Margaret Bryer's Talk – ISS UK HK Adoption Project

Margaret Bryer speaks at the London April 2012 UK HKAN ReunionMargaret Bryer gave a talk at the London April 2012 UK HKAN reunion about the involvement of International Social Services (ISS) UK, now called Children and Families Across Borders (CFAB), in The UK Hong Kong Adoption Project initiative in the 1960’s.

She has kindly given us a copy of her speech as there was great interest from the attendee’s to make it available online. We’d like to thank her for joining us and the work she has done over these many years. 

21.4.2012 Talk about the ISS UK – HONG KONG ADOPTION PROJECT

The UK Hong Kong Adoption Project was set up in 1959 by International Social Service UK (ISS UK) and was in operation for 10 years, and some of you here today were adopted through this project. Here I shall set out the history behind the project, and some details about what happened during those ten years.

International Social Service was formed in 1924 as a separate organisation. It came out of the International Migration Service which itself was an offshoot of the YWCA – moving from just helping single women who were travelling to providing help to members of families separated by international borders. Many of these people were refugees, fleeing persecution, or seeking a better life. After WW1 there were displaced people swirling in all directions across Europe and over to the States.

The ISS has had its HQ in Geneva since 1924, and has branches or affiliates in 17 other countries, plus a network of “correspondents” – social welfare agencies who can follow up referrals. The British Branch of ISS was formed in 1955, first as ISS GB and later as ISS UK and since 2010 as CFAB (Children and Families Across Borders). Before 1955 any international queries were dealt with by the Family Welfare Association and for two years from 1955 ISS GB worked under their auspices, then alongside them in the same building until 1972. Since then ISS and CFAB has had an office in London near the Oval.

As well as dealing with individual cases, ISS was involved in a number of projects – for example, during the 1960s there was the Heathrow Airport Project (meeting immigrants as they arrived) and Foreign Marriage Advisory Service (for British women marrying men of different nationalities and cultures). So the organisation was geared to take on another project.

By 1958 there was growing concern about the number of refugees in the world and some impetus to do something about it. Two young MPs Timothy Raison and Chris Chataway came up with an idea for World Refugee Year – the focus was on 3 groups in particular – 1) those still in the remaining post-war refugee camps in Europe 2) 900,000 Palestinian refugees expelled from their homes and land as the State of Israel was created, and lastly the refugees pouring into HK from mainland China, primarily as a result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

The UN was persuaded to name World Refugee Year from June 59. There followed huge local efforts by charities such as Christian Aid and Oxfam and local churches to raise funds – lots of publicity. This led to a growing awareness of the plight of families in HK and especially of children, and requests came in to “Do something” including offers to take children.

What about the response in HK?
In 1958 ISS opened a Branch in Hong Kong. Its aim was to work with the Hong Kong Chinese Welfare Authorities to find adoptive homes for hundreds of Chinese refugee orphans – part of the huge influx of refugees. The population had swelled from just over 1 million to over 3 million in a few years. An estimated 300,000 people were living on the streets or in flimsy shacks. The initial plan was to find Chinese families in HK first, but as there were not enough, then to place children with Chinese families overseas if possible. There was a growing realisation that the only chance of family life for many lay outside HK. ISS USA was involved in the placement of hundreds of children to the States, both to Chinese and non-Chinese families. Most of these children were girls but there were some boys, the majority of whom were placed with Chinese families. A Newsletter of ISS USA in June 1961 announced the arrival of the 500th HK orphan, who was adopted by a Chinese family in New York.

In 1959 ISS UK decided to sponsor a number of Chinese children to come to this country as its contribution to World Refugee Year. The reasons given were:

  • “Concern for the plight of babies abandoned in the streets of Hong Kong who are living in overcrowded orphanages with no hope of normal home life.
  • To meet the spontaneous demands for these children by couples in GB.
  • Our strong feeling that Britain should give practical expression to its concern for the conditions prevalent in this British Colony.” – the only part of the Commonwealth with a refugee problem at that time.

A trial scheme was carefully set up and the project was launched in June 1959. Trained social workers in ISS HK would work with the Children’s homes to select the children, and National Children’s Home in the UK would assess and select the prospective adopters and oversee the placements of the children between the time of arrival in the UK and the making of an adoption order. Within a year Dr Barnado’s had also agreed to do this work.

At the Hong Kong end there was a very careful process. In 1956 the first Adoption legislation was passed, making it possible for orphans or children relinquished by their parents to be placed for adoption. However, the vast majority of children in Children’s Homes were not orphans – they were placed by parents who could not provide a home for them but hoped to do so one day. A minority of parents voluntarily agreed for their children to be adopted. So most of the children placed by the ISS Project had been abandoned or rather “left to be found”. All abandoned children had to be advertised in local newspapers, police stations and welfare agencies for 3 months. If not claimed they were made Wards of the Supreme Court. The Director of Social Welfare was appointed legal Guardian and could apply to the Supreme Court for authority to consent to adoption and permission for the child to leave HK.

Meanwhile the social workers were striving to identify the children’s specific needs

“the workers in HK attach much importance to getting to know each child and to gathering every possible bit of information about her. But of course this does take time, especially in HK, where the social services are over-burdened with unprecedented problems with which they are desperately trying to keep pace. Many of the children’s institutions are in Kowloon, which is 20 or more miles from HK city. Interviews with doctors for necessary medical examinations take time to arrange, especially when the babies may have to be brought into HK in order to be seen by a special paediatrician. Then too, in busy institutions it is not always easy to find time to talk with overworked and hard-pressed members of the staff in order to discuss with them the child’s history”. (From ISS Newsletter No 1)

Eventually, reports – social and medical – would be ready and ISS HK would match the child as best they could with the information on families sent to them – age of children being one of the obvious criteria. A few children were moved to foster homes – these were volunteers, especially army families– who took babies or toddlers for a few weeks, usually those who were malnourished. The extra move was justified by the need to build the children up before they could leave the country. There is no evidence of any systematic attempt to teach even a few words of English to any of the older children.

All this was a slow and laborious process, which could be extremely frustrating for the adoptive families eagerly awaiting the arrival of their new daughters. Arrangements to bring the children to the UK were made by ISS UK and ISS HK– adoptive parents were asked to pay the fares if possible, or make a contribution – a lot did fundraising in order to do this. Sums seem small now but could represent 3 months salary.

On arrival in the UK the National Children’s Home and Dr Barnado’s were given temporary legal guardianship of each child until an Adoption Order could be granted in this country. Both agencies also undertook to take a child back into their care should a placement fail. Social workers from those agencies visited and offered support to families.

Now for the statistics!
The children: The first two of you arrived in the UK in May 1960 ( 2 nearly 3year olds) and the project ended with the arrival of the last two children in 1969. Most came between 1960 and 1963. In all 106 children were brought to the UK through ISS– all but one were girls. (100 were included in the BCAS Research because the other 6 were coming over to join relatives). The youngest child was 8months old on arrival in this country and the great majority of you were under 3 years old. The oldest was 7 years old. There were no sibling groups. The children had spent an average of 20 months in orphanages.

Numbers coming each year:
1960 – 12
1961 – 15
1962 – 22
1963 – 21
1964 – 9
1965 – 5
1966 – 4
1967 – 9
1968 – 1
1969 2 Total: 100

It seems that the children were brought over when someone could be found to accompany them, eg someone returning to Britain on leave. 20 girls came on their own; 22 came with one other child; 15 in groups of 3; 8 in groups of 4; 20 in groups of 5; 1 group of 6 and 1group of 9. It is striking that 23 girls, including the group of 9, arrived in the week before Christmas. Nowadays it would not be good practice to move children to a new placement at any festival time, because there is enough excitement generated with the new arrival without adding to it! And, of course, there was no opportunity for the children and families to get to know each other gradually. You were all handed to your new parents at the airport – what an adjustment for everyone!

The families: 85 children were placed with families through the National Children’s Home (NCH) – with 72 families, because 13 families adopted a second child through the project. 14 children were placed with 12 families through Dr Barnado’s and one child was placed independently in the States of Guernsey. The average age at placement for adoption was 23 months. Adoption Orders were granted in respect of all the children. After that there was no formal link between the adoptive families and the placing agencies. But informal links were set up between families and ISS produced 4 issues of the ISS HK Project Newsletter between 1961-2 (when the social worker writing them left and the newsletters stopped)

The only contact that ISS UK had with the adoptees was if and when any of them returned to the agency to find out information about their adoptions. In recent years about 12 adopted women did come to ISS UK and were given such information as was on their files, and any necessary counselling about how to proceed further if they wished to do so.

The end of the project:
Throughout the ten years there was a decrease in the number of babies abandoned, and a small but steady increase in the number of families in HK who applied to adopt children. Consequently there was also a gradual reduction in the number of children needing adoptive homes overseas. By 1969 there was no longer felt to be a need for a specific project and the ISS UK Hong Kong Project came to an end.

The records about each child were kept by ISS UK until last year, but then they were passed to the agency responsible for the recruitment and support of that child’s adoptive family. So now all adoptees’ files are with with the adoptive parents’ files at either Action for Children (formerly NCH) or Barnardo’s.

A few final thoughts about the project:
This was a ground-breaking project in 1959, and what comes over strongly is the care that was taken in arranging every aspect of it, and the high level of professionalism shown by all concerned. Of course things have moved on in the world of adoption, and one hopes that children do not now move to a new family without at least some period of introduction. And there are now far better support systems available to families after an adoption order is granted.

Those of you who were “left to be found” must wonder about your parents’ feelings at having to leave you. Years of working as an adoption social worker have convinced me that parents who let their children go care for them deeply, and only do so because they believe that it is the best solution for the child, and your parents in Hong Kong gave you that opportunity by leaving you in a safe place, or by agreeing to your adoption.

It is wonderful that you now have this network to meet and share with each other, and the BAAF Research project has provided a most valuable opportunity for us all to learn from your experiences. Thank you.

Margaret Bryer


A note from Debbie, UK HKAN Founder: It is with sadness that we heard Margaret passed away on 25th March 2020. We would like to thank her again for this informative and absorbing talk, and the support she gave our network.


This announcement from CFAB tells us about Margaret’s considerable involvement in Children and Families Across Borders (formally ISS)


She has kindly given us a copy of her speech as there was great interest from the attendees to make it available online. We’d like to thank her for joining us and the work she has done over these many years. 


This document must not be used without permission of UK HKAN.