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Australia's 'orphans' sue for their lost childhood

Thousands of children were plucked from British slums to be treated like slaves on the other side of the world. Kathy Marks reports on the campaign for justice

In the early 20th century the Rhodesian-born philanthropist Kingsley Fairbridge founded a charity with two overlapping aims: to give British "waifs and orphans" a new start in life and provide the Empire with white agricultural labour.

More than 100,000 children were plucked out of orphanages and slums between 1912 and 1974 and sent to Fairbridge Farm Schools in the former British colonies, including Australia. Promised a life of "oranges and sunshine", as recounted in the recently released Jim Loach film of that title, they were supposed to receive a good education and then become farmers or domestic servants.

Instead, many left school illiterate, having been treated like slaves and subjected to sexual and physical abuse. "They took your childhood," says Robert Stephens, who spent eight years at one of the most notorious Fairbridge institutions, at Molong, in New South Wales.

Mr Stephens is one of 69 former Molong residents who launched a class action this week, seeking compensation from the Fairbridge Foundation. They include Geraldine Giles, who was raped at the age of seven, and Ron Simpson, whose back was broken by a sadistic school principal, Frederick Woods, a former wrestler who thrashed the children with a sawn-off hockey stick.

Mr Stephens, too, was beaten numerous times by Woods, as well as by the "cottage mothers" who ran the dormitory blocks. He was sexually assaulted by a staff member and also, he says, by Sir William Slim, a former Australian Governor-General whose son, Viscount John Slim, sits in the House of Lords. An illegitimate baby, Mr Stephens had been placed in an orphanage in Havant, Hampshire, and was just seven when he was transported to the other side of the world. The first thing taken from him, on his arrival at Molong in 1952, was his name. "I was told: 'From now on, you're Red Four,'" he recalls – a reference to his assigned dormitory.

Although some of the children were as young as four, none were ever shown any affection – except of a dubious nature. Many of the cottage mothers were alcoholics or sexual predators, and they beat their young charges with electric cords and horsewhips. "You stopped crying when you were eight, because crying was a sign of weakness," says Mr Stephens, who had to work full-time on the farm from the age of 12.

On the farm, "the first thing that happened to you was the dairy manager would lay into you with his rubber boots, to show you who was boss". He adds: "This was the middle of nowhere and it was very difficult to get staff, so they got the dregs of society with their own problems, and they'd take it out on the children."

Many lives were wrecked at Fairbridge. Ken Fowlie, the lawyer pursuing the class action, says: "Some former residents have been devastatingly affected. Many have only rudimentary education and life skills, and it has affected them throughout their adult lives. It has really been the exception that has managed to get beyond what happened at the school and make a happier life for themselves."

The Fairbridge Society was one of numerous charities and church organisations that brought children out to Australia, particularly in the post-war years. Although all were told they were orphans, many had been taken from their mothers because they were illegitimate, or placed in orphanages by impoverished families.

Thousands were abused and starved of love in Australian institutions. Both the British and Australian governments have formally apologised, as have organisations such as the Christian Brothers, a Catholic lay order, and Barnado's. Fairbridge, however, told an Australian Senate inquiry in 2001 that it was "unaware of any unsafe, improper or unlawful treatment" of children. That attitude infuriates Mr Stephens who – while he counts himself lucky, having a supportive wife and running an art gallery in Canberra - still bears the scars from Molong. "You blocked it out for 20-odd years and never talked about it. Then your children wanted to know their heritage and all of a sudden you've got to confront your past, and relive a lot of the horrors you went through. And then you start to look at your own failures as a parent."

The class action – which is also against the Australian and New South Wales governments – was launched after a former Fairbridge resident, David Hill, who became chairman of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, wrote a book, The Forgotten Children, published in 2007.

Mr Hill uncovered widespread abuse, including a boy beaten with a steel poker during a cold shower, and a four-year-old girl whose head was put down the toilet as a punishment for bed-wetting. He wrote that children were fed scraps from the pig bins and porridge crawling with maggots. He also found evidence that Molong and another Fairbridge school in Western Australia were blacklisted in 1956 by British authorities, who, following a fact-finding mission, resolved to send no more children there. The ban was lifted following pressure from Fairbridge's powerful backers, who included the Duke of Gloucester, the society's president.

Mr Stephens says he knows of at least four Fairbridge boys abused by Sir William, who used to visit Molong and later became head of the Fairbridge Society. A statue of the former British military commander and war hero stands in Whitehall.

In 2000 Mr Stephens found his father's name inside his Fairbridge file. The school had told him in 1961 that it did not know who he was. In 2005 he learnt that his father had died, having spent 35 years as an alcoholic tramp on the streets of Bournemouth.

"Had Fairbridge given me that information when I asked for it, I would have found him and he wouldn't have lived the dreadful life that he did," says Mr Stephens. "Fairbridge has got a lot to answer for."