In 2012 three major stories involving the abuse of British children in British “care” homes made huge and sustained headlines. First was the sickening story of boys in a home in North Wales systematically abused by their carers and others for years, destroying their lives and leaving them emotionally unable to take their place in adult society. As a further insult to those boys a very high profile businessman with a royal honour was erroneously named as an accomplice in those awful crimes and ended up getting more sympathy from the media and public than the true victims.
In another case, a teenage girl finally managed to pluck up enough courage to go to the police and tell them that for years she had been groomed and sexually abused by a group of men in the north of England while supposedly in the “care” of a children’s home which should have had her best interests at heart. It turns out that she was not the only girl involved.
As if all that wasn’t nauseating enough the final few weeks of the year were full of the odious Jimmy Savile, deceased charitable fundraiser/disc jockey/TV presenter/marathon runner who, it turns out, spent around four decades sexually abusing dozens, probably hundreds of (mainly) children the length and breadth of the UK. As children they were all vulnerable; many were residents in children’s homes; some were ill in hospital. The abuse was hidden away in plain sight of the world but under a veil of celebrity and fuelled by the power that celebrity brings.
Still reeling from all that vileness, I came across a film in the TV listings last weekend which I’d not seen before. Incredibly, it was yet another story of children from orphanages and foster homes being badly let down by the disgraceful behaviour of adults charged with their care and well-being. And these too were British children. The film is called “Sunshine and Oranges” and is based on the book of the same name (though originally published as Empty Cradles) by Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham.
There has been a lot of publicity about the scandal uncovered by Ms Humphreys in 1988 and the years that followed, namely that up to 150,000 children were deported from the country of their birth, most from orphanages or children’s homes, and sent to the far reaches of the then British Empire to ensure that there would be plenty of “good white stock” to bolster those societies and provide labour in the face of the perceived threat of a flood of Asian immigrants. Children were sent from Britain to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Virginia (when it was a British colony back in the 18th century) and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). The agencies involved include the British Government, the Catholic Church, Barnardo’s, the Church of England, the Methodist Church and the Salvation Army. The deportations continued until 1970.
Many children left living parents behind in Britain; often neither party was told the truth about the other. Children thought their parents were dead when this was not always the case or parents were told their children were settled into adoptive families in Britain when all the time they were thousands of miles away.
From the British Government’s point of view, child migration was seen as a way of alleviating poverty. Single or struggling parents were persuaded to give up their children, who would supposedly have the chance of a better life. Children were removed from loving foster families and sent far away from their roots and everything they had ever known. The children were aged from just three years old to fourteen; the majority were between eight and ten.
As if all that wasn’t bad enough, for many, many of those children the reality of their new life was far removed from the idyll they had been promised. They were separated from their siblings and used as virtual slave labour on farms (eg Fairbridge) and in construction, including at The Christian Brothers land in Bindoon. They were denied an education, the love of a family, and as most had no birth certificate they had no way of knowing who they really were. Stories of physical (including sexual) abuse are rife.
Margaret Humphreys dedicated seven years of her life to working tirelessly on behalf of Australian child migrants who had grown up in a harsh and uncaring Australia, often oblivious to the fact that they had living loving family still in Britain. She co-founded the Child Migrants Trust which works to reunite these “forgotten Australians” with their parents, siblings and others, as well as campaigning and lobbying for justice for the thousands of displaced peoples who through no fault of their own found themselves in dire need.
There are many things that a child needs. Love is one of them; it is probably the most important. Without love it all goes to pot.
This is the 21st century. When will we have learned the lessons from our past?
Oranges and Sunshine by Margaret Humphreys is published by Corgi Books in the UK, part of Random House.
The Forgotten Children: Fairbridge Farm School and its Betrayal of Britain’s Child Migrants to Australia by David Hill is also published by Random House. My short review is here.
Transcripts of interviews with former Fairbridgians by the Fairbridge Heritage Association can be found here.
Alone on a Wide Wide Sea by Michael Morpurgo is published by Harper Collins Children’s Books.
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In 2009 the British and Australian Governments officially apologised to all the people who had been transported to Australia as children.
On January 11th 2013 the Australian Government announced that a Royal Commission has been set up to look into Institutional responses to child sexual abuse. “The federal government announced today the Terms of Reference and appointment of six Royal Commissioners for the inquiry into child sexual abuse in institutional settings. They include professionals working in the fields of law, politics, psychiatry and public policy.”