How one letter let me expose Britain’s worst child abuse scandal
Updated: 11:26, 27 March 2011
- Social worker uncovered the horrors faced by children shipped to far-flung corners of the Empire
Sitting in a screening room last week, I watched my life portrayed by someone else. A stranger played my husband and there were different children in my house.
My daughter Rachel, son Ben and husband Mervyn had swapped jokes for months about what this moment might be like. Now we were nervous.
On screen, actress Emily Watson appeared as a social worker coaxing a distraught teenage mother into surrendering her baby. I held my breath. A vignette from my life had transported me back 25 years.
The film, Oranges And Sunshine, which opens this week, is based on my memoir.
It tells a story which began in 1986 when, as a social worker in Nottingham, I received a letter from a woman who claimed that, aged four, she had been shipped to Australia by our Government.
Soon afterwards, a second woman told me how she had traced her brother, who had also been sent abroad as a child.
As I researched their stories, I began to uncover what are known as the Child Migration Schemes and, in particular, the most recent one, which came in response to the Australian government’s desire to boost its post-war population.
The children had mostly been in the care of voluntary agencies with religious ties.
From the middle of the 19th Century until as recently as 1970, 130,000 British children – some aged just three – were rounded up, with the knowledge and support of organisations such as Dr Barnardo’s.
They were put on to ships and transported to distant parts of the British Empire.
Many were told their parents had died but, in fact, few were orphans.
Some were from broken homes or simply placed in care by their parents until they could get back on their feet. Mothers were frequently told their children were being adopted in Britain.
The children themselves were promised a better life, where they would be raised by loving families and enjoy lots of oranges and sunshine – hence the title of the film. In reality, they were often used as slave labour and endured physical and sexual abuse.
Some organisations were so determined these children would never find their way home that their names, dates and places of birth were changed.
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In 2002, I was approached by Jim Loach, who was passionate about making a film about this shameful chapter in our history.
Meanwhile, I continued tracing families and organising reunions through the Child Migrants Trust, which I founded in 1987. I also lobbied governments for the public apology the children deserved.
That milestone came in 2010 when Gordon Brown told Parliament: ‘To all those former child migrants and their families… we are truly sorry.’
Some migrants managed to find their parents or siblings; others were too late.
The film focuses on a handful of these stories, but its power is not diminished.
These people are survivors; picking up the pieces of their past lives while searching for identity.
Most of us know who we are. Imagine having this stripped away, being unable to get a passport because you have no birth certificate, no real name.
The most frequent statement I’ve heard is: ‘I’m nobody.’ That’s what they had been told so often as children – their sense of rejection remains profound.
At Bindoon in Western Australia, boys as young as 11 hauled rocks until their hands were blistered and cut.
They were building a school for the Christian Brothers, a place of beauty that hides terrible secrets. I have listened to men sobbing as they revealed what they endured there.
One of the most powerful scenes in the film is of my first and only visit to Bindoon.
We went early on a Sunday. In newspapers that day, a historian hired by the Christian Brothers suggested that child migrants who alleged sexual abused were already sexually active when they arrived in Australia because they were products of British childcare institutions. I was appalled.
I didn’t want to go inside the building, but I had no option. I found myself staring at these black-robed men, eating toast and drinking tea.
There was absolute silence. I had been told many times of the terrible crimes committed here. And they knew who I was.
They seemed uncomfortable in my presence. It was probably a moment they had thought would never happen: an Englishwoman confronting them, and confronting Bindoon’s past.
I do hope the film reaches a wide audience. Aside from drawing attention to such a scandalous experiment, it has something important to say about loss, identity, family and relationships. I don’t need to see the film again. Our search continues.