“Sedgwick Boys”: An Experiment in Colonial Labour

14 August 2017

Empire and Globalism | History

On 25 January 1911 a party of 50 British boys arrived in Wellington, New Zealand as part of an unusual colonial experiment. Varying in age from 16 to 20 and coming predominantly from lower class occupations such as domestic service, the lads were part of a trial scheme to ascertain the feasibility of sending city boys with no previous agricultural experience to rural farms within the British Dominions. This three-year apprenticeship scheme was the brain child of Thomas E. Sedgwick and other like-minded philanthropists, who felt increasing alarm at the enforced idleness of youth.


English Boys for Colonial Farms. Sedgwick Migration Scrapbook 2: Arrival in New Zealand with Boys, 1911. © Cambridge University Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click the image.

Sedgwick had a comfortable government position as a civil servant, but it was his work whilst running a boys’ club in the East End of London which opened his eyes to the problems young men faced in Britain’s crowded cities. Over-population and an increasing shortage of available jobs often forced many of the boys out of work or into positions with little prospects for advancements and Sedgwick, like many others, was keen for something to be done.

Armed with the outline of an immigration scheme to help alleviate the problem, Sedgwick travelled to New Zealand and presented his idea to the Labour Department. They were receptive and, after consultation with farmers (250 of which applied to host), the government agreed to a trial of 50 boys.

Back in England, Sedgwick set about seeking willing candidates; 25 from London and 25 from Liverpool (a further social experiment to see how boys from different cities behaved). He also devised the following terms for the scheme to be a success:

1) The boys should come from respectable families, be in good health and have a good ordinary education.

2) The prospect of permanent employment should be available when they arrive.

3) The boys must not expect a rosy picture of the work they must do and must be told what is expected of them.

4) The boys must be looked after by the Labour Department and their host employer.

5) Proper supervision should be in place for the voyage to ensure good exercise and welfare.

In accordance with this, assisted passage was offered by the New Zealand government for £10 a head – an amount which would be repaid from the boys’ wages. Farmers agreed to act as guardians – to lodge, feed, clothe and properly treat the boys and pay them pocket money of one shilling a week for their duties. These predominantly consisted of milking cows. It was also agreed that wages would be banked by the employer and interest accrued until the end of the apprenticeship; the eventual hope being that these boys would then be able to buy their own land, bring out family members and add to the growth of the colony.

 

To Till the Lands of the Dominion. Sedgwick Migration Scrapbook 2: Arrival in New Zealand with Boys, 1911. © Cambridge University Library. Further reproduction prohibited without permission. To see this document in the collection, click the image.

Initially, the scheme proved successful. Letters appeared in the British and New Zealand press from boys extolling the virtues of their new life and the advantages of the skills they were obtaining. The year-end report also showed that over 85% of the boys were still in service after their first year and many of them were producing above satisfactory results. On the strength of this, further trips were undertaken to Canada (specifically the area around Ontario), as well as New Zealand.

This surge of enthusiasm however did not last, and the mood soon turned sour. Farmers found that the older boys were liable to abscond, were ‘impertinent’ and badly behaved. Stories also circulated that boys were mistreated, wages were withheld and conditions were worse than those which had been left behind in the cities. At home, Sedgwick also faced increasing difficulties raising funds to support the continuance of the scheme and, when the First World War broke in 1914, he found conditions were no longer conducive to the furtherance of the scheme.

The Sedgwick Scrapbooks from Cambridge University Library included in Migration to New Worlds: The Modern Era chart this fascinating and controversial story from Britain’s early twentieth-century affair with juvenile migration.

Migration to New Worlds is available now. Full access to this resource is restricted to authenticated institutions who have purchased a licence. For more information, including trial access and price enquiries, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

 

About the Author

Sarah Buckman

Sarah Buckman

Since joining Adam Matthew in September 2013, I have worked on many projects, including The First World War, Leisure, Travel & Mass Culture: The History of Tourism and Migration to New Worlds. My special interests are in restoration and eighteenth-century history, particularly military history.