British Home Children: Antique box tells heart-breaking history

Antique box full of slides
Image caption,The antique box filled with slides was first discovered at a Glasgow auction house in 2018.

By Eloise Alanna

BBC News

Five years after it was discovered in a Scottish auction house in Glasgow, a long wooden box of about 80 glass negatives is now in Canada, where it is putting a spotlight on the heart-breaking history of the British Home Children.

The child migration scheme sent a group of 100,000 impoverished children from Britain to overseas colonies between 1869 and the 1940s. The images discovered inside this humble wooden box in 2018 – now seen for the first time – reveal much about a difficult history shared by the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth.

“This box is a critical part of our history,” Lori Oschefski, president of the charity Home Children Canada who has just purchased the box for the foundation’s archives, said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. By far, it’s the most complete box that I have ever seen.”

Thousands of orphaned and poor children were sent to fill the labour shortages overseas during the late Victorian era. Although the incentives were to give these young children a better life, the reality was very different. Children were unpaid and had no choice in their move. They were separated from family, and many were abused or neglected by those that took them in as cheap labour.

British Home Children
Image caption,British Home Children seen during a typical work day.

It is now a major aspect of many Canadians’ shared history. An estimated 10% of Canada’s population – around 4 million people – are descendants of the British Home Children. The vast majority are not aware of their stories, however, as most children did not tell their descendants about the past.

While Australia and the UK apologised for the forced migration of child labourers more than a decade ago, Ms Oschefski said there is some resentment over a fast-tracked motion in Canada’s House of Commons that included an unofficial apology.

There was also no warning of its passage, meaning descendants and surviving British Home Children were not given an opportunity to speak, Ms Oschefski said. George Beardshaw, a 100-year-old man who is one of two surviving British Home Children, said he wants to ensure this part of Canadian history is not lost.

Canada “was built on the backs of these children and that needs to be recognised and needs never to be forgotten”, Ms Oschefski said.

These photos may help ensure that these boys’ stories remain in the public eye.

The boys in the pictures

The pictures in the box are of young boys on a farm in Scotland owned by George Carter Cossar. The farmer also owned a homestead in Gagetown – a small town in New Brunswick, Canada.

Mr Cossar’s farm in Scotland operated as a kind of training ground for young Scottish boys before they were shipped out abroad.

British Home Children working in the fields
Image caption,British Home Children working in the fields.

Some images show the boys working on the farm or playing football, and others depict young children looking as if they have just arrived from the slums of Glasgow. There are pictures of a grand house, and there is an image of some of the young boys in their Sunday best in front of a large ship.

Old-fashioned projectors, known as magic lanterns, would be used to show pictures such as these in places like church halls across Great Britain. They would appear alongside cartoons and news items.

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