British orphans: 'It broke our hearts to see them go away'

Thousands of British orphans sent to Australia faced a life of violence, rape and virtual slavery. But what of the children left in the UK? Lynne Wallis reports

One August evening in l947, nine-year-old Betty Millar (then Betty Payne) was called into the school hall of St Anthony's orphanage in Feltham, Middlesex, where she lived with 70 or so other children. Betty noticed that some of the home's young charges were puzzlingly absent. Without any preamble, the missing girls were brought in and the head of the orphanage announced these children had been picked to go and live in Australia, sailing the following day. Some of the children who had been picked had led such sheltered lives they thought Australia was a coastal resort in Britain, where they were going for a day trip.

"I shed more tears that night than I had in my short life," remembers Betty, a divorced mother-of-two from Beckenham, Kent. "There was no warning and it was so, so cruel. When you are without parents, you develop close relationships with other children. You become everything to each other. The next day the coach pulled away with part of our 'family' on it. We were devastated. We didn't think we'd ever see them again."

Betty did see the girls she grew up with again, but not until years later at an "Anthonian" reunion in London in l990, by which time the horrific treatment and sexual abuse of Britain's child migrants to Australia had become an embarrassing national scandal. Ten thousand children were "expelled" to Australia between l947-l967, and last week, Gordon Brown offered a formal apology on behalf of the Government, following the Australian government's long-awaited apology last year.

Child migrants were cut off from any roots they had in the UK and either abused in orphanages or treated little better than slaves, working on farms or "in service" as skivvies to the families they were wrongly led to believe they would become part of. Labelled "home" boys or girls, most were shown no care or respect by those meant to care for them, who typically worked them insufferably long hours on diets of scraps and leftovers. Most child migrants believed they were escaping the brutal regimes common across Catholic orphanages in Britain, where beatings for "misdemeanours" such as as bed-wetting were commonplace. Instead they were exposed to unimaginable hardship and oppression, their tormentors free to inflict terribly cruelty without the risk of any relatives enquiring after their welfare. In a few cases, the children's tormentors went so far with punishments, such as holding their heads under water or thrashing them with whips with metal attachments, that they died.

Vast numbers of child migrants plucked from orphanages for transportation to Australia weren't orphans. Many, like Betty, were simply illegitimate, the products of illicit liaisons, or born into families too poor to cope with another baby. Betty was left behind partly because her mother sent money for her secret daughter's upkeep. It was the children who were a drain on the resources of the charities that ran the homes who were sent away to Commonwealth countries in need of "good white stock" to bolster dwindling populations.

Betty spent the first nine months of her life in Kensington where her mother Marjorie Danvers, a former fashion model, lived with her husband. They divorced in l938, the year of Betty's birth, when he discovered her affair with an upper-class military man whose records are not available to the public until 2050. The shame was too much for Marjorie to bear, so Betty was handed over to the nuns. She said: "The child migrants thought they'd been sent away to Australia for being bad, on top of always feeling they'd done something wrong to have ended up in care in the first place. Being abandoned scars you for life, but for the migrants it was worse because they were sent away twice. Many never recovered."

Betty and the other girls endured horrific beatings at St Anthony's home, where she lived until she came to live in a hotel in London aged l5. "Me and a group of girls, all about l4, went out onto the balcony on 5 November with sparklers – hardly a hanging offence," recalls Betty. "I hung back after they went back in, fearful of being caught. The others were all taken out to the punishment area and beaten so severely with a chair leg I can still hear the cries and pleas for it to stop. The nun who administered those beatings was eventually defrocked for cruelty, but lots of others got away with it." A few months after these beatings, Betty was taken out of her dormitory, held down by four nuns, and beaten severely on her bare behind with a chair leg, a belated punishment, Betty believes, for being part of the sparkler gang. "If you ever said, 'I'll tell my mother,' they said 'You haven't got a mother,' or 'No-one wants you,' or 'Your mother told us to hit you.' You can see why so many of the girls jumped at the chance to go to Australia, with the promise of being adopted by loving families."

Betty's friend Sylvia Randall, who slept next to her in the dorm, was among the first round of child migrants to be sent to Adelaide in l947, leaving behind her a miserable existence at "St Ants" – she was a bed-wetter who was routinely thrashed and then made to stand with the wet sheet over her head for the whole day and then to sleep in it. Sylvia came back to the orphanage she had originally been sent to in Australia after a farm worker tried to rape her, only to be beaten for lying when she returned. Soon afterwards, a priest raped her in the vestry while preaching hell and damnation, and such was Sylvia's belief it must all have been her fault for being bad, she prayed for forgiveness afterwards in confession.

Initially, Betty and the other girls heard frequently from their migrated friends, but the letters stopped when rumours began to circulate about the harsh punishments being meted out at controversial orphanages such as Neerkol in Queensland. Forty-eight British kids were sent there during the l940s-l950s, and in l998 the Roman Catholic Church apologised for the suffering its inmates endured at the hands of the sadistic Sisters of Mercy order of nuns who ran it.

Former Anthonian Dorothy Chernikov, the ninth child of Russian Jews from London's East End whose mother died when she was a baby, experienced frequent beatings with a strap at the Goodwood orphanage in Australia, where she was regularly locked in the attic as punishment. She still talks of the crippling loneliness and "the terrible longing to belong to somebody". She had psychiatric treatment over 20 years to help her come to terms with her awful childhood experiences and being cut off so brutally from her roots.

A spokesman for the Child Migrants' Trust, who have been helping child migrants to trace their families in the UK since the l980s, said: "It's always the sexual abuse that attracts pity and attention, but many of the child migrants say that not knowing where they came from and who their parents are is actually far, far worse."

Betty Millar, who didn't have a birth certificate until she was l5 and who didn't know who her real father was until she confronted her mother in her middle age, believes this is true, although she is thankful not to have the personal experience of childhood sexual abuse to compare it with. She recalls tearfully: "You feel like a nonentity to start with because you've been given away, and then all those slaps round the face and the beatings hurt so much, mentally as well as physically. I'm glad our Government has apologised, but abuse was going on here, too. I would like an apology from the Crusade of Rescue and the Catholic Society for the terrible things their orphanages did to helpless young children like me. Our nuns were called the Sisters of Love, but we never got love. They had the authority to inflict horrific abuse and used it."

Betty's deadened anger resurfaced into molten fury when she learnt that one of the most sadistic nuns at St Anthony's was attending a big reunion. "I was about 50, but I remembered how she'd cut off one of my lovely long plaits for "malingering", and then there were all the beatings she administered. She came over to me and my blood was boiling, and as I turned around to slap her she ducked the blow. She knew it was coming because she knew she had wronged me. She let down the Catholic faith by what she did to us poor girls."

Betty remains in touch with her old friends, although some have died, like biker Cathy O'Donohue, who got mixed up with drugs and took her life in her 50s partly as a result, her friends believe, of being so damaged by her migration to Australia. Betty and the other girls didn't know what mums or families were as young children – it was only when they went to school and began mixing with kids with families that it dawned on them what they had missed. Betty concludes: "The girls who went to Australia were led to believe they would be cared for and loved in families such as these. If they had known what awaited them, they would have done all they could to stay in the UK. Here at least they would have stood a better chance of untangling the webs of lies they were told about where they came from, and would have been able to find their families before it was too late."

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