Britain’s child migrants: ‘I was told I was going on a picnic’

Britain’s child migrants: ‘I was told I was going on a picnic’


Giulia Rhodes and Robert Gorter, MD, PhD.

Up until 1970, the UK regularly shipped thousands of orphans and illegitimate children abroad to a life of virtual slave labor and, often, sexual and physical abuse. Giulia Rhodes meets two victims of a policy that robbed them of a childhood and a family. Dr. Robert Gorter gives his commentaries.

child migrants

23 April 1938 … Four child migrants arrive at Fairbridge Farm School in Molong, New South Wales. From left: Edward (Ted) Gamsley, Mary Simpson, Clara Park, Cyril Lord. Ted is alive and lives in Molong, the others are dead.

Sunday evenings were the highlight of the week when Tony Costa was a child. Then, he and the other boys living at Bindoon Boys Town, an orphanage run by the Catholic Christian Brothers in Western Australia, were allowed to watch a television film. Sometimes, says Costa, 74, Mario Lanza, the American tenor and Hollywood star would feature. “I ordained him the voice of hope. When he sang I felt I could keep going. It was the only good thing.”

Costa is one of an estimated 100,000 British children sent to institutions in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) under official migration schemes which ran until 1970. Most of the children never saw their families again. Many suffered years of systematic physical, emotional, and sexual abuse.

Tony’s story is among those told in an exhibition opening at the V&A Museum of Childhood today. He and several other former child migrants have come to Britain to share their experiences. “We need to be heard so we never, ever see this happen again,” he says.

Tony was two when his unmarried mother took him to a London orphanage. She told the nuns she would come back as soon as she had the means to provide for him.

Child migrants like Tony Costa

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Tony Costa was 11 when he left for Australia in 1953 … ‘I was told I would ride on horseback to school and pick fruit from the trees.’

By the time she did, her son had been sent to the other side of the world. She was told simply that she was too late. It would be another 50 years before Tony even found out she had returned.

child migrant

Tony Costa as a boy at age 7. His mother tried to get him back but he only found out in 2011, when it was too late.

He was 11 when, in 1953, he set sail for Australia. “I was told I would ride on horseback to school and pick fruit from the trees. We were going to enjoy life.”

Official pictures from the time show groups of excited children smartly dressed and smiling. As soon as the ship docked at Fremantle, a different reality emerged. Tony spent the next five years at Bindoon, where an Australian Royal Commission last year heard that boys were subjected to back-breaking manual labor, given little food or education, and regularly sexually abused.

“We lived in constant fear of being flogged or molested. We had no dignity or self-esteem. I would cry my eyes out at night and wonder what I had ever done to deserve such treatment when I had committed no crime. We were told we were the sons of whores, the lowest form of humanity,” says Tony.

tony casta

Tony Costa at age 77

Aged 16, Tony left Bindoon, taking a job in a factory, but only when he reached 21 was he given his birth certificate. “I learned my parents were called Kathleen Mary and Thomas Joseph, a Belfast man, and that I was born at St Mary’s hospital, Islington.”

In 1977, he traveled to Britain seeking some geographical connection and identity. “I just wandered about like a lost soul.”

In 2011, the film Oranges and Sunshine told the story of British social worker Dr. Margaret Humphreys and her fight on behalf of child migrants. Tony wrote to the charity she set up, the Child Migrants Trust, and six months later was given details of an aunt living in Belfast. Both his parents were dead.

The revelation that his mother had tried to get him back was heartbreaking. “Knowing she wanted me – when I had been told she didn’t – was wonderful, but we were betrayed. The torment she must have felt haunts me. I could have had a normal childhood.”

Age does not diminish the pain of lost identity, says Humphreys, international director of the Child Migrants Trust.

In 2010, a government apology was issued to former child migrants, and a fund established to facilitate trips to meet relatives. It has been used more than 850 times.

“We can’t give back their childhood,” Humphreys says, “but allowing them at least to be able to say who their parents were, perhaps meet cousins, hear stories, understand the very few vague memories they may have is huge.”

Many former migrants only found out 50 or 60 years after leaving the UK that they were not war orphans. “That was perhaps the cruelest deception,” says Humphreys.

It is time, she says, the truth was investigated through an independent judicial inquiry. “The apology was the start of this country’s reconciliation with the children it sent away. Justice should follow. The migrants need to give their testimony and we need to hear it, while they are still alive.”


Marcelle O’Brien, 71, from Perth, in Western Australia, is another migrant determined to tell her story. Unlike Tony, she learned the truth just in time to meet her mother, who died in 2002.

“She was all hunched in a chair. Her mind was starting to go but I tapped her on the shoulder, knelt down near her, and said, ‘Hello, Mum, it’s Marcelle.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Praise the Lord. I know who you are. Those bastards took you away from me.’”

Marcelle O’Brien, from Perth, Australia, was sent to an Australian orphanage when she was five, where she was maltreated.

As the result of an affair, Marcelle was put into care as a baby and has vague memories of happy years with her foster mother and siblings. In 1949, just before her fifth birthday, she was sent to Australia. “I was told I was going on a picnic,” she recalls.

On arrival, her luggage was taken – “We had nothing left of England” – and she was sent to Fairbridge Farm, an orphanage in Pinjarra.

She remained there for 11 years, suffering regular abuse from the “cottage mothers” assigned to look after the girls. “You would be locked in a closet for hours, called terrible names,” she says, adding quietly, “I couldn’t mention some of the stuff.”

“I never thought I had anyone. It was easier without happy memories. I thought it was tougher for those who knew what they had lost.”

As Marcelle grew older, though, she began to dwell on the snippets of memory she retained. In particular, she wondered about Valerie and Kenneth, whom her foster mother had taken in at the same time and gone on to adopt. “We used to play together. We were about the same age.”

She placed advertisements seeking information – to no avail – in newspapers in Britain and Australia.

When she was nearly 50, she learned that her foster mother, whom she had always assumed to be her birth mother, had tried desperately to get her back so she could adopt her.


Marcelle O’Brien as a little girl.

When the charity in charge of the orphanage refused, Mrs. Chapman – by now also mourning the death of Valerie – appealed to the royal family for help. The then Queen Elizabeth, the late Queen Mother, wrote back expressing sympathy, but ultimately supporting the charity’s position.

Finally, through the Child Migrants Trust, Marcelle was able to trace her birth mother, who had changed her name. “To know I had a mother, that I have family, was incredible. She was my mum, I was desperate to see her,” she says.

By the time she met her mother, though, it was almost too late. “I had a few days before her dementia became too advanced. She was a frail old lady. I couldn’t ask her anything. I wouldn’t have wanted to upset her and she was too confused.”

She felt anger and hurt, but never towards her mother. “I felt deep compassion for her. I was so thankful to have met her.” With four children and 31 grand and great-grandchildren of her own, Marcelle can imagine the agony of giving up a baby. “It was only when I started my own family when I had someone to look after and who might look after me that I felt I belonged anywhere. That is when I learned what love is.”

Marcelle is now in contact with three half-siblings and several cousins, in the UK and Canada. “You can’t go back for a couple of weeks and cram a lifetime in, but knowing they are there, that we can talk, is wonderful. I have an identity, a past. I exist.”



Thursday, 01 April 2010

Signed statement by survivor witness followed by a copy of letter already given to the Queen in January 2008 by residential school survivors in Canada.

Statement of William Arnold Combes

I am an Interior Salish spirit dancer and am 58 years old. I live in Vancouver, Canada.

I am a survivor of the Kamloops and Mission Indian residential schools, both run by the Roman Catholic Church. I suffered terrible tortures there at the hands especially of Brother Murphy, who killed at least two children. I witnessed him throw a child off a three-story balcony to her death. He put me on a rack and broke some of my bones, in the Kamloops school basement, after I tried running away.

I also saw him and another priest burying a child in the school orchard one night.

In September 1964 when I was 12 years old, I was an inmate at the Kamloops school and we were visited by the Queen of England and Prince Phillip. I remember it was strange because they came by themselves, with no big fanfare or anything. But I recognized them both and the school principal told us it was the Queen and we all got given new clothes and good food for the first time in months the day before she arrived.

The day she got to the school, I was part of a group of kids that went on a picnic with the Queen and her husband and school officials, down to a meadow near Dead Man’s Creek. After a while, I saw the Queen leave that picnic with ten children from the school, and those children never returned. We never heard anything more about them and never saw them again even when we were older. They were all from around there but they all vanished.

The group that disappeared was seven boys and three girls, ages from six to fourteen years old. I don’t remember their names, just an occasional first name like Cecilia and there was an Edward.

What happened was also witnessed by my friend George Adolph, who was 11 years old at the time and a student there too.

William Arnold Combes

(signed and witnessed in the original)

Vancouver, Canada                                                   February 3, 2010

Elizabeth Windsor, the Queen of England, was issued a Letter of Demand yesterday that requires that she identify the fate and burial sites of all the children who died in Indian Residential Schools established under the authority of the Church of England and the British Crown.

The Letter was handed personally to Governor-General Michaelle Jean by aboriginal elder Carol Martin at the Downtown Eastside Womens’ Centre in Vancouver in the afternoon of Wednesday, January 23. Ms. Martin asked the Governor-General to deliver the Letter of Demand to the Queen on behalf of residential school survivors, and the Governor-General accepted the Letter and assured her that she would.

As a Common Law Notice, the Letter requires that the Queen comply with the request to identify the gravesites and cause of death of these children within thirty days or face possible legal action.

“The buck stops at Buckingham Palace” commented another aboriginal elder and residential school survivor. “The Queen and the Pope are the ones responsible for the genocide their government and churches did to my people. She has to be held accountable. She had the power to help bring our children home, finally.”

In recent weeks, similar Letters of Demand have been issued to officials of the Canadian government and the Catholic, Anglican, and United Church of Canada by residential school survivors. Karl Ratzinger, Pontiff of the Roman Catholic Church, is scheduled to be issued a similar Letter of Demand soon.

A national press conference to announce the next stage in this Truth Campaign will be held on Monday, February 4 at 10:00 am outside the Prime Minister’s Office at 80 Wellington Street in Ottawa. Organizer Kevin Annett (Eagle Strong Voice) will be present at this event.

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