Select Committee on Health Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 79 - 99)



79. Good morning. May I welcome everyone to this session of our inquiry into the welfare of former British child migrants? May I particularly welcome all our witnesses today and express the Committee's thanks to you all, firstly for your written evidence and for your willingness to come along and give oral evidence to the Committee this morning. May I make particular mention of our gratitude to the former migrants who have travelled from Australia to be with us this morning? We do genuinely appreciate the efforts you have made and we are particularly anxious to learn of your experiences and your thoughts on the policies which might be adopted by the British Government as a consequence of the outcome of our inquiry. May I begin by asking MrsHumphreys briefly to introduce the various witnesses?

(Mrs Humphreys) This morning I have with me DavidSpicer who is a founder trustee of the Child Migrants' Trust, who visited Australia with me in 1988 and is very much a hands-on trustee. The Honourable JoanTaylor, who is a trustee of the Child Migrants' Trust and also is the link and representation from Nottinghamshire County Council. She too has visited Australia on two occasions recently and is also very much a hands-on trustee as well. John Hennessey, former child migrant from Sydney, has travelled from Sydney to be with us today to give his testimony to this Committee. We are very pleased to have him with us. Mrs Pauline Ireland, who has travelled from NewYork to be with us this morning to talk with you about what it is like to be a sister of two child migrants and discover that in mid life. We are very pleased that Pauline is here with us today. Ian Thwaites, a colleague, a senior social worker with the Child Migrants' Trust has been based in Melbourne, Australia for 18 months and has considerable experience in working with child migrants there. Ian is an Australian and is now working in England as a senior social worker with the Trust. Matthew Dalton is a former child migrant who is here today to share with you some of his experiences. We are very pleased to have Matthew here. He has travelled from Perth in Western Australia. Norman Johnston, former child migrant, who has also travelled from Perth in Western Australia to talk with you and to share with you his experiences as a child migrant.

80. May I begin by asking you for your views on why it is that there is such ignorance in Britain about this particular scheme and the contemporary problems which are facing migrants like some of our witnesses today. Last week at our first session I asked the Department of Health why it was that so few people, politicians in particular, had any knowledge whatsoever about this scheme. Why, for example, did I know nothing about this scheme until 1992?

(Mrs Humphreys) I might say the same. You and I are of the same profession, we are both trained qualified social workers and I certainly knew nothing of child migration until we discovered this in the 1980s. You ask why it is that no-one knew about child migration and I should like to ask the same question. I do not fully know the answer to that. What I can say is that these children—the Department of Health last week said 7,000 post war—these 7,000 children just seem to have slipped from our shores without anyone really knowing about it and away they went for some 45 to 50 years. In a sense, until the first visit I made to Australia in 1987 I was totally unaware of child migrants. As you may know, I put a small advertisement in The Sydney Morning Herald expecting one or two people to come forward. What did we discover? We discovered thousands of people, particularly in Australia and New Zealand, who knew nothing about themselves at all, had never been back here, had very limited documentation. Many, many did not have birth certificates and some even now still do not have birth certificates and documentation. They really believed that they had no-one. They really believed that their parents were dead, their mothers, their fathers, brothers, sisters, aunties, uncles. They had been told they were orphans and they believed that in every sense. They wondered why they had been sent. What did I do wrong? Why did you not want me? That is why it is very important that they are here with us today.

81. Before I bring in some of the former migrants and Mrs Ireland, would you say a little bit about the formation of the Trust, about your work, your organisation, your funding arrangements, what you are able to do and perhaps the difficulties in what you are not able to do at the present time?

 (Mrs Humphreys) Let me say that the Child Migrants' Trust is one organisation. I notice that it says outside Child Migrants' Trust UK: it is the Child Migrants' Trust. We have offices in the United Kingdom, in Nottingham, and we have two permanent bases in Australia, one in Melbourne, Victoria and one in Western Australia. We have a small team of professional workers. We have a senior social worker now based in the UK. We have two social workers based in the United Kingdom who are funded by the Lottery Commission here in England. We have two social workers in Australia who are funded by the Federal Government. We are funded just for social work posts: nothing for accommodation, nothing for telephone calls, nothing for all those essential things which organisations need to operate effectively.

82. Currently the grant you receive from the Department of Health is £20,000, am I right?

(Mrs Humphreys) It is the enormous sum of £20,000 a year.

83. What proportion of your budget is that?(Mrs Humphreys) It is a very minimal proportion of the budget.

84. Can you give me a rough idea?

(Mrs Humphreys) We could not actually operate on £20,000 a year. It is probably about one fifth.

85. In our evidence we looked at the interim report of the Western Australia Select Committee who came over here and they mentioned the figure of around 7,000 children being shipped to Australia post war. Do you have any evidence of the numbers within that 7,000 who have had particular problems? Clearly there will have been those who have been quite successful in life. I have obviously met people who have done quite well. In looking at that group of people, those who are still alive and those you are aware of, what proportion of that number would you imagine have difficulties which might be addressed in some ways by government policy?

 (Mrs Humphreys) How do we define having done well? People put this to me all the time. People have done well. How do we define that? People who have done well materially speaking may not have done well emotionally. They still have an enormous need to know who they are and where they came from and whether their family is alive. They still have that enormous need. They may have done well materially. They may have survived in that way, but they still have emotional needs though, they still require the services of the Trust. To answer your question further, of course there is a very large group of people within the 7,000 to 10,000 who struggle, who struggle to get to grips with a childhood of deprivation, emotional deprivation, of physical and sexual abuse, of appalling hardship in their childhood. Now to learn in mid life that they were so betrayed that they had family all the time, is very difficult to come to terms with and that is going to take a long time and that affects a large group, a very large group of men and women.

86. Is it possible for me to ask Mrs Ireland and the former migrants whether they would be willing at this stage to say a brief word to the Committee about their own background and their own thoughts before we ask specific questions of all the witnesses? Mr Hennessey, would you like to begin?(Mr Hennessey) First of all, thank you very much for having us here. We never thought we would see this day. Thank you very much to Nottinghamshire and the Child Migrants' Trust. If it were not for the Child Migrants' Trust we would not be here today either. My story would be a typical one. I was taken out of the cradle and given to the Sisters of Nazareth at Bristol. I stayed with the Sisters for 10 years and that was not too bad, to be quite honest. The only thing which has hurt me is that when I went back to get my records from the Sisters, they denied that I even existed, although I had been with them for 10 years. I went to Cheltenham, because I found out that is where my mother had been. I was born out of wedlock and in those days that was a mortal sin. I believe honestly, because of the circumstances in which we were brought into the world, we were almost classed as the devil's children. That was the philosophy they worked on us. I saw my baptismal book and it had "Michael Hennessey. Not expected to live". I went to Australia—and I use this word deliberately—exported to Australia in 1947 on the first ship.

87. When you were ten.

(Mr Hennessey) Yes, when I was ten.

88. Tell us something about the circumstances of you going. What happened? Were you asked whether you wanted to go?

 (Mr Hennessey) The Christian Brothers came one day and the Sisters called us into this big hall. We were told that the Brothers were looking for people to go to Australia. Being young and excited, and this is where trust comes in, a word which must go through this whole thing, trust, we trusted everything the nuns told us. We trusted everything the Brothers told us. The Brothers in particular told us about kangaroos. Kangaroos would take us to school, there was fruit everywhere and we were young excitable boys and we had no prejudice in those days. We were just young innocent children. They asked us whether we would like to go and some of us put up our hands. It did not matter whether you put up your hand anyway because they said you were going. That was my experience to start with Australia. I got on the first ship in 1947, very excited, ship life for kids was just absolutely wonderful. We got to Freemantle. We were on the sea for four weeks and we got to Freemantle and there was a reception there for us; the Archbishop of Perth and Mr Arthur Caldwell. Mr Caldwell happened to be the first Federal Migration Minister and he met us. I still remember the words of the Archbishop at the time. He said, "It's nice to see you children here. Australia needs you. We need white stock. We need this country to be populated by white stock because we are terrified of the Asian hordes". At that time it was the white Australia policy but that was the policy at the time. Where it hit me particularly was when they dragged the brothers and sisters from one another. I can still hear the screams today. Some of these kids never ever saw their brothers or sisters again. They went on different buses. I went to Boys' Town, Bindoon. What still amazes me is that it looked as though the place was not inspected before we got there. There were 50 of us and we were all dressed in nice suits by the Sisters in Bristol. We got to Bindoon. There were no dormitories. You would not even house animals in the toilet facilities. The suits were taken off us straightaway and we were given khaki clothes, shirts and pants, no underwear, and I am talking about summer and winter. Shoes taken off; for seven years I was in bare feet. If you know Bindoon, at times in winter it can get very cold and you walk across the paddocks—you call them fields here—and you hit your feet against stones. You did not feel anything, you just saw the blood. If we complained we were called sissies. Love was a dirty word. Love was a dirty word. From the time I was 10 to the time I was 19 I never had a cuddle from anybody. Nobody I could go to. We were tormented but we were trapped, there was nothing we could do. There were two Brothers who were very nice; I have to be honest they were very nice but those Brothers took the vow of chastity and obedience. There were three but I forget the other one for the moment. BrotherKeaney was the boss and no matter what the other Brothers said, his word went. Brother Keaney was a six foot three high man. A big Irish man. I have a photo here which I will pass round so the Committee can see for themselves. He had a wild Irish temper. One day I was hungry, like many times we were hungry, the food was just basic. I went down to the vineyard and stole grapes. Brother Keaney found out that I was the leader and he put us in front of the 50 boys in the dining room, stripped me naked and nearly flogged me to death. That was the cause of the stutter I have. Medical advisers told me that this stutter will go to the grave with me because it is too embedded. You will find half the child migrants are deaf or half deaf. When you go over there you will see some of them. It was because as young children their eardrums had been clouted by big men; they were clouted across the ears and their eardrums were damaged. They will go to their graves with those things. At ten, 14, we had to build our own building. This is me when I was 14. Notice: no boots. Notice also that is lime and sand and you know what lime and sand does to your skin. You notice the clothes. That tells a story. The impression we got was that the Brothers were after this huge building. I have even brought a photo of it. I will just explain this before I pass it over. That building was built by the hands of little children. There is blood on those stones and that blood is embedded there. How could any government or any organisation turn round and allow this to happen? This happened in our lifetime. We are England's flesh and blood.

89. Could I take you back slightly to before you went? Had you by then lost contact with your mother? What happened with your mother? Was any consent given by your mother to you going and was she aware that you had gone to Australia and under what circumstances?

((Mr Hennessey) The story we were told was that our mothers signed us over with the understanding that they would never again go looking for us. I am still looking for my mother. I am 62 and it aches my heart. That was the first and last time I saw my mother.

90. You have no knowledge of what happened to your mother. It has not been possible to trace her so far?

(Mr Hennessey) No, the reason being that the agencies had a policy and it seems to have been a deliberate policy, that our birth certificates were doctored. I was told I was born in Belfast.

91. Told by whom?

(Mr Hennessey) By the Brothers.

92. By the Brothers in Australia?

(Mr Hennessey) Yes.

93. So when you asked about your personal background you were given wrong information?

 (Mr Hennessey) Yes.

94. Do you think that was deliberate or that they did not know? (Mr Hennessey) This is where it comes down to trust again. They were our guardians. In those days, as you know, you never questioned the bishop. You never questioned the priest. You never questioned the Brothers. You never questioned the nuns because they were above the law. Who would dare ask them questions anyway? Society at the time thought these were wonderful people who were doing the best for us. When our sacred bodies are sexually abused, mentally abused, that is not right in anybody's language, but we went through that. People say that inspectors came to Bindoon but we never saw an inspector for the nine years. Maybe an inspector came but he was wined and dined by the Brothers.

95. The inspector would have been from the Australian Government.

(Mr Hennessey) Yes, from the Health Department.

96. You understood there was in theory some arrangement at least that the Australian Government was monitoring, presumably on behalf of Britain, your wellbeing.

 (Mr Hennessey) Yes. You talk about birth certificates. That is my original birth certificate which I only obtained seven years ago through the remarkable work of Margaret Humphreys and her team. For 51 years I was in this world and I could do nothing because I did not have that bit of paper. I did not have my birth certificate. I could not even be an Australian citizen because they asked who I was. I did not know who I was because I did not have this. Margaret found it. I will pass it round but please return that because that is sacred to me.

97. I am sure a number of my colleagues may wish to ask you some questions. Do you feel able to take a few questions from my colleagues?

(Mr Hennessey) Yes.

Mr Gunnell

98. On the birth certificate, do you know whether this version you were told came from the Sisters? Did the Brothers in Australia get anything which was like this so that they knew what your real birth certificate was like? Who shortened it for you?

(Mr Hennessey) Being kids, we did not ask questions. Whilst we were with the nuns we would not even have thought about the birth certificate. It was when we were with the Brothers and started to mature and we thought maybe we had a family. There were times when we went to the Brothers and asked whether we had a family. No, no, no. No, you are an orphan. It was just swept aside. I never saw this other birth certificate which they were supposed to have. I honestly believe they did not have it but we were under the impression that they did.

Mr Austin

99. You said at that stage you were told you were an orphan. When you were with the Sisters in Bristol, did you make enquiries at that time as to your mother or her whereabouts?

(Mr Hennessey) No. That is where trust came in. I thought the Sisters were doing me good. They were so easy. I will tell you, as a child I ached for my mother because I thought it was unnatural that there were so many young children together. We used to think just as ordinary kids that we came from somewhere, but where?

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