Jim Loach on set of Oranges and Sunshine

The Times on Oranges and Sunshine by Jim Loach

Oranges and Sunshine

Margaret Humphreys, the real woman behind Oranges and Sunshine

By Carol Midgley

A new film sheds light on a brutal child migrant scheme

On the walls of Margaret Humphreys’ office above a sandwich shop in Nottingham are hundreds of family photographs, the typical fare of happy smiles and embraces found on mantelpieces everywhere. The truth behind these snapshots, though, is far from happy. It is a wretched story that shames our country.

Many of the people pictured here were robbed of any chance of family life when they were children thanks to a government policy to ship thousands of minors in care to Australia for a “better life”. Without the consent or knowledge of their birth parents, children as young as 4 were often simply poured into boats and unloaded into religious institutions and children’s homes at the other end, then forced to work in punishing conditions.

Children have been exported from Britain since the 1600s. From the start of the last century thousands were sent to Canada and Rhodesia. The mass exportation to Australia took place mainly after the Second World War, with between 7,000 and 10,000 children sent. Incredibly, the practice didn’t officially end until 1970.

They were “white stock” sent to boost Australia’s postwar population, told falsely that their parents were dead and that they were lucky to get this chance. Hundreds grew up not even knowing their correct date of birth. Their sense of identity was often eroded by years of neglect and terrible abuse. Thanks to magnificent work by Humphreys, and her organisation the Child Migrant Trust, over the past 23 years some have finally been reunited with family members in Britain, discovering lost mothers, brothers, sisters, cousins — hence the poignant images on Humphreys’ walls. For others, however, it was all too late and by the time they traced their parents, they were dead. All they have left is a gravestone.

Now, a year after Gordon Brown formally apologised to the child migrants, their story is being told in film. Oranges and Sunshine, directed by Jim Loach (son of Ken), is a beautiful dramatisation of a monstrous truth. It is breathtakingly moving film (have tissues to hand) tracing the consequences of a social policy that was ill-thought out and often seemed to amount to little more than free child labour. Via the story of Margaret, a Nottingham social worker who exposed the full horror of the scheme in the 1980s after a woman in Adelaide made contact to try and trace her family, we meet some of the victims still living with the shame and emptiness of being a “non-person”. All are based on true stories.

Humphreys is played by Emily Watson who captures her mixture of determination, compassion and vulnerability. Humphreys isn’t comfortable talking about herself, batting away compliments about her achievements, for which this month she was appointed CBE. Neither was she directly involved in the making of the film, based on her book Empty Cradles. But she has seen it, just once, with her family and says it is “faithful” to the truth. “Let’s hope the film helps us to look [what happened] in the face,” she says. “We need people to understand the consequences of child migration because they are huge. There were times when I despaired that this terrible injustice would ever be acknowledged. That’s one of the factors that led me to agree to the film.”

Humphreys, 66, has heard countless appalling testimonies, such as the five-year-old boy tied to a tree and repeatedly raped by a Christian Brother; the little girl with golden curls held down by nuns and shorn until her scalp bled because she tried to run away; lonely, weeping children beaten and humiliated for wetting the bed, a choirboy sent to a dentist’s house to sing at a Christmas party and raped by several men. She was physically threatened herself in Australia by people desperate to protect some of the religious institutions involved (the Christian Brothers have since apologised). Eventually the stress made her ill and doctors found she was suffering from trauma.

Her own family made huge sacrifices as she worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, often on the other side of the world. Her amazingly supportive husband Merv, also a social worker, and played in the film by Richard Dillane, held the fort at home. For seven years there was no family holiday and Margaret took no leave.

She, though, could go home — unlike the migrants. “Many obsessed over England, the greenery, the terraced houses and the wet weather that they could still remember,” she says. “Their children too have been deprived of grandparents; the losses continue down the generations.

“Identity is critical,” she says. “It’s all about connection, who we belong to, where we fit in in the world. These are fundamental questions for children.” Some of the migrants describe a deep longing to be touched — hugged maternally — as children. One, George, taken from a children’s home in Liverpool and sent to New South Wales, told Humphreys that as a boy he would sit in a gum tree every day praying that a car would knock him over. Not to kill him, just to break his legs and get him sent to hospital “because then somebody will pick me up ... then somebody will hold me”.

Humphreys says one of her migrant friends Harold Haig, who was sent to Australia at age 10, articulates it best. “He says you walk round with this lump of ice inside you that never melts, you feel cold inside.” Sandra Bennett, taken from Birmingham to Queensland, describes it thus: “Not having a family makes you feel as if you don’t belong to the human race.” This lack of sense of self, coupled with traumatic childhood, meant many found it hard to sustain adult relationships. Alcoholism is also common in child migrant communities.

I had assumed that the shipping of the children abroad was largely a class issue: the children were poor and their parents voiceless. But this was not always the case, says Humphreys. Many people found themselves in difficult circumstances after the Second World War and put their children into care, meaning to pick them up later. When they returned to the homes they were told their children had been “adopted”. This wasn’t true. Adoption was never part of Child Migrant Scheme plan. As the film shows, when Margaret traced the now elderly mothers, they were devastated to learn their children had never had loving homes. “People of all classes found themselves in situations — single parents where there was a stigma, parents separating.”

Children’s homes sometimes emptied overnight. “One man wrote to me saying he had got up one morning, gone to the breakfast table and there was no one there. He hadn’t gone because he had chicken pox.”

Tragically, the trauma of having to give up a child caused many mothers to decide they couldn’t go through it again. “To a lot of these women it was a grief without end,” Humphreys says.

“The film is about society; it challenges all of us,” she says. “It is about loss, separation, reconciliation, restitution and learning. That last word is crucial. What we learn from this will inform actions in the future. It is not something that happened over on the other side of the world, it is part of our history too.”

How did it feel to see Gordon Brown say sorry? “I saw the apology as a measure of where we are at as a society and for that alone — well, it was a pretty good moment,” she says. “The apology removed shame. It said [to the migrants], ‘It isn’t your shame, it is ours.’ ”