Former British child migrants Michael Tubbs, 75, (left) and Mick Snell, 74, reunited in Sydney after once sharing the same British orphanage.
Some wiped away tears, a wife clutched her ailing husband’s hand, a pensioner adjusted his hearing aid to ensure he caught every word – but if there was one point they were all agreed on as they listened to Gordon Brown’s historic apology it was simply: ‘About time.’
They came from around New South Wales to gather in Sydney and hear the Prime Minister’s recorded speech in which he expressed his sorrow that Britain had let down thousands of young children by packing them off to Australia between the 1920s and the 1960s as part of the Child Migrants Programme.
‘We are truly sorry,’ said Mr Brown, his words echoing around the elderly group of 30 or so who had gathered in Sydney. ‘We are sorry they were allowed to be sent away at the time when they were most vulnerable…sorry the country turned its back.’
Many of those who spent the six weeks voyage to the other side of the world ended up in institutions where they were physically and sexually abused. They were times that those who suffered in this way have tried hard to forget, but like a recurring nightmare they admit the horrors will remain with them for the rest of their years.
Ask Ron Grant, 73 now, what it was like in the Sydney institution he found himself in and he shakes his head. ‘No more – I can’t talk about it any more. I will only say that it wasn’t good. The worst part was that I felt completely alone, abandoned.’
Alone…abandoned…they were words on everyone’s lips today/yesterday (Thurs), more than the memories of any beatings or sexual abuse they might have endured at the hands of adult strangers.
After he made a life for himself in Australia and raised a family, Ron Grant still found it difficult to cuddle his children. He told an Australian senate committee inquiring earlier into the child migrant scheme that when he was reunited with his long-lost sister she asked him: ‘Ron, hold me properly.’
He replied: ‘I don’t know how’. He added: ‘To my sister – it hurts to this day.’
Mr Grant arrived in Australia when he was 13 but, he recalled, nobody ever sat him down and asked him how he was feeling. He could count on his fingers the number of people, including his wife, who had thought to put their arms around him.
Mick Snell, 74, was 14 when he arrived in Australia. His mother died of TB when he was young and he had been placed in an orphanage in Gloucestershire before he was eventually shipped off to Australia. He never knew anything of his father.
Memories of the children’s home in Sydney still haunt him. ‘The place was over-run with rats and I had to work from dawn to darkness for six days a week. The loneliness was the worst part – I didn’t have anyone I could turn to.’
Paedophiles lurked among the adults who had charge of the youngsters but none of the children wanted to talk about it at the time – just as they don’t wish to today, said Mr Snell.
Eric Leonard, 83, admits that the first eight years of his life are ‘blanked out’ because he had no family to make any impression on him. ‘I think my mother was 15, which was why I ended up with foster parents and later Dr Barnardos homes were sending people out to Australia, the boys to become farmers, the girls as domestic servants.’
Mr Leonard arrived in Australia in December 1937 and found himself under a tough superintendent at a farm training institute but he admits that the severe days did him no harm and served him in good stead for work that he found later on sheep and cattle stations before he eventually joined the police force.
Alf Jones, 72, was born in London, but his true identity did not emerge until many years later when an official in Australia showed him his birth certificate. ‘That’s not me,’ he recalls saying, ‘that’s not my name – I’m Alf Jones.’
He remains convinced that his name and that of other boys were changed when they were youngsters so that they would not, in time, be able to trace their families and learn the truth – that they were not orphans and that they had brothers and sisters.
Taken away from his family when he was four and told that he had no parents, Mr Jones was placed in a boys home in the UK before being shipped to another home in Melbourne. ‘We were known as the waifs and strays,’ he remembers, but he knows now that he and the thousands of others like him were sent across the world to beef up the white population.
He was a teenager when he first saw the home he was to be placed in – and ran away on the first day. ‘I didn’t know where I was going – I just didn’t want to be institutionalised again – but the police caught up with me. My punishment was to be locked in a small tin building for a couple of days. There was a bed, a toilet and the temperature was 100 degrees.’
At the Sydney gathering, the migrants and their spouses were unanimous in agreeing that Mr Brown’s gesture in setting up a fund to help former child migrants trace their families was a step in the right direction.
‘For some, it’s come too late,’ says Mick Snell. ‘But it might also help to bring happiness to those who have spent a lifetime feeling as though they had no beginning.’
* SEE Daily Mail version of my story (above) at this link