Subject Name: Gertrude Macknell (McNeill) (b 1874 – d 1940)

Researchers :  Heather Turner & Bruce Beauchamp

Born in the suburb of a historic city that boasts one the world’s most famous ports and largest Royal Navy dockyards, the enigmatic life of Gertrude Macknell was no doubt shaped by her naval connections. She was sent abroad at the age of 13 as part of the scandalous Child Migration Scheme and at one point became a patient in a hospital that shocked society.


Gertrude was born in 1874 in Landport, Portsea Island, Hampshire, a suburb of the historic city of Portsmouth.  Landport was once scathingly described as suburb and sub-district in Portsea parish, Portsea Island, Hampshire containing two chapelries….It owed its origin to the docks and the military and derives its prosperity and its main support from the same sources. It comprises numerous dense and dingy streets occupied by the working classes and presents, as a whole, an appearance far from interesting to strangers… 


Despite these past derogatory remarks, Landport today is proudly considered to be the city centre of modern-day Portsmouth.


Gertrude’s parents were Sabena and Henry Macknell and it’s possible that they were cousins.  Her father was described on the marriage certificate as a Colour Sergeant in the Royal Marines and a widower. Henry married his first wife Harriett Redfern in 1859 when he was 22 and she was 18Unsurprisingly, given their youth and his absences at sea, the marriage was not a success and Harriett left Henry taking their young son Thomas with herThis led to Henry submitting a notice in the Hampshire Telegraph in 1867 stating that he ‘..will not be answerable for any debt my wife, Harriett Macknell, may contract after this appearanceIt’s likely that Harriett sadly died in 1871.


In 1874, having served his time in the Marines, Henry was honourably discharged and awarded a medal for long service and good conduct. However, this new found freedom to spend more time with his family was short lived as in 1877, when Gertrude was just three years old, her mother Sabena died at the age of 36.


Nothing more is known about Gertrude before 1881 and we can only guess why she came to the Guildford area, but on the census of that year she is found alone in the Guildford Workhouse, age 7. On the same census, her father Henry is living as a lodger at The Shearers Arms in Owlesbury, Hampshire.


As the Admission and Discharge records no longer exist for the Guildford Workhouse it is not clear when Gertrude was admitted to the workhouse or when she actually left. However, shockingly, despite her father still being alive, Gertrude was sent to Canada as part of the Home
Children Migration Scheme. On the 28th October 1887, age 13, she sailed from Liverpool on the ship Sarmatian and arrived in Quebec, Canada on 8th November 1887. She was then transferred to Marchmont House to a Mr Wallace in Marchville, Belleville, Ontario.


The origins of the Child Migration Scheme go back to 1618 when a hundred children were sent from London to Virginia which is now one of the United States of America. The final party arrived in Australia as recently as 1970. In total, child migration removed over 130,000 children from the United Kingdom to Canada, New Zealand, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and Australia.


In the post-war era, approximately 3,300 children were shipped to Australia while New Zealand, Rhodesia and Canada received a combined total of about 1,000 children although those governments lack precise figures.


Child migration generally refers to children between the ages of three and fourteen but in reality, most were between seven and ten. These children were sent away, with the expectation that they would never return, to start new lives in a foreign land without their families and often in harsh, understaffed institutions.


British boys and girls were shipped overseas by specialist agencies such as the Fairbridge Society, which sent young children to populate the empire with “good, white British stock”. Respected national child care charities such as Barnardos, along with the Church of England, the Methodist Church, the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church, also played major roles.  


In New Zealand, children were often placed with foster parents, while those in Canada were sent to farms often without sufficient preparation or supervision. Some Canadian farmers were even charged with manslaughter, such was the extent of their cruelty. Very few children were legally adopted overseas and the vast majority spent their entire childhoods in large, impersonal institutions or farm schools with up to three hundred and fifty children.


Child migration was inspired by several motives, none of which gave first priority to the needs of the children involved. Consequently, child migrants were viewed as a convenient source of cheap labour on Canada’s farms, as a means of boosting Australia’s post-war population and preserving a white, managerial elite in the former Rhodesia. Certain groups of children were excluded as countries would not accept handicapped or black children, for example. One of the earlier motives of the schemes had been to maintain the racial unity of Britain’s Empire.


After being told fanciful tales of travel to the ‘Land of Milk and Honey’, where children ride to school on horseback, child migrants were sent abroad without passports, social histories or even basic documents such as a full birth certificate. Brothers and sisters were frequently separated for most of their childhood; some were loaded onto trucks for long journeys to remote institutions, only to be put to work as labourers the next day. Many felt an extreme sense of rejection by their family and country of origin.


The tragic reality for many child migrants was appalling standards of care which fell well below standards found within British institutions. Children as young as seven, sent to institutions in Western Australia, were involved in construction works without basic safety measures. Many were injured in building accidents at an age when they would have been in school if they had remained in the United Kingdom.


Throughout its long history, child migration has been punctuated by a series of scandals. The lack of educational provision, the overwork and inadequate pay, the suicides following episodes of ill-treatment and the appalling evidence of physical and sexual abuse – all have featured in official inquiries or newspaper headlines in nineteenth century Canada and South Africa as well as post-war New Zealand and Australia. These variations on a theme represent different forms of child abuse, involving an especially vulnerable, large group of British children whose interests have never been safeguarded effectively.


Annie Macpherson was one of the first individuals involved in the emigration of children to Canada. Her years of evangelical and charity work led to her opening the Home of Industry in London, England, in 1869. There, pauper children could be fed, housed, educated and trained. As was the case with many other organizations, there were more children than the Home could take into care, so Macpherson turned to emigration. The first party of families arrived in Canada in 1869 and the first party of children in 1870.


Marchmont, in Belleville Ontario was Macpherson’s first receiving home. The home, which opened in 1870, was run by Ellen Bilbrough (Bilborough) and her future husband, Rev. Robert Wallace. Annie Macpherson turned the home over to them completely in 1877. By that time,
Marchmont was receiving mostly children from organizations in the English city of Manchester, such as Leonard Shaw’s Manchester and Salford Boys and Girls Refuges and Homes, Strangeways Institution, and in Scotland, children from Quarrier’s Orphan Homes of Scotland and children from Margaret Blaikie’s Emigration Home (Girls’ Home) in Edinburgh.


In 1920, William Merry took over as the superintendent of Marchmont when it became the receiving home for the Liverpool Sheltering Home. Marchmont closed in 1925, having served as the receiving home for an estimated 10,000 children from many small and large organizations in England and Scotland, including Smyly’s, Barnardo’s, the Bristol Emigration Society and the Painswick Emigration Home (Washwell House) run by Harriett and Alice Wemyss.


Thankfully, Gertrude’s fate proved to be different to that of most Child Emigrants as, for reasons unknown, she returned to the UK before the census was taken in 1891. On this census, she is living with her father and his third wife Esther (Hester) nee Purver in Andover, Hampshire.


The next time we come across Gertrude is in 1901 when she is recorded as a patient in the Lock Hospital of the garrison town of Aldershot under the name of Gertrude McNeill.


Lock Hospitals were built at the behest of the military authorities who were concerned at the high rate of venereal disease amongst soldiers and sailors. A report in the pages of the “Lancet” in 1859 stated the need for control over prostitution for at Aldershot, for example, the most

disgraceful degree of licentiousness prevails in the outskirts of the camp” and urged that special hospitals be established for prostitutes. Doctors saw garrison-town regulations as the first step towards wider medical regulation.


Outrageously, in 1864, 1866 and 1869, three acts of Parliament (The Contagious Diseases Acts) were passed which recommended the periodic genital examination of any woman suspected of being a prostitute and living in a town with a large military population. Women who were found to be diseased were forced into special “lock” hospitals until they were cured. Treatment consisted of applications of mercury ointment, which suppressed the symptoms of syphilis but could cause kidney disease, and often burning! The treatment was compulsory only for women; to support this double standard, a military doctor said periodic examinations of the
soldiers “would destroy the men’s self respect”. It was also believed that venereal disease could only be passed from women to men and not the other way 
round. Women who refused treatment could be imprisoned and possibly put to hard labour, whilst those suspected of harbouring a prostitute suspected of being infected could also be arrested.


Innocent women as well as practising prostitutes were harassed by these Acts. Since there was no legal definition of a common prostitute ” an accused woman bore the brunt of proving her virtue. The police in garrison towns such as Aldershot were notoriously brutal and could not be

prosecuted for false arrest of a woman they considered to be a prostitute and many innocent, but illiterate, lower class girls, unaware of their legal rights may have been arrested.


In 1862 Miss Louisa Daniells and her devoted spinster daughter Georgina established a

mission hall in Aldershot to save the soldiery from the effects of venereal disease, alcoholism and general immorality…. They later extended this work to saving the respectable poor” in the town. However, the Daniells’ compassion did not extend to the prostitutes and Georgina shared the hard and uncompromising attitude of the military and police authorities towards these “unfortunate females. By 1871 Aldershot’s Lock Hospital had been established and the census lists 50 all-female inhabitants whose ages ranged from 16 to 45 years old.


Happily, for the “fallen women” of Aldershot and other garrison towns, the Daniells’ belief that they were beyond redemption (and the unfair and unjust treatment that they received in Lock hospitals established by the CD-Contagious Diseases Acts) was not shared by all middle class women. Social reformers led by Josephine Butler with the support of other distinguished women

such as Harriet Martineau and Florence Nightingale organised opposition to the Acts. In 1863 Florence Nightingale had condemned suggestions that prostitutes be inspected by public health or military doctors, because she considered such measures “morally disgusting, unworkable in practice and unsuccessful in results” In 1872 Parliament bowed to “the revolt of the

women” and their political allies, and established a Royal Commission to which Josephine Butler was invited to testify.


The report recommended an end to the enforced medical examination of the prostitutes but restated the sexual double standard: “There is no comparison between prostitutes and the men who consort with them. With the one sex the offence is committed as a matter of gain, with the other it is an irregular indulgence of a natural impulse”


Finally, Josephine and her allies triumphed. When the Liberals won the general election in 1880, they suspended and finally abolished the CD Acts in 1886. Prostitution did not come to an end

when the CD Acts were repealed, but a grossly sexist and ineffectual piece of legislation was abolished.


It is not until 1911 that records can reveal again where Gertrude was. On the census for that year, she is working as a housemaid at Northgate School in St Cross, Winchester. This small school was run by the headmaster Herbert Grayson who lived there with his wife Mary, their
two sons, a myriad of servants and thirteen boarders ranging from the age of five to fourteen [xxi]


Gertrude’s trail goes cold again until 1928 when she is found living in Arthur Street, Chelsea (later Arthur Street becomes Dovehouse Street), where she remains until her death. 


Sadly, Gertrude’s solitary life comes to an abrupt end when she dies in St Lukes Hospital, Chelsea on 5th January 1940 from carcinoma of the cervix and uterus [xxvii]. The informant of her death and organiser of her burial was a hospital official. It’s not currently known where she is buried.



June 2022


Sources :



            / British Newspaper Archives


                     General Register Office

                     Journal of Army Historical Research

                     Library and Archives Canada


                     Phillimore Book Publishing

                     Southern Books




                     Full references available here.