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Page last updated at 06:55 GMT, Friday, 2 October 2009 07:55 UK
Farm of fear

Children from the Fairbridge Farm Scool at Pinjarra, western Australia

Between 1922 and 1967 up to 10,000 children migrated from Britain to Australia under officially-approved schemes. While some remember the experience fondly, others became victims of beatings and sexual abuse. And newly-discovered records show that the authorities had been warned that the system had few safeguards.

By Sanchia Berg
Today programme, Radio 4

Jackie still remembers the day she arrived at Fairbridge Farm, Pinjarra, Western Australia in 1950.

Like the other children, she'd been kitted out with a complete new outfit for the trip: shirt, cardigan, skirt, shoes and socks. Pictured just before she got on the boat, she even has a ribbon in her hair.

The month long voyage was "great fun", she recalled. But as soon as Jackie, then ten, arrived at Fairbridge Farm, her beautiful new clothes were taken away.

Everyone had to wear a t-shirt and shorts. No shoes - they were only for church on Sundays.

Jackie, before leaving for Australia
Jackie, looking excited with a ribbon in her hair, before leaving for Australia

"We all got stone bruises," she said. "That's what we called them - the bumps on your feet from going barefoot everywhere."

But that wasn't the worst thing - by far. "The punishment was shocking," Jackie added.

Fairbridge Farm was supposed to have more of a family atmosphere than most children's homes of the time - instead of big dormitories the children lived in cottages with a resident member of staff - a "cottage mother".

Some children seem to have been fond of their substitute parents, and have good memories of the Farm, but Jackie's cottage mother was cruel.

Lonely and scared, Jackie started wetting her bed at night. The cottage mother would force her head into the toilet - and then flush it or lock her into a dark cupboard under the stairs.

Jackie tried to run away - but she was always brought back. "There was no-one to turn to," she told me.

Grossly overcrowded

Jackie was disgusted to learn that the Home Office had been specifically warned about the Farm three years before she arrived but had still sent children there.

They didn't look after us then but they should look after us now.

Jackie, child migrant to Australia

I found a file in the National Archives from 1947 - released in recent years - showing a Miss Lucy Cole Hamilton wrote to officials in October that year.

She herself had worked as a cottage mother at Fairbridge Farm, Pinjarra, for 11 years. She'd taken a party of children there in 1934 and stayed through the war.

She'd read reports that the government planned to start sending child migrants to Australia again, and she was "very anxious" for information about safeguards and inspection.

"I do not think the system at present conducive to the children's happiness or welfare in a great many ways," she wrote.

Boxing display by boys from the Fairbridge Farm School, Pinjarra, 1934
Pictures of happy children at Fairbridge Farm belie unhappy conditions

Officials invited Miss Cole Hamilton up to London, and she gave more details. The facilities were poor, she said, and cottages "grossly overcrowded... 24 children living where at most there was space for 12".

She was very worried about the way children were treated, and about their education. "Very few children went out to school. Girls went automatically to domestic service, boys to farming," she told them.

The staff were on the whole "of low quality". She felt that supervision from "this side" was "very necessary".

The file makes clear that officials had already heard poor reports of the Farm. They noted "what she told us... confirmed our existing information".

And yet, they apparently did nothing. The final sentence runs: "Note: it would not be desirable to use of the information given here as 'evidence' in any discussion with the Fairbridge Society". The society was the UK based charity responsible for the School. The last comment is simply "lay by".

Yet, according to Jackie and other former child migrants, Miss Cole Hamilton had identified the key problems in the system.

"I'm nothing"

Bill was sent to Bindoon, a farm in Western Australia run by the Christian Brothers, in 1954. He was just nine years-old. He describes it as a "hellhole".

A group of orphaned children from the Dr Barnardo's Garden City, Woodford Bridge, Essex, en route to a new life in Australia being seen off by the deputy High Commissioner for Australia, Mr Norman Mighell
Children were welcomed to Australia but many found life there terrible

Bindoon is now notorious for the many allegations of horrific abuse: a Committee of British MPs heard evidence from one man who said Brothers there had competed to see who could rape him a hundred times.

Bill himself was raped there. He'd been a good student in England. At Bindoon, his education was negligible, and ceased altogether when he was 11.

"I could have been anything," he told me. "I could have been the prime minister. But I'm nothing, I've got nothing, because I haven't been educated."

Lucy Cole Hamilton had stressed the necessity of supervision from the UK, but the files show inspection was limited.

Bindoon was visited in 1951 by John Moss, a British official, but he gave it a good report. He even relayed the senior Brother's request for younger boys: "He prefers boys of nine or 10," Bindoon wrote.

A group of children aged between six and thirteen board a train at London"s St Pancras Station, en route to new homes in Australia
Children leaving the UK thought they were heading for a better life

Bill finds it hard to understand how an inspector could have so misread the Home.

In later years, there were more warnings about the Home, but Lucy Cole-Hamilton does seem to be the first to make a serious attempt to blow the whistle, according to Margaret Humphreys of the Child Migrants' Trust.

She was struck by the level of detail in the file.

"This is just clear evidence... Evidence of someone concerned about the appalling level of care, evidence of someone raising the alarm, and the government does nothing about it as far as we can see," she says.

The Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has said he will apologise for the policy. But, as this file underlines, it was Britain who sent the children out, and failed to monitor them effectively.

Many former migrants believe Britain should say sorry too, and offer compensation. Jackie still has a British passport: she calls England "home".

"It's my country," she told me. "They didn't look after us then but they should look after us now."

Fairbridge was was reconstituted as a charity in 1992 and now does well-respected work getting young people into education, employment and training in the UK.

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