Saturday, April 02, 2011

Oranges and Sunshine: Child migration was never a secret

Oranges and Sunshine, the first film directed by Jim (son of Ken) Loach, has just been released. It deals with the work of the Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys on behalf of adults who were sent to Australia from the British care system as children.

Much of the discussion of the film is predicated on the idea that Humphreys had uncovered a secret or hidden scandal. As Germaine Greer pointed out on The Review Show last night, this is nonsense.

My fictional alter ego Professor Strange (a sort of Lord Bonkers of the senior common room) also pointed this out in a column from 2003:
The other day I was reading the blurb of a book from 1994 which dealt with Barnardo’s and other charities’ practice of resettling orphaned children in Australia and Canada. It began:
"In 1986 the author, an ordinary Nottingham social worker and mother of two received a letter from a woman asking for help to trace her parents. She claimed that at the age of four she had been put on a boat to Australia by the British Government. Margaret Humphreys replied that she must be mistaken, yet curiosity drove her to investigate the case."
And eventually she wrote Empty Cradles, winning such reviews as “The secrets of the lost children of Britain may never have been revealed if it had not been for Margaret Humphreys” from the Sunday Times. The Independent said it was “a story that defies belief”.

Margaret Humphreys and her reviewers would have been less amazed if they had read Philip Bean and Joy Melville’s Lost Children of the Empire, published in 1989, or Gillian Wagner’s Children of the Empire from 1982.

These two books, dealing with the much same material, were also promoted and reviewed as though they were revealing a long-buried secret, but a little research shows it was nothing of the sort.

Britain began sending children aboard in the 17th century and the practice continued until as recently as 1967. It was done on a massive scale – 3264 children were sent to Canada alone in 1905 – and was widely discussed.

You will find accounts of child emigration in the Curtis Report of 1946, the document which revolutionised childcare after the War, and official delegations went to see how children sent to Australia (1952) and Canada (1924) were faring. Every biography of Dr Barnardo deals with the subject at length, whether it is a near-hagiography like J. Wesley Bready’s Doctor Barnardo: Physician, pioneer, prophet from 1930 or a more balanced modern work like June Rose’s For the Sake of the Children from 1987.

And sending waifs and strays abroad was always controversial. A succession of murders and suicides in Canada kept the subject in the headlines there and back in Britain, thanks to Horatio Bottomley’s John Bull magazine.
I had an email earlier today from Clare Sambrook and the End Detention Now campaign (their website seems to be down at the moment) drawing parallels between Barnardo's involvement in child migration and its decision to co-operate with the government in the running of its new “family-friendly” facility in the Sussex village of Pease Pottage.

But then Barnardo and his charity has a more controversial history than you might think. As Professor Strange went on to say:
Nor was Dr Barnardo himself free from controversy. More than one parent went to court in an attempt to secure the return of children who had been sent overseas. Strangely these children always seemed to have been adopted by wealthy but eccentric figures who made it a condition of the arrangement that their identities would never been revealed.

One mother, a Mrs Gossage, fought the good doctor all the way to the House of Lords and won her case, but she never saw her son Henry again.


Anonymous said...

I can't speak for UK based reports, but as an Australian I can say that many ordinary people in that country had no idea this had happened, or how many of the children were treated, until this book and then the show "The Leaving of Liverpool" appeared. It may not have been secret to the authorities, as Humphreys suggests, but I don't think there is any harm in reminding people it happened and informing younger people of this history. In fact, the victims of this system and their descendents probably think it very important that ordinary people are reminded of it.

Anonymous said...

Lost Children of the Empire was written by Joy Melville and Philip Bean ( a former Trustee of the Child Migrants Trust)to provide further context for a documentary which featured Margaret Humphreys and her work. This book, in turn, inspired the Leaving of Liverpool TV series.So obviously Margaret Humphreys was well aware of this book and Wagner's book - the clue is in the titles of the two books.
Wagner did not focus on the postwar period or suggest that thousands needed a service to find their families. That's the vital difference.Of course, it wasn't a secret - it was an obscure piece of social history.But your remarks and those of Ms Greer - who should know better - are really quite misleading and not helpful in understanding these complex issues.