It is well known that in its imperial days Britain had a system of “imperial preference” for tariff-free trade with its colonies and dominions giving its exports in those areas an edge over other countries’. Much less well known is the sorry fact that its exports included children. I do not mean children emigrating legitimately with their families. But children from orphanages and other juvenile institutions who, sometimes unknown to their families and without valid consent on their own part, were shipped off in large batches to Canada and Australia, New Zealand, and central Africa.
The Australian dimension of this sorry business is the focus of “Oranges and Sunshine,” an Anglo-Australian film directed by Jim Loach and now playing at Seattle Metro (closing tonight, Nov 10). It is a powerful piece of work, the more moving and effective for its avoidance of rhetoric, grandstanding, and exaggeration; and for its sensitive, respectful, treatment of the child victims in their adulthood and of other participants.
The lead role, taken with wonderful skill and insight by Emily Watson, is Margaret Humphreys, a British social worker who by accident stumbles on the child export history and then devotes the rest of her career to helping its Australian victims find their British roots and bringing the institutions responsible for their mistreatment to account. She becomes a sort of Erin Brockovich for the emigrated children. Margaret Humphreys may be the first member of the much-maligned social work profession to feature as the heroine of a major international film.
The institutions she takes on are the British and Australian governments and the organizations, mainly religious charities, which actually exported the children. In the late 1990s, mainly at Humphreys’ instigation, the British Parliament undertook a major public examination of the child emigration scheme. I was then a senior official of the Department of Health in London and found myself the British Government’s main witness to the inquiry. I had no personal involvement in the emigration scheme, which had come to an end in the late 1960s, but spent a long time researching its history and then several uncomfortable hours trying to explain to legislators how such things could have happened and been allowed to happen.
The emigration schemes started in the 19th century from a mixture of philanthropic, economic, colonial, and racial motives. They set out to offer children abandoned in institutions better chances than the dismal lives and opportunities that Britain in those days offered its many poor and abandoned children — witness Charles Dickens. The children were, especially in Canada, treated as cheap child labor, the boys on farms and the girls in domestic service. They provided the settler populations with a further infusion of white breeding stock. The religious charities provided enforced recruits to their faiths in the receiving countries and gained some income because the schemes had public subsidy.
“Oranges and Sunshine” was the phrase used to cajole children into leaving their dark, cold, and undernourished lives in post-war Britain for a supposedly brighter sweeter future in Australia. The film shows that in many cases their fate on arrival was a poor one. Deprived of their birth identities, family links, and original nationality, most children were placed in institutions where many experienced harsh and abusive treatment and some were victims of sexual abuse.
The worst experience seems to have been at a large institution in Bindoon, remotely situated in Western Australia and run by the Catholic Christian Brothers order. One of the most dramatic scenes in the film shows a visit by Margaret Humphreys to this institution. It is characteristic of the director’s subtlety and balance that one sees the people there not just as perpetrators of an abusive regime but themselves as isolated, emotionally stunted misfits, permanently trapped in the cold institutional formality from which their child victims can at least eventually escape into real lives. One feels for them both hostility and a kind of pity.
Like what you just read? Support high quality local journalism. Become a member of Crosscut today!