John Hennessey met his mother for the first time when he was 57. May Mary Hennessey was forced out of her home in Ireland’s County Waterford after getting pregnant out of wedlock, giving birth to her son in Cheltenham. She was told he died during the birth, but in truth, he had been handed to a Catholic orphanage in Bristol and in 1947, at the age of 11, he was sent to Australia.
“The first words she said to me were: ‘Where have you been all these years?’” he recalls. “It was like a frozen time in history. For the first time, at 57, to meet your own flesh and blood – it was bloody hard, I’ll tell you that.”
Mr Hennessey, who is now 79 and speaks with a gentle Australian accent, was one of an estimated 10,000 British children who were sent to Australia between 1947 and 1967, under a post-war plan to empty UK orphanages and repopulate the former colonies with “good white stock”.
The policy – which can be traced back to the late Victorian era, when soaring poverty levels led to the belief that many poor children would be better off abroad – resulted in an estimated 100,000 children being sent from the UK to Canada, New Zealand, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and Australia. It did not formally end until 1970.
Most of Britain’s so-called “child migrants” have since died, but around 2,000 are still alive. Many have returned to the UK and Ireland in an attempt to trace their parents and other relatives with the help of the Child Migrant Trust, a charity offering free information and advice to those affected.
Mr Hennessey and other child migrants have travelled from their homes in Australia for the launch of a new exhibition at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, east London, which details their extraordinary – and often shocking – experiences of hard labour and abuse. On Their Own: Britain’s Child Migrants opens to the public on Saturday.
But they are also here for another reason: to press the Government to open a full judicial inquiry into what happened. Gordon Brown offered child migrants and their families an official apology for the “cruel and unnatural” practice while he was Prime Minister in 2010, but many believe the full truth of what happened to the children has never been revealed.
“I think it’s outrageous that we, at our age, have to fly all the way round the world to come back and ask Britain for justice,” Mr Hennessey said. “What we need is a judicial inquiry to get the true story. What have they got to hide? What is the silence for? The British public are entitled to know what happened to their children. We’re their flesh and blood, we’re not aliens. I think they’ll be happy when we’re in the grave.”
Mr Hennessey speaks with a stammer, which he says was caused by a vicious beating he received at Boys Town Bindoon, a 17,000 acre institution 60 miles north of Perth in western Australia where he spent much of his childhood. It was run by the Christian Brothers, a Catholic lay order. The assault, he said, was punishment for his role in leading a party of hungry children out to a nearby vineyard at night to eat grapes.
“He had just been to Mass,” Mr Hennessey said of his attacker. “He had a big walking stick with a metal end. He stripped me naked, put me over a bench in front of about 60 boys and nearly flogged me to death. We had no comeback – they were above the law.”
Mr Hennessey said his experiences at Bindoon were so brutal that he never married or had children, as he was left uneasy about having close relationships with women. When he finally met his mother, he hid his trauma from her as he did not want her to suffer any more than she already had. “It was bad enough for us, but what about her?” he said. The pair had a “beautiful” relationship until she died six years after their first meeting.
According to the exhibition’s curator Professor Gordon Lynch, of the University of Kent, family reunions did not always end well for the child migrants. Sometimes, their mothers would ask them to pretend to be a friend or a cousin, desperate to hide the lingering shame of having an illegitimate child. “It could be very painful,” he added.
This was the case for Mick Snell, 80, who was born in Yorkshire but sent to a children’s home near Portsmouth when he was three months old. He was sexually abused while in care and at the age of 14 was sent to Australia, an experience he describes as a “shithouse”. Days after his arrival, he had to fight off the advances of a man by beating him around the head with a chamber pot.
His mother managed to find him in Australia when he was in his 30s, but the pair did not get on well and lost touch again before she died – something he now regrets. He is furious with the way he and the other children were treated. “They took us over there to work as child labour, and once they dropped us off that was it. I don’t mind getting up in front of any politician and telling them what I think,” he said.
Another child migrant who has made the trip from Australia is Patrick Monaghan, 78, who was born in Castleblayney in Ireland and was taken into the care of local nuns when he was two weeks old. He spent his early years in an orphanage before being sent to Australia at the age of 10.
Although he says he enjoyed the sea crossing, when food was plentiful, on their arrival in Australia he and other children were put to work building roads and scraping bricks for the construction of farm buildings. “We were like slaves. I remember the kids used to shout ‘Water, water’ like in the slave movies,” he said.
Mr Monaghan now lives in Perth and has four children, eight grandchildren and one great grandchild. He was repeatedly told he was an orphan until in 2008 he was finally given a letter from his mother to the nunnery, confirming what had happened. She died in 1999, so he never discovered why she gave him up – but he has since realised that he once came within 20 miles of her house on a trip to Ireland in the 1990s.
The migrants are united in their belief that the full truth of what happened to them and thousands of others can only be revealed through an official investigation. Mr Hennessey said that while Mr Brown’s apology was clearly “from the heart”, the lack of progress in the five years since has been frustrating.
“It comes down to priorities, and we’re very low down the pecking order, which I think is disgusting,” he said. “We were deported to Australia, we weren’t sent freely. The abuse and the stuff we went through, it’s just horrendous.”
Asked to comment on the calls for a judicial review, the Home Office referred inquiries to the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, which was opened earlier this year and is examining whether public bodies failed children. It is encouraging victims to come forward, but its remit does not cover allegations of abuse outside England and Wales.
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