The People, Places, Events, Customs and More from the Victorian Era. Please Scroll Down to Explore Links to Other Sites of Historical Interest:

Friday, 6 May 2011

“Bound for the Streets…Unless Kindly Hearts and Hands Take Them Away For Ever.” Or: The Child Migration of Victorian ‘Wastrels’

It’s no secret that in the last two centuries thousands of Brits were sent to colonies, either as punishment, or to live a supposedly better life. The great majority of these were convicts, but a good deal were also children. Last year, then Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued an apology on behalf of Great Britain to all the families of children who had been sent abroad for one of these ‘better lives’ in the 1920’s and 1930’s. (You can read about that here)
But we can look a little further back than that, and zoom in on London, and in particular, Peckham, in the 1870’s, right up until 1915.

Whilst thumbing through Leisure Hour from 1877, an article entitled ‘Wastrels’ caught my eye (I find the Victorian poor much more interesting than the Victorian high society) and read on. The article, from the 10th March 1877 issue, singled out the good work of a Miss Maria Rye and her home for destitute children for particular praise:

Leisure Hour, March 10th 1877:
Miss Maria S. Rye continues her good work in saving destitute and deserted children, and preparing them for emigration to Canada. An attempt was made last year to throw discredit on Miss Rye’s work, a (Roman Catholic) commissioner, himself impartial, but open to hostile hints, having reported some disparaging statements from the priests and others.
The Canadian parliament took notice of these statements, and expressed renewed confidence in Miss Rye’s work, and it has been asserted without contradiction that nineteen-twentieths of the children have done well. From the home, at Avenue House, High Street, Peckham, Miss Rye writes:-
“Quietly, week by week, and month by month, we have steadily gone on gathering in from here and from there those neglected , forsaken, or destitute little ones known as gutter children, or, more lately, as Lord Sandon’s wastrels. This ingathering from the street is slow work; we have ignorance and prejudices to combat; but in spite of these and other obstacles, we still receive here into this Home on an average of one to two children a week, so that between 300 and 400 children have passed through this Home and been placed out in life during the past four years. The term ‘wastrels’ exactly describes the miserable and unhappy class of children with whom we have to deal. City missionaries bring them to us because they have been found wandering without any home (a whole family of four was so brought a few months ago), because the father is dead and the mother of disreputable or of an uproarious character, threatening to throw herself out of windows; in another case the children had, with their father, been wandering about the streets all night, and could only be compared, for weeks after coming to us, to limp rag dolls, falling right or left as placed on their chairs or little stools.
Even today, not an hour before I began writing this letter, a child seven years was brought in so intoxicated (not the first instance, either) that it took two of us to hold her, and we have had to administer an emetic. Wastrels, indeed! Poor little doomed, miserable morsels, bound for the streets and the gaol unless kindly hearts and hands take them away for ever.”

So on the off-chance that there may be a bit more information out there about this woman, Maria Rye, and her home, I did a little research:

Born in 1829, it turns out that Maria Rye was quite an important (and controversial) figure in the development of child migration schemes to Canada in the late 1860s. She founded the Female Middle Class Emigration Society in 1861 which provided interest-free loans, repayable over a period of two years and four months, to enable educated women to emigrate. The Society was also responsible for sending groups of young women to Australia, Canada and New Zealand, and, to assist in this, established and maintained correspondents at most colonial ports to which female emigrants might be sent. In 1862, Maria sailed to New Zealand with the first party sent out by the Society, and went on to Australia, from where she did not return to England until 1865.
Maria Rye

After returning to England, Maria turned her attention to the rescue of poorhouse and orphaned children, and in 1869 concentrated specifically on assisting young Workhouse girls, typically between the ages of 5 and 12. She appealed for £1000 to finance a scheme to do this good work in a letter to The Times in March 1869, and clearly received the money from someone as six months after the letter appeared in the newspaper, the first party of 76 children, many of whom were from Liverpool-based workhouse schools, sailed from Liverpool to Canada on the SS Hibernian.

The Penny Illustrated Paper of June 22nd 1872, mentions Maria’s sterling work, and reports that a further donation has enabled her to open her home for ‘wastrels’ in Peckham:
'More than 600 orphans or deserted children have been rescued from an irregular vagabond life, fed, clothes, trained, and taken to Canada... through the liberality of a friend of the charity, who placed £500 at her disposal, Miss Rye has opened a home at Avenue House, High-street, Peckham, where ten children, lately taken from the streets, are now being fed, clothed, and prepared for a better course of life in the New World. Their ages range from eight to thirteen. Such a charity is certainly deserving of support'.
Avenue House
Reports of Maria’s Home for Destitute Children in Peckham, which opened on the 13th July 1872, describe a home capable of housing up to 80 children with its own laundry, school house, playground and a two acre garden. Most children spent up to a year at the home before they were migrated to Canada via Liverpool and Quebec, from where they would travel by train to the reception home at Niagara, called 'Our Western Home'. This former jail and courthouse could accommodate up to 120 children.

In May 1873, almost a year after the home opened, the Penny Illustrated Paper once again mentioned Maria, this time in a report stating that she had, following the two previous donations for her work, received a third, this time 'in aid of her Emigration Home for Destitute Little Girls at Peckham.’

Seemingly most people felt she was doing good work, but was she?

In 1874 the Local Government Board sent one of its senior inspectors, Andrew Doyle, to investigate and report back with his findings on the conditions for workhouse children being sent to Canada, with a particular focus on the former jail in Niagara where children were sent on to from the Peckham home by Maria. Doyle found that:
'Many who were sent into service suffered hardship, ill-treatment and deprivation'.
Doyle's report was so critical of both the policy and the practice – especially regarding Maria’s scheme – that the Local Government Board stopped the emigration of children from workhouses in March 1875.

However, The Leisure Hour article I began this post with is from 1877 – two years after Doyle’s report – which suggests, strangely, that the ban on child emigration only lasted two years, though I couldn’t find out why.
That wasn’t the only article in the Leisure Hour to praise Maria’s work. I also found this from 24th March 1877, fourteen weeks after the first article, which appears to be aimed at quelling the upset caused by the government report of two years previous:

Leisure Hour, March 24th 1877:
The terrible mortality recently reported in a metropolitan orphanage – 402 out of 480 children having died – has led to enquiries and comparisons with other institutions. The most remarkable instance of good management and its result was shown in Miss Rye’s home for destitute children, Avenue House, High Street, Peckham. The children there are not infants, as in the Carlisle orphanage, but the contrast as to mortality is still striking. Miss Rye says:-
“We have had in this house, with between 300 and 400 children through the Home – children of all ages, and always brought in in a half-starved and semi-nude condition – we have never yet, thank God! Had one death. You will probably say, ‘but what of the mortality in Canada? Your children only remain in your London home for a short time.’ True; in Canada in six years, out of 1,100 children, we have had fifteen deaths, and of these six accidental.”

Clearly the Leisure Hour believed Maria was doing excellent work, and allowed her the above as a response of sorts to Andrew Doyle’s report.

After a serious illness in 1895 Maria retired, passing the management of her home, and of Our Western Home at Niagara onto the Church of England Waifs and Strays Society, which continued to send girls to the home in Niagara until 1914 when the home was sold. In 1924, a house in Toronto was purchased by the Church of England Society for the purpose of placing girls as domestics. This home was named the Elizabeth Rye Home, but closed in 1933.

After her retirement, Maria moved to Hemel Hempstead where she lived with her sister. She died there of Cancer in 1903.

If anyone wants to know more about this subject, perhaps for genealogy purposes, then I recommend the website of the University of Waterloo (Canada) which you can access by clicking here

Emma Jolly, from genealogy and history research website, once traced one of Maria Rye's children, and gave some additional information on the subject of child migration and the Maria Rye scheme, and also gave some research advice:

Emma says:
I have traced the families of a number of Home Children and have a dedicated page on my website:

The University of Waterloo site that you mention is interesting although it is important to be wary when considering resources such as the letters used to encourage emigration on this page.

Many of the Home Children I have researched had bad experiences of the scheme. It is true that the child I researched who was in Maria Rye's home was from a background of alcoholism, violence and neglect and may have been rescued from a lifetime of destitution or possible early death. However, many were simply illegitimate and were taken away from mothers who planned to be reunited with them in the near future. Many of these children never stopped searched for their mothers, and died without knowing what had happened to them or why they never came to collect them. Sadly, the mothers often had no idea where they were.

Fortunately, today, their descendants are more likely to be successful in their search for what happened. Thanks to public information (e.g. websites) and blogs like yours, this issue has greater public awareness. Many accounts of the experiences of Home Children are brought to our attention regularly - most recently through Jim Loach's film, Oranges & Sunshine.

For those interested in finding out more on Maria Rye and her schools, some records are held at the University of Liverpool's Special Collections & Archives: Click here to go there.

Thanks to Emma Jolly, from for this excellent addendum.


  1. Fantastic post. Thank you.

    It seems that some of the children at least that came to New Zealand did well:

  2. Thanks for posting that, it's nice to hear that Maria's scheme was not all bad news for the children involved.