Child Migration and the Overseas Reception Board

Child Migration and the Overseas Reception Board history in brief

After the second world war, Australia partnered with the British Government to subsidise the migration of children from Britain, promoted as ‘giving war orphans a wonderful new life’.

More than 7000 children migrated to Australia under assisted child migration schemes, the vast majority from the UK.

The enabling legislation was the Commonwealth’s Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act 1946 governing the legal status of unaccompanied immigrant children.

In New South Wales, the Big Brother Movement (see Item 3 VPRS 10092/P2 unit 1 for policy file) nominated British young people and allocated them a big brother to act as a mentor and to offer assistance.

In Melbourne, the Young Christian Workers' Movement, 'A new youth to build a new Australia', also conducted a program to nominate immigrants.

The Young Men's Christian Association and church bodies also operated similar programs, as did the ‘Bring out a Briton’ campaign. Those brought out by the Big Brother Movement were referred to as 'little brothers'.

Children came to Australia from many parts of war-torn Europe and many benefited greatly from their new opportunities. But not all. Thousands of children as young as five, from various UK church-run institutions, often orphanages, were sent to children's homes, institutions, orphanages or foster care.

Many were designated as orphans despite having been privately placed by their widowed mothers who were experiencing poverty, social exclusion, or were forced to work. These children were transported to Australia often without parental consent or knowledge. Connection with families were often severed, siblings separated, names changed, records altered or destroyed.

Their experiences of neglect and abuse in institutional care are now a matter of public record.


On November 16th 2009, the Australian Government formally apologised to Forgotten Australians and child migrants on behalf of the nation.

On 24 February 2010, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised for Britain’s role in sending thousands of children overseas.

Individual child migrants

Other child migrants were nominated to come to Victoria either by an individual, a movement, an affiliated church body or institutional home or school.

The Minister for Immigration was their legal guardian until they turned 21, but, once resident in Victoria, they became the responsibility of the Victorian authority. This situation remained unaltered until either their financial and emotional status changed regarding their ability to look after their own affairs, they had a relative who could be their custodian, they married, or they turned 18 and were no longer considered to need the guardianship of the Children's Welfare Department.

Many young women were nominated by their fiancés with the anticipation that they would be married very soon after arriving in Victoria. In these instances the Director of the Children's Welfare Department had to grant permission to marry. In some of these cases, immigration was refused if the nominee was too young. Occasionally, after arriving the young woman (fiancée) changed her mind about marriage, whereupon the department's social worker intervened to find a solution to the ensuing legal situation.

Young migrants from Italy

The belief was that Italian child migrants would be better placed in rural areas. Italian young people were mostly nominated by Italians living in rural Victoria, specifically to work on farms or orchards. One child's file contains a letter from the Secretary, Children's Welfare Department to the Commonwealth Migration Officer explaining that the application conflicts with the policy concerning Italians migrating to the metropolitan area.

No evidence however has been discovered to explain this particular regulation, although it is obvious from other files that such a regulation existed and was enforced. References specific to Italians have been found in the agenda and notes of the Commonwealth and State Ministers Conference on Immigration held on 9 December 1952. Under agenda item 2, no. 16, ‘Land settlement schemes for migrants’, it is suggested that if Australia is to attract the best rural workers from Holland and Italy, 'the Minister feels we have to show them that by enterprise and energy they will have some prospect of becoming farmers in their own right.'

Agenda item 10, in the part of the submission about Italians, it was noted that the Minister 'does not believe that they can supply large numbers of the types of skilled workers that we need at the present time, except perhaps certain classes of rural workers. When the present period of economic readjustment has passed, however, we may well have the need of the types of people that are available in Italy.'

Victoria’s responsibilities

The auspice in Victoria was the Children's Welfare Department 1924–60 and the Social Welfare Branch 1960–78. Similar departments in other states created case files on clients under their control.

Essentially, the function of the Children's Welfare Department with respect to child migrant applications was to recommend to the (Commonwealth) Department of Immigration whether to approve a minor’s admission into Australia, and then the state department followed through with legal guardianship.

The department required notification about any changes regarding schooling, employment, medical and psychiatric condition, problems with relationships with custodians, intention to move interstate, or death.

It was also incumbent upon the custodian to inform the department if the client absconded, or for example, became known to police.

Sometimes children were adopted under the Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act 1946. Often the child's parents' or mother's address was available. In some instances, children were met in England (and other countries) and either came out with (or were scheduled to be brought out by) adoptive parents. Nominators often changed status from custodians to foster or adoptive parents.

Wards of the state came under Victorian legislation by way of the Children's Welfare Act.

Warning about distressing information

This guide contains information that some people may find distressing. If you experienced abuse as a child or young person in an institution mentioned in this guide, it may be a difficult reading experience. Guides may also contain references to previous views, policies and practices that are regrettable and do not reflect the current views, policies or practices of the department or the State of Victoria. If you find this content distressing, please consult with a support person either from the Department of Health and Human Services or another agency.


Please note that this administrative history is provided for general information only and does not purport to be comprehensive. The department does not guarantee the accuracy of this administrative history.

For more information on the history of child welfare in Australia, see Find & ConnectExternal Link .


List of records held by the department

For information relating to the central management of care leavers and wards of state, please consult the guide Central department wardship and out-of-home care records. These collections date back to the 1860s and include ward registers, index cards and ward files.

Child migration files (1947–71) (1940–46)

File; Permanent (VPRS Number 10092 / P0000)
Permanent (VPRS Number 10092 / P0001)
Permanent (VPRS Number 10092 / P0002)

Content: This series comprises files created by VA 1467 Children’s Welfare Department of the Chief Secretary’s Department to 1961 and subsequently by VA 2784 Social Welfare Branch, Chief Secretary’s Department.

Under the Commonwealth Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act 1946 [–1973], an immigrant child was defined as any person under the age of 21 years who came to Australia as an immigrant otherwise than in the charge of, or for the purpose of living in Australia under the care of, any parent or relative of that person.

The Act vested legal guardianship of immigrant children during their minority in the Commonwealth Minister for Immigration. The Commonwealth Minister for Immigration was empowered to delegate all his powers of legal guardianship to any officer or authority of a state with respect to immigrant children received in that state. Statutory Rules under the Act designated the Secretary of the Children’s Welfare Department/Social Welfare Department of Victoria as the delegate.

Legal guardianship continued until the minor reached majority (that is, turned 21) or was exempted from the provisions of the Act under a discretionary right of the Minister or delegate. Exemptions were usually only granted if the minor was over the age of 18 years and the custodial arrangements of the nominator satisfied the department. The Act provided for the legal guardian (that is, the Department) to oversee custody of the minor and the estate of the minor and thus empowered the department to make home visits, consent to the marriage of the minor and approve their transfer to another state or overseas.

Custodians included individuals and welfare and religious organisations such as the Big Brother Movement, Dr Barnardo’s Homes and institutions run by the Salvation Army and the Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist churches.

The nominator assumed responsibility for the welfare and care of the minor including custody, control, maintenance, education, training and employment. Custodians were required to notify the department if the minor absconded, became seriously ill or died.

The department was also required to approve proposals from nominators for the care, custody, employment and accommodation of British minors and approve applications for landing permits with respect to alien minors referred from the Commonwealth Immigration Office.

The files document both the assessment of applications to nominate British and alien minors and the subsequent administration of legal guardianship of those minors by the Children’s Welfare Department, Family Welfare Division.

Many of the files comprise standard forms used for processing applications to nominate a minor. Initial nomination applications were made to the Commonwealth Department of Immigration or to the State Immigration Office. Notification of the application was then forwarded to the Children’s Welfare Department / Family Welfare Division, which then sent a questionnaire to the applicant. On the basis of the applicant’s responses, the department made an assessment of the application.

Information gathered concerned: the nature of the relationship between the nominator and minor, and whether the minor had relatives in Australia; the proposed arrangements for accommodation, employment, teaching of English and continuation of religious tradition and health of the minor; and the citizenship status of the nominator and whether the nominator understood the provisions of the Act.

In some cases the assessment was not made until further information about the behaviour, character and living conditions of the nominator had been obtained from a departmental inspection or police report.

Following the assessment by the state, the Commonwealth was notified of the decision. This could be:

  • the nominator is suitable to accept custody of the minor (recommendation)
  • the nominator and minor should be exempt from the provisions of the Act (exemption)
  • the minor does not come within the provisions of the Act
  • the nominator is not suitable.

Some cases relate to applications for nomination which lapsed, were withdrawn, or which for some other reason were cancelled. Grounds for cancellation included the migrant having attained the age of 21, married or moved interstate and thus became the responsibility of another state. The Secretary of the department could determine that the child migrant was under the guardianship of a relative, effectively in charge of their own affairs, or no longer traceable.

Files documenting the administration of legal guardianship include considerable personal data about minors and their custodians. Documentation on the files includes reports of social workers, parents, custodians, employers, vocational guidance officers, teachers and doctors which include detail about the character, behaviour and medical condition of minors as well as the character, behaviour, financial status and living conditions of custodians.

Although the majority of the files had been allocated a file number, the original system of arrangement and control is no longer clear since the files appear to have been registered within more than one record-keeping system. There is no index to the files.

In 1997, the files were arranged and listed by staff of the controlling agency, VA 3970 Department of Human Services. The department entered the data into its own electronic archival control system and retrieved the files via free text searching. The Department of Human Services has provided Public Records Office of Victoria with a paper print-out from this system identifying the files in this series.

The majority of files appear to be arranged alphabetically by surname of nominee (child migrant) in several sequences by the year(s) in which legal guardianship ceased, for example, ceased by 1956 or A–Z ceased 1956–60.

There are also some units such as 10092/P unit 1 in which the files are arranged by category of decision on the application, for example, 1952 recommendations and 1952 exemptions, and then alphabetically by the surname of the nominator (custodian). The records description list indicates the basis of the arrangement of the files in each unit.

Where the files are arranged by the surname of the nominee, the name of the nominator is also indicated. Similarly, where files are arranged by the surname of the nominator, the name of the nominee is noted on the records description list.

Individual client records provide details of children who migrated to Australia with the intention of remaining here. The State of Victoria was their guardian – thus the Children's Welfare Department was responsible for a measure of supervision and guidance. The children were nominated by relatives, religious organisations or movements. Some were as young as four, but many were in their teens.

The children came to Australia under the provision of the Commonwealth Immigration (Guardianship of Children) Act. The states assumed guardianship and thus the Children's Welfare Department undertook responsibility for the supervision of these children.

The children were nominated by relatives, religious organisations or movements.

Children’s Overseas Reception Board files (1940–46) (1974–88)

File; Permanent (VPRS Number 10093 / P0001)
Permnanent (VPRS Number 0093 / P0002)
Permanent (VPRS Number 10093 / P0003)

Content: This series comprises client files of children evacuated to Australia from the United Kingdom during World War II and a few files relating to the administration of the scheme.

Following an agreement between the British and Australian Governments to evacuate children from vulnerable areas in Britain, many children were evacuated to Victoria 1940–45 under the provisions of the Overseas Children Scheme. In accordance with the provisions of the National Security (Overseas Children) Regulation No. 202 1940, the evacuees were under the legal guardianship of the head of the Children’s Welfare Department of the Chief Secretary’s Department (VA 1467). The Australian representative of the UK Children’s Overseas Reception Board based in Sydney was also one of the key players in the administration of the scheme.

Upon arrival in Victoria, the children were boarded out with families. The Children’s Welfare Department oversaw the allocation of the children to their custodians and the subsequent maintenance and welfare of the children.

The British authorities recommended that custodians consult the children’s parents about important decisions regarding the education, vocational training, employment and medical treatment of the children.

Most of the files in the series comprise case documentation including:

  • application of the custodian to accept evacuated children
  • evacuation and travel reports re the children (for example, vaccinations, medical condition)
  • departmental inspectors reports (for example, health, behaviour, adjustment, suitability of nominators)
  • school reports
  • social worker reports.

A few files relate to the administration of the scheme by the department. The items include quarterly reports and correspondence and refer to matters such as the administration of the scheme, allocation of financial assistance and publicity.

Although many client files make reference to a Children’s Overseas Reception Board client number, the basis of the original system of arrangement and control is uncertain.

The case files were initially arranged in numerical order by Children’s Overseas Reception Board client number. This number appears to have been allocated by the board. and used by the department to control the files. As there are significant gaps in the sequence, it is presumed that Children’s Overseas Reception Board numbers were allocated as part of an Australia-wide scheme. Some files relate to individual children, while others document the arrangements for several children from a single family.

There is no index or register extant.

In 1997 the files were re-arranged and listed by the controlling agency VA 3970 Department of Human Services. The files are now arranged alphabetically by client surname. Custodian’s family names have also been recorded.

The administration files in the P2 consignment are in no particular order.

These records are the client files for those children evacuated from the United Kingdom and sent to Australia for the duration of WWII. Their stay was intended to be temporary. Victorian families applied to care for the Children’s Overseas Reception Board children in their homes.

The children came to Australia under the provision of the Commonwealth Immigration (Guardianship Of Children) Act 1946. The states assumed guardianship and thus the Children's Welfare Department undertook responsibility for the supervision of these children.

Reviewed 02 September 2016