Black Orphans in 19th Century England From Workhouse to Barnardo’s to Forced Migrations

By Joy Sigaud


Editions Lifestyle remembers the Black children of Victorian England. Many were biracial, often abandoned by their parents on account of their colour. Others who were not intentionally abandoned were often from extremely poor families who could not be  maintained by their parents,  who sometimes committed themselves to the notorious workhouses out of desperation and hopelessness. Even today when we hear the word “Workhouse” it conjures up images of deprivation and foreboding.

One such family were the Peters. Elizabeth and her two younger siblings Sarah and John grew up in Liverpool. Left by their father who is described as a “coloured man”  who went to work as a cook on a ship and never returned. Their mother was left to raise the three children alone and after struggling for a time she was forced to move herself and her children into St George’s workhouse in London.

In spite of  her circumstances the children regularly attended school and Elizabeth was described as  a fluent reader and a “remarkably intelligent child. ”  In January 1882 all three children were admitted to Barnado’s. The younger sister, Sarah had been quite poorly and Barnardo’s sent her to a seaside cottage for a time to benefit from the fresh air. Sadly, on returning to the Girls Village Sarah did not survive for very long.  John, the youngest was admitted to the Boys Village in Stepney and in 1892 aged  just 16 was sent to Canada as part of the child migration scheme. After leaving Barnado’s care in 1887 Elizabeth was given a job in domestic service.

This is indeed a very sad story because the whole family were split apart from each other forever and in this one family alone each child suffered the tragedy of separation, the isolation of being orphaned and victim of the child migration system, which was another form of enforced labour where children were sent to the colonies to work, a scheme that continued until relatively recently. To this day, there are relatives still searching for loved ones as a result of the child migration scheme.

On the upside, Barnardo’s gave them food, shelter and a home as they still do today for vulnerable and orphaned children.

These children are only a representation of the many  Black children who would have lived in poverty, degradation and isolation in 19th Century England. Thanks to organisations like Barnardo’s these shown here are amongst some of those documented.
For clarity, Black people were always described as coloured until the ‘70s and some of the older generation still use that word. 
Photos: Courtesy Barnardo’s 


As we as approach the end of Black History Month 2019 and all the celebrations, Britain embraces a new found culture which has in fact been here all along but now we welcome it in schools, the workplace and socially.  It is not only us who are learning about Black history but the whole country and the appetite is growing. After all it is all of our history.

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