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."

News
Young Winstone: His ‘tough-guy’ image is a misconception
people
Sport
Adnan Januzaj and Gareth Bale
footballManchester United set to loan out Januzaj to make room for Bale - if a move for the Welshman firms up
Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
News
Outspoken: Alexander Fury, John Rentoul, Ellen E Jones and Katy Guest
newsFrom the Scottish referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
i100
Sport
Yaya Sanogo, Mats Hummels, Troy Deeney and Adnan Januzaj
footballMost Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
Arts and Entertainment
L to R: Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), Captain America (Chris Evans) & Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) in Avengers Assemble
film
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Sport
Tim Sherwood raises his hand after the 1-0 victory over Stoke
footballFormer Tottenham boss leads list of candidates to replace Neil Warnock
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
Voices
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers
voicesIt has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
News
i100
News
Caplan says of Jacobs: 'She is a very collaborative director, and gives actors a lot of freedom. She makes things happen.'
people
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

    Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

    Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

    Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

    Day In a Page

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015