Children sent from Scotland to British colonies ‘to ensure Empire was populated by white British stock’ suffered sexual abuse, inquiry hears

  • The inquiry heard that child migrants suffered a ‘catalogue of abuse’
  • Most children were sent to Canada and Australia, fewer to Southern Rhodesia 
  • Colin MacAulay QC argued that consent of the child or family was not given

A great number of children sent from Scotland to British colonies ‘to ensure Empire was populated by white British stock’ suffered a ‘catalogue of abuse’, the Scotish Child Abuse Inquiry was told today. 

According to Colin MacAulay QC, children who were sent overseas to make sure countries were populated by white Britons suffered ‘sexual abuse, physical abuse and deprivation’. 

Mr MacAulay gave his closing remarks to the inquiry today as he set out his interpretation of evidence gathered during the child migrant case study. 

File image: Children leaving Outer Hebrides on board the Canadian Pacific liner the SS Marloch on their way to a new life in Canada in April 1924. There is no indication these children were sexually abused

He said: ‘Many child migrants experienced a catalogue of sexual abuse, physical abuse, deprivation, inadequate education and many other forms of abuse.

‘There was a desire to ensure that the empire was populated by white British stock.’ 

The inquiry heard that the majority of children were sent to Canada and Australia, fewer to colonies such as Southern Rhodesia, initially as a form of punishment which later developed into a humanitarian act. 

Although it was believed the emigrated children could pursue a better quality of life, there was little effort to ensure their living standards were suitable enough, resulting in lifelong impacts from loneliness and poor education.  

The inquiry before Judge Lady Smith, the chair of the Scottish Child Abuse Inquiry, continues

Mr MacAulay told the inquiry it was often the case that informed consent of the child or family was not given.

He argued many of the children were too young to understand the way in which their lives would be altered by taking part in the programmes, which appear to have finished in 1970.

The inquiry before judge Lady Smith in Edinburgh continues.

Children as young as three were shipped to far-flung fringes of Empire to fill the colonies with ‘good, white British stock’

Child migration was a key part of Britain’s child care strategy for centuries. 

The origins of the scheme go back to 1618 when a hundred children were sent from London to Virginia in what is now the US. 

The final party arrived in Australia in 1970. Child migration removed more than 130,000 children from the United Kingdom to Canada, New Zealand, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and Australia. 

Map shows the main areas of Empire where Children were sent: North America, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Australia and New Zealand

Children were removed  from their parents, often without knowledge or consent and were shipped off to countries thousands of miles away. 

The main purpose of the scheme was to ensure the colonies were populated by white Britons but they were also seen as cheap labour on Canada’s farms or as a way to boost Australia’s post-war population.

In 1938 the Archbishop of Perth in Australia was clear: ‘If we do not supply from our own stock, we are leaving ourselves all the more exposed to the menace of the teeming millions of our neighbouring Asiatic races.’

Although child migration initially started as a form of punishment, it eventually became a humanitarian act; the promise of a better future and opportunities in a foreign land. 

Many national child care charities, the Church of England, the Methodist Church, the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church played major roles in child migration. 

Norman Johnston was sent to Australia when he was seven years old

Children between the ages of three and 14 were sent abroad  without any legal documents or passports to start a new life. 

But the reality was different as the majority were sent to spend their childhoods in institutions and farm schools, living under horrendous conditions and suffering physical and sexual abuse.

Norman Johnston, from Aberdeen, was one of the thousands Scots who was sent abroad. He was only seven years old when he believes he was drugged and as he was asleep he was placed on a ship in Southampton and shipped off to Christian Brothers’ Boys’ Home in Castledare in Western Australia without his mother knowing.

In later life he became a strong voice in the campaign for justice on behalf of former child migrants.

Roddy Mackay from Edinburgh was shipped off to Canada from Liverpool in in 1941 at the age of six.

He was sent to Fairbridge Farm School in British Columbia to work as a labourer where he said he suffered severe physical abuse. 

The children were usually told their parents were dead and many of them never found out if they had any existing relatives. 


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