Remembering Child Migration

Faith, Nation-Building and the Wounds of Charity

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Gordon Lynch
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , January
     192 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Moral meanings are not sui generis sets of ideals by which to objectively measure society or social progress. This statement is even truer for systems of moral meanings—they are widely held, contingent sets of ideals that social actors may use in any number of ways. In this sense, moral meanings are a shifting part of the same milieu creating economic, political, and cultural pressures. Moral meanings are negotiated, contested, and often legislated in response to a particular moral dilemma. Gordon Lynch’s Remembering Child Migration: Faith, Nation-Building and the Wounds of Charity examines the production and implementation of particular moral meanings in response to the problem of orphaned and impoverished children. To this end, Lynch examines the humanitarian ideals and social assumptions involved in several child migration organizations in Britain and the United States. His work does not, however, fall into the common trap of examining whether, or to what extent, these institutions fulfill their stated aims, opting instead to elucidate the role of moral meanings as they contribute to the benefits—and the harms—brought about by child migration.

Before addressing the broader implications of this approach to ethics, Lynch deftly examines the historical records of different child migration organizations. Each chapter builds on the former and introduces a new theoretical problematic. Chapter 1 addresses child migration schemes from the northeastern United States—usually to the Midwest—on “orphan trains.” Focusing particularly on the moral vocabulary of the New York Children’s Aid Society and Charles Loring Brace, Lynch shows that concerns for the welfare of children combined with judgment of poor populations to valorize child migration. Further, by examining the liberal Protestant roots of Brace’s morality, Lynch argues that these are particular values, despite Brace’s universalizing vocabulary. While chapter 1 shows the development of moral arguments for child migration in the US, chapter 2 illustrates that these arguments were not universally accepted. In 1874, after reports of “mistreatment and poor placement,” England’s Local Governing Board sent Senior Inspector Andrew Doyle to Canada to report on the state of child migrants (35). Lynch situates Doyle’s findings alongside the moral meanings shared with US orphan trains, exposing the dissonance between moral aims and lived reality. Doyle found that the disruption of children’s lives was inadequately handled by British organizations, that adopting families were significantly motivated by thoughts of that child as a laborer, and that lack of institutional oversight led to poor matches, prolonging negative environments for many children. Chapters 1 and 2 establish that these child migration institutions produced overlapping sets of moral meanings but also, necessarily, were the products of moral, economic, and political struggle. Chapter 3, which examines British child migration schemes to Australia in the twentieth century, allows Lynch to buttress and expand his central theoretical claims.

As the product of social contests, systems and institutions based on ethical principles necessarily entail contradictory elements—the cohesion of a moral system masks the compromises made through the work of institutions. However, for Lynch, what is key is not whether an institution lives up to its moral pronouncements but rather, is the role that these pronouncements play in excusing wrongdoings, masking shortcomings, and creating institutional blind spots that end up causing harm to children. When Kingsley Fairbridge reached an agreement with the government of Western Australia in the early twentieth century, he combined elements of colonial nationalism with the moral underpinnings of child migration, providing his scheme with a rearranged system of moral meanings. This scheme saw emigration to Australia not only as removing the children from the perils of poverty, but also as a method of reducing overpopulation in industrial England. Further, sending children to Australia fit both the British concern for retaining influence in British dominions, as well as the Australian government’s desire for an increased population of civilized British youth. Lynch traces the intermingling of public and private institutions, as well as personal, political, and economic interests to explain the reaction—or lack thereof—to the scathing British review of Australian institutions undertaken by John Ross in 1955. The Ross Report, and its confidential appendix, not only showed failings at the individual and institutional levels—from abusive supervisors, to a lack of knowledge or care about childhood development, to obscuring or removing evidence of the child’s pre-migration life—Ross’s findings also indicated deep, systemic problems with this scheme. In so doing, however, this report made its way into the inner machinations of intercontinental politics, socio-economic realities, and nationalist interests, causing its publication to be “managed in such a way as to soften its impact as much as possible” (68).

The three body chapters work together to form an effective comparative project, theorized in chapters 4 and 5. As Lynch traces the production of related systems of moral meanings, the different eras and contexts shed light on the complicated social role of morality. In examining schemes from different time periods, though, Lynch uses the Ross report in comparison with earlier schemes to effectively undermine any narrative of progress regarding the treatment of child migrants. Further, by examining the deleterious effects of erasing a child’s past, he further illustrates the inherent harm of these schemes—many children across the schemes reported feeling a lack of belonging, that they had no family, and they suffered both socially and emotionally from a lack of structure. Child migration is necessarily built on the foundation of disrupting children’s lives and Lynch shows that moral meanings hid the negative side of this reality. Further, these class-based and nationalist moral systems provided a narrative cohesion for systems that housed abuse and unsanitary conditions, lacked proper nutrition for the children, and institutionalized children as laborers. This is, perhaps, the most important claim and argument of Lynch’s work: that morality and systems of justifications are social products and, like any social product, are rife with contradictions and problems obscured by a conception of morality as extra-social. In keeping with Lynch’s reading, contemporary organizations would do well to examine not only their moral aims, but also attend to their unintended consequences.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Thomas J. Carrico, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in religion, ethics, and philosophy at Florida State University.

Date of Review: 
October 3, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Gordon Lynch is Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent. He has written widely on moral meanings in modern societies, including The Sacred in The Modern World: A Cultural Sociological Approach and On the Sacred.



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