Australia's apology to transported children

Thousands sent from UK to Australia for better life were abused and enslaved
  • @kathymarksoz

Between the 1920s and the 1960s, Britain sent an estimated 10,000 children to Australia to help populate its former colony with "good white stock". The children were promised new lives in an exotic land of plenty; instead, they suffered hunger, privation and abuse in government and religious institutions.

For decades, the former child migrants have been seeking official recognition of what they endured, and asking for restitution. Yesterday the Australian government took a first step, announcing that the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, would formally apologise to them, in a gesture similar to his acknowledgement last year of the wrongs inflicted on the Aboriginal "Stolen Generations".

For victims such as John Hennessy, who was plucked out of a Bristol orphanage and shipped to Australia in 1947, the apology has been a long time coming. Aged 10, Mr Hennessy was sent to an institution run by the Catholic Christian Brothers at Bundoon, north of Perth. He and the other boys were used as slave labour on a building project. They received scant education and little to eat.

One afternoon the boys stole some grapes from the vineyard. Punishment was swift. Mr Hennessy, the ringleader, was stripped naked by one of the brothers and publicly flogged. Ever since that day, he has had a stutter.

Recalling his childhood in an interview years later, he said: "I would never, ever, like my childhood days to come back again. It was so cruel, it was so un-Christian, it was brutality at its worst."

Many of the children exported to the other side of the world believed they were orphans or unwanted by their families. Mostly this was not true: they had been taken from their mothers as illegitimate babies, or placed in orphanages by single parents or families too poor to bring them up. Often they were put on ships to Australia without their parents being informed.

The apology, which will also be extended to Australian-born victims of institutional abuse, follows a series of parliamentary inquiries in Britain and Australia over the past decade. A report by the Australian Senate in 2004 detailed "a litany of emotional, physical and sexual abuse". It also found that children had been routinely deprived of food, education and healthcare.

In February last year, in one of his first deeds after being elected, Mr Rudd apologised in parliament to Aboriginal children removed from their families as part of a state-sanctioned assimilation policy in force for much of the 20th century. That act, which was widely praised, revived interest in the white children who were mistreated, too, far from their parents' protection.

One of those children was David Hill, who, with his two brothers, was sent to a notorious institution, Fairbridge Farm School, west of Sydney. Mr Hill went on to become managing director of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, and two years ago published a book, The Forgotten Children, relating the inmates' harrowing experiences. Among other things, he described how boys worked 15-hour days and had to slaughter farm animals to supply the kitchens. While staff ate a full cooked breakfast prepared by the children, the latter had to make do with cold porridge infested with weevils. None of the boys, not even the youngest at four, were ever shown any affection.

The apology, to be delivered before the end of this year, was announced by the Families and Indigenous Affairs Minister, Jenny Macklin, who said that many former child migrants and other children in institutions "have suffered from a system that did not adequately provide for, or protect, children in its care".

The announcement was welcomed by Caroline Carroll, chairwoman of the Alliance for Forgotten Australians, a support group. Ms Carroll spent 14 years in five different government institutions. "We were told every day that we were the scum of the earth, that we came from the gutter, and that's where we'd end up," she said.

"We were of no importance, there was no individuality, often we were called by a number, not even a name. It's a shameful part of Australia's history."