Tangled Philanthropic Intentions

Reverend Pilkington’s reference letter for Home Child Thomas Baker

A chaplain’s philanthropic letter of reference for a Home Child

In 1870, Reverend Pilkington, the chaplain of the Middlesex Industrial School in Britain, wrote a recommendation letter for teenage migrant Thomas Baker.[1] Thomas was one of the Home Children,[2] poor British youths sent to work abroad between the 1860s and 1930s.[3] The recipient of Thomas’s recommendation letter was Norman Hamilton, a Canadian-American businessman who placed migrant child labourers with employers in the Paris, Ontario region.[4] This transaction has conflicting implications.

Written letter from Mr. Pilkington to Norman Hamilton, July 15, 1870, front page. Trinity College Archives, Graeme Patterson Fonds, F2008 (Box 13, File 1, Document 17a).

Pilkington’s letter indicates the problematic philanthropic impulse behind Home Children. Private institutions like the Middlesex Industrial School housed pauper children like Thomas and administered labour training.[5] These organizations believed they were rescuing children from “criminal classes” and making them “respectable” members of society.[6] It was thought that sending such children to Canada would further their moral development as well as fulfill Canada’s demand for agricultural workers as it expanded westward.[7] Unfortunately, children like Thomas faced difficulties in Canada and were often abused by employers.[8]

Pilkington’s motivations for recommending Thomas

Pilkington’s recommendation was crucial for Thomas’s migration and employment. Home Children were cheap sources of farm labour,[9] but many 19th century Canadians believed they were delinquents.[10] Pilkington was once accused of relocating “criminal boys,”[11] which he denied.[12] In the letter to Hamilton, Pilkington asserted that Thomas, a child of alcoholic parents, was nonetheless a “thoroughly honest and good lad.”[13] Thomas was “reformed” by industrial school standards,[14] and in Pilkington’s view, “useful” to employers.[15]

I question Pilkington’s sincerity. Thomas, an older boy, had spent a maximum three years at Pilkington’s school, and institutions were encouraged to relocate inmates to avoid overcrowding and expense.[16] In his letter, Pilkington stated that if Thomas was found satisfactory, “many more” like him could be sent.[17] The chaplain was involved in the children’s lives at the school and monitored them “for several years.”[18] He may have personally picked Thomas for the program. If Hamilton liked Thomas, Pilkington could continue moving boys to the Paris region. Pilkington seemed eager to fill the demand for an exploitable child labour source.

I also imagine that Pilkington cared for the children’s well-being and personally believed in Thomas. Pilkington once stated that he “scarcely [liked] to send out destitute and orphan lads […] unless I know they will be well-received and provided for.”[19] Industrial school discipline was strict, but one observer recounted an occasion where Pilkington spoke “with great kindness” to a misbehaving inmate. Furthermore, Pilkington sympathized with children of alcoholics like Thomas.[20] The school covered migration expenses, and Pilkington, after observing the boy’s character, believed Thomas merited support.[21] Thomas was a labourer first, but he was also a “good lad” who deserved fair treatment.

Written letter from Mr. Pilkington to a farmer via Norman Hamilton, July 18, 1870. Trinity College Archives, Graeme Patterson Fonds, F2008 (Box 13, File 1, Document 17b).

Philanthropy, good intentions, and misguided exploitation

Pilkington’s letter shows the Home Children scheme’s complexities. I believe Pilkington had ulterior motives for supporting Thomas, but he sincerely found the boy “exemplary, honest, truthful,” and deserving of a good future.[22] Behind Home Children migration, intentions were good, yet exploitative. We should be aware that philanthropy can be both well-meaning and problematic.


Sarah “Sadie” MacDonald experienced her first migration as a one-year-old, leaving her home province of Nova Scotia for the United States in 1993. Sixteen years and three states later, she and her family returned to Canada. After acquiring a Bachelor’s Degree in History and English from the University of Kings College, Sadie undertook yet another migration to Toronto for the iSchool’s Museum Studies program in 2016. She is interested in museum curation and collections management.

[1] Pilkington, 1870, July 18.


[3] Parr, 1980.

[4] Fickling & Lassam, 2017, pending.

[5] Barnett, 1913, 28.

[6] Sheldon, 2013.

[7] Corbett, 2002, 26.

[8] Kohli, 2003, 29-30.

[9] Corbett, 2002, 23-25.

[10] Parr, 1980, 52-53.

[11] Moran, 1871.

[12] Pilkington, 1871b.

[13] Pilkington, 1870, July 15.

[14] Chambers, 1867, 734.

[15] Pilkington, 1870, July 18.

[16] Kohli, 2003.

[17] Pilkington, 1870, July 15.

[18] Chambers, 1867, 736.

[19] Pilkington, 1871a.

[20] Gilbert, 1866.

[21] Pilkington, 1870, July 15.

[22] Pilkington, 1870, July 18.

I believe Pilkington had ulterior motives for supporting Thomas, but he sincerely found the boy ‘exemplary, honest, truthful,’ and deserving of a good future.