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Australia's forgotten children


They thought they were going to a land of milk and honey, but instead Britain's war orphans were subjected to appalling abuse and cruelty. Finally their story is being acknowledged.

By Kathy Marks

September 12, 2009 / New Zealand Herald

John Hennessy speaks with a stutter. It's a speech disorder that develops usually in pre-school children. Hennessy began stuttering at 12, after he was stripped naked in front of 50 other boys and thrashed within an inch of his life. Now 73, he has stuttered ever since.

The flogging was administered by Brother Francis Keaney, principal of Bindoon Boys Town, an orphanage near Perth, and Hennessy's crime was stealing grapes from a vineyard. He had been famished: children at Bindoon were so underfed they would scavenge in the pig bins for scraps.

But perpetual hunger was not the worst aspect of life at the grim institution, run by the Christian Brothers, a Catholic lay order; nor were the routine beatings, nor was the heavy manual labour forced on barefoot boys as young as 10. Sexual abuse was rife, and certain of the brothers would stalk the dormitories at night as their young charges cowered under the bedclothes. 

Hennessy was not Australian; he was English - one of 10,000 boys and girls shipped to the other side of the world between 1947 and 1967, to relieve pressure on overflowing British orphanages and rebuild the Australian population with "good white stock". Nor, like most of the child migrants, was he an orphan. His unmarried mother had been forced to give him up as a baby. Others had been placed in state care by impoverished parents, most of whom were not consulted before their children were sent away.

While the regime at Bindoon - presided over by Keaney, a giant of a man with a foul temper and a sadistic streak - was particularly brutal, conditions there were replicated at state and church-run institutions across Australia. Many of the children suffered horrific abuse and neglect, yet their stories remained untold until about 20 years ago, when an English social worker, Margaret Humphreys, became aware of the scandal and wrote a book, Empty Cradles.

Her work eventually prompted a British parliamentary inquiry in 1998, followed by a series of inquiries by the Australian Senate.

Increasingly vocal, the former migrants have spent years lobbying for official recognition of the hardships they endured. Now, finally, they have achieved one of their goals, with the Australian Government announcing that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd will offer them a formal apology, similar to the one he delivered last year to the Aboriginal "Stolen Generations".

Under Rudd, it seems, Australia is casting off, piece by piece, the national shame that has disfigured it in the post-colonial era. And nothing evokes greater shame than the way society's most vulnerable members - children black and white - were treated by their supposed guardians and protectors.

The latest apology - expected in November - will encompass not only the migrants, who were as young as three when they were uprooted from their country and culture, but an estimated 450,000 locals who had the misfortune to be brought up in Australian orphanages during the 20th century. These "Forgotten Australians", as they call themselves, also experienced nightmare childhoods. Like the British "orphans", they have welcomed the Government's olive branch, although, like them, some have mixed feelings.

Laurie Humphreys, now 76, (no relation to Margaret), is another Bindoon boy. Back in England, he was told that Australia was a "land of milk and honey", where food was plentiful and children rode to school on horseback. He found himself in, effectively, a slave labour camp, where boys toiled 14 hours a day, building their own classrooms, dormitories and kitchens. They broke up the ground with picks, carted rocks on their backs, made their own bricks, mixed concrete by hand.

If they faltered, Keaney was always lurking with his strap: four pieces of leather stitched together, with a metal weight at one end.

But Humphreys, among the first group of boys to arrive, is most critical about the lack of education. Schooling stopped the moment they reached the abandoned farming property, set in a desolate landscape 96km south of Perth. He knows several men who still cannot read or write.

"I believe the most important thing is to acknowledge that it happened," he says. "The sorry is a symbolic gesture and we're thankful for it, but it has taken an awfully long time and a lot of our mates have died. I wonder, after all these years, what sorry really means, and how one word can cover all the things there are to be sorry for. People's lives have been ruined."

Cynics observe that apologies cost nothing. And, of course, symbolism is not enough. Many of the ex-orphanage children want compensation: not necessarily monetary, but better support and counselling services, and help in tracking surviving relatives. Some Australian states and church organisations have already paid out limited damages.

For some, there is a degree of resentment at being second in the queue, following the Aboriginal children forcibly removed from their families. "We were stolen, too," says Humphreys. But few believe their apology will be any less significant than the first, or less sincere.

Caroline Carroll, chairwoman of the Alliance for Forgotten Australians, says: "It's very meaningful for us, and we need it, just as the Stolen Generations needed their apology."

Sally Fitzpatrick, a long-time campaigner for reconciliation, met several Forgotten Australians this year and was struck by their resemblance to Stolen Generations elders. "I think it's a craving to have their truth acknowledged," she says. "It was written on their bodies, and in the inflection of their voices. It seemed to make the ladies' shoulders bow down, and their voices would catch with pain.

"And there was a fatalism, just as with Stolen Generations. They thought no one would ever really know how much they suffered."

And continue to suffer. Starved of affection in childhood, these damaged individuals have found it difficult to build relationships.

Some have become alcoholics, or committed suicide. Many dread the prospect of having to go back into institutional care in old age.

Mick Snell, who has bleak memories of Dalmar House, a Methodist children's home in Sydney, has been afflicted by nightmares in recent years. "I sleep in a separate bedroom because I'm afraid I'm going to swing out and maybe hurt my wife," he admits. "I dream I'm back there and I'm locked up, being verbally abused and whacked. I wake up in a cold sweat."

The worst thing about Dalmar, which was infested with rats, and where Snell got up before 4am to milk the cows and worked until dark six days a week, was the loneliness. "You had no one to turn to," he says.

No one showed the children any warmth - unless you count the outsiders who would take the younger boys out for the day.

Snell remarks: "I know for a fact they were rock spiders [paedophiles]. The kids that were involved, they didn't like talking about it."

There are calls for Britain to apologise, too. Yet the policy of sending children to Australia - and also to New Zealand, Rhodesia and Canada - was largely well intentioned. Britain believed they would be better off there during the tough-post war years. Australia welcomed them because they were cheap to house, and a ready source of labour.

And they were white. Racism and colonialism underwrote the policy.

As the Archbishop of Perth declared in 1938: "If we do not supply from our own stock, we are leaving ourselves all the more exposed to the menace of the teeming millions of our neighbouring Asian races."

But the orphanages were not properly inspected, nor were staff vetted.

The parliamentary inquiries heard heart-breaking tales: children addressed only by numbers, girls scramblng for crusts of bread on the floor, a boy forced to shoot and skin a horse he considered his only friend.

In recent years, some child migrants have traced their families. But the outcome was not always happy. Snell found his mother, but "we were strangers with each other". Humphreys learnt that his father had lived until 1976, but had never gone looking for him.

Jean Costello, who spent 10 years at St Joseph's orphanage in Perth, never received a single birthday or Christmas present. She recalls St Joseph's, run by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, as "a very hard, very cold sort of environment ... [where] the nuns were pretty free and easy with the strap". She later discovered - too late - that her parents had lived well into their 70s.

Of those responsible for her welfare, she says: "They deprive you of ever knowing your mum and dad. An apology won't make any difference to me."

Snell, though, hopes the apology will enlighten Australians. "Most people don't even know about the child migrants," he says. "They say to me: 'You're a Ten Pound Pom [an Englishman who migrated under an assisted package].' I say: 'No I'm not. I got deported out here."'

2009 Sep 12