The Dark and Twisted History of the Children's Friend Society

The Children's Friend Society is among the most misleadingly-named charities in history. Supported by wealthy Londoners in the 1800s, the group promised to "do something" about the appalling abundance of vagrant children in England. And they did do something: the children disappeared. What came next was horrifying.

The Vagrant Child Problem

In 1830, Captain Edward Pelham Brenton founded The Children's Friend Society, a group that he believed would help relieve the terrible suffering of the vagrant children of England. He was right that children needed help. Homelessness and hunger were rampant. Something needed to be done, and in his travels, he had seen the opportunities that life in the colonies could bring to young people. Across the oceans were decent jobs and cheap lodgings. But in England, labor was worth nearly nothing and the life of laborers not worth much more. Abandoned or orphaned children begged and stole.


Brenton's wrote a book, The Bible and the Spade, which outlined the moral influences that he thought needed to be brought into these children's lives. It became the guiding principle of his Children's Friend Society.

The society was popular among the London elite and in do-gooder circles.Two years into its tenure, The Children's Friend Society had taken in a large group of vagrant children. The children were loaded onto boats, never to see their homes again.

One boat was sent to the Swan River Colony in Australia. The colony had been founded in 1829, only a year before the society itself. By 1830, word came back that nearly all the ships that attempted to make the passage were damaged, if not wrecked, the colony was in shambles, the colonists were starving, and the land was impossible to cultivate. By 1832, when the children were sent, things had improved. The colonists weren't starving, but they were exhausted because making the land suitable for agriculture required back-breaking labor. That was what the children were for.


The other boatload of children went to Cape Town, in Africa. There, the children were able to work while pushing out the Dutch - who had previously had control of the colony - and engaging in border wars with the Xhosa tribe, who were also being pushed out by settlers. The voyages were considered so successful that, the next year, two more boatloads of children went out to Canada.

The Child Labor Tradition

Brenton's boats were far from the first to export child labor. In fact, his society was part of a two-hundred-year tradition. Jamestown was founded in Virginia in 1608. In 1615, when labor was short, Britain sent convicts to make up for the shortage. Then, in 1619, 1620, and 1622, vagrant children were shipped off instead of convicts. The year-long pause in the shipping in 1621 came because of public outcry, and a massacre of 350 Jamestown colonists.


By 1645, "spiriting" away poor children - some street kids, some not - had become a tradition. As had the tradition of giving syrupy names to the groups behind it. The Corporation for the Propagation of the Gospel in New England sent 200 kids from Bristol to the Americas as cheap labor.


But not everyone was won over by nice names. The mass kidnappings had finally prompted an outcry from English citizens, and so, in 1645, Parliament passed a law against forced emigration of children.

While the practice was no longer legal, it continued, despite efforts to register emigrants leaving on the ships. Reports of hundreds of children being kidnapped and shipped over to the Americas surfaced sporadically in the next few centuries. Scottish children seemed particularly targeted. In Aberdeen, in the mid-1700s, multiple public officials and business people were caught up in a forced emigration scandal, though it only led to a civil trial. American independence and a US population that had begun to expand stopped the flow of children to the Americas, but other colonies still needed labor. Again, societies started by exporting convicts, and moved to exporting children.


The End of the Orphan Trains

The 1800s made the forcible emigration of children popular. Most organizations that engaged in the practice were a strange mix of benevolent and malevolent. Ragged Schools - famous for providing free education to the poor and starting the concept of public education - received grants to send children to Australia. Poor Law Guardians, meant to see to the needs of those in debt or out of work, were legally allowed to send children to the West Indies. Orphan trains crossed the United States, essentially giving orphan children to whoever wanted them.


And then there were the Home Children. Annie Macpherson was a Quaker who could not abide the poverty she saw in the East End of London. She opened up a Home of Industry - a refitted cholera hospital - for 200 young street children. But there were always more children. Macpherson came to believe that emigration was the only option.


She personally accompanied parties of children to specially-built institutions in South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. The institutions sometimes did their best to find the children loving, safe homes. And sometimes they did not. Children were often used as cheap, expendable farm labor. They were told their parents were dead, and that they had nothing to go back to. The child migration program continued well into the 1940s. During its course, it transported over 100,000 children.

Captain Brenton, of the Children's Friend Society, died in disgrace. His methods were reckless enough to bring down society's ire within his lifetime. But 100 of his "children" attended his funeral, and that was an image that endured. These societies managed to maintain themselves because they mixed some good in with a great social wrong. As long as no one was willing to build the children homes, and no one wanted to see them on the street, nobody cared too much about where they went.


[Via The Bible and the Spade, Settlement of the Swan, Cape Town, A Child Migration Timeline, Miss Macpherson's Home of Industry, Child Migrant Apology Planned.]

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