'On their own' opens

by Kate C
Publish date
14 October 2011
Comments (2)

The travelling exhibition On their own - Britain's child migrants opened at the Immigration Museum on Thursday. Created by the Australian National Maritime Museum and National Museums Liverpool, UK, the exhibition recounts some of the experiences of over 100,000 British children who were sent to Commonwealth colonies and dominions from the 1860s to the1970s. They were taken from orphanages and children's homes to populate Australia, Canada and African colonies with "good white stock" in schemes that were largely hidden from public scrutiny until the late 1980s.

About 7500 children were sent to Australia. Some of the children left desperate circumstances and found their new home to be a land of opportunity. But for many child migrants, the experience was brutal.

Harold Haig at podium giving a speech Harold Haig, Secretary of the International Association of Former Child Migrants and their Families, speaking at the exhibition launch.
Image: Rodney Start
Source: Museum Victoria

Guests in the Immigration Museum atrium Guests in the Immigration Museum atrium for the official launch of On their own - Britain's child migrants .
Image: Rodney Start
Source: Museum Victoria

Harold Haig, Secretary of the International Association of Former Child Migrants and their Families, spoke at the exhibition launch. "Many child migrants faced an assault course of adversity rather than a preparation for adult life. The children were often led to believe that they were orphans; that their parents were dead. This was a particularly cruel deception that extinguished the hopes of many parents and children of ever being reunited." The British Consul-General, Stuart Gill, spoke about his participation in the formal apologies delivered by the Australian Government in 2009 and by the British Government in 2010. He considers them among the most powerful but emotional duties of his position, yet concealment by both Governments of their policies for decades meant that just a few years prior he had never heard of child migrants.

Stuart Gill and Maggie Gill in exhibition. Stuart Gill, British Consul-General and Maggie Gill in the exhibition.
Image: Rodney Start
Source: Museum Victoria

Now, it is hard to believe that the schemes that brought unaccompanied children as young as three years old to these shores were not more widely known. Settled mostly in rural institutions, the children were expected to provide farm and domestic labour. Hugh McGowan left Glasgow as an adolescent and was placed at Dhurringile Training Farm in Tatura, and later Kilmany Park Home for Boys in Sale. He says, "I was fed, I was clothed, I was somewhat educated, I was housed. [But] there are things that happened to me as a seven year old boy and as a 15 year old boy that I just didn't discuss with anyone." Mr McGowan speaks frankly about the abuse and deprivation that he suffered because he feels that it's important for people to know what happened to him. He left institutional care at the age of 17, permanently shaped by his experiences, and found it difficult to relate to people in his personal and professional life. "I didn't understand them because I wasn't the product of a loving family, whereas they were."

Hugh McGowan Hugh McGowan looking at a photo of four child migrants on their way to Fairbridge Farm School.
Image: Rodney Start
Source: Museum Victoria

Says Mr McGowan, "the exhibition is precisely what it should be. It's an accurate reflection of what happened. Some of us have survived, but a lot of us haven't." Parts of it are quite harrowing. Curator Kim Tao had the difficult task of sifting through stories, good and bad, to include in the exhibition. "Despite them being such difficult and painful stories, the [former child migrants] really wanted to share them and put them on the public record and recognise that this was such an important part of Australia's migration history." She mentioned the exhibition's website which has a message board, and that people are still coming forward to talk about their experiences for the first time. Through the Child Migrants Trust and other groups, former child migrants support one another as adults much they did as children, when, in the absence of parents and families, they became de facto families for one another.

Kim Tao, Sandra Anker and Hugh McGowan at the entrance of the exhibition. Exhibition curator Kim Tao (centre) with former child migrants Sandra Anker and Hugh McGowan.
Image: Rodney Start
Source: Museum Victoria

On Their Own - Britain's child migrants is at the Immigration Museum until 6 May 2012.


Child Migrants Trust

'Innocence lost in lucky country', The Age, 11 October 2011

Inside: Dhurringile boys (National Museum of Australia)

Comments (2)

sort by
Lucy 17 October, 2011 09:45
Great post. Looks like a really interesting and important exhibition.
Rhonda L. Osborn 16 November, 2011 16:47
The exhibition was a success and congratulations.
Write your comment below All fields are required

We love receiving comments, but can’t always respond.

About this blog

Updates on what's happening at Melbourne Museum, the Immigration Museum, Scienceworks, the Royal Exhibition Building, and beyond.