In 1946, Laurie Humphreys, a 13-year-old boy living in an orphanage in Southampton, we sent to a ‘better life’ in Australia under the Child Migrants Programme, along with hundreds of other children.
In numerous cases, they were taught only farm work and experienced brutality and hardship, including physical, psychological and sexual perversion.
Gordon Brown did make a belated apology to the former child migrants, but none of them was ever given a facial apology.
Laurie Humphreys mother died when he was four and his father, on the recommendation of a priest, put Laurie into an orphanage in Southampton.
He was evacuated to Wiltshire during World War II and, in 1946, he was transferred to another orphanage in Romsey, just outside Southampton. He said that one day, a nun gathered the boys together and asked who wanted to go to Australia?
He said that pretty much all of the boys said yes, even though they didn’t even know where Australia was.
Shortly afterwards, a Christian Brother came and talked to them about this faraway land where the sun shone 14 hours a day and where they’d be able to ride on horses to school.
He called it ‘the land of milk and honey’, and he was a 13-year-old boy and it sounded like paradise.
He was chosen to go, along with a couple of other boys, and they were given a new set of clothes.
They set sail from Southampton on the SS Asturias on 19 August 1947 and they reached Fremantle, Australia, on 22 September.
They arrived ready for their new life, and they were listed as war orphans, and he was given to understand that his father was dead.
He said that about 20 of them were taken to Boys Town, a home for children in Bindoon, about 60 miles away.
He said it was quite a shock because it was such a barren place in contrast to the green fields of England and there were barely any roads, and they were quickly put to work, and he said that he learnt how to milk a cow inside a week, and then they started building a new building and that by the time he was 14 years old, he was driving a truck – that they would work, sleep, that was it.
He said that there wasn’t much in the way of schooling and that he’d always been good at school in England, but that pretty much ended overnight, and a lot of boys at Bindoon never learnt how to read or write, and that they slept on open verandas all year round, and even when a wind blew up, it got pretty cold.
Foodwise, they got crushed wheat or porridge for breakfast, followed by bread in dripping. The rest of the meals were similarly plain, and they seemed to live on a menu of swedes and turnips.
And then there was the abuse. The Christian Brothers used to walk about with a thick 18-inch leather strap dangling from the waistband of their long, black outfits, and they’d give you a wallop at the slightest opportunity.
They would hit you wherever they could, be it on the backside or the bottoms of your feet, and it hurt and you would be left covered in bruises, and like most of the boys, they would try to keep clear of Father Eugene, he was the creepy Catholic priest in charge of the place, and he had an ominous way of talking to the boys, and he took a keen enthusiasm in whether the boys kept their private parts clean, which wasn’t exactly fitting for the person who was hearing their confessions.
Being one of the older boys, he managed to steer clear of the sexual abuse, but all the boys were aware that it went on.
He said that perhaps the most despised figure at the institution was Brother Kearney, a large Irishman who appeared in 1948 to teach them a trade, but he liked to prod them with a walking stick and was one of the most brutal people he ever met.
He could turn on the charm when dealing with government officials and was even given an MBE, and when he died, a statue was put up of him at Boys Town, and one night it was beheaded, which shows how much he was hated.
At 17 years old Laurie Humphreys had to leave. He’d spent 13 years in different institutions, three of them in Australia.
He worked hard to build a new life for himself Down Under. He worked on farms for a few years before getting a job driving long-distance oil tankers, which he did for the next 25 years.
Years later, to his shock, he discovered that his father wasn’t dead when he was sent to Australia and that he’d been lied to, and while he never got to meet him, he died in 1976, he learnt that he had family back in England.
So in 1984, almost 40 years after arriving in Australia, he returned home to hunt down his long lost relatives and found two brothers and three sisters. What’s more, he discovered that his father had remarried and had another seven children, so far from being an orphan, it turned out he was part of a huge family.
He said that he made a pretty good life for himself in Australia, and that he’s got family there, but that a lot of child migrants never settled, and still bear the scars of their early experiences.
Indeed, when he organised a get together for child migrants, one of the girls came up to him and asked what they were celebrating, and he answered ‘surviving.’ And whilst he never really considered returning to live in the United Kingdom, he’d been back a dozen or more times.
He said that perhaps the biggest wrench for him about being a child migrant was being taken away from his British family and everything that he missed out on, and apology or no apology from the Australian government, that was something that would never go away.
These child migrants did a magnificent job for Australia to the detriment of their own well being, and Australia and the Roman Catholic church should now compensate them all for the hardship and sexual abuse they suffered.
And there are a lot of people that have no idea that this perversion happened. These were the lost children – they were sent away and simply forgotten about, but the British government at the time sanctioned it and the Australian government took them into their country as free child labour, and it’s a disgrace, and the church’s culpability in this is, as usual, was shocking because it all happened in their own backyard.
Australia should bow their heads down in shame. This was a horrendous account of abuse and racism because just because it was whites exploiting whites, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t racist, and this reflects so terribly on a society that likes to portray itself as egalitarian.
Many parents had children that were shipped to Australia on the premise that either they were not wanted or their parents had died, and they never saw their children again and these parents suffered a lifetime of psychological pain, and so did these children who were told their parents were dead, and the Catholic Church played a somewhat inglorious part, although governments were the principal offender.
No amount of compensation will account for the loss of humanity or even forgiveness, and this chapter belongs to the history of the Cajuns or Arcadian’s, slavery, the Dutch Boer Concentration camps or even the work programme of the Nazi’s or Stalinists.
This should blacken Australia’s reputation, but British governments carry equal accountability for this criminal programme which treated disadvantaged children like cattle.
It shouldn’t matter that many of these children went on to make a good life there because the years that they lost needs to be addressed. After all, these children were from a stolen generation that governments stole for slave labour and abuse of the very worst kind.