ONE hundred and forty years ago this week a group of child migrants set sail from Liverpool to start a new life in Canada.

The youngsters had no families after being orphaned or abandoned and were the responsibility of the Prescot Guardians.

That body implemented the Poor Law within the district of St Helens and Prescot and ran Whiston Workhouse where the children had previously lived.

They were the first batch of parentless poor kids who were set to begin a new existence in a new country.

It must have been exciting for the thirty-seven children (mainly boys) aged between nine and twelve when they boarded the steamship Dominion on September 13, 1883.

Each child had been furnished with two suits and a party of wellwishers saw them off.

Ten days later the party arrived at Ottawa and letters subsequently received back at Whiston reported that the children were all doing fine and had been placed with farmers.

Although the children had resided at Whiston Workhouse, in recent times they had been living at Kirkdale Industrial School where they would have mixed with kids with criminal records.

The Prescot Guardians still had to pay for their keep while they were in Liverpool and sending the youngsters abroad saved them money and removed their responsibility for them.

However, as well as having a financial motive newspaper accounts did suggest that the Guardians thought their actions were in the children's best interests.

That is indicated in this report from the Runcorn Examiner in June 1884 after a second voyage had taken place in which fifty more boys and girls from Whiston Workhouse had departed for Canada.

The paper wrote that the first trip had gone so well that the Prescot Guardians had… "…availed themselves of the earliest opportunity by taking advantage of so admittedly an excellent system as that of placing in comfortable and good homes with Canadian farmers these unfortunate little ones who have neither parents or friends, and thereby giving them an early start in life in a plentiful country, and obliterating for ever all trace or stain of pauperism from them."

All the children that departed for Canada volunteered to leave and the organisers insisted none were forced. But it is easy to see how sailing to North America could be sold to the vulnerable youngsters as a great adventure.

However, the sending of such children to the land of the maple leaf was not just a local scheme. It was a nationwide programme and between 1869 and 1939, a total of 80,000 children left this country for Canada.

Perhaps some were lucky enough to end up in the comfortable and good homes that the Runcorn Examiner promised they would find and prospered in their new life. But many were used by farmers as cheap labour and experienced physical and / or sexual abuse.

In 2010 Gordon Brown as prime minister officially apologised for the programme that had sent large numbers of children to Canada, as well as other former British colonies.

Mr Brown said: "To all those former child migrants and their families...we are truly sorry. They were let down. We are sorry they were allowed to be sent away at the time when they were most vulnerable. We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back.

And we are sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded. And we are sorry that it has taken so long for this important day to come and for the full and unconditional apology that is justly deserved."

Stephen Wainwright's new book 'The Hidden History Of St Helens Volume 3' is available from the St Helens Book Stop in Bridge Street and online with free delivery from eBay and Amazon. Vols 1 and 2 are also still available.