A powerful film examines the scandal of abandoned British children

Emily Watson stars as Margaret Humphries.

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.

There is the same deft and careful touch in conveying the emotional problems of some children in adulthood; and in suggesting the consequences of Humphreys’ increasingly obsessive pursuit of the issues for her own family life. The film clearly establishes a heroine, victims, and villains; but it also conveys nuances of light and shade around them with an effectiveness more often found in fine novels than movies.

In concentrating on child emigration to Australia after the second world war the film covers only a slice of a larger and longer history. There were in all some 150,000 children emigrated under these schemes in the century or so up to the late 1960s. The majority went to Canada where they were farmed out to families, mainly in rural areas under arrangements somewhat similar to the US “Orphan Train” scheme which took children from the big East Coast cities to families in middle America.

The Canadian emigrations stopped in the early 1930s when demand for child labor diminished with the Depression. There was also, much to their credit, an increasing concern about the acceptability of the scheme on the part of the Canadian authorities. Even so, the delivery to Canada of 100,000 “home children,” as they came to be called, during the early stages of the country’s development and population growth was demographically significant. On a 1998 visit to government agencies in Ottawa I saw one estimate that, if memory serves correctly, 17 percent of the Canadian population may trace descent from home children.

The British and Australian governments were much slower to make proper judgements of the schemes. Early after the second world war when the Australian emigration of 7,000 children was about to begin, both governments accepted larger regulatory roles than they had previously had — the British government for regulating the emigrations and the Australian government for guardianship of the children after their arrival. Neither government did much to discharge these responsibilities.

The role of governments was regulatory and facilitating. The initiative came largely from the religious voluntary agencies which had care of nearly all the children who were emigrated. The state child care system in Britain seems always to have been wary of the schemes and rarely if ever consigned children to them. In our 1998 evidence to the British Parliamentary inquiry we quoted from an independent researcher who said:

“The most significant resistance to child emigration was located in central government, especially amongst the ranks of the inspectorate and the senior civil servants. They disliked the cavalier manner in which many of the philanthropic agencies operated. They suspected their motives and their charismatic styles of leadership and …were conscious of the likelihood of public scandals.”

Even so, British governments readily facilitated the schemes and did not really regulate them. History can have lessons. The tension between private and voluntary agencies and movements in the children’s field and state regulators is not confined to Britain or to history, particularly where the agencies are religious or have their own fixed ideas about what is good for children. The horrific discoveries of child abuse in closed religious and other institutions and anxieties about the treatment of children in fundamentalist cults that have characterised the last two decades and are still continuing across the developed world tell their own story. The lessons of the recent past and the more distant past coincide: children’s safety and rights need constant public scrutiny, and the need is never greater than for children in closed communities or institutions or other situations of isolation from normal social interactions with mainstream communities.

There is also an international dimension. In 1990, the United Nations adopted its “Convention on the Rights of the Child.” This takes the form of a multilateral treaty between ratifying states. It is not of itself binding in their domestic law and cannot be directly enforced through domestic courts. Even so, it sets out general safeguarding standards for children which member states should and generally do follow in their public policies, however incompletely those policies may often be implemented. The Convention has been ratified by all the nearly 200 UN member states except two. The holdouts are countries with little else in common — Somalia and the USA. The child emigration schemes operated by Britain and the receiving countries would, on a rough count, have breached at least five of the Convention’s articles. It is inconceivable that any self-respecting country would nowadays allow such schemes.

“Oranges and Sunshine” ends its Seattle run at the Metro today (Nov. 10), but is well worth hunting down through video networks. It ranks with the films of Francois Truffaut for its subtle and powerful advocacy of children’s rights.

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