I have just finished reading Oranges and Sunshine. It was a deeply shocking book.
It’s the true story of one very remarkable woman, Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham, and her fight to reunite families divided by time and distance.
This is the story of the Child Migrants. In the post war period up to 10,000 children were removed from children’s homes up and down the UK and sent to the furthest reaches of the Commonwealth, particularly Australia. Often these children were taken without parental consent, transported abroad believing they would be adopted by families in Australia and ride to school on horseback and pick fruit from the trees. On arrival they discovered the reality. They were to live in ill-equipped institutions out in the bush, in blistering heat. They became a commodity – cheap building labour, domestic servants or farm hands.
Many of the children were told their parents were dead, that no one wanted them in the UK. They were not given their birth certificates and often given false family information so that tracking down their parents would be almost impossible.
Margaret Humphreys worked tirelessly, with very little money and scant help from Governments or the charities who sent the children overseas in the first place. The book looks at the issues of family and identity, showing how emotionally devastating it was for these children not to have any social history. Many of whom spent 40 years wondering what they did so wrong that the country of their birth did not want them. Rootless throughout their lives, they never felt Australian, never had a passport. One migrant talked about the deep sense of shame when she got married that she didn’t have a birth certificate. The youngest children were only five years old when they set sail from Britain, and sadly children sent to the Christian Brothers, part of the Catholic Church were also sexually abused.
It is shocking to think that these practices continued up until 1970, and even more shocking that the Establishment did not acknowledge these crimes until 24th February 2010, when Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised on behalf of the British Government.
Margaret Humphreys first started her campaign in 1986, a time before the internet, when to research birth certificates she would have to go to St Catherine’s House in London. She physically searched through the millions of individual records, knowing that time wasn’t on her side. The parents of migrant children were now elderly and there was immense pressure to reunite families before the parents died. In many many cases she did, but there were also many cases where time just ran out.
Margaret Humphries has now been honoured by both the British and Australian governments. Jim Loach (son of Ken, himself a leading light in social realism films), has recently directed a movie version of ‘Oranges and Sunshine’, about her life and work. I am so glad that her relentless fight for these abandoned children has been recognised. I hope the reissue of the book and now the film will bring greater prominence to the cause.
The word HERO is banded about too easily this days but after reading her book, there is no doubt in my mind that Margaret Humphreys is exactly that. A true hero.