My two sons have always had more than an awareness of their heritage and were fortunate to spend a lot of time with their maternal grandparents and their paternal grandmother.
The knew my mother’s mother, their great grandmother and have had a lot of contact with their extended family including an assortment of great aunts and uncles; second, third and fourth cousins.
The Christmas before last I decided I would document some of their family history for them putting together photo albums which included one photo showing my father’s mother with her parents and sisters; their great grandmother and great-great grandparents.
Seeking out the family history has been important to many members of my extended family which includes fifty first cousins through my father being one of ten and my mother one of eleven children.
This is not something I think of often, but seeing the acclaimed new Australian film, ‘Oranges and Sunshine’ last week made me think about just how devastating it would be to be aware of what your heritage might be, but have a gaping hole when it comes to knowing not only who your mother is but to have been lied to or at least mislead about her existence.
And this was not the worst of it because, once the children arrived in Australia, some brothers and sisters were separated severing for some of the children the only link they had left to their life in Britain.
There is no disputing that many of the 150,000 children aged between three and 14 who were sent primarily to Australia and Canada between 1920 and 1967 came from poorer backgrounds and were in some type of home or other charitable care when they were chosen to be part of what is now known as the Child Migration Policy.
But the original decision to put them into care was often outside their mother’s control with either poverty or the stigma of being a single mother at that time in history putting the women in a lose-lose situation: there was no choice.
There is a deep maternal instinct to want the best for your child and in a world where state and church held great influence what mother would have denied her child the chance of a better life in a land where the sun shone and there was a never ending supply of fruit?
The experience for many of the children turned out to be darker than anything they could have imagined and was definitely not sweet.
The impact of their experience manifested in many ways, but movie and other documentation of the experience gives overwhelming sense that developing meaningful relationships, especially those which created new families was beyond many of these when they became adults.
Barnardos which operated homes in England and later in Australia acknowledges that the Child Migration Policy of the time ‘was a product of a historical period when there was a lack of understanding of the long-term impact on children and young people sent so far away from their country and family of origin.’
The organisation has an Aftercare program for people who may have been through the experience and recognises the importance of their story being told.
‘We believe strongly that films and exhibitions that record the history of migration to Australia are important to improving understanding of who we are as a nation.’
Through telling their story to Margaret Humphreys, some adults who were able to find the pieces to begin to put their lives together.
For some this was a photograph and the beginning of their healing.