I saw the Jim Loach film Oranges and Sunshine last week. The film tells the moving story of the forced migration of UK children, a paternalistic government program from the 1940s to the 1960s that saw 130,000 children removed to Commonwealth countries, mostly to Australia. The British Government kept the program hidden for years as did the Australian Government to the Forgotten Generation – almost half a million children from the UK and Australia. The government snatched these children from their families and sent them to institutional religious environments where they were abused and treated as slave labour.
The film was especially poignant to me because I had met a member of that generation who told me his story for our newspaper. The man’s name is John Walsh who was born in Perth, WA on 27 March 1931. John was the eldest of seven children born in the 1930s who all were forcibly taken away from their parents.
When war broke out in 1939, John’s father joined the WA 2/11 battalion and he embarked for service overseas in 1940. The 2/11th arrived in the Middle East on May 18 and trained in Palestine and Egypt. They were mostly captured by the Germans in Crete and sent to Germany as prisoners of war from April 1941 to November 1945. And as John puts it, while his father and many others like him were serving their country overseas, the WA government destroyed their wives and families and sent the mothers into a life of hell and an early grave.
John said politicians in power from 1939 accused those working class and Aboriginal mothers of neglecting their children. The all powerful Child Welfare took control of the children and told the mothers they could not see their children until they turned 21. In March 1940 the Walsh family was split up. Four brothers John, Billy, Terry and George were sent to Castledare while sisters Theresa, Anne and baby brother Barry were sent to St Joseph's Subiaco. After 4 days, a Mr Young from Child Welfare came to Castledare and asked John to collect his young sister and brother who were in a bad way fretting.
“I had to look after my young sister and brother for about six months. It wasn’t easy with me being about 8 and ½ years of age,” John said. Both of them had to sleep with John on a veranda and the mattress was soaked every day so John had to put the mattress out in the sun every morning. After six months Mr Young returned to take the two youngest back to St Joseph's.
Life was tough in Castledare. John said they never got much to eat. “People would see the bruises on us but you never did say anything for there were a lot of abuses going on and no one would believe you anyway,” he said. “This Christian Brother Murphy whose nickname was Spud was bad. Of course the people wouldn’t believe you, Catholics could do no wrong. You just had to shut your mouth and hope the truth would someday come out.”
In December 1941 eldest boys John and Billy were sent to Clontarf orphanage. They had to move again in February 1942 when the Air Force took over Clontarf and 238 children (200 Australian and 38 English) were sent to Tardun St Mary’s College in three groups by train. This was in the northern wheatbelt of WA one and a half hours east of Geraldton. As John remembers “we were sent into a life of hell from 1942 to 1945.”
At Tardun there was nowhere to sleep so farm machinery was pulled out of the shed to make room for living quarters. They had to wash in horse troughs and worked from daylight to dark to put in a new wing on the old building. “The food they gave you was full of maggots and no way could we eat it,” John said. “We would steal the molasses and boil it up with wheat. We also caught a lot of galahs and other wildlife. We picked up a lot of quondongs off the trees in the bush and also ate a lot of bush fruit. I found out later they were like antibiotics and probably saved us from getting sick.”
Tardun orphanage was so far out in the sticks, the children were out of sight and out of mind. An English boy Charles Brunard,13, was killed by a truck running over him. John was one of those boys on that truck and said Brother Thomas was the driver. “The radiator was boiling over and Brunard was copping all the boiling water as he was sitting on the left-hand guard”. But a normal death certificate was issued. A boy called Kevin Glasheen also died of a fractured skull. Other boys were told to shut their mouths or they would get the same treatment.
The boys also had no warm clothes for the winter. In this life of hell, John remembers Brother Beedon, a short baldy red faced man who wore glasses, who was never happy unless he was belting someone with a strap. “It was a long strap always on the bare bum,” John said. “He was always sexually abusing someone”.
In 1945 the Air Force gave Clontarf back to the Christian Brothers and John returned there. “Those Christian Brothers were paedophiles so we found out; the life of hell was starting out all over again,” he said. No one dared speak out about what was going on. Sexual abuse, floggings, red siphon hose wrapped around your waist, a special strap made for cutting down on leg muscles. The life of hell went on until the children turned 14 and were sent to work on farms.
On 1 August 1947, John was put on a train at Perth to get off at the Serpentine railway station. He waited at Serpentine station for the farmer to pick him up but he was four hours late. When he turned up in a horse and buggy, he went into town to go to a dance. The horse took them home as the boss was drunk. John got five shillings a week with Child Welfare claiming the other two pounds a week. He worked seven days a week between 12 and 15 hours a day and stayed there for six months.
The milk truck helped get him away. John found one of his mother’s friends and her son got him a job at Plaistowes sweet factory in West Perth. “I was there for three weeks before the Child Welfare found me,” John said. “But the Plaistowes brothers and three foremen would not let them touch me. I was 17 years old at the time and still a ward of state until I turned 21.”
John never saw his father again. When the men returned home in 1946 they could not find their families and got no help from the WA Government. John spent most of the rest of his life seeking his family as well as justice. On 1 January 1975 the WA Government destroyed all the files of all the forgotten children. In the 1980s, as Oranges and Sunshine testifies, the UK children came under the spotlight and there were several Senate investigations. But the Australian born victims were ignored. After years of contacting politicians without success, the WA Government finally offered John $45,000 last year, a figure he reluctantly accepted as the best deal he would ever get. He remains bitter about the treatment the Government meted out to the families.
“If the politicians and Child Welfare had paid assistance money these abuses would never have happened,” he said.“They abandoned us and turned a blind eye. It was their responsibility to what went on in these orphanages.” John said the politicians in power at the time thought the religious institutions could do no wrong, so they never went looking for it. “The politicians who were in the Senate in the making of an apology and calling us the forgotten Australians were wrong – we were the hidden Australians."