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Research Guides

Good British Stock: Child and Youth Migration to Australia


The National Archives of Australia

The National Archives of Australia ensures that full and accurate records documenting Commonwealth Government activities are created and kept. From this massive body of information, the Archives selects, cares for and makes available to all those records of continuing value. This collection constitutes the archives of the Commonwealth Government – a vast and rich resource for the study of Australian history, Australian society and the Australian people.

The collection spans almost 200 years of Australian history. The main focus of the collection is material which documents Federal Government activities since Federation in 1901. There are also significant holdings of nineteenth-century records which relate to functions transferred by the colonies to the Commonwealth Government at the time of Federation and subsequently. The records described in this guide are a small but significant part of the collection.

Access to the National Archives collection is provided free of charge in public reading rooms located in each capital city. Researchers are assisted by specialist reference staff and are provided with reference tools to help them identify and use the records in the collection. These reference tools include the RecordSearch and PhotoSearch databases,guides, publications and fact sheets. Researchers unable to visit a reading room may seek information and help by telephone, mail, facsimile or email.

RecordSearch and PhotoSearch provide information about agencies, persons and series as well as descriptions of over two million individual records. They are available for online searching in reading rooms located in all offices of the National Archives, at the Australian War Memorial and on the National Archives website.

The National Archives website provides more information about the Archives, its collection and the services it offers. A visit to the site will help you determine whether the Archives holds records relevant to your research. Fact sheets on various topics are also available on the Archives website.

Child and youth migration

Image 1: At Dr Barnardo’s Farm School.

Image 1: At Dr Barnardo’s Farm School.
NAA: A1200, L10434
Enlarge image - View image gallery

Child and youth migrants to Australia, while numbered in their thousands, always formed a modest percentage of the overall migrant intake, but they were always treated – in the bureaucracy and by the media – as special. There was something heart-warming in the vision of desperately underprivileged British children leaving behind the cold northern slums of the Old World to seek a new and better life in the sun-drenched dominions, and there was something uplifting in watching the arrival of what was perceived to be the cream of Britain's youth leaving the security of hearth and home to further their prospects in a distant land and to guard and extend the empire by settling the imperial frontier. They were the bricks of empire.

Child migrants were apparently-abandoned, illegitimate, poverty-stricken youngsters of primary school age, usually in care in the United Kingdom before their despatch to Australia. After their arrival, such youngsters were placed in care for further training before placement in employment.

Youth migrants, on the other hand, were post-primary school age young people, fifteen to nineteen years old, who came from ordinary family backgrounds and made their own decisions to come to the Antipodes, often to work in rural areas. Thousands of children and young people were involved. Australia needed settlers for the land, farm labourers and domestic servants, and youthful immigrants were ideal for both gender-guided roles. The various states and the Commonwealth Government were all involved in encouraging immigration, as were many non-government organisations. The critical legislation under which national governments controlled juvenile migration were the British Custody of Children Act 1891 which permitted the voluntary organisations to 'dispose of' the children in their care by emigration; the Empire Settlement Act 1922, which permitted the British Government to channel funds to non-government organisations in support of their migration work; and the Australian Immigration (Guardianship of Children Act) 1946 which gave the Minister for Immigration legal control over unaccompanied minors until they came of age.

Image 2: At the Fairbridge Farm School.

Image 2: At the Fairbridge Farm School.
NAA: A1200, L17156
Enlarge image - View image gallery

The children were brought to Australia from their home countries under various migration schemes which commenced with the sponsoring of farm boys to New South Wales by the Dreadnought Trust in 1911. Most were brought from the British Isles, with some groups – all boys – from Malta after World War II. During the war, Polish Jewish children also arrived. Many children, separated from their parents and familiar surroundings, suffered from the disruption and dislocation, and this part of a family history can be a distressing one to uncover.

The migration schemes, while supported by Government in principle, were managed and administered by charitable bodies and the mainline churches. They include the Big Brother Movement, the Children's Farm School Immigration Society of Western Australia (Fairbridge), Dr Barnardo's Homes and the Overseas Children's Scheme which operated during World War II. Essentially governments provided the ground rules, gave some financial support and monitored their activities. It was the voluntary associations that did most of the day-to-day work with juvenile migrants. Consequently, the records held by the National Archives, as well as dealing with the policy issues, deal extensively with relations between the Commonwealth Government and the church and private organisations, and the various schemes they administered.

A topic which has been aired frequently in the media over recent years is that of child abuse in certain Australian orphanages during the child migration era. There is little mention of such incidents in the records described in this guide, not through any attempt to conceal or avoid discussing them, but rather because the records in the collection of the National Archives do not mention such allegations or incidents, and since they are not discussed in the records themselves they are not covered by the guide. The only major sexual abuse scandal involving child migrants which became public during the period covered by the guide occurred at Picton in 1958, and since the Barnardo's authorities dealt effectively with the problem at the time, the issue has not resurfaced during recent years.

About this guide

The guide deals with the subject of child and youth migration in four chapters. The first two chapters provide an introduction to Australian immigration policy in general and child migration policy in particular. Chapter 3, which constitutes the main body of the guide, gives a detailed description of the main policy records, and records relating to the service organisations and churches who sponsored the children, provided for their education and placement, and arranged their after-care. Chapter 4 outlines records held by the National Archives that are relevant for genealogical research related to child migration.

The appendixes include information about the organisations and individuals involved in juvenile migration, and about the record holdings of other archives and libraries. In addition, there is information about organisations which assist former child migrants to find family members, and suggestions for areas where further research is needed into juvenile migration to Australia.

In view of the sheer volume of records held by the National Archives relating specifically to the immigration of unaccompanied minors, it has not been possible to describe all the relevant records at item level. Rather, the guide aims to provide an indication of fruitful areas of research, with a description of key files under appropriate subject areas in order to illustrate the range, nature and richness of the collection. The selection of records described has been made as a result of extensive use of the records by the author.

A note for genealogists

Most of the records described in this guide relate to policy and administration. Personal references and lists of names, addresses, family members, arrivals and departures, occur only occasionally among the policy material. Nevertheless, some of the records are important sources for genealogical research and Chapter 4 deals solely with records and other information that is relevant to those undertaking family history research.

A number of the policy files described in Chapter 3 contain lists of names of individual child or youth migrants, among what is otherwise essentially policy or administrative material. A list of these files is included in Chapter 4.

Description of the records

To fully understand a record it is often helpful to know certain things about it in addition to its contents. For example, it helps to know who created the record, when it was created and what other records exist that deal with the same general subject or issue. This information provides the context of the record, which helps researchers to interpret what the record is really about, determine its relevance, and decide how accurate or complete it might be. The National Archives documents this contextual information for each record in the collection using the Commonwealth Record Series (CRS) System.

Under the CRS System records are described and controlled as series. A series is made up of items, which are the individual files, volumes, maps, cards, diaries, etc that were received into custody by the Archives from the creating department, agency, or individual. Series usually consist of many items, but can occasionally consist of just a few or even a single item.

When the Archives registers a series it gives it a series number and describes the creating agency, the subject matter of the series, its date range, the format of the individual items making up the series, their quantity (expressed in shelf metres), where they are held and details of related series. Sometimes series are registered by the Archives even though they are still in the custody of the creating department or agency. The explanatory table on the next page sets out the manner in which the records are described throughout the guide.

Individual files can be located electronically by file number or by keyword-in-title searches using RecordSearch, which is available in all reading rooms and on the Archives website.

2 Canberra

This series consists of general correspondence files which cover a wide range of subjects that were submitted to the Prime Minister.
Series: A457
Quantity: 5 metres
Recorded by:1911–71: Prime Minister’s Department(CA 12)

4 Immigration Encouragement. Particular classes – Baby Immigration, 1922–23 [54 pages] A457, X400/5
5 This concerns a proposal addressed to Dame Mary Hughes by Mrs Joice Nankivill of the Lyceum Club, Piccadilly, on the question of child emigration to Australia, dealing particularly with the adoption of 'war babies'. The matter was referred to…  


  1. This information gives the series title and the date range of the records which make up the series. The series number is shown on the right-hand side.
  2. This shows the location of the series (ie the office of the National Archives where it is held) is also shown.
  3. This gives a brief overview of the contents of the series, the series number, the total volume of records in the series (In some cases only several items within a series will relate to the topic, but in other instances the entire series will be devoted to it), the department or agency which created the series, and the period during which this department or agency was in existence. The 'CA' (Commonwealth Agency) number is a unique identifier allocated by the Archives to each agency. This number can be used to retrieve more information about the agency and the records it created from RecordSearch.
  4. This shows the title given to an item from this series by the creating agency. Sometimes additional information appears in square brackets. This indicates information that has been added by the Archives to clarify the meaning of the title. The dates of the earliest and latest document on the file are also shown. The item’s series number and identifying number appear on the right-hand side. These numbers must be quoted if a copy of the record or access to it is requested.
  5. Where included, this describes the main contents of each item. Note that it does not describe every document on the file. Because of the number of records listed in this guide, contents description has had to be limited. However, where possible, an attempt has been made to describe those items assessed as having special significance.

Access to the records

Researchers are welcome to visit the National Archives reading rooms and examine the records described in this guide. Before you visit, please make sure that the record is held by the reading room you plan to visit. There is no equivalent of the inter-library loan system for archives. To safeguard the records, they are not moved between the Archives offices and to see the records you will need to visit the reading room in the city shown as the location of the records.

In addition, given that the reading rooms of some of the Archives offices are separate from the main repository area, it may also be beneficial to pre-order any material you wish to see to ensure that it is ready upon your arrival. The turnaround time for the issue of records in each reading room is given in Fact Sheet 20 (Standards of Service). To pre-order records please telephone, write to or email the reading room listed as holding them. Contact details of all offices of the National Archives are given in Fact Sheet 1.

If you cannot visit a reading room you may arrange for a representative to do so on your behalf (see Fact Sheets 40–45, Research Agents), or alternatively you may wish to obtain a photocopy of the record. To obtain a copy you may telephone, write to or email the relevant reading room. Staff are happy to give photocopy quotes for specific items. Please be sure you have the specific series and item numbers for the records you wish to have copied. Copy charges are set out in Fact Sheet 51.

Citing the records

The correct citation of archival records is important both when requesting them from the Archives and when referring to them in written or published works. The correct method of citation will not only help staff of the Archives to more readily locate the records you are seeking, but will also help other researchers to find the material you have used if they wish to examine it for themselves.

The correct form of citation for records held by the National Archives is expressed as follows: the name National Archives of Australia followed by a colon, the series number followed by a comma, and then the item number. An example is:

National Archives of Australia: A457, X400/5

The name National Archives of Australia may be abbreviated to NAA provided the full name has been used in the first citation.

Where to obtain more information

If you are unsure about how to request access to any of the records described in this guide, or if you have any other questions, request a copy of our booklet Getting Started, or access it on our website. Alternatively, contact the reading room in your State or Territory by mail, telephone, facsimile or email. The contact numbers and addresses for Australian archival institutions are given in Fact Sheets 1 and 2.