Placing Out

In 1607 the British Virginia Company commenced its colonization of the North American coastline with a settlement at Jamestown. Unfortunately, few of the early gentleman adventurers were personally amenable to the colossal physical challenges involved in creating settlements in the wilderness. With some urgency the authorities in London looked for sources of cheap labor, and many convicted felons were reprieved and despatched to Virginia. However, the demand for labor was insatiable and the available prison population proved insufficient. Sir Thomas Smythe, director of the Virginia Company, considered the possibilities of rounding up London "vagrants," that is, abandoned, illegitimate, and runaway children and teenagers–poor, idle, and normally male–and "placing them out" in the Americas as indentured servants.

In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, placing out children in the American colonies where labor was needed was popularly associated with either the criminal justice system or common kidnapping. The first hundred "vagrants" were despatched from the London area to Virginia in 1618, their passage arranged by the city fathers. The Privy Council legalized the dispatch of "vagrant and recalcitrant" children to Virginia on January 31, 1620. Two further groups were sent by 1623. The requirements of the colonial labor market were met, partly from the recruiting activities of religious enthusiasts and philanthropists, but mainly by the organized efforts of emigration agents, known as spirits in popular parlance. The term had pejorative overtones; the dark underside of normal indentured servant recruitment was kidnapping. It was easier to snatch young people than it was to suborn adults, and some children living near major ports were simply kidnapped for indentured service in the Americas.

Child migration (in English parlance) or placing out (the American usage) had a long and checkered history, almost always surrounded by controversy and scandal. It was, actually, never a single policy pursued continuously; rather it was a complex tangle of competing private schemes, government initiatives, charismatic personalities, muddled priorities, and confused agendas. It was critically affected by the economic, political, and social pressures of particular times. Placing out young people as servants or apprentices was common in Elizabethan and Jacobean England. Service was the norm for plebeian youth until they came of age or married. During the American War of Independence and the long Napoleonic wars, the British army and navy absorbed tens of thousands of teenagers and young men who would previously have found indentured service in the North American colonies.

After the wars, amid great social distress in Britain, two small philanthropic efforts were made to place children abroad. In the years 1830 through 1841, the Children's Friend Society sent some boys to the Cape Colony in South Africa and to Toronto in CANADA; and in the 1850s, Lord Shaftesbury supported the St. Pancras Board of Guardians sending a small number of teenagers to the British West Indies. In the 1850s, placing out at-risk children from the grim slums of east-coast American cities such as New York, Boston, and Baltimore was begun by the Reverend CHARLESLORING BRACE. The children were despatched in groups by rail on what were called ORPHAN TRAINS, to be fostered by families in the farming states of the Midwest. In the years 1854 to 1932, over 100,000 were placed out in this program.

Placing Out Peaks

Child migration to Canada peaked from the 1870s until the start of World War I and was triggered by desperate economic conditions over the previous few years: the social havoc caused by the 1866 cholera epidemic; the bad harvest of 1867; and widespread unemployment during a cyclic downturn in the economy. It was during this period that Annie Macpherson, Thomas Barnardo, and William Booth (the founder of the Salvation Army) commenced their work among the poorest and most destitute in the East End of London. To them, and to many other religious workers, emigration, including the forced migration of abandoned children, seemed the one certain way for the desperately poor to better themselves. Some eighty thousand children were sent to Canada during those years.

Child migration to the Australian states came toward the end of a long experience with the policy elsewhere. In the early twentieth century, new migration enthusiasts got involved, stressing that children should be trained in colonial orphanages before they were placed with colonial farmers. The dominating figure in this phase was Kingsley Fairbridge, who was offered land south of Perth by the Western Australian government in 1911 to pioneer his farm-school initiative. After an epic struggle Fairbridge and his supporters established their venture securely, and other farm schools followed in New South Wales and Victoria.

With the outbreak of World War I, migration from the British Isles was suspended, and when it recommenced in 1920, the numbers of children sent were never on the same scale. By 1920, powerful interest groups in Canada opposed the entry of unaccompanied juveniles and throughout the following decade child migration to Canada diminished. The Great Depression finally ended the program. As Canada barred the entry of unaccompanied juveniles, the voluntary societies focused their attention increasingly on AUSTRALIA, where, in the buoyant 1920s, governments favored their entry. Barnardo sent 872 children to New South Wales in the 1920s; Fairbridge continued his work and 918 children arrived in Western Australia during this period.

After World War II, nearly five hundred child migrants were brought to Australia, most of them under Catholic auspices and most sent to Western Australia. Thereafter, Fairbridge and Barnardo and many other groups brought in some children, but numbers remained small. Overall, about thirty-five hundred children came to Australia, around half of them to Catholic institutions. In 1950, Maltese child migrants were placed in orphanages in Western Australia. During the next decade some 280 boys arrived under this scheme. However, by this stage the enduring phenomenon in social engineering was becoming anachronistic. Times had changed; the social conditions and attitudes that had led to children being sent abroad were disappearing. Grinding poverty was being reduced and the social services of the welfare state were being extended, and it became the norm to care for children closer to home.

See also: Apprenticeship; Foster Care; Orphans; Work and Poverty.


Corbett, Gail H. 2002. Nation Builders: Barnardo Children in Canada. Toronto: Dundum Press.

Holt, Marilyn. 1992. The Orphan Trains: Placing Out in America. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Sherington, Geoffrey, and Chris Jeffrey. 1998. Fairbridge: Empireand Child Migration. Nedlands: University of Western Australia Press.