to sending surplus dependent children abroad. When the economy was booming, the girls were needed in domestic service in England, and boys were needed in the burgeoning cities.

Individuals and Organisations

One of the fascinating features of the whole period is the interplay between individuals and organisations. Most of the schemes (and there were 23 in operation at one time) were set up by forceful characters who persuaded and cajoled people at every stage that emigration was a good idea – the children’s parents, the local Poor Law Commissions, the Poor Law Board, donors to pay the fares, Canadian officials to provide transport on arrival, farmers and their wives to accept the children and so on.

Although the basic idea might be simple, making it work was not, and the most successful schemes had the backing of charitable organisations. However, without the drive of the individuals, nothing would have happened. Although the basic intentions of most of these entrepreneurs were good, Roy Parker makes it clear that many of them were prepared to try things on to keep their schemes going, making promises they did not keep, failing to follow up and check, misleading parents, losing sight of the children and, occasionally, probably making money out of the system.

Good Practice …..

A good model of practice appeared to emerge over time though it never seems to have been codified. This entailed obtaining parental permission, training the boys in farming and the girls in household tasks before emigration, having a home in the UKĀ  to gather the prospective emigrants, having a home in Canada from which they could disperse, arranging transport, checking out the placements in advance, siting children where they could be monitored, checking up on their progress at intervals, and returning them to the UK when things did not work out.

….. and Bad Practice

Unfortunately this model was applied in part at best, and a lot of the practice was appalling, particularly in the failure to follow up placements and see how children were getting on. Some of the individuals involved do not come out well, such as the shady W.J. Pady, who eventually lost credibility. More surprisingly Dr Barnardo emerges as manipulative and deceitful, for example outmanoeuvring the children’s parents to get his way and send children abroad contrary to the parents’ wishes.

Frequently children simply disappeared, perhaps leaving an unhappy placement and heading for the city or to the United States. They were, of course, vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. A proportion of the girls became pregnant, and in court their word was generally not accepted against the citizens whom they accused. Frequently the children were underfed, unschooled, expected to work long hours and beaten if they made mistakes or upset the farmer. Without anyone to turn to for support they were vulnerable.

However, it has to be said that it is dangerous to judge their experiences by today’s expectations. Life was hard for many people then, whether in the slums of British cities or on the new farms of Canada. To punish children severely was also acceptable practice to a large section of the population. Life may have been miserable for many of the emigrated children, but it also might have been miserable if they had remained at home.


It is hard to get a balanced picture of the process as a whole. Clearly there was a lot of misery and clearly there were some good experiences. Some returned to the UK; some made good. On balance the evidence comes from those who suffered – who had had bad employers, for example, or who had been told they were orphans when they were not. The system eventually withered.

In drawing together such a range of material (including a lot of fascinating photographs), analysing it and laying it out so lucidly, Professor Parker has provided a book which will be the standard text on the subject.

Parker, Roy (2009) Uprooted: The Shipment of Poor Children to Canada, 1867-1917

Policy Press, Bristol University

ISBN : 978-1-84742-668-0

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