Fairbridge offered a helping hand to children

Patrick A. Dunae, Special to Times Colonist
Published Sunday, November 22, 2009

British child migrants are in the news. Last week, Australia's prime minister apologized for condoning child immigration. Britain's prime minister said he will apologize on behalf of the British government for its historical policies of promoting child emigration. Since Canada received around 80,000 of Britain's child migrants, some people think our prime minister should offer an apology, too.

Fairbridgians at the farm school, 1942.

In Canada, they were known as Home Children, because they were recruited from charity homes and sent under the auspices of philanthropic agencies, notably Dr. Barnardo's Homes. They were boarded out with farm families. After-care polices were inadequate and some of the children were mistreated. This was one reason why the Canadian government decided to end juvenile immigration in 1925.

It resumed in a small way 10 years later, when the Fairbridge Society opened a residential farm school for disadvantaged British children at Cowichan Station. The farm school operated for nearly 20 years and received close to 400 children. Recently, a few people have pointed to it as a symbol of the suffering and humiliation associated with British home children. But the indictment might be misplaced.

The society was named for Kingsley Fairbridge, a Rhodes Scholar who established a farm school in Western Australia in 1912. He sought to create a nurturing environment where disadvantaged British children could receive a basic education and acquire vocational skills that would enable them to become successful farmers and homemakers.

In the Fairbridge model, children resided at the farm school and attended state-run day schools until they were 15 years old. They spent the next year working on the farm as "trainees," before being sent to outside employment. A portion of their wages was remitted to the farm school administrators, who banked the money until they were 21 years old. The idea was to provide all Fairbridgians with a nest egg to help them on their way to independence.

Fairbridge died in 1924, but his supporters (who included Rhodes Scholars from British Columbia) persuaded immigration officials in Ottawa to allow a farm school here.

The scheme got underway in 1934 when The Times of London organized a fundraising appeal. The Prince of Wales contributed $10,000 and allowed the enterprise to use his name. Rudyard Kipling also made a substantial donation. With these funds, the society purchased the site at Cowichan Station. With material resources donated by lumber magnate H.R. Macmillan, the site was developed.

The provincial government provided an operating grant and representatives of its Child Welfare Branch sat on the management board of the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School. The British child migrants sent to the farm school thus enjoyed a social prestige and level of care that distinguished them from earlier generations of Home Children. They lived in a village-like setting, in duplex cottages that accommodated about a dozen youngsters and a "cottage mother." The site included a schoolhouse, gymnasium, dining hall, chapel and infirmary. The facility was unique in the annals of child welfare in Canada. Ultimately, it was too expensive to maintain and in 1951 it closed.

Next to the Dionne Quintuplets, Fairbridgians were the best-known children in Canada. They featured in countless heartwarming accounts in newspapers and radio broadcasts. The facility attracted an endless stream of distinguished visitors, including Agnes Macphail, the highly regarded MP and social reformer. Following her visit in 1942, she said that Fairbridge-style farm schools should be established across the country.

There was no stigma to being a Fairbridge child migrant. Of course, the farm school was not idyllic and a couple of problems required interventions by child welfare authorities. But in general, it was well-run and most former Fairbridgians recall it positively. They also appreciate that their welfare was endangered in Britain. The Fairbridgians who came to Canada were not snatched from happy families. In many instances, they had been apprehended by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children because they had been badly neglected by their parents or guardians. Some of the Fairbridgians were orphans, a couple were foundlings.

For disadvantaged and dependent children like these, resettlement in Canada to a community like the Fairbridge Farm School at Cowichan Station offered many advantages.

A member of the History department at the University of Victoria, Patrick Dunae is completing a book on the Fairbridge farm school. He has been privileged to attend Fairbridge alumni reunions.
Times Colonist (Victoria) 2009