Oranges and Sunshine

 
Mr Kitson, agent-general for Western Australia, with two young children about to depart for Australia (18 Dec 1948) Many of the children were told a life of adventure awaited them in Australia

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Of all the stories that I have covered in Australia, few have been as moving or enraging as the treatment of the British child migrants.

It was also the story where I probably came closest to crossing the line that separates journalism from advocacy. At the time, victims were pressing for an apology from the British government, which ultimately came to be delivered by the then prime minister, Gordon Brown, in February last year.

Yet how could one not be angered by the treatment of more than 150,000 children who were forcibly relocated from Britain to corners of its empire and commonwealth - a practice that continued until the late 1960s? More than 7,000 children were shipped to Australia, and many were tricked into thinking they were embarking on a life of adventure and abundance.

Many ended up in orphanages and institutions where they were treated harshly and in many instances physically and sexually abused. Some were told they were orphans, the cruellest of fictions, since often their parents were still alive.

Many parents were informed by officials that their children had been adopted by British families, when they had actually been shipped abroad - castaways of the empire.

I well remember writing this story, and thinking that I must have got things terribly wrong. It was simply too bad to be true. But the sin was of omission. The piece merely scratched at the surface, and told the stories of only a few child migrants and highlighted just a few instances of abuse.

Many child migrants were promised oranges and sunshine on arrival in Australia, which is the title of a new film chronicling their plight that goes on general release next month - it has been out for a few months in Britain already.

It follows the story of Margaret Humphreys, the Nottingham social worker who first became aware of the problem when a child migrant contacted her from Sydney in the hope of retracing her British parents.

Official denial

Disbelief at the treatment of the children quickly turns to outrage when she realises how many youngsters were affected and how little successive British and Australian governments had done to assist them - or even publicly acknowledge their existence. The policy in both hemispheres was one of official denial.

Mr Kitson, agent-general for Western Australia, with two young children about to depart for Australia (18 Dec 1948) Many of the children were told a life of adventure awaited them in Australia

Margaret Humphreys, who is played by the actress Emily Watson in the film, has essentially ended up commuting between Nottingham and Australia for the past three decades.

Documenting the full extent of the problem - the most Herculean of tasks given the numbers involved - exposing criminal abuse, counselling the victims and reuniting separated families has become her life's work. Emily Watson captures her sensitivity, steeliness and bravery - for there were times when her safety was at risk.

Her husband, Merv, who played a key role in the investigation, also emerges as a hero. So, too, does Nottinghamshire County Council, which helped fund their early work.

Two of Australia's finest actors, Hugo Weaving and David Wenham, play child migrants struggling, in their very different ways, to make sense of the deception and mistreatment that scarred them so profoundly.

As an aside, Adelaide doubles as Perth in the 1980s, because the capital of Western Australia now looks so shiny and new.

I saw the movie at its Sydney premiere on Monday night, and it's a very affecting piece of cinema. Directing his first film, Jim Loach - the son of Ken - has done a fine job. I should have taken tissues, and would urge you to do so.

For those unaware of the story of the child migrants - it was little known until the Observer newspaper in Britain shone a spotlight on the Humphreys work in 1987 - the film will be deeply upsetting. For those who know the story, Oranges and Sunshine still has the capacity to shock.

 
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  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 20.

    sushi@17: Absolutely - historically the removal of kids by the authorities has often had far more to do with punishing or eliminating the various minority groups to which society has taken a dislike than 'child protection'. Consider the current fad for taking 'obese' kids into care on the claim that it's the result of parental neglect or abuse, despite credible studies which conclude otherwise.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 19.

    The enormity of that decision by the Labour Clement Attlee Govt to systematically despatch the offspring of Britain to the far flung reaches of the globe is akin to the nacht und neble ( night and fog ) program that the Nazis dreamed up to traumatise the families of those that they had kidnapped and sent away ! Their families were kept in the dark as to their whereabouts, or even if they lived !

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 18.

    @blefescu Many of these children DID have parents. Some of the parents thought they were putting their children in care short term only to discover they had been sent overseas. There was a lot of social upheaval following both WWI and WW2, women were widowed, men came back from war emotional wrecks. Some parents just couldn't cope financially. It's a national disgrace that this happened.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 17.

    what the British Govt did was outrageous and shameful. But it was the perceived wisdom at the time.

    the challenge is - what is the perceived wisdom of today? what are we doing that we think is 'the best' for our kids, in the UK and Oz?

    Nick also has a story on the UN's attack on Aus for its treatment of its indigenous people & migrants - inc kids. It is a blot on your landscape.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 16.

    My Father was a British orphan sent out at the age of 9. He went thought significant hardship in his younger life but turnout very successful. Even living though such an experience, he is a very positive person and says being sent to Australia is the best thing that could have ever happen to him. He would never live anywhere else.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 15.

    Oranges and Sunshine - Margaret Humphreys, Nottingham social worker, uncovered the shocking migration of children from UK. Margaret reunited thousands of families & brought global attention to this injustice. This secret (of British Govt) had been hidden for years: 130,000 children in care sent abroad, mainly Australia. They were promised oranges & sunshine; they got hard labour & life sentence.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 14.

    While being raised by the Salvo's in WA 1941/56 the slave labour treatment of British children under the care of other religious groups was common knowledge. Why did it take until 1987 to be revealed in Britain? Financial compensation paid under a recently completed WA Redress scheme was a pittance

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 13.

    Hugo Weaving not Weaver.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 12.

    Like it or not it's the "white and anglo" that built Australia into the success it is today

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 11.

    It just shows you the desperate extents to which australia's anglophille politicians went to keep the place as WASP as possible, even today more than 1 out of every 2 immigrants is a pom or south sea's pom (kiwi) pretty disgraceful that roughly 50% of our immigrants into this asia pacific nation are drawn from such increasingly irrelevant countries all because they are white and anglo.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 10.

    My mother told me how she was a Jewish German Orphan adopted by a British family Chippendale after the war. Then when the payments ended. She was shipped to St Helena Island and stayed there until she was shipped to South Africa where she and many girls and boys lived in an orphanage. She was then given a South African identity card and worked in service.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 9.

    The negative effects were already known

    British slum children were initially shipped to Canada, about 100,000 from the 1860s until WW2. After 3 of these 'Home Children' suicided in the 1920s, a British Government delegation visied Canada to investigate, found systemic abuse, and limited the age of the migrants to 14 plus

    Post WW2, young children were again shipped out

    Plus ca change....

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 8.

    This is reason for pity and horror but hardly for surprise; Socrates, Mahatma Gandhi and Ashis Nandy would all agree that the evil of evildoers (imperialists in this case) is reflected back on themselves as well as projected outwards...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 7.

    I Urge Everyone To Try And Watch The Film - The Leaving Of Liverpool This Was Shown On BBC Approx 2 Years Ago Staring A Very Young Christine Tremarcco - This Was About A Group Of Children Who Were Shipped Out To Australia In The 60s - A Very Moving Film

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 6.

    Has anyone ever been prosecuted over this crime? I know it happen over 50 years ago but surely some of the participants are still alive and should be made to face up to their crimes.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 5.

    You cannot judge the past through the eyes of the present. Today we abort our unwanted children......in the period before 1955 antibiotics were not available so there was no 'safe' abortion. The children, sad to say, were from a society which could think of no other way...as many unaccompanied migrant children from the third world who end up at our airports shows, this phenomenon is not over..

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 4.

    the national childrens home was very involved,if I was not slightly coloured I too would have been exported with dozens of my friends. The home even applied the aparthied rule at the time NO COLOUREDS,something that I will never forget all my close friends all of a sudden just gone forever.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 3.

    rule britannia,britannia rules the waves-this is shocking stuff.It sort of takes the great out of britain.

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 2.

    While it is hard to judge earlier times by today's standards this episode still has the power to shock and is still effecting lives today. I saw the film in the UK, although the release was pretty limited. For whatever reason the story remains 'bigger' in Australia. It shows neither country's past in a good light - perhaps we should all consider the relevance for today's child migrants.

  • rate this
    +5

    Comment number 1.

    It is more than a little irritating that the iniquitous roles played by some of Britain's largest charities and the Catholic Church are not even mentioned. The barbaric way that some children were mis-treated and abused by these institutions still makes many of the victims physically ill when they hear the names even mentioned.

 

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