Sunday 1 March 2015

Child migrants to Australia by Rosemary Hayes

Some years ago I was asked by my then publisher, Penguin Australia, to write a story about child migration to Australia, a subject about which I knew nothing. However, from the moment I began to research it, I became totally hooked, and the resulting book ‘Blood Ties’ was published in 2001.

There were many religious and philanthropic organisations in the UK who sent children overseas ‘for a better life’ but it seemed sensible to focus on one – Barnardo’s – whose history was well documented and whose archives I could access.

In my editing days I had worked on a children’s book about Dr Barnardo, so I knew something about him and his work.  He started his first ‘ragged school’ in London in 1867 which gave a basic education to poor children.  Then, in 1870, the first boys’ home, in Stepney, was opened.  This gave food and shelter to desperate boys and, following the death from exposure of an 11 year old who was turned away because the shelter was full, their policy was never to refuse entry to a needy child. Indeed a sign was posted outside the home ‘No destitute child ever refused admission.’ 

In 1876, Barnardo’s home for girls was opened in Barkingside and it is still there today; this is where I began my research. The place is no longer surrounded by leafy countryside as it was in the late 19th century and the buildings have long ceased to house destitute girls, but there is a library there where friendly staff showed me records and explained how the home was run and the original thinking behind the child migration scheme, which began in the late 19th century and continued until 1967. But more of that later.

For its time, the Barkingside home was enlightened.  Children were not housed in some grim institution, but in cottages which surrounded a large green area and each cottage had a ‘cottage mother’ who looked after up to 20 girls  Many of these cottage mothers were, apparently, well meaning, well bred, Godfearing spinsters and although some were loving and sympathetic to their charges, others had little understanding of the needs of children and were more rigid in disciplining them. However, a lot of the girls must have come with overwhelming problems and it can’t have been an easy job.

The girls’ home was looking to the future, too.  When they were old enough, girls worked in a purpose build steam laundry on the site and were also trained for domestic service.

There was a church on the site, too, and a church choir in which many of the girls sang, and celebrations held to mark such anniversaries as Empire Day.

However, not all children in Barnardo’s care remained in the homes. Many were boarded out or emigrated. First to Canada then, after the First World War children began to be settled in large numbers in Australia. The Australian authorities welcomed immigration from Britain as a means of tackling the labour shortage after the war and curbing non-white immigration from Asia. Barnardo’s sent its first official party of 47 boys in 1921. They were followed two years later by 32 girls. The charity sent a total of 2,784 children to Australia, mostly in the years before 1939. Emigration was suspended during the Second World War and resumed in 1947 but the numbers sent after the war were much smaller and the scheme finally ended in 1967.

What did surprise me, when I was reading through the experiences of ex-Barnardo’s children who had emigrated to Australia, was the randomness of the whole thing.  It seemed that children were selected, shown a few pictures of life in Australia and told that that’s were they were going then, a few weeks later, they were on board ship.
Children were encouraged to see Barnardo’s as their family and weren’t allowed to access their records. In some cases, emigrating children were told that their parents were dead, even though this may not have been true.  It was a very different age and it was genuinely thought that this could help a child make a fresh start. The emphasis at that time was on moral and physical welfare rather than emotional wellbeing.
My story ‘Blood Ties’ was based on an amalgam of the experiences of emigrant children and I based the Australian part of the story on the home at Picton in New South Wales. Here, all the children, to an extent, helped run the place, doing domestic and gardening jobs, then, when they were old enough most of the boys were sent to work on farms and the girls into domestic service.  Some of these ex-Barnardo’s children looked back with gratitude and had only good to say of the organization, others had had less than happy experiences.  Many of them, in later life, began searching for their roots.

‘Blood Ties’ tells the story of a young Australian musician, Katie, who is diagnosed with leukemia shortly before her grandmother dies.  Only then does the family learn that Gran was a Barnardo’s child, sent from England to live in the Picton home. Time is running out for Katie and as the family searches desperately for a bone marrow match, Katie begins to relive her gran’s experiences through a series of vivid dreams.
One of the letters I received from readers was from an ex-Barnardo’s boy, then in his seventies, who was still searching for his natural family and was convinced he knew the grandmother in the story. I hated telling him that she was fictional but his letter was a powerful reminder of the importance of roots, of knowing where you come from, who you are, and of the psychological damage that can haunt you all your life if you do not.
In its time, child migration was considered an appropriate response to the social problems of the day, even if, by today’s standards, the practice seems cruel. Charities genuinely believed that migration gave children a chance to escape from poverty and offered them a fresh start in a healthier environment. These ideas continued largely unchallenged until after the Second World War when the emphasis shifted towards keeping children and their families together in their own communities.

(Mary Hoffman is still away but in a different place)


Karen R. Price said...

We visited Australia back in 2010, and one of the highlights was our trip to the Hyde Park Barracks Museum. What a fascinating place! We had originally planned to stay only about an hour there, but wound up staying for nearly 4 hours, listening to each and every stops on the audio tour.

What surprised me was to learn about the young women who were housed there.

I hadn't ever heard of children being sent. What a fascinating subject!

Gillian Polack said...

I knew about the Australian end (inevitably, for I'm Australian and have met quite a few people who came out in this way) but I didn't know about Dr Barnado. Thank you for filling in that rather important missing piece!

Leslie Wilson said...

Very interesting and I appreciate your measured tone. Things were different then, and it is importqnt to remember that. All the same, I was shocked by the laundry work. That was back-breaking, rough work and it seems hard to make young girls do it.