The Child Migrants, Radio 4

Wheeler: the man who gave voice to our lost children
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The Independent Culture

The death of Charles Wheeler at the age of 85 has robbed radio of one of its most authoritative voices. The silver lining, as usual, is the excuse to clear the schedules and broadcast as many of his programmes as Radio 4 imagines its audience can bear. Which is quite a lot, understandably.

On Thursday morning, Radio 4 broadcast a programme from his 2003 series, The Child Migrants, about the thousands of orphaned or abandoned children shipped out to Australia in order, notionally, to populate the continent. They were euphemistically referred to as "the seeds of empire" and considered to be "good, white stock".

I started listening to the programme more out of duty than curiosity; however, by the end, anyone listening would have been a wreck, having been exposed to one of the most harrowing half-hours of radio they would have ever heard.

Wheeler was a radio journalist to his fingertips, and you could tell this from the start, with his cunning use of audio montage (the tinny opening bars of "God Save the Queen" at the beginning of underscoring the shabby, misguided expediency of the enterprise).

He also timed the story very well. He related the children's bewilderment as they stepped off the boat – "I thought he was some sort of clown," said one, describing a welcoming dignitary with a hat and a stick – "turned out that he was the Bishop of Perth". And then we learned that brothers and sisters were separated.

There were tears in the interviewees' voices even now. We then discovered that many of them were to be shipped off to be raised by nuns. Now, there are lots of nice nuns, I am sure, but the common reaction on hearing the words "raised by nuns" is "uh-oh".

One girl, on giving her first name as "Peggy", was told "that's not a saint's name" – and so was christened "Number 54", which doesn't sound much like a saint's name either.

So Wheeler, with his fierce concern for the dispossessed and displaced, was the ideal man for this programme. In 1956, the Ross Report discovered the truth about the vast majority of cases – the most grim and revolting regimes (the girl who was locked in a cupboard for two months and not allowed to talk to "anyone but God") – and yet the policy of forced migration continued for another 10 years.

The last words of the programme were from one distraught survivor: "Don't ask me any more." But someone had to ask these questions, and to make an elegy for the victims.

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