After 50 years, the 'lost innocents' shipped from home win apology

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150,000 orphan and poor children taken to colonies as 'white stock' suffered years of institutional brutality

Thousands of British children sent to populate Australia in what was later described as "one of the most disgraceful periods in post-war politics" will be given an official apology from Kevin Rudd, the country's Prime Minister, in Canberra today. Gordon Brown will also try to make amends to the Britons who were shipped to several former colonies, including Canada.

Britain's Prime Minister is expected to stop short of an official apology, say Downing Street sources, but will indicate that talks will be held with groups representing the victims with a view to an official apology later.

Today's Canberra statement will be delivered to more than 7,000 child migrants who suffered widespread abuse and neglect in the 1950s and 1960s. Mr Rudd will also say sorry to more than 500,000 so-called "forgotten Australians", many of whom suffered similarly in state care.

The director of the Child Migrants' Trust, Margaret Humphries, which offers specialist counselling and family-reunion services, described the apology as "really welcome". She indicated that she hoped the next step would be financial compensation.

Until now, child migrants who were sent to New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia, have had no access to redress. Jenny Macklin, the Federal Minister for Families, Housing and Community Services and Indigenous Affairs, described today's ceremony as a "chance for all of us together – all Australians – to say that we are sorry it happened ... and we will never let this happen again".

As many as 150,000 British children aged between three and 14 are believed to have been sent overseas in the post-war years to populate the colonies with what was described at the time as "good white stock". Many came from broken or poverty-stricken homes and were told they would enjoy a much better lifestyle overseas. In truth, they were often abused, treated as second-class citizens and forced to live in poor and over-crowded accommodation. In 2007, the harsh reality of conditions was exposed in the BBC documentary, Children of the Empire, which catalogued six decades of suffering.

The practice of sending the children to Australia in this way continued until 1970. Many were told their parents were dead when they were still alive. Parents were not told their children had gone to Australia.

Many leading charities such as Barnardo's, the Fairbridge Society and The National Children's Homes were said to have known of the appalling living conditions at the time but did little. The Christian Brothers, later accused of sexually abusing and undernourishing their charges was singled out for particular criticism.

Among the "lost innocents" who fell victim to this post-war tyranny was Margaret Gallagher, who was transferred from a Barnardo's home in Britain to Sydney in 1955 when she was 12. She was used as slave labour in several isolated Australian institutions run by religious orders and charities.

Mrs Gallagher, now 66 and living in Woy Woy, north of Sydney, said she hoped today's ceremony would remind all Australians what child migrants suffered. Another young Briton who made the sad passage Down Under, John Hennessy, later became the Deputy Mayor of Campbelltown, on the outskirts of Sydney. He was among 147 boys and girls who set sail from England on the SS Asturias in 1947. Several weeks and 12,000 miles later, he disembarked at Fremantle in Western Australia and was sent to a Christian Brothers institution called Bindoon. Mr Hennessy still remembers every word of the speech by the Archibishop of Perth at the time. "He said, 'Welcome you to Australia. We need you for white stock'."

Bindoon was really a labour camp. Set in the sweltering bush, it was run by a white-haired Irishman whose ambition was to build Western Australia's largest Catholic institution. Brother Francis Keaney set the boys to work from sunrise to sunset. When they pled for respite they were flogged. Beatings were regular, with many boys stripped naked before whipping. Years later, the Christian Brothers officially apologised and paid compensation totalling more than £1m to 250 child migrants who had been abused.

But the money meant little to those whose young lives had been ruined by insensitive governments on opposite sides of the world. Today, an apology in Parliament House, Canberra, may go some way in expunging that lack of care.

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