Drawing of a Middlemore Girl

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Date:September 1883

Description:As an Edgbastonian, John Middlemore was proudly celebrated in the pages of the Edgbastonia magazine:

‘A benevolent Edgbaston gentleman who has solved one of the difficult social problems of modern times – the reclamation of the children of the criminal and most degraded classes of our large towns. His institution has enabled Mr. Middlemore to rescue from the gutter, or more frequently from the haunts of vice, dishonesty, debauchery, filth, and ignorance, no fewer than eight hundred incipient criminals’.<small><sup>1</sup></small>

Middlemore visited America and Canada in the 1860s, and it was when he returned that ‘he was struck with the abject condition of the thousands of poor and neglected children in our large towns, and at once began to ponder over the best way to lift them out of a condition so perilous to their future welfare’. Having set up the Children’s Emigration Home in St. Luke’s Road, Edgbaston, he took twenty-nine children to Canada as an experiment in 1873. By 1883 he had transported 819 children.

Middlemore writes that some children were settled in homes that were childless but many were wanted ‘for immediate help and also for prospective labour’:

‘A boy only 10 years old can make himself of great use to a farmer, in doing what the Canadians call household ‘chores’[...] A boy of twelve is worth four dollars a month, besides his board, lodging washing, and mending’.<small><sup>2</sup></small> Girls were also in demand for domestic help.

Shipping children abroad, having separated them from their families and communities, and distributing them to families for whom they might represent cheap labour or worse, has since been discredited. But in 1883, Middlemore’s form of philanthropy was hailed as progressive. This drawing, taken from a photograph, was the kind of material used to demonstrate the success of the scheme: a child who has begun life destitute, and who is progressively ‘saved’ in every sense – both from material poverty, and from moral degradation:

‘In regard to the little girl whose photographs I sent you, I may truthfully describe her life as a dreary shameful tragedy. She was born and nurtured amid all that was loathsome and vicious. Her mother was a most abandoned woman; her father was frequently in gaol. I found her myself in the Old Inkleys in 1873’.

Edgbastonia’s article on Middlemore also served as an appeal: each child cost £16 to re-home, and ‘there are hundreds of Edgbastonians to whom £16 is as nothing and would scarcely be missed’. £16, according to one calculation, would be worth well over £1,000 today. The photograph was clearly designed not only to elicit sympathy but also to show that the money would be well spent.

The Calthorpe Estate was careful to keep Edgbaston free of businesses or institutions that might cause a nuisance to the residents. But Middlemore’s home was clearly regarded as the kind of philanthropic institution that did credit to the area, along with those for the blind, and for the ‘deaf and dumb’. Philanthropy was an important expression of Christian faith and reflected a growing understanding of the need for the community to support the disadvantaged rather than to blame them for their misfortune. However, charity still formed part of a hierarchical and paternalistic relationship between rich and poor. The language of Edgbastonia’s article also demonstrates a distrust of the town as a den of vice and moral turpitude; the removal of these ‘incipient criminals’ could be seen as a cleansing of Birmingham’s space.

<font color="#666633"><small><sup>1</sup> Edgbastonia (September 1883)
<sup>2</sup> Edgbastonia (September 1883)</small></font>


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