Tough? You Don’t Know the Half….
I’ve been bombarded, like everyone else out there, with the news reports and magazine exposés about the state of the nation’s youth and how disaffected, disenfranchised and disillusioned they are. On the flip side, I have been researching a chapter for a book which led me to articles and government publications about the forced emigration of British children to the far-flung colonies from the turn of the century until well into the 1950s and 60s.
It’s scary stuff, let me tell you. According to Alan Gill in his book “Orphans of the Empire: The shocking story of child migration to Australia “, he estimates that as many as 30,000 impoverished children and orphans were “re-located” from Britain and Ireland to farm and reformatory schools in the Americas, Australia and South Africa between 1912 and the late 1960s. Estimates are apparently difficult to verify, there may be thousands more unlisted, undocumented. Paperwork is scant; many adoption agencies, religious institutions and the recipient families themselves either lost, destroyed or mis-placed paperwork; children were re-named when adopted and their original identities disappeared; or there was simply little or no detail given on the documents themselves to indicate parentage or birth locations. There are now large organisations in all of those countries dedicated to helping this lost generation find their relatives. Imagine being sent away sometimes as young as 3 or 4 years old, never to return to Britain, your family, your life. Or being an unmarried mother forced to give up your baby for adoption overseas by the very societies you went to for help.
Some of the stories of those who were forcefully emigrated are harrowing. Seen as cheap slave labour by many itinerant farming families, these children were treated worse than animals: malnourished, overworked, kept in appalling conditions and in many cases abused physically, sexually and emotionally. Many who thought they were going to be sent to “school” for their own betterment and that of their family, received the shock of their lives on arrival at their new “homes”. A significant number were adopted illegally by the families that received them; their parents back in Britain unaware that their children were no longer their own. Some parents were illiterate themselves or of such poor educational background that they simply did not understand the papers they were signing. Many children went with the parents’ blessing, for their education and benefit, on the understanding that they would return home at 16 – they later found out those children had been lied to and told they were to work for their benefactors indefinitely for no pay and very poorly cared for. The parents who did want their children to return were often still too poor to or otherwise unable to search for, retrieve and legally re-patriate their own children. Still others felt so guilty for sending them, or on learning of what had happened to their offspring upon their return, that their relationships irretrievably broke down. Many returned to find their family scattered, no welcome for them, left to fend for themselves.
I’m not so naïve that I think it has all ended: that some or all of this goes on in one form or another throughout every society even today. Much to my disgust, I know it does. However, I take heart by the success stories of some of those who rose above such criminal treatment and adversity and made something of themselves. David Hill, for example, born in 1947 into a one-parent family in Eastbourne (not a million miles from where I live now) and living in poverty with his mother and three brothers. Through the Fairbridge Farm Schools, he was sent out with his brothers to their Molong school where life was very hard, very tough and he withstood beatings, poor health and malnutrition. BUT. He came through it and ended up MD and Chairman of the Australia Broadcasting Corporation (Oz’s version of the BBC). I expect his life was hell on earth at the time: the Fairbridge scheme is still under investigation to this date for malpractice and the mistreatment of those under its care. The point I suppose I am making is he did experience rock-bottom situations, he went through all of that and still retained integrity and strength enough to make his choice. The choice to move forward. To make things better. To try, however difficult his status was in life.
I am sure there were others cast down by their misfortunes whose lives did not turn out so well. That will always be so; for those I maintain huge sympathy and sadness. But for some on our TV screens bemoaning their lack of opportunity, their disillusionment at such a young age and blaming everyone under the sun for their circumstances; they could do worse than look at this little episode in history. It is not to be recommended as the solution to any problem; far from it. The migrant scheme was an unfortunate by-product of a society under strain, as many would have us believe we are now. But out of that ill-conceived idea, the fortitude and bravery of a few who did rise above their own problems remain shining beacons of hope, of achievement, of potential, even in the worst of times.
Oftentimes, the solution to any problem lies within ourselves. Our willingness to make changes, our ability to set goals and suffer the steps necessary to achieve them. Life is hard. Sometimes, as I have been reading, almost impossible to survive. But some did. And continue to do so. Why not today’s youngsters? Replace disillusionment with determination. Replace disenfranchisement with willingness to re-build community spirit. Move forward, not blame the current and the past.
A choice can be made. Smashing windows in frustration brings only temporary relief. A looted laptop is not life-changing. A history book and a sense of purpose just might be.
Phew…..did I get serious there for a moment? Better put the kettle on.