Bindoon Boys Town: The sad truth behind Britain's lost children

Australia is to apologise for the appalling treatment meted out to thousands of boys and girls shipped to its shores as orphans

Bindoon Boys Town: it sounded like an adventure camp to the pale-faced youngsters who emerged blinking into the sunlight at Fremantle, in Western Australia, after their six-month voyage from Southampton. Among them was Laurie Humphreys, looking forward to his new life in the "land of milk and honey", where food was plentiful and children rode to school on horses, so he had been told.

It was September 1947, and the SS Asturias had just docked in Fremantle with 147 boys and girls, the first to arrive under a post-war plan to empty overflowing British orphanages and repopulate the former colonies with "good white stock". Humphreys and other boys were dispatched to Bindoon, an isolated institution 60 miles north of Perth, run by the Christian Brothers, a Catholic lay order.

The first shock was the desolate landscape; the second was the place itself, an abandoned farm property. It was the boys who were to build Bindoon, and children as young as 10 were set to work, constructing schools, dormitories and kitchens. They hacked at the ground with picks and shovels, and mixed concrete by hand in the blazing heat. Those unable to cope with the back-breaking labour were flogged, sometimes until their bones were fractured.

But the routine thrashings – meted out for "offences" as trivial as bed-wetting or stealing fruit to supplement a miserable diet consisting mainly of bread and dripping – were not the worst of it. Sexual abuse was rife at Bindoon, and the boys dubbed their religious guardians the "Christian Buggers". This grim regime was presided over by Brother Francis Keaney, 6ft tall and 17 stone. "I guess you could call him a sadist," says Humphreys, one of an estimated 10,000 British children sent to Australia between 1947 and 1967.

While Bindoon was especially brutal, conditions there were replicated in numerous other institutions, and for decades the "lost children of the Empire", as they are sometimes known, have been lobbying for official recognition. Last week they finally achieved one of their goals, when the Australian government announced it would offer them a formal apology, similar to the one delivered to the "Stolen Generations" of Aboriginal children last year.

It has been a long time coming. In 1998 a House of Commons select committee described the migration scheme as "Britain's shameful secret". An inquiry by the Australian Senate in 2001 heard stories of rape, abuse and cruelty, including children scrambling for breadcrumbs on the floor and a boy being forced to shoot and skin a horse he considered his only friend.

Almost as shocking was the deceit that had been practised on children who had been robbed of their country, roots and identity. "We were told we were orphans, that we had no one," says Mick Snell, who has bleak memories of Dalmar House in Sydney, managed by the Methodist Wesley Mission. In fact, Snell had been given up as a baby because he was illegitimate. Other children were placed in care by impoverished families.

Jean Costello spent 10 years in St Joseph's orphanage in Perth, run by the Catholic Sisters of Mercy. She, too, believed herself an orphan. Like many child migrants, she returned to Britain in the 1990s to try to trace her family. She learnt that her mother and father had lived well into their 70s. By that time, though, both were dead.

Although children were also shipped to Canada, Rhodesia and New Zealand, Australia became the favoured destination after the war. The young immigrants were cheap to house and a good source of labour. And, importantly, they were white. As the Archbishop of Perth declared in 1938, at a time when Australia was desperate to boost its population: "If we do not supply from our own stock, we are leaving ourselves all the more exposed to the menace of the teeming millions of our neighbouring Asian races."

The apology has been welcomed by some. "You have no idea what this means to me," says Snell, originally from Yorkshire. "All I want is for them to admit it was wrong, and for my kids to be able to understand me a bit better." But to others, it means little. "I wonder how they think making an apology can right the wrong that was done," Costello says. "They turn your life upside down, they deprive you of ever knowing your mum and dad."

Many former child migrants, who were as young as three when they were transported to the other side of the world, are still profoundly affected. Some never formed adult relationships; others are alcoholics. John Hennessy, a former Bindoon boy, speaks with a stutter – a legacy, he says, of being stripped naked and publicly flogged. "A lot are starting to top themselves," says Snell, who admits he found it hard to show affection to his six children. In recent years, Snell has been afflicted by nightmares. "I sleep in a separate bedroom because I'm afraid I'm going to swing out and maybe hurt my wife. I dream I'm back there and I'm locked up, being verbally abused and whacked. I wake up in a cold sweat."

The worst thing about Dalmar House, which was infested with rats, and where he got up before 4am to milk the cows and worked until dark, six days a week, was the loneliness. "You had no one to turn to," he says. No one showed the children any affection – unless you count the outsiders who turned up to take the younger boys out for the day. Snell remarks: "I know for a fact they were rock spiders [paedophiles]. The kids that were involved, they didn't like talking about it."

Humphreys believes the British government should apologise, too. So far, it has only expressed "sympathy and sincere regrets", although it has helped to fund airfares back to the UK. Britain claims it thought it was sending the children to a better life. "But they didn't do too much checking once we got here," says Humphreys.

At Bindoon, the threat of violence was ever present. The brothers carried a strap consisting of four pieces of leather stitched together and a metal weight. Humphreys recalls one particularly vindictive man who "gave me one hell of a hiding" after he tried to protect a younger boy.

There was no teaching at Bindoon, and he knows several former inmates who still cannot read or write. Aged 14, he worked as a truck driver. All that sustained the children was each other. "You had good mates, and we were all in the hardship game together. And you knew nothing better. You knew nothing of love and affection. I can't recall being given a Christmas or birthday present until I was married."

After Costello left the orphanage, she had a breakdown and was admitted to a psychiatric hospital. The transition to a world where "you can go and clean your teeth or wash your hair without asking permission" was too difficult.

Snell hopes the apology will enlighten his fellow Australians. "Most people don't even know about the child migrants," he says. "They say to me: 'You're a £10 Pom [an Englishman who migrated under an assisted package].' I say: 'No I'm not. I got deported out here.'"

Humphreys observes that many of his friends have died without hearing an apology. He likens the child migrants to the Stolen Generations. "Whether you're black, white or brindle, they were saying we know what's best for you. We were stolen, too."

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