Thousands of children were shipped to Perth after the Second World War as part of a migration scheme designed to relieve overcrowded orphanages in Britain and Ireland. Many who boarded the ocean liners for the six- week voyage thought they were going on holiday.
When these lost children, as they call themselves, found out that they were never coming home, they accepted their lot and made their lives in Australia. It was only a few years ago, as middle-aged adults, that they learnt that they were not orphans after all. They had been born into poverty, or to unmarried mothers. Many had family living in Britain.
Yesterday a group of 40 women returned to their native country, some for the first time, to try to retrace surviving relatives. They called it a pilgrimage, a sentimental journey, and emotions were raw when they stepped on to the arrivals concourse at Heathrow airport.
Rose Kruger, 61, wept as she embraced Margaret Severs, the older sister whom she left behind in an Edinburgh orphanage in 1947. "I never imagined I would see her again," she said. "I have thought so many times about the relationships that I lost."
Eileen Ashby was eight when she arrived in Australia to be brought up by the Sisters of Nazareth, in Geraldton, near Perth. "I had no idea how far I was going. I had never heard the word Australia before, and I thought it was around the next corner," she said.
The nuns told her that her family were dead. "They didn't realise that although we were little kids, we were going to grow up and would want an identity," said Mrs Ashby, 57. "All I wanted to know was who I was and where I came from."
After lengthy enquiries, she found out that she had nine brothers and sisters and that her parents were alive. "It took me 30 years to trace them. I feel very bitter. I missed out on family life, on all the love and attention." For the women, particularly those who have been unable to trace relatives, their fellow "orphans" have become substitute families. Many remain angry at the successive British governments that sanctioned the child immigration programme.
Their trip home was partly funded by the two religious orders that cared for them as children, and was timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the start of the transports.
Sister Leonie O'Brien, of the Perth-based Sisters of Mercy, was at Heathrow to greet them. She acknowledged, with some reluctance, that the programme had been misconceived. "It was a different era," she said. "The British government had all these children in orphanages after the war.
"Australia was a young country with a very small population. At the time it must have seemed right, but for the children it was a very harsh experience."Reuse content