Oranges and Sunshine: the UK’s and Australia’s dirty secret

Oranges and Sunshine: the UK’s and Australia’s dirty secret June 5, 2013


Beginning in 1912 the UK began exporting children between the ages of five and fourteen to Canada, Australia, Zimbabwe and other former colonies. Their reasoning ran like this: the territories need white children to shore up the countries, there are too many children in institutions in the UK and they will have opportunities in these countries, and after World War II in particular, Australia had too many empty beds in their institutions so why not send children at risk, who may or may not have been orphans, to grow up here, in the sunshine? And think of how much money the governments would save? The UK would not have to pay to support these children and the receiving countries would have workers – free laborers.

In 1986 a social worker in Nottingham England, Margaret Humphreys (Emily Watson), was working in the field of post-adoption support. She received a letter from a woman in Australia who said that at a very young age she had been sent to Australia with no birth certificate and she was looking for family in Britain. This led Humphreys to eventually uncover a vast network of “Home Children” who through various “schemes” or plans initiatives by patronizing people in the UK and their counterparts in countries in the British Empire, to eventually send 150,000 children away from their homeland in the UK. About 7000 children were sent to Australia. These schemes stopped in 1967.

Most of the children sent away to countries under these schemes were not orphans but had been placed in temporary care. When parents asked for the children they were told they had died or been adopted; the children were told their parents had died. The tragedy is that while other benevolent” institutions were involved in the UK and other countries, the role of Catholic institutions was a major factor in the sexual, physical, and emotional abuse of so many of these children. For example, the Crusade of Rescue in the UK and the Christian Brothers in Australia.

The movie “Oranges and Sunshine”, directed by Jim Loach, also stars Hugo Weaving and David Wenham. It was released in 2011 and continues to play on movie channels in the USA.

Humphreys works and travels tirelessly in the film, with the support of her husband and children, to reunite children with parents and families, mostly mothers if possible.  Each story is like unraveling a mystery. But time is getting short and mothers of children sent out in the 40s and 50s are dying. Humphreys meets with the children, now grown, and listens to their stories. She does not want to apportion blame but to reunite families. But she comes to feel the wrath of the UK and Australian governments, as well as that of the Christian Brothers in Australia in particular, for what the former home children reveal.

Humphreys founds a charity, the Child Migrant Trust, to bring families together. Getting funding from the governments involved in the schemes (this term sounds nefarious to Americans but in the UK it means “plan”) to redress the wrongs done to children, is very difficult. Everyone, except the grown children, just want Margaret to go away.

The most harrowing tales are about how the children were made to work in terrible conditions to build the very “school” they were supposed to be living in,  run by the Christian Brothers.  They were so young and all alone and no one comforted them, except the pedophiles, accusations that the Christian Brothers worked for years to refute.

The acting is very straight forward and fine, especially by David Wenham as “Len” and Hugo Weaving as “Jack”. This is a heartbreaking story and you want to cry all the way through, for sorrow and for joy. Margaret Humphreys co-wrote the script and it reflects her book well.

I just finished reading the book that has many more stories and detail than the film. It also gives more of a history of the “schemes”, the explicit racism that was just assumed to be normal back then, and the patronizing stance of the do-gooders who were willing to steal the identities and often the innocence of thousands of children. The children and parents who went looking for their children were told lies by nuns, clergy, government officials, and everyone involved in these schemes. Then to deny these children their birth certificates on top of all the other abuse and hardship, is almost unbearable to imagine. But it happened.

This is a story about misguided, well-intentioned people, who perpetrated a great evil that no one bothered to stop. Even though inspections and reports were made back in the 1940s and before, no one ever followed up. It was bureaucracy run amuck by people who wanted to be efficient.  I wonder where that ideology really stemmed from?

In the United States only eight states allow adopted children to have access to their real birth certificates. Since 1975 all children adopted in the UK have been allowed to access their birth certificates (the “home children” notwithstanding.)

This question of identity, of belonging to someone, of whether or not their mother’s loved them, is at the core of “Oranges and Sunshine”.

The story in the book “Oranges and Sunshine” was originally published in 1994 as “Empty Cradles.”  This is a compelling story; if we know history, hopefully, we will not repeat it. And hopefully we in the USA will allow all children access to their birth certificates. They have a right to know who they are. Think of how much more assured and confident adopted children will be as adults if they know who their birth mother was or is.

I could not put the book down.

Margaret Humphreys was eventually honored by the Australian government. She was/is just a social worker who went one step further to right a great wrong. What an example of courage and perseverance. Plus, she had an awesome family that made many sacrifices, too.


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