Joe Ayre (b.1910): Migration – Writing Lives

Joe Ayre (b.1910): Migration

To reach the point where you wish to completely start over in life is a sad thought. To have reached this point as a child is even sadder. Yet when one’s childhood was as traumatic as Joe Ayre’s, they may be forgiven for desiring a second chance at life. His rough upbringing and lack of education would have left Joe fearing this second chance would never come. The very upbringing that would have had him doubting his chances however, lead him towards his supposed saviour. After being admitted to Miss Birt’s Home for Fatherless and Destitute Children Joe realised that the main purpose of the home was ‘to prepare us for immigration to the colonies to provide the farmers with cheap labour’ (22). As has disclosed recently ‘more than 130,000 children were sent to a “better life” in former colonies’ (2017). In the case of Joe and many other children who were part of this programme, whether their journey resulted in a better life is a hotly debated topic.

As discussed in previous blog posts, Joe’s upbringing was difficult. Poverty, bereavement, and ill fortune were common factors so when a chance for an escape for Joe and his brother Bill arose, it was quickly taken. Whilst at the home ‘there was a party of 120 boys and girls being outfitted to go to Canada’ (25). This news was a poignant moment for Joe. His brother Bill was to be taken to Canada, but Joe was to be left behind for now. Bill would leave for Canada, leaving Joe alone. Joe never had a normal family life, and the closest he had to one was gone. By his own admission, ‘I missed Bill terribly’ (25). Eventually, Joe learnt he was to be taken to Canada. The news was received with jubilation as ‘this was great I longed to see my Brother Bill’ (26). Joe’s migration seemingly offered a fresh start in a new country, where he and Bill could grow up under better conditions like a real family. Understandably excited, Joe began his journey to Canada with many other children from the home. As he took in his surroundings he spotted a common characteristic of his fellow travellers: ‘they were all poor, the unwanted of Europe going to try their luck in a new land’ (27).

An article in a newspaper discussing Barnado children’s migration

The opportunities that migration would supposedly bring sound too good to be true. Sometimes, that’s because it is. As put in a statement by the charity , who eventually took over Miss Birt’s and were responsible for Joe, ‘however well-intentioned child migration might have been, for many the experience was painful’. Joe’s experience became painful upon arrival. He discovered the ‘new land’ (27) he had travelled across the world to find ‘was just the same as Miss Birt’s Home in Liverpool’ (28). Joe found his surroundings similar, and soon found out his family situation was much the same. After being made aware of the location of the farm where he would be placed, Joe became ‘very concerned at this time because I knew Bellville was a long way from Ottawa having studied my Canadian geography book’ (28). Joe had been promised that he would be located near Bill and this was his greatest motivation for moving to Canada. However, it seems Joe had just been told what he wanted to hear in order to accept the move to Canada.

This exploitation continued as Joe was taken to the first of many farms he would both live and work on across Canada. Even at his young age Joe was made to work long physical days. The children of the migration programme soon found themselves used as cheap labour, Joe reminisces how ‘I had my work to do at the farm, before I went to school and when I returned in the evening my day started at 5:30am with the lantern and finished sometimes as late as 8:00pm’ (48). Admittedly, this hard work educated Joe, but it is work a young child should not have had to undertake.

The work Joe had to undertake was certainly physically demanding, but Joe’s migration to Canada also proved to be emotionally draining. As The Guardian report in their damning article on child migration,children ‘were often separated from siblings’ (2017). Having been separated from his brother Bill, Joe was isolated. Joe’s nationality was a big factor in this, and he remembers how he ‘was considered an outsider, and referred to as that “English Bastard”’ (37). Those Joe lived with in his new land failed to understand why any child would travel across the world for the demanding farm life, simply assuming he ‘was illegitimate’ (31). Joe’s nationality and the mystery surrounding him often caused a hostile environment, and many failed to make the effort to ease the young man’s burden. Perhaps the best example of this is Joe’s memory of a young girl, the daughter of one of the many farmers Joe would work for. Joe’s choice of words were ‘what a conceited bitch she was’ (31).

Child labour on a farm in Canada

Joe’s experience of child migration was not all bad. Briefly, he found himself reunited with his brother Bill. He fondly recounts this moment, and how he will ‘never forget arriving at that farm. My Brother Bill came flying out of the Delahaut’s house and we hugged each other and tears of sheer happiness ran down our cheeks’ (42). Joe does not spend long looking over his past through these rose tinted glasses. Instead his memory of his journey to Canada is a sorry tale of exploitation. Regardless of Barnardo’s claim that the child migration programme was ‘born from the idea of offering children of a new start in life’, the reality was very different. Joe’s first-hand account sees him escape a life in Liverpool of being exploited by his stepmother with very little family, only to find himself working longer harder days, and with no family close to him at all.


2:29 AYRE, Joe, ‘The Socialist’, MS, pp.178 (c.43,250 words). Brunel University Library.


Child Migrants Working –

Barnado’s Newspaper Advert –

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