A small boy wears ragged clothes several times too large for his tiny frame as he carts heavy concrete blocks back and forth in the punishing heat of the Australian outback.
There is no cold glass of lemonade waiting at the end of his labours, and he certainly won’t be paid money. Instead, he’s facing physical and sexual abuse when his day’s work is over.
Taken from their family
An estimated 150,000 British children between the ages of three and 14 were deported to Commonwealth countries in a practice which carried on until the early 1970s.
Some were orphans, others were taken from families perceived as having ‘difficulties’, sent abroad, sometimes without their parents’ knowledge or consent, without their passports or any family records.
The children were promised horse rides to school and fruit growing on the roadsides in a land of milk and honey. Instead they were put to work on farms or building sites, their childhoods stolen from them.
In the UK, the scheme was first brought to the public eye early in 2010 when, four months after the Australian government made a similar gesture, Gordon Brown issued a formal apology: “To all those former child migrants and their families, we are truly sorry. They were let down. We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back.”
While Brown apologised, Jim Loach’s Oranges and Sunshine was in production in Australia, finally realising a nine year project. An already established TV director (Holby City, Waterloo Road, Coronation Street), Jim is the son of celebrated veteran film maker, Ken Loach.
His first feature film, Oranges and Sunshine powerfully tells the story of how one woman discovered the scandalous migration scheme and the scars borne by these ‘forgotten children’.
Unearths horror stories
When a Nottingham social worker, Margaret Humphreys (played by Emily Watson), was approached in 1987 by an ex-child migrant asking for help in finding information about her family background, her investigation unearths a chamber of horror stories.
She hadn’t realised it at the time, but the first child migrant to approach Margaret had handed her a lifelong task. She went on to establish the Child Migrants Trust, wrote a book about her investigations called Empty Cradles, and was recently awarded a CBE for her work.
As early as 1618, poor or orphaned children were being sent from London to Richmond, Virginia, to combat labour shortages. A large number of children were kidnapped or forcibly deported to British colonies until this barbarous practise was exposed in 1757 when a civil action was taken against an Aberdeen businessman and magistrates.
More than 100 years later, in 1869, a Scottish Evangelical Christian called Annie Macpherson founded the child migration scheme. Having worked with poor children in London, Macpherson had been appalled by the matchbox industry’s exploitation of child slavery, setting up the ‘Home of Industry’ – a place the children could work, be fed and receive education.
Countries of ‘opportunity’
Macpherson decided emigration to a ‘country of opportunity’ was preferable and started an emigration fund, aiming to send children to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa.
As the schemes went ahead, rumours emerged of ill-treatment and of profiteering by organisers, eventually culminating in a representative of the London Board Of Governors being sent to Canada in 1874 to assess the reality.
The follow-up report praised the women involved in running the scheme, but criticised almost every other element. Despite this, tweaked child migration programmes continued.
Britain is the only country in the world with a sustained history of forced child migration, where it has been a significant part of the country’s child care strategy, rather than as a policy of last resort during times of war.
Most of the children had living parents, some of whom had no idea of the fate of their children and some who had been led to believe that their children had been adopted elsewhere in the UK.
Years of abuse
In New Zealand many of the children were fostered, but elsewhere many spent their entire childhoods in large impersonal institutions or farms with up to 350 child inhabitants. Some were injured on building sites lacking safety measures, some later committed suicide unable to escape the memories of years of abuse, and others died at work. Records show some Canadian farmers faced manslaughter charges as a result of their horrific cruelty.
In part, it’s believed the motive behind Britain’s use of the scheme was to save on welfare costs. Other documents also point to a plan to maintain a British racial dominance in the colonies. Specialist agencies established for the purpose of migrating young children to populate the empire with ‘British stock‘ were set up, like the Fairbridge Society.
The Church of England, Methodist Church, Salvation Army and Catholic Church were also involved, working alongside other well-known national charities, such as Barnardo’s. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and into the early 1970s that migration schemes finally came to an end.
‘Not a campaigning film’
A homage to the compromised childhoods of the so-called ‘Forgotten Children’ or ‘Orphans of Empire’, and the incredible work of the involuntary hero who exposed the injustices they experienced, Oranges and Sunshine is available on DVD.
Starring Hugo Weaving and David Wenham, alongside Emily Watson, in the words of Loach it is, “very much Margaret’s story and [not] a campaigning film. [Instead, it explores] the nature of identity and what makes us who we are – and if you take all those things away from somebody, how do they come to terms with it?”