MEMOIRS OF A CHILD MIGRANT by NIGEL OWEN
Preface of new book
February 24th 2010 is a date that will forever live in my memory. It was the day I was invited to the house of Parliament at Westminster to meet and hear the then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, apologise for the way hundreds of thousands of child migrants like myself had been so cruelly treated down the years.
When I was five years old, I was trafficked to Australia for four years along with my brother and sister. I had no idea even where Australia was. We were placed in Northcote Farm School near Melbourne where the abuse and neglect to which cruel and depraved individuals subjected us has left indelible psychological scars.
My mother put my brother, sister and me into care and knew that we were being sent away. That traumatised us but we were too young to understand or ask why. She even came to visit us there for a day and eventually applied to have us brought back only to put us into care again not long after we’d returned. Thousands of other child migrants thought their parents were dead, that they were orphans. But the fact that their parents were still alive was kept from them. Many had their identities changed so they were unable to trace their families and no way of returning home.
From as far back as the 17th century, boys and girls, some as young as three, were shipped abroad as Britain washed its hands of a social problem by passing it on to countries who needed cheap labour and a higher population. First it was America, then Canada, Rhodesia, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Despite conditions in the UK improving for children after the Second World War, the practice continued. There were a few who did well but the vast majority of us were treated like slaves in an uncaring, brutal way.
I’d campaigned for an apology on behalf of my country for the way it had failed in its duty to protect us by sending us away to far-flung corners of the world to suffer all kinds of hardship and neglect in uncaring and brutal institutions. I’d written to Gordon Brown.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown with Nigel Owen (Powell) & Hector
Once the whole shameful episode had been publicly recognised in the UK, I was now able to tell my own kids about what had happened to me . When I told my eldest son, he asked me why I had ever discussed it with him before. I told him that no one would believe me. He said, “Dad, if you hadn’t told me and I’d found out after you died, I’d have been very upset.”
I’d found it impossible to talk about my early experience until recently because I thought that was the way life was as a child. I thought that, as a youngster, that was the way you were brought up. I didn’t know any better; it was so deeply embedded within me. For years I didn’t even talk about it with my brother and sister. My brother still clams up when you bring the subject up because he doesn’t want to be reminded of it. It’s too painful for him. My sister can talk about it more freely but she’s very bitter about what happened to us, so much so that she gets aggressive. She wants her pound of flesh. She wants someone to be held responsible and to face punishment for what was done to us. For me, thinking about my experience as a child migrant is like opening a door. You can open it up, let a bit of it out and then close it again. Sometimes I feel I can talk about it quite easily, but when you get down to the nitty-gritty, it’s an emotionally painful journey. But it’s a story that I need to tell.
A lot has been written about the child migrant story but I think it’s important for it to be told by the people who suffered. People need to know. I’ve found with the media, to use that old cliché, today’s news is tomorrow’s chip paper. At the time they love it, it’s in your face, but the next day it’s forgotten. A book is there for posterity. This one will help give me closure, and if people ask me about the whole episode, it’s there for people to read. With it down on paper, I can put the experience behind me and carry on with the rest of my life, no longer a victim of the events that took away my childhood.
March 8th 1955 was the date I left a cold English winter for a sunny land on the other side of the world. I struggled up the gangway with my suitcase on which was written my name, N.P.T. Powell, standing for Nigel Petrie Thomas Powell. I still remember the case having a green pattern on it. I was five years old. The gangway led me to the SS Strathnaver, a ship that was taking me, my sister Wendy who was nine, and my brother Clive who was ten, to Australia. I was told I was leaving England, the country of my birth, for a better life. I had no idea why. My mother had put us into care, and we didn’t know the reason for that either. I remember standing by the rails on deck and I could see the man who had accompanied us in the car from our Fairbridge care home standing on the docks throwing streamers at us. There were four other kids with us from the home, the Dennis family, Nigel, Trevor, Andrew and Elise. There were also lots of other children with their mothers and fathers, shouting and waving goodbye to their friends and family. I learnt later that many were
the so-called £10 Poms taking advantage of the assisted passage scheme, They’d chosen to seek a new life. We didn’t have that choice. We were beginning a journey that would result in four years of continuous neglect and abuse in a cruel, uncaring institution. We didn’t know, as we listened to the roars and screams as the ship set sail, that some of the most precious years of our life were soon to be stolen. We were child migrants, so-called Lost Innocents, three small people among hundreds of thousands who were sent away by their mother country over many years to get rid of the children it didn’t want. We were helpless pawns in a shameful episode of our history.
12th post-war party at Fairbridge Knockholt Kent UK
Fairbridge said they did know the names of the seven children sent to Northcote Farm School
I was born on 15 January 1950 in Ramsgate, Kent. I have only a vague picture memory of my father. He was in the RAF, stationed nearby at Manston. I remember going to a pre-school nursery called Red Robin. The uniform was a blazer and a cap with a red robin emblazoned on it. When I learned that I had to leave home I remember crying for ages and ages. A woman called Mrs Vera Grenfell came round to our house with a consignment of clothes. She held up a little pair of blue shorts and told me I was going away to Australia. As I burst into tears, I remember her saying to me, “Nigel, look at these new trousers for you,” as if that was going to make me feel happy. And I went behind the sofa and cried my eyes out. Shortly afterwards, we were taken to the Fairbridge home in Knockholt, Kent. It was a grand place with lavish grounds, like being in the countryside. No wonder people were easily persuaded to give up their children to go to a place like that! My memories of it were of a big table where we all had to eat together, and that we slept in dormitories.
The Fairbridge organisation processed us and prepared us for our journey down-under.
It turns out that we and the Dennis’s were the 12th post-war party to be sent to Australia from Knockholt. We were driven in various cars to Tilbury. None of us could believe how big the SS Strathnaver was. I found out much later that she ship had an interesting history. During the Second World War it was requisitioned as a troop ship. It was used for transporting ANZAC troops to Suez, and later took part in the troop landings at Oran, Algiers and Anzio. In 1943 it transported American soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division and the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment across the Atlantic. These troops helped liberate Europe after D-Day. Shortly after leaving New York, it hit rocks and had to put in to St John’s in Newfoundland, Canada for repairs. Some housewives on the jetty began teasing the sailors by exposing parts of their anatomy. There was such a rush to that side of the ship that it began listing heavily.
We had a woman chaperone that was supposed to look after us, but in fact we were left to our own devices, which was fantastic. We’d never experienced such freedom. It was like a holiday and we’d never had a holiday before. I watched as the English coast gradually disappeared and as the days went by I remember thinking how far from England we must be travelling. We were all seasick in the Bay of Biscay. I can remember stopping at Port Said where little boats came alongside. Men were selling various goods from them while the ship passed through the Suez Canal. It was beautiful weather, and fun. It was the first time I saw a rifle. They had soldiers on the boat, armed to keep anyone from getting on. We weren’t allowed ashore because we didn’t have a passport. It was hot, it was lovely, and we took advantage of the good weather to play deck sports. The stewards on the ship were great to us and would feed us well. I always remember in the mornings we’d have porridge in a bowl filled right up to the rim. What a difference this experience was to what I was soon to endure!
The ship stopped first at Perth where lots of children got off. Then more disembarked at Adelaide. I didn’t know these places then, of course, but I found out many years later. We ended up in Melbourne. We were picked up by what I know now as an old Thames truck. It had a big silver box on the back. We all called it the Biscuit Tin. It was just a box with two rows of seats in it, and we were put in the back and off we trundled for what seemed hours. It was dark when we arrived at Northcote Farm School in a place called Glenmore, near Bacchus Marsh. The school consisted of a number of cottages arranged a few hundred yards apart in a horseshoe. Although the school was not strictly-speaking a Fairbridge institution, it was modelled on exactly the same lines as other Fairbridge farm schools in Australia and Canada. Its founder, Lady Northcote, was a friend of Kingsley Fairbridge and a big fan of the Fairbridge ethos. He had been a Victorian philanthropist who wanted to take children off the streets of England and give them a sense of self-worth by training them to be farmers in the case of boys, and domestic servants if you were a girl. Northcote was established exactly to do that.
Our cottage was called Elinya. My brother went to one with older boys called Murradong.
A Mrs Humphries, who was to be our cottage auntie, met us. I would say she was in her late 20s or early 30s, very dour looking with dark hair tied back in a bun. She always wore dark grey, sometimes with a blue cardigan, and flat black shoes. There was food for us set out on the tables; bowls of shape, and jam sandwiches. But as I was so tired and near to falling asleep, I refused it. I wasn’t feeling well and it turned out I had German measles. Within minutes of my arrival I was to get a taste of the nature of life to come in this awful place. Humphries grabbed me and gave me a lathering across my legs with a heavy three-foot long ruler. It was one that was used for dressmaking and had a metal edge. I’d never been smacked before, not even by my parents, so you can imagine how shocked I was. My sister tried to protect me by screaming at Humphries “Don’t you dare hit my baby brother.” She got a thrashing in return.
There were 12 boys in our dormitory and three girls in theirs. We weren’t allowed to speak after lights out otherwise we’d get beaten or have to stand in the corner for hours or be made to scrub the outside wooden veranda with cold water still in your pyjamas. In winter the beds were freezing cold and damp. There was no heating and you weren’t given enough blankets. Windows had to be left open for “fresh air” which just added to the cold. Getting to sleep in winter was a long, lonely business. I remember not long after we were there, someone had urinated on the toilet seat. Humphries lined everyone up in a line and we were told to stand there until one of us owned up. None of us did. She had us all polishing the floor with these bloody mops for hours and hours. Eventually, I’d had enough and I told her that it was me, even though I hadn’t done it. I just couldn’t work any more. It was the worst thing I ever did. I got such a battering for that and I was made to stand in the corner for hours.
I used to wet the bed all the time. The routine procedure was that before you went to bed, before lights out, you had to go to the toilet. Then you’d get back into bed with no talking whatsoever, and you weren’t allowed out of bed again even if nature called again. If you got caught, you got beaten. So when you woke up in the early hours and you’d wet the bed, you knew what was coming. I remember trying to rub the sheet with my hand, trying to dry it or make it look like it wasn’t wet. But you couldn’t because it was stained. Humphries would come in, see that you’d wet the bed, hurl abuse at you and give you a slap across the head with her hand and with the ruler. You then had to take the sheets off the bed, and get into a cold bath. You were only allowed two inches of water and only allowed three minutes. Sometimes she would make us parade with wet sheets over our heads in front of everyone just to humiliate us while she screamed vicious words at us telling us what disgusting little pigs we were. Because we were small we had to use one of two porcelain sinks that were freezing cold in winter. Then you’d be made to drag your wet mattress outside and to wash your sheet in a bucket and hang it out to dry before coming back in again. During this whole procedure, Humphries would continue to hurl abuse at you. Then she would make you polish the floor for hours on end or, if it was light, you’d be sent out the back where there was a woodpile and be made to chop wood for a maybe two hours. That was hard work for a kid of five or six. Then you’d take the wood that you’d chopped and take it to the bunker by the side of the cottage. To me, the bunker was high up and hard work to reach. But after throwing in all your wood, you had to go back to have breakfast in the main hall. All breakfast consisted of was cereal which nine times out of ten was porridge. Rarely would you get Corn Flakes or anything like that. If you’d been naughty and wet the bed, you’d be denied sugar. So I used to put salt on mine. Then it was off to school, which was a mile and a half walk away. The school wasn’t actually part of the farm school; it was a junior school on the Glenmore Road. Because I used to wet the bed, I used to have to come back at lunchtime so that Humphries could check if I’d wet myself again. My sister sometimes brought me home. If I had, I’d get another hiding, no lunch and another mile and a half walk back to school.
Four out of five days I’d have wet myself but I used to have to come back each lunchtime. On one occasion I thought I’d try and outfox her. One morning I put my underpants on back to front, for when I came home I knew I had to take them off to show I hadn’t wet myself. I showed her but she was too clever and asked me to turn them around and there was the stain. I got an extra hiding for being deceitful. What a vindictive bitch she was! I remember my sister and a lad we called Mackie stole her punishment ruler, chopped it into pieces and buried it. When she found out, she replaced it with a strop that stung something awful. They were soundly thrashed. She would make you take your trousers down and lather you on your bare flesh. One day I got so enraged at the treatment we were getting, I bit into this belt and ripped a big strip of it out. She continued to use it though and it became even worse then because there was an extra sliver of it.
On one occasion, our mother sent us a food parcel. Anything that was sent to you Humphries always checked first and she always read your mail. There was no privacy. I remember her opening our parcel in front of everyone, then opening the biscuit tins and sharing the contents with everyone. My sister and I got nothing. She was a nasty, vindictive woman with an evil streak in her. In the end, you gave up crying. Crying just became a waste of time. You just took your punishment and got on with it. You just hoped the punishment wouldn’t hurt as much as the last time.
I didn’t ever question why my mother wasn’t there to look after me. I was too young to understand what was going on. I thought this was how life was. I remember my sister kicking up about the food parcel issue and when another one came, we were allowed to take it. Me, my brother and my sister shot off into the bush, opened it up and shared it amongst ourselves and I ate all of my share straight away because I was determined no other bastard was going to have any of it. For the food we were given was awful. It consisted of porridge for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and that was usually that disgusting vegemite. The only meat we ate was mutton for they farmed sheep at the school. Our meat came from the old knackered sheep and was disgusting. It was full of fat, sometimes an inch thick, and we were made to eat it. I remember once throwing up in my plate for which I was given a good hiding. I can’t abide even the smell of it to this day. My sister’s the same. She learnt to sneak everything she hated on her plate into her knickers that had a pocket and elasticated legs. Then later she’d flush it down the toilet. All the milk in the cottages had to be boiled. There’s nothing worse than having to drink boiled milk. It was disgusting. In those days, the milk wasn’t pasteurised. There was an old horse there that used to bring the milk from the farm up to the school every day. I made friends with that old horse and used to go and see it often. To me he seemed enormous. The older boys used to bring the milk up on two-wheeled cart from the dairy. I used to be fascinated by the way they could get the horse to reverse up to the loading dock. I’m sure the reason we all suffered from boils so much was because of the bad food. If that wasn’t bad enough, Humphries would put hot poultices on them that stung something awful.
On Sundays we used to have to go to church – which was actually just one of the rooms in one of the cottages in which they’d built an altar. Every Sunday, a few kids who could fit into the Biscuit Tin went to the church in Bacchus Marsh. A priest used to come to take the service in the cottage and I’ll always remember one of the stories he told us about hope. Two little frogs were jumping about on two milk churns. One of the churns had no lid on it and they both fell into the milk. They were swimming around until one gave up and drowned. The other one carried on swimming and eventually he turned it into butter and he survived because he could climb out. The moral was that if you kept hope alive, you could survive. I’ll always remember that. I think that message helped me survive.
At the beginning of the summer holidays, we used to have to line up in the hall and people, usually farmers though we never knew exactly who they were, would select us and we’d end up working on farms, basically as slave labour. My sister was abused by one of the farmers when she was 11. The following year it happened again. She only told me about this in the last few years because everything that happened to you, you kept to yourself. She ended up with three broken ribs. The year after that, she played up so much that when we were in the hall no one wanted to take her because they thought she was a naughty girl. She ran away twice, once with my brother Clive and the other time with a girl called Kathleen Edgington. Both times they were brought back and soundly thrashed. One year I ended up going to a farm where I had to pick pears in the orchard for six hours a day. I used to get so hungry I’d eat some of the pears off the floor and would get a hiding for it.
One summer a lady called Mrs Hemingway selected me. She was a lovely woman and I went to her house with her husband. I found out later that she’d had a daughter who had died. I never discovered exactly what had happened to her, but I remember being allowed to go into her room to use her coloured pencils once and it was still full of all her dolls and other toys. I remember the pencils being in a beautiful box, about 50 of them all different colours. Mrs Hemingway was lovely to me and I’ll always remember that when she used to cook, she always used to let me stir the gravy. I remember too how she knitted me a lovely jumper, green flecked with red and I loved it. She sewed my name in the back, Nigel Powell. A couple of days after I returned to school, I found one of the other boys wearing it. And when I went up to him and said, “That’s mine,” the name had been blotted out, and I never got the jumper again. I recall one time Humphries came to visit me when I was staying with Mrs Hemingway saying she just wanted to see how I was doing. I used to play hopscotch with a girl who lived next door. We drew the squares with a stone on the pavement. As she was leaving, Humphries looked at the squares and said, “Did you do that?” Even then she was chastising me but she couldn’t vent her abuse at me with Mrs Hemingway there.
Many years later, in 1972, while I was a Marine Engineering Officer in the Merchant Navy, our ship docked in Melbourne. So, as soon as the landline was set up on board, I looked Mrs Hemingway up in the phone book since I remembered her address. When she answered I said, “Is that Mrs Hemingway”? Immediately she said, “That’s Nigel, isn’t it.” So, I went round to see her with a couple of lads from our ship. I was still young then and I didn’t really understand even then what had happened to me. We spent a lovely afternoon together having tea and she asked after my welfare and I told her I was doing well. She then said she’d write to me because she wanted to ask me some questions. I said fine and gave her the ship’s address. Then I went travelling to Sydney, Cairns and other places, and on the way back to the UK we stopped at Cape Town. By then, I’d expected her letter to have arrived but there was nothing. When I got back to the UK I wrote her a letter and got a reply in which she told me she had wanted to adopt me. She said she no longer wanted to ask me any more questions because I seemed so happy. That was the last time I had contact with her. I did write again much later but got no reply. I assumed she must have died. She would have been my perfect mother. She loved me and looked after me. I remember one summer she was ill and couldn’t have me. I ended up going to another family who took me in. They treated me like a slave. After a few weeks, she suddenly arrived in a car with her husband to pick me up even though she was ill. So I only missed half the summer with her. I really loved her. Normally, we would be collected from wherever we were in the Biscuit Tin. But that summer she drove me back to Northcote, drove into the horseshoe to our cottage and all the other kids were looking. Then as soon as she left, I got a hiding from Humphreys for being late. God, she was a cow! I’d have quite happily murdered her. I remember Mackie getting hold of her once. He must have been 13 or 14 and was as big as her. As she came into the bathroom, he got her up against the wall and she shouted to some of the other kids “Go and get Mr Wignall”. (Wignall was the Principal) We all stood there and just looked at her, then at each other, but none of us moved. We all felt like we wanted him to kill her. She continued to scream, “Go and get Mr Wignall”, but none of us would and we all left. Mackie then got moved to Murradong with the older boys. My sister hated Humphries with a vengeance. When she had her first period, she went to Humphries to tell her she was bleeding. She just gave her a towel saying sort yourself out – there was no help in any way at all. I remember my sister once fell out of a tree and broke her arm. She was made to walk a mile on her own to the hospital to get it set. Even though she had her arm in plaster, she still had to do all her chores.
Mr Wignall was a very strict man. Whenever you did anything wrong you got a thrashing from him with a cane. It didn’t matter how big or small you were you were beaten all the same. I didn’t get as much abuse from him, though, as I got from Humphries. He would get involved if you did something wrong away from the cottage. Each cottage had to have a couple of kids to peel the potatoes. Every week it would be one cottage’s turn to peel them and two kids would be allocated to peel them for the whole school. We’re talking about a massive pot because it had to contain enough to feed 100 children and the staff. From the age of 5, I had to peel potatoes until my hands bled. It would take bloody hours. One day one of the other kids didn’t turn up, so I had to do two pots all by me. It took me forever, and because I thought that the lad who didn’t arrive would be made to do it by himself next day, I didn’t bother turning up. Big mistake! I got hauled in front of Wignall and got the thrashing of my life on my hands that had been bleeding the day before. He was a big man, in his late thirties, early forties with tight curly hair. I was really scared of him. My sister had some communication with him a long long time ago when she was trying to get some records of her education.
On Saturdays our chores took up most of the day, there was little time for play. All beds in the dormitories had to be moved to one side and the room thoroughly cleaned. The floors would be scrubbed, windows cleaned and floors polished before the inspection. If it wasn’t deemed good enough we had to start all over again. The girls used to tie dusters around their feet so that by sliding up and down they could get a good shine on the boards. Sundays meant church and letter writing. We had to write what we were told or we’d get a smack round the head. We were never given our letters to read. Humphries would read out what she thought we should hear in front of everyone. Occasionally my sister would sneak into the kitchen, steal letters from her hiding place, read them and return them without being caught.
I had brought with me my teddy from England called ‘Hector’. I’m surprised I managed to hold on to him because all one’s personal possessions were taken from you when you arrived. You were given neither toys nor books. I managed to hide Hector, how I don’t know. I used to hide him under the bed, in the garden. He was my little comfort blanket. It always looked to me like he had a very sad face so one day I sewed a new mouth on it, one that smiled. I had created my own little world with Hector who I knew wouldn’t hurt me. I would hold conversations with him. He was like my invisible friend. Hector helped me get through better than my sister and brother. Perhaps it was easier because I was younger. Yet, hardly a day goes by even now when my mind doesn’t go back to one of the events that took place during my stay at Northcote. I still have Hector today. He looks a bit of a mess now, his nose is missing and his insides are coming out and a dog I had once chewed its ears. But I’ll never get rid of him. My former wife could never understand why I’d never get rid of this teddy. I might not see him for years but I knew he was somewhere. I took him with me when I moved to live in Spain, I couldn’t find him. I went apeshit. I eventually found him in the bottom of a box. He’s a part of me that will go on till I die for he helped me through a very bad period of my life.
Nigel Owen (Powell) with Hector
Once a month films were shown in the main hall. This was a rare treat. If you misbehaved you were sent to bed and not allowed to see the film. Being left alone in the dark, empty cottage was very scary for a child regardless of the sadness we felt at not seeing the film. School was a real respite from life in the cottage. It was a normal school attended by children from the surrounding areas as well as those from the farm school. The teachers were strict but OK. There was one girl there of my age and we used to play doctors and nurses. It was a classic case of I’ll show you mine if you show me yours. One day in class, we were all sitting around in a circle and she said, “Touch me”. So I put my hand up her skirt to touch her and the teacher saw me and I got a right hiding for that. At playtime it didn’t matter how big you were you all played together with a ball. I remember we had to try to kick the ball in the air as high as we could and I thought it was great fun. I used to be quite artistic. I can recall making model heads for puppets out of papier-mache and making birds from silver paper and painting them. One of the teachers made boomerangs and we used to go out and throw them. I enjoyed that. We also used to have inter-school games that were great fun. I remember one year winning the high jump, the only kid from Northcote to win anything that year. I enjoyed school because there was no abuse there at all. I occasionally got my legs slapped for doing something wrong but that was pretty normal for any school then. The school’s rooms all had wooden floorboards and every day after school finished, these floors would be swept. I volunteered to sweep the floors because it meant you could stay behind so you wouldn’t have to go back to Northcote till later. Instead of using a broom, I used one of those brushes that come with a dustpan, and I once swept this floor for more than an hour until one of the teachers came saying “Nigel, why are you doing it like that, there’s a proper broom there.” The reason was simply that I knew it would take longer and I wanted to be there longer. The education looking back didn’t seem to be too bad. I learnt to read and write there. I remember having a vocabulary book from which each week you’d have five words to learn how to spell. I always remember, the week before we came back to the UK, one of the words was “hippopotamus” and I was having trouble remembering that. But we left before the end of that week so I was relieved that I didn’t have to spell it.
At school we all had our own little vegetable patch in which you could grow anything you wanted from seed. Every spring you were asked what vegetable you’d like to grow and I always used to put my hand up for radishes because I knew I could eat radishes, no problem. But we were never allowed back to the homes of the kids at the school. We always had to go back to Northcote. Behind the cottages was bush land flanked by a range of hills. If you could get out there at weekends without being seen, you could bugger off without anyone bothering you or harming you. Eventually they’d send a search party out to find you, and yes another thrashing.
When I had German measles I had to go to the sick bay and the nurse there was called Sister Thorne. She was quite a compassionate woman; at least she didn’t abuse you. I used to suffer from bad nightmares and I remember one night having a dream in which everything seemed fuzzy and covered in mist and, all of a sudden, everything became clear and shiny. I woke up screaming, jumped out of bed, ran backwards and hit the wall. I was still screaming when Sister Thorne came in. She grabbed hold of me and said “What’s the matter with you, Nigel?” I couldn’t tell her that I’d just had this terrible nightmare because I thought I’d get abuse. She had me up half the night asking me what I’d been dreaming about but I just couldn’t tell her. The easiest way to describe what was going through my mind was to imagine an out of focus tin of beans that suddenly became bright and shiny and in focus, and it shocked me. I’ve no idea to this day how to interpret that dream maybe it was we were always hungry but I’ve never forgotten it. I remember it like it was yesterday.
Even to this day I find it hard to show my emotions. I can well up but I can’t cry. We were supposed to get thrupence a week pocket money but Humphries only gave us a penny. I know this because years later when we left to come back to the UK, packed in my case was a purse with £1 11s 6d in it. This was the savings for all my years out there. We were given 3d a week but we had to save 2d of that and we were allowed to spend 1d a week at the tuck shop. We were not allowed to buy sweets and if you got some you had to make sure she didn’t find out. A little old man called Mr Gibbons used to run the tuck shop. He knew a penny didn’t buy you much so occasionally he used to slip my sister and me little iced mice sweets. You remember those nice things.
One summer, my brother, sister and I along with one other boy, didn’t go away and we had the whole farm school to ourselves. That was the best summer of my life. We didn’t have to be in by any time, we were fed by one of the aunties in the cottages but she left us to our own devices. But there was something odd about my brother. We used to go rabbiting just for the hell of it. We’d always let the rabbits go until one day I saw my brother killing one. He skinned it and wanted to try to sell it to make some money. But I always remember that on one occasion he got this rabbit and cut the skin round its neck. Then he and another lad pulled the skin off, literally skinned it alive, and this rabbit ran off with no skin on. It ran for about 10 or 15 seconds before it died. I believe this vicious streak was an anger pent up with all the physical abuse we were experiencing. They say you take it out on animals and I think that could have been a part of the explanation. For my brother, being a bigger boy got more abuse than I did. He was sexually abused as well. He never talked about it.
I suffered sexual abuse too. The Gillespie’s were the men who used to drop the timber off that we had to chop. They brought it in a big truck. Every cottage had a woodpile at the back and they used to drive their truck to the back to unload their wood. More often than not one of us would be back there chopping wood. I remember one time, one of these men said to me, “Hello lad, how big’s your cock?” I was shocked. I didn’t know what to think. Then he said “Come here, this is what you call a cock.” I tried to run away and he gave me a good smacking and made me masturbate him. He had to tell me what to do; I had no idea what it was all about. I was only six. He then tried to make me suck him off but I wasn’t having that. That happened on a few occasions and he eventually violated me the disgusting bastard. That same bloke always picked on me. I couldn’t tell anyone and I didn’t dare report him because I thought I’d done something wrong and I would have got a hiding for it. In some ways I was lucky because some of the other boys got it much worse. For example, one boy with whom I re-established contact with, says he didn’t want to name the perpetrators of his sexual abuse who had since died because he didn’t want to upset the families who would be shamed through no fault of their own. He felt that by doing that, he would become as bad as the man who abused him. That touched me. Am I wrong in thinking that? I had my childhood stolen from me and you can neither replace it nor put a price on it. You only get one childhood and it should be the best years of your life. You should be able to run free, muck about, fall out of a tree and break your arm. That to me is what being a kid should be all about, not being beaten all the time.
When we first arrived at Northcote, we were stripped of all our own clothes and possessions and given school clothes, namely one set of play clothes, one set of school clothes, one Sunday best for church, one pair of sandals and one pair of shoes for Sundays. There was no individuality at Northcote. One time, a big pile of jodhpurs arrived at the cottage in all different sizes. We all had to find a pair that fitted us. And we were all walking round in jodhpurs for about a year. A riding school or something must have donated them. The kids from outside the school laughed at us. They definitely laughed at the pudding basin haircuts that the girls were given. Early on, we were all taught how to darn our own socks. You had a wooden mushroom that you’d pull the sock over before darning the hole.
The abuse got worse as you got older because you rebelled more. And once you developed an attitude, you got more punishment. You began to stand up more against the system. For example, you weren’t allowed toys. A couple of the older boys once made me a little cart out of wood. They brought it to me and said “Nigel, we haven’t got any wheels yet for you.” So, I used to drag this little cart around with no wheels on it. Then the boys came up with four polish tins from which they’d taken off the twisting mechanism with which you opened the tin, knocked a hole through with a nail and I then had my wheels. I had to hide that toy as well. I remember once at Murradong cottage, my brother got a little fire going and was boiling some potatoes because we were always hungry. I asked him for some but he told me to go and get some of my own. So, I found one and we boiled it up and it was lovely. One year some carrots arrived – they were massive, abnormally big. They were no good for anything so they were buried behind the cottage. Then one of the other lads, Philip Martin, and I dug them up to eat as we were so hungry.
One day out of the blue Humphries said to me, “You’re leaving tomorrow.” My immediate thought was that I could have my red robin jacket and hat back that had stood in the shower for all those years. But it had disappeared. Humphries packed my case and attached to the back of it a list of its contents including the purse containing the £1 11s 6d. That seemed like a small fortune to me. And then she dressed me in a very aggressive way but I didn’t mind because I knew I was going. The last thing she said to me was “Don’t spend any of that money.” Ever the controlling cow! They gave us no indication what or whom we were going back to. My brother, sister and I were just happy to get out of there. We didn’t know why, when or how we were going. Soon we were loaded into the back of the Biscuit Tin and driven to Melbourne. Then on the same day we went aboard the ship The Fair Sea. The journey was even more fantastic than when we came out. My brother and I shared a cabin, while my sister shared hers with a woman chaperone. But again, we were largely left to our own devices. We were actually let ashore this time, in Aden. It was the first time I’d ever seen a camel. It was amazing. I spent all the money that Humphries had put in my purse on a little leather camel. I remember going through customs at Tilbury and when the customs officer asked if I’d got anything to declare, I told him I’d got a camel. As I produced my toy, instead of giving me a whack, which I’d come to expect, he gave me a smile.
Former Child Migrants at apology 24th February 2010
Britain's Shameful Secret
When the then Secretary of State for Health, Andy Burnham sent me the invitation to hear Gordon Brown’s apology on behalf of the nation at a reception for former child migrants at Westminster, he wrote, "I do hope you will find the visit a moving and joyful event". Moving it certainly was. I cried openly for the first time in maybe 50 years. But joyful? No. I found it hard to control my emotions as it brought back all the horrors and memories of years of abuse. But I was crying too because I knew now that I could start telling people about my story and about all the other experiences of the child migrants, and those people would now believe me. I remembered all those times when, often in a pub after a few drinks, I would start to tell people about how I was sent to Australia as a five-year-old, literally shipped abroad to face horrific abuse and it was all kept under wraps. When I’d give them just an inkling of what I underwent, I could see they thought it was all bullshit. People just couldn’t imagine a thing like that happening.
I was crying too for all those kids who would never live to see their country say sorry for what had been done to them, who died without the even the acknowledgement that what they went through was a shameful disgrace. I thought of that first group of 100 orphans who were rounded up off the streets of London and sent to Virginia in 1618 to work as slaves when America had not long ago become our colony. As if that wasn’t bad enough, they had to fight hunger, disease and attacks by Native Americans. Only 10 of the first group survived their childhood, so another batch of 100 were despatched. However, hundreds more were sent illegally, the so-called “spirited” children who were kidnapped. It was not until the British were defeated in the American War of Independence in 1783 that this form of slavery was closed off, though of course another took its place.
When slave labour was abolished in another of our colonies, South Africa, in the early part of the 19th century, what did we do? We sent 440 kids there to replace some of the adults whom we couldn’t now exploit. And, as the Prime Minister said, child migration didn’t just happen in years gone by when we weren’t supposed to know any better. In the mid-19th century, with the United States no longer an outlet for our unwanted children, we began shipping them to Canada, which was developing its agriculture and was desperately short of labour. We sent more than 100,000 in all. The boys were mostly sent to work as farmhands, and the girls as domestic servants. Some were treated so cruelly that a few Canadian farmers were charged with manslaughter. Canadian witnesses laid great stress on the stigma which attached to being a 'Home Child', their term for child migrant. Many former child migrants hid this fact even from their wives and children for many years, because of the shame that had been drilled into them. As early as 1928, the Canadian government banned children under 14 from being migrated. This was because Barnardo’s kids in particular were being placed without proper care or supervision.
Barnardo’s UK stated that Barnardo’s tried to establish a strict system of vetting and inspection of the Canadian child placements. However, the children were seen only once a year by a Barnardo’s worker and were in reality very vulnerable, located on remote farmsteads that were often cut off for months in winter. Living conditions were tough and the climate was harsh. All the children bore the stigma of being “home” children and were treated as outcasts. Luckier children became part of the family, but many were treated like slaves, and there were many cases of abuse and neglect. They reckon that 11% per cent of Canada's population is descended from British child migrants. This figure is supported by Home Children Canada, who also claims that 67% of the children sent to Canada were abused. The authorities stopped sending children to Canada after the Second World War.
276 kids were sent to Rhodesia, Zimbabwe as it’s now called, between 1946 and 1956. Round about the same time, another 500 child migrants ended up in New Zealand, again to work as slave labour.
I was one of between 6,500 and 10,000 child migrants, the larger figure includes those over 16 but under 21, who were deported to Australia between 1912 and 1970. Two young lads from Cornwall were sent to Tasmania in 1970 and they actually got compensation from Cornwall Council. It’s unbelievable! How that could be allowed to happen?
I had no idea where Australia was. I was only five. In some ways my brother, sister and I were lucky. At least we weren’t separated like some who were torn apart from each other at the dockside never to see each other again. Some were told that their parents were dead when they were actually still alive. Sometimes their names and birth dates were changed so there was no chance they could ever be reunited. Many were shipped abroad without their parents’ agreement. Many parents who’d entrusted their kids to an institution didn’t even know that their children had been sent abroad at all. They had no idea where they were and had no way of being able to get them back.
My mother knew where we’d been sent and eventually got us back. But we had no idea why she’d given us over to an institution in the first place. I’m still not sure to this day. But I’m pretty certain even she had no idea of the hardship that her children would suffer when they landed down-under. We were told that we were going to have a better life where the sun always shines. This was said to people like me down the years.
When child migration first began, Britain was clearly getting rid of its “human chaff” as the 2001 Australian Select Committee report called it – clearing out its poverty-stricken street children. When orphanages were full and there was lots of space available in our colonies, the philanthropists who founded various charities genuinely thought that these migrants would get a better life learning to be farmers, domestic servants or whatever and the countries that took them in would benefit from cheap labour in return. In 1870, Thomas Barnardo wrote
"To behold young men and women crowded together in pestilential rookeries without the least provision for decency and in such conditions of abominable filth, atmospheric impurity and immoral associationship as to make the maintenance of virtue impossible, is almost enough to fill the bravest reformer with despair".
It seemed a no-brainer to want to swap a life of begging, thieving, disease, prostitution and early death in the British Isles for a healthy life with good future prospects on the rich farms of North America. It was also thought to be in the child’s best interests to be thought of as an orphan rather than illegitimate. Within a generation, Barnardo’s Homes would be sending 1,000 children a year to Canada to escape such conditions.
Kingsley Fairbridge, a South African born in 1885, founded the organisation that processed me, my brother and sister, Fairbridge.
“I saw great Colleges of Agriculture (not workhouses) springing up in every man-hungry corner of the Empire. I saw children shedding the bondage of bitter circumstances and stretching their legs and minds amid the thousand interests of the farm. I saw waste turned to providence, the waste of un-needed humanity converted to the husbandry of unpeopled acres.”
He managed to get a land grant to build a Farm School at Pinjarra in Western Australia, and later managed to exploit the imperialist mood of the time to get subsidies from the British government, the Western Australian government and the Commonwealth to extend his property there.
The problem though with the Barnardo’s and Fairbridge philosophy was that you could understand their thinking given the sort of conditions that they described in the 19th century. However, the organisations they founded were still sending us off to these corners of the world when conditions for children in care in the UK had radically improved.
The 1944 Curtis Committee Report and the scandal of Dennis O'Neill, a twelve year old boy killed by his foster-father in 1945, led to the 1948 Children's Act which began a more enlightened approach to child care in which shutting children away in institutions was regarded as a last resort. There was much more emphasis placed on adoption and fostering. Child protection was placed mainly under local authority control, and the criteria for defining child abuse were made much clearer. A specialist children's service was set up in every local authority nationwide, backed up by specialist childcare training. As far as child migrants were concerned, the Act granted the Secretary of State the power “to control the making and carrying out by voluntary organisations of arrangements for the emigration of children”. The Home Secretary was now obliged to refuse to let a child be shipped abroad unless he was satisfied that emigration was in the best interest of that child and that suitable arrangements had been made to receive him or her in whichever country he or she was being sent to. This sounded good in theory; but the practice was very different. As the Australian Senate Committee report put it:-
“It is significant to note that the Secretary of State did not promulgate a single regulation under the auspices of the Act to affect a system more attuned to the rights of parents and their children...it would seem that procuring the consent of the Secretary of State to the migration of a child was an exercise in formality rather than substance.”
It became increasingly clear why the UK government was washing its hands of their responsibilities. Getting rid of these kids meant that the colonies and not Britain would have to pay for looking after them. It cost about a fiver a day to keep a child in the UK whereas in Australia it was 10 shillings, a tenth of the cost. The British government in effect outsourced its child migration policies to charities and religious institutions by paying for them to do the job for them, giving them a tidy sum in the process. Families or single parents who, for whatever reason, couldn’t care for their children but didn’t want them sent to the workhouse or the state orphanage, would give them to the charity or religious organisation instead.
The UK Select Committee report on the child migrant scandal quotes a Dr Barbara Kahan, OBE, who was a Children's Officer in charge of Oxfordshire County Council Children's Department in the 1950s, and who subsequently became Chair of the National Children's Bureau. She wrote to The UK Health Committee inquiry about her memories of how local governments made their decisions over child migration:
“It was clear from discussion in Parliament around that time (the early 1950s) that the emigration scheme was seen as cost-cutting. When Children's Departments were set up in 1948 the intention was to achieve drastic reform of a dreadful system. Inevitably this led to more expenditure and more children in care because need was much greater than Public Assistance had ever recognised. In 1950 ... a Select Committee on Estimates report pointed out that they were costing more than anticipated. One of the consequences was that great pressure was put on Children's Officers to board children out ... there was a debate in the House of Commons when certain MPs urged the Government to put pressure on 'these sticky-fingered Children's Officers' who were reluctant to emigrate their children. ... The emigration schemes were, in my opinion, a shameful, disgraceful policy and in my memory the financial motivation was quite overt in the early 1950s."
So by the time that The Catholics got involved in child migration after the Second World War inspired by the “success” of Barnardo’s and Fairbridge, the standard of care in the UK was much higher, making the migration policies much less justifiable. For the experience of the Second World War during which children were evacuated or separated from their families for various reasons showed how important it was to have a stable child-parent relationship to avoid harmful psychological effects. The whole idea of child migration as being a positive experience was regarded as wrong in most official and professional circles. At first, this cut little ice with the Catholic Church who didn’t go much on the standard of religious training that the other groups were giving and also wanted to keep Catholic numbers up against the Protestants. But they were also making lots of money from the government for running the scheme. What’s more, the state authorities in Australia got more money from taking in British child migrants than they did from their own orphans. So everyone was happy, apart from the little matter of the child migrants themselves. The Catholic Church was represented by such organisations as the Christian Brothers, the Sisters of Mercy, the Sisters of Nazareth and the Young Christian Workers Movement. The Christian Brothers ran particularly brutal institutions, most notably in Bindoon, a farm in Western Australia. In one infamous case, the 2001 Australian Senate Committee enquiry into child migration heard evidence from a man who said Brothers there had competed to see who could rape him a hundred times.
There were other household names also involved in the child migration schemes including The Church Army, the Boy Scout Association, The Salvation Army, the Presbyterian Church and the Young Men’s Christian Association. By letting these private groups get on with the business of shipping their unwanted kids abroad under lax regulations, the British government in effect gave them complete responsibility for providing for the welfare of us kids. I found a British government Cabinet document, once secret but now available on the Internet, written in 1956, the year after I was taken to Australia. It refers to a Home Office Fact-Finding Commission sent to Australia that, in a secret report called The Ross Report, was heavily critical of many of the institutions it visited. Catholic organisations stopped sending any more children abroad as a result of it, though Barnardo’s and Fairbridge carried on. The Ross Committee attacked the very principle of child migration. It dismissed the argument that deprived children were naturally those who would most benefit from a “fresh start”. In their view it was “precisely such children, already rejected and insecure, who might often be ill equipped to cope with the added strain of migration.”
The Ross report also criticized the nature of institutional care in Australia. Of the 26 establishments visited by the Committee, 11 were barrack-type, 8 were cottage homes like the one I was in, and 7 were houses or groups of houses. It also said that not all staff in these institutions had “sufficient knowledge of child care methods”, and it expressed regret that there was no specialised training scheme in childcare work in Australia. The report stated that there was a lack of a “homely atmosphere” and too little privacy especially in the larger establishments. Even some cottage homes lacked the mix of children by age and gender characteristic of families. The report noted that the way brothers and sisters were separated showed a failure to grasp the importance of family-focused childcare. The report stated how poor the education was and how there were few attempts to help people find jobs. Finally, the report noted that the isolation of several establishments and the lack of contact between children and the local communities made it difficult for migrants to blend into Australian society. The report especially singled out five institutions for special condemnation – Dhurringle, Bindoon, St John Bosco Boys’ Town, Magill, and Riverview Training Farm, though Mr Ross privately informed Home Office colleagues that “others could easily have been condemned” but extreme criticism was limited due to “considerations of practical politics”. He didn’t visit Northcote but almost every criticism he outlined rings a bell. The report also noted that some boys and girls were being exploited as cheap labour. Its general thrust was that British childcare had moved on while Australia’s hadn’t and that was reason enough to stop child migration. But it laid responsibility for the practice on both countries.
“The Committee also believes that the roles and responsibilities of all
Governments involved in child migration need to be recognized. While the Australian government played a significant role and must accept its responsibility for the consequences of those policies, the role of the British government in facilitating and providing financial support for the schemes was fundamental. The Committee considers that it should be recognized that without the co-operation of the British Government, the child migration schemes could not have operated.”
The Australian wouldn’t allow publication of the Report in its first version until Australian officials had visited the institutions. In July 1956 the Australian Prime Minister’s Department conducted an inquiry, but they only found fault with Dhurringle and Bindoon and they only recommended minor changes. The Australian inquiry concluded that
“…in view of this, it is felt that there is no justification for your government to take any action to cause even the temporary deferment of child migration to Australia”.
In other words, it was a whitewash. In the United Kingdom, the Commonwealth Relations Office recorded that “as we feared, the Australian authorities focus only on material things like bathrooms and carpets, and ignore what has been said about atmosphere and management”. A UK Home Office official minuted that the Australian report “confirms my view that Australian and UK thinking on child care matters is poles apart”. In spite of the Commission’s report, the Cabinet document recommends renewing the Empire Settlement Acts, 1922-52 that were the legal basis for the child migration policies. It shows how loose the arrangement was in the way in which the migration agreements were conducted.
“The Fact-Finding Mission’s Report … contains a number of criticisms of the arrangements made by the voluntary organisations concerned with child migration in Australia. These criticisms are at present being considered with the Australian authorities and in the light of comments by the voluntary organisations, but, whatever the outcome of this consideration, it is unlikely to warrant the discontinuance of the present well-established system of child migration to Australia. The system has existed with government support both in Australia and the United Kingdom for over 30 years, has influential support from churches and prominent laymen in both countries and, by most accounts, has benefited the children who have made use of it. It is recommended that the agreements with the voluntary organisations concerned with child migration to Australia should be renewed when they expire on 31st May, 1957, on the understanding that the organisations undertake to modernise their methods of child care and to bring their arrangements in Australia more into line with those accepted in the United Kingdom. Since we in this country cannot make sure, in the ordinary way, whether those undertakings are honoured, we shall have to persuade the Australian authorities to take over the responsibility.”
The reason the Ross Report was kept secret was that we child migrants had once again become political pawns. The Overseas Migration Board, which had sponsored the trip in the hope of furthering the cause of child migration, rejected the report because it didn’t say what it wanted to hear. The Commonwealth Office was worried about difficulties that criticisms of the Australian institutions would bring. So they engineered a situation in which the Overseas Migration Board published their report at exactly the same time as the Ross Report ensuring that the latter only got superficial coverage. It’s quite likely that those institutions the Ross Report criticised for the brutal way they were treating their children were not even told of these criticisms. It seems that any moral responsibility the British Government might have for the way its migrated children were being treated took second place to not wanting to upset Commonwealth relations. So it boiled down to the fact that in the mid-1950s you could barely criticise the way childcare for British citizens was being carried on abroad.
In 1959, the year I was repatriated from Australia, in the debate on the renewal of the Empire Settlements Act, Tory grandee Nigel Fisher MP gave a speech that summed up pretty well the prevailing government attitude of complete ignorance of what was really going on in the lives of child migrants.
“There are two principal aims in child migration which I wish to bring before the House this evening. The first, which is common to all migration projects, is to increase the British population in the empty spaces of the Commonwealth, where there are unrivalled resources of fine farmland and mineral and industrial wealth, which remain still relatively undeveloped.
The second aim, certainly not less important, is to rescue the children of broken homes and a bad environment in the United Kingdom and to open for them what I might call the door of opportunity to a happy and hopeful future in our great overseas Commonwealth. Instead of a cheerless back-street existence, often unloved and unwanted, these children, if they go to Australia, are given the fresh air, sunshine and beauty of the countryside; a new start in a new country and the prospect of a full and useful life.”
Later in the speech, it gets even worse.
“There are today many unfilled vacancies in the excellent homes run by the voluntary societies...Finance, however, is not really the limiting factor in this matter. There is not a lack of money, but, surprisingly enough, a lack of children. The reason why more children are not going to Australia under these schemes arises from the Children Act of 1948, which established a nationwide system of public care by local authorities for children in need of it.
I do not at all criticise that Act. I believe it was perfectly right that there should be public responsibility for deprived children, but I think that the local authorities have interpreted their duties under that Act somewhat rigidly and without much imagination. They have seldom considered migration as a possible solution for these children. They have ignored the immense opportunities, which exist and which life in Australia presents for some of these children, and they have disregarded altogether the successful careers, which the vast majority of these children have been able to build up for themselves in later life in Australia.
I am convinced that the advantages to the child of these emigration schemes are not sufficiently appreciated by the children's officers in this country, who are far too reluctant, in my opinion, to relinquish their own responsibilities in suitable cases. That reluctance is no doubt reinforced by the report of the fact-finding mission that went out to Australia in 1956.
It was, as I think Honourable Members who have studied the subject will agree, a thoroughly prejudiced report which has done immense harm and put a quite unjustifiable brake upon child migration in the last two or three years. The report acknowledges the fact that emigrant children have done well in after life, but goes on to make this quite extraordinary statement: ‘While this is most satisfactory, we did not think it necessary or desirable to examine this aspect … we did not regard the measure of success in after-life as having a direct bearing upon our consideration of the subject.’ Imagine it! A fact-finding inquiry into child migration regards the future of the child and how it does in life after being at these schools in Australia as an irrelevant consideration; whereas in fact, of course, it is the whole point.
Migration in suitable cases gives these children a fresh start in life, a better chance, better prospects and a better future. The end product is immensely important and entirely relevant. These deprived children from bad homes, instead of drifting back, as they otherwise might very easily do, to their earlier and unsatisfactory environment, enter may be the Church or the professions. The boys become farmers or doctors or lawyers or soldiers or businessmen. Any field of activity is open to them. The girls, perhaps, become teachers or nurses or farmers' wives.
Fairbridge, which is one of the best of these voluntary societies—and I shall refer to it because it is the one which I happen to know most about—has had only two failures in the last ten years out of its 500 or 600 children who have been sent out to Australia in that time; about one-third of 1 per cent. But the fact-finding mission did not think it worthwhile or relevant even to inquire into the type of man or woman that Fairbridge turns out.”
Only two failures? It beggars belief! It seems that Fairbridge HQ was simply lying. Dave Hill, who was a child migrant and went to the Fairbridge farm school at Molong in New South Wales, did really well in life, becoming head of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and adviser to the prime minister among many things. When he researched other people’s experiences at Fairbridge institutions, he was shocked at the consistent tales of abuse he heard. At Molong in Western Australia, which was supposed to be a decent institution, he heard story after story of cruelty, sexual abuse and workhouse labour conditions. He was staggered to discover just how much had been known and effectively hidden, in Britain and Australia, during the school’s existence. In 2001, the Fairbridge Foundation – the surviving charity, which does excellent work for deprived Australian children – told the Australian Senate inquiry into child migration that it was unaware of any “unsafe, improper or unlawful treatment” at Fairbridge Farm School in Molong. In 1998 the London Fairbridge organisation had testified before a British House of Commons select committee that it had received no reports of abuse or neglect. Yet the former pupils that Dave Hill interviewed told a very different story, one in which for decades children aged between 4 and 15 had suffered sexual abuse and physical abuse that included daily beatings, with straps, canes and electrical cords. And the school principal even used a hockey stick that, on one occasion, broke a kid’s back. Two-thirds of the women and most of the men Hill interviewed told him they were sexually abused at Fairbridge. One woman he interviewed believed she was first sexually abused when she was five, repeatedly ran away from Molong for which she got beatings. Her testimony and others’ completely changed Hill’s opinion of the farm school in which he grew up. When Hill examined the Fairbridge archive in Sydney, he discovered a document warning the Principal not to continue using the hockey stick. Yet it was clear that he had carried on beating people with it well after this date. When Hill travelled to England to research the Fairbridge archive, he discovered that the Fairbridge Society, in London and Sydney, had known about the cruelty and abuse for years yet still sent children out to their farm schools. He wrote about it in his book The Forgotten Children: Fairbridge Farm School and Its Betrayal of Britain’s Child Migrants to Australia.
In that same debate in the House of Commons in 1959, Sir Archer Baldwin, a Conservative MP for Leominster said:
“The Australians are very anxious to fill the open spaces. They know full well that if we and they do not fill the open spaces the day will come when the overspill from the Asiatic countries will arrive. We should then have the same sort of trouble that we have recently had in Africa. Because of that the Australian authorities are anxious that Australia's population should be increased, especially with Britishers…If there was one thing that that fact-finding committee should have found out it was what had happened to the children who had gone to Australia. If it had done so, I am sure that it would have discovered that to the extent of about 90 per cent of the children sent out there had made good and were going to universities, and so on. If that is what happens to children who go out there from our institutes and homes we should not try to stop them going. The committee to which I have referred did a lot of harm by not making sufficient inquiries. We are thin on the ground in this country and in many parts of the Commonwealth. The sooner we fill up those gaps the better it will be.”
Baldwin mentions there a more sinister reason for some of the countries wanting British children coming to their countries. In Rhodesia, for example, they wanted to preserve a superior white class. By the time of the Second World War, the Australians’ attitude from wanting trainee farmers was changing to the notion of bolstering their small population. In the words of Arthur Calwell, the Australian immigration minister, “we have to populate or perish”. But they wanted to do it with good “British stock”. We didn’t have any black or disabled kids where I ended up. As the Archbishop of Perth, welcoming British child migrants shipped to Australia, in August 1938 put it,
“If we do not supply from our own stock we are leaving ourselves all the more exposed to the menace of the teeming millions of our neighbouring Asiatic races."
I was among the vast majority of child migrants who weren’t orphans, though thankfully I wasn’t one of the many who were lied to about this. Most of us had either been abandoned, were illegitimate or from a broken home. Except me and my brother and sister weren’t in any of these groups at the time. We were first put into care before my parents split up. I remember that we lived in a nice Victorian house in Kent before we were put into the Fairbridge care home. Child migrants were not all poor by any means and came from all kinds of backgrounds. Because it was left to the voluntary organisations to operate the migration schemes, they in effect never had to answer to anyone over whether a child had been abandoned or deserted. That’s why they could get away with lying to the kids about whether their mother was alive or whether they had given permission to send them away. They could lie to the parents about their children having a better life in the sun or lie to them about the fact that they’d been sent away at all. The upshot of giving this responsibility away to authorities elsewhere was for many of us, appalling standards of care much worse than we’d have got had we been allowed to stay at home. At an age when I should have been properly looked after, I was suffering terrible beatings, eating food that made me gag, working with not much concern for my safety and being starved of all love and affection. They took away my childhood.
So it was with great relief that I listened to Gordon Brown’s words on that February day.
“On behalf of this nation, all former child migrants and to all families, we are truly sorry you were let down. We are sorry you were sent away when you were at your most vulnerable, we are sorry that instead of caring for you, your country did turn its back on you, we are sorry that it’s taken so long for this important day to come round and for you to receive the apology you so richly deserve. And we are sorry that as children your voices were not always heard, your cries for help not always heeded. Today we hear you.”