British child migrants who were physically and sexually abused as children at a notorious orphanage farm in rural Australia have had their long fight for justice immortalised in a new book.
Reckoning by David Hill – a former child migrant himself who went on to become the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s chairman – is the follow-up work to The Forgotten Children, which was published 15 years ago.
While the earlier book was an oral history of dozens of first-hand accounts of the children who were sent to Fairbridge Farm School in Molong, the latest work details how it sent shock waves through the British and Australian governments.
The child migration scheme between 1912 and 1980 saw about 130,000 children from largely impoverished backgrounds sent from the UK to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).
Initially, all children were sent on their own but this changed in 1957 when the One Parent Scheme was introduced, which allowed those with parents to have one of them also go to Australia to set up a home and find work. Once the children were legally allowed to leave school, the child and parent could be reunited.
The farm school to which Mr Hill and around a thousand other “orphans of the Empire” were sent had been blacklisted by the Home Office in 1956 but would continue to operate for the next two decades.
“The Australian government, the New South Wales (NSW) government and the British Government are all guilty of lying, denying and covering up and they all got caught,” Mr Hill told the PA news agency.
“Now all of them, all of those governments, and the Fairbridge institutions in the UK and New South Wales… they’ve all acknowledged, it did happen. They’ve apologised to the victims and they’ve all agreed to pay financial compensation.”
His 2007 book, which was followed by a nationally broadcast documentary in Australia, would prompt more former residents to come forward with revelations of mistreatment, rape and molestation at the farm school. By the time most of its 200-odd survivors received a record pay-out of 24 million Australian dollars (£13.6 million) from the NSW government in 2015, more than 60% claimed to have been abused.
Two years later at Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in London, former prime minister Gordon Brown would call child migration “government-induced (human) trafficking” that was a “bigger sex scandal” than Jimmy Savile.
Mr Brown said: “This seems to me as probably the biggest national sex abuse scandal. Bigger than what people have alleged about Savile. Bigger than what people have alleged about individual children’s homes.
“Bigger in scale, bigger in geographical spread, and bigger in the length of time that it went on undetected. I’m shocked about the information that I have seen.”
But in 2007 when Mr Hill tried to launch his book in Molong he received a fierce backlash, with “local hostility” forcing him to relocate the event from a cafe to the back of his car at the railway station car park.
A lot has changed in 15 years, Mr Hill says. That includes local perception, which is one of the aspects documented in Reckoning.
The prior widespread disbelief was assisted by the many decades of denial from the Fairbridge Society as well as British and Australian governments. The dark truth was harder to hide once Mr Hill and fellow former child migrant Ian ‘Smiley’ Bayliff began digging through the many thousands of files at Fairbridge Foundation offices in Sydney, at the University of Liverpool and in libraries and record offices.
In the nearly two decades since Britain’s child migrants have received apologies from two prime ministers, multiple governments have paid compensation and they have been key witnesses at Britain’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in 2017 and Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The collective sum all four institutions and governments have paid out to survivors of the Molong farm alone now stands at nearly 100 million Australian dollars (£57 million), Mr Hill estimates.
And the pay-out process is not even complete. Still owing money to the survivors of the farm schools is the Charles-founded Prince’s Trust.
Shortly before the publication of Reckoning, Mr Hill’s co-researcher and lifelong friend Mr Bayliff died after a long illness.
The book which was the cumulation of decades of dogged research was dedicated to him.
Prior to the IICSA in 2017, the UK Fairbridge Society had repeatedly denied knowledge of any allegations of abuse at its child migrant institutions. In 1997 its then-director Nigel Haynes told a House of Commons committee Fairbridge had “no cases of complaint or abuse on record”.
When the IICSA published its final report in March 2018 it found evidence that both the British Government and Fairbridge Society were aware of abuse at the farm schools as early as the 1930s. It also said: “Fairbridge UK denied responsibility, and was at best wilfully blind to the evidence of sexual abuse contained within its own archives.”
Gordon Brown appeared in person at the hearing. Since issuing a public apology to child migrants in 2010, he had read The Forgotten Children and learnt about the sexual abuse.
Mr Hill, who had also been present at the public hearing, recalled the former PM had been deeply annoyed because “he wasn’t told the truth in 2010 about what the British Government knew”.
One particularly distressing story was that of Vivian Bingham whose “life of abuse” continued after leaving the school.
“She was knocked around terribly… She arrived in Fairbridge as a five-year-old… It was a few months after I got there. She was 24 kilograms and they first sexually abused her when she was five,” Mr Hill said.
“I found some documents in the Liverpool University archives (about what happened to her). Fairbridge knew here (in Australia) and Fairbridge knew there (in the UK) that she was distressed and wetting the bed when she was six (and that her) evil cottage mother tried to ‘cure’ her of it by holding her head down the toilet.”
In Reckoning, Mr Hill explained it was often the smallest, youngest children who were treated the most brutally.
While he and his brothers suffered many beatings and slave labour-like conditions on the farm, he suspects they avoided sexual abuse because they were slightly older when they arrived and they tried to stick together.
Another story to come to light after the publication of The Forgotten Children was Ron Simpson’s. At the age of 79 he shared for the first time in his adult life what happened when he was 13. He had been working in the kitchen at Fairbridge when the village kitchen supervisor had attacked him and raped him. When he tried to tell his cottage mother, he was beaten with a stick.
Around a year later, he would be beaten so badly with a hockey stick by the principal his back would break. He would spend several years in hospital before suffering from severe back pain for the rest of his life.
Despite the 100 million in Australian dollars that was eventually paid out to the surviving “Fairbridge kids”, the tragic realisation Mr Hill had during “this whole horrible process” was that no amount of compensation can ever “do justice” to a person who was abused as child.
“Children who are sexually abused quite often never, ever recover, ” he said.
“We’ve had some big wins, some historic wins… (and) the financial compensation… gives a tangible expression of apology… It makes it fair dinkum and feel like it’s not just empty words… But the most important thing of all about… the compensation (is that) it means for the first time these kids are believed.
“It’s fantastic that there is now a sense of ownership of this in the community (too),” he added.
“People aren’t embarrassed any more… People accepting (the truth) is the best thing that’s happened to the Fairbridge kids.”