British child migrants who were physically and sexually abused as children at a notorious orphanage farm in rural Australia have had their long fight for justice immortalised in a new book.
Reckoning by David Hill – a former child migrant who was abused at Fairbridge Farm School in Molong, New South Wales – is the follow-up work to The Forgotten Children, which was published 15 years ago.
While the earlier book was an oral history of dozens of first-hand accounts of the children who were abused after being sent to Fairbridge, the latest work details how it sent shock waves through the British and Australian governments.
The child migration scheme between 1912 and 1980 saw about 130,000 children from largely impoverished backgrounds sent from the UK to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).
Initially all children were sent on their own but this changed in 1957 when the One Parent Scheme was introduced, which allowed those with parents to have one of them also go to Australia to set up a home and find work.
Once the children were legally allowed to leave school, the child and parent could be reunited.
The farm school to which Mr Hill and around a thousand other ‘orphans of the Empire’ were sent from 1938 had been blacklisted by the Home Office in 1956 but would continue to operate until 1974.
Mr Hill and his brothers suffered beatings and slave labour-like conditions on the farm.
‘The Australian government, the New South Wales (NSW) government and the British Government are all guilty of lying, denying and covering up and they all got caught,’ Mr Hill told the PA News Agency.
‘Now all of them, all of those governments, and the Fairbridge institutions in the UK and New South Wales… they’ve all acknowledged, it did happen. They’ve apologised to the victims and they’ve all agreed to pay financial compensation.’
Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown previously said the abuse was Britain’s ‘biggest national sex abuse scandal’ and was more significant than the shocking crimes of disgraced DJ Jimmy Savile.
British child migrants who were physically and sexually abused as children at the notorious Fairbridge Farm School in rural Australia have had their long fight for justice immortalised in a new book. Above: Children are pictured shearing sheep at the school near Molong, New South Wales
Reckoning by David Hill – a former child migrant who was abused at Fairbridge Farm School in Molong, New South Wales – is the follow-up work to The Forgotten Children, which was published 15 years ago. Above: Mr Hill is seen top right with other children outside John Howard Mitchell House in Kent shortly before they sailed for Australia in 1959
In Australia, around 10,000 British children were sent to 26 child migrant centres in six Australian states. Fairbridge Farm School (pictured) took in around 1,000 children as young as four.
Mr Hill’s 2007 book, which was followed by a nationally broadcast documentary in Australia, would prompt more former residents to come forward with revelations of mistreatment, rape and molestation at the farm school.
By the time most of its 200-odd survivors received a record pay-out of 24 million Australian dollars (£13.6 million) from the NSW government in 2015, more than 60 per cent claimed to have been abused.
Two years later at Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in London, former Prime Minister Gordon Brown would call child migration ‘government-induced (human) trafficking’ that was a ‘bigger sex scandal’ than Jimmy Savile.
Mr Brown said: ‘This seems to me as probably the biggest national sex abuse scandal.
‘Bigger than what people have alleged about Savile. Bigger than what people have alleged about individual children’s homes.
‘Bigger in scale, bigger in geographical spread, and bigger in the length of time that it went on undetected. I’m shocked about the information that I have seen.’
Author David Hill led the fight for justice for Fairbridge Farm School students
In Australia, around 10,000 British children were sent to 26 child migrant centres in six Australian states.
How British child migrants were sent to Australia to become farmers… and farmers’ wives
What were the Fairbridge Farm Schools?
The Fairbridge scheme was the brainchild of Kingsley Fairbridge, a ‘child of Empire’ and member of the Oxford Colonial Club.
As early as the 1900s he was advocating for sending children from England’s ‘orphan and waif class’ to the colonies to take up land as white settlers.
In 1912 the first Fairbridge Farm School open in Australia – in Pinjarra, some 50 miles south of Western Australia’s capital Perth – and many more would follow throughout Britain’s colonies.
The plan was to turn boys into farmers and girls into farmers’ wives.
By 1934 the plan had the backing of King Edward VIII (then the Prince of Wales) who donated £1000 to Fairbridge, declaring: ‘This is not charity. It is an imperial investment.’
What was the One Parent Scheme?
For the first 50 years of operation, the scheme sought to permanently separate children from their parents.
This fact was something many did not realise when they signed their children up and had all contact severed with their children, often forever.
This changed in 1957 when the One Parent Scheme was introduced, allowing one parent to follow their children to Australia to set up a home and find work, and once the children were legally allowed to leave school, they could go live with their parent.
Why was it introduced?
By the 1950s the number of children being signed up to the scheme was declining due to opposition from social workers.
A number of damaging reports also surfaced.
The most scathing of which saw Fairbridge’s farm schools in both Molong, some 180 miles west of Sydney, and Western Australia backlisted by the Home Office.
The report was suppressed by Fairbridge, which was made to reform in order to keep receiving funding from the British Government.
How old were the children deported by Britain to its colonies?
Children were as young as four but the typical number was eight or nine.
What percentage of the children were sexually abused?
At Fairbridge Farm School in Molong alone, more than 60 per cent of survivors won compensation in the New South Wales Supreme Court in 2015 against Australia’s state and federal governments and the Fairbridge Foundation for the sexual abuse they suffered at the institution.
Fairbridge Farm School took in around 1,000 children as young as four.
In 2007 when Mr Hill tried to launch his book in Molong he received a fierce backlash, with ‘local hostility’ forcing him to relocate the event from a cafe to the back of his car at the railway station car park.
A lot has changed in 15 years, Mr Hill says. That includes local perception, which is one of the aspects documented in Reckoning.
The prior widespread disbelief was assisted by the many decades of denial from the Fairbridge Society as well as British and Australian governments.
The dark truth was harder to hide once Mr Hill and fellow former child migrant Ian ‘Smiley’ Bayliff began digging through the many thousands of files at Fairbridge Foundation offices in Sydney, at the University of Liverpool and in libraries and record offices.
In the nearly two decades since, Britain’s child migrants have received apologies from two prime ministers and multiple governments have paid compensation.
They have also been key witnesses at Britain’s Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse (IICSA) in 2017 and Australia’s Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse.
The collective sum all four institutions and governments have paid out to survivors of the Molong farm alone now stands at nearly $100million Australian dollars (£57million), Mr Hill estimates.
And the pay-out process is not even complete. Still owing money to the survivors of the farm schools is the Prince’s Trust, which was founded by the Prince of Wales in 1976.
The Fairbridge Society had been established by Kingsley Fairbridge in 1909 and enjoyed the support and patronage of high-profile individuals, including members of the Royal Family.
Whilst the society ceased to exist in the early 1980s, a replacement organisation of the same name continued working in the UK until it became part of the Prince’s Trust. It was then dissolved two years later.
A spokesman for the Trust said in 2020 that it was providing funds for abuse survivors to make claims.
Shortly before the publication of Reckoning, Mr Hill’s co-researcher and lifelong friend Mr Bayliff died after a long illness.
The book which was the cumulation of decades of dogged research was dedicated to him.
Prior to the IICSA in 2017, the UK Fairbridge Society had repeatedly denied knowledge of any allegations of abuse at its child migrant institutions.
In 1997 its then-director Nigel Haynes told a House of Commons committee Fairbridge had ‘no cases of complaint or abuse on record’.
When the IICSA published its final report in March 2018 it found evidence that both the British Government and Fairbridge Society were aware of abuse at the farm schools as early as the 1930s.
It also said: ‘Fairbridge UK denied responsibility, and was at best wilfully blind to the evidence of sexual abuse contained within its own archives.’
Gordon Brown appeared in person at the hearing. Since issuing a public apology to child migrants in 2010, he had read Mr Hill’s first book The Forgotten Children and learnt about the sexual abuse.
Mr Hill, who had also been present at the public hearing, recalled the former PM had been deeply annoyed because ‘he wasn’t told the truth in 2010 about what the British Government knew’.
Children are pictured in the kitchen at Fairbridge Farm School, where many were abused
A boy is pictured on village laundry duty, helping a trainee girl hang out washing on a clothes line
Five boys are pictured cutting up carcasses at Fairbridge. In Australia, around 10,000 British children were sent to 26 child migrant centres in six Australian states
One particularly distressing story was that of Vivian Bingham, whose ‘life of abuse’ continued after leaving the school.
‘She was knocked around terribly… She arrived in Fairbridge as a five-year-old… It was a few months after I got there. She was 24 kilograms and they first sexually abused her when she was five,’ Mr Hill said.
‘I found some documents in the Liverpool University archives [about what happened to her].
Fairbridge knew here [in Australia] and Fairbridge knew there [in the UK] that she was distressed and wetting the bed when she was six [and that her] evil cottage mother tried to “cure” her of it by holding her head down the toilet.’
In Reckoning, Mr Hill explained it was often the smallest, youngest children who were treated the most brutally.
While he and his brothers suffered many beatings and slave labour-like conditions on the farm, he suspects they avoided sexual abuse because they were slightly older when they arrived and they tried to stick together.
No one wore shoes except for church until they went to high school and underwear was not issued to children until they turned 12. A boy is pictured in the bakehouse at the farm school
Children were falsely told their real parents were dead or they had been abandoned. Many never saw their mothers or fathers again. Children are pictured cooking in the main kitchen under supervision
The farm ran sheep, cattle and chickens, and grew grains, fruit and vegetables and everyone was up by 6am to work before school. Children – many in bare feet – are pictured lining up awaiting labour assignment at the afternoon Fairbridge village work muster
Another story to come to light after the publication of The Forgotten Children was Ron Simpson’s.
At the age of 79 he shared for the first time in his adult life what happened when he was 13.
He had been working in the kitchen at Fairbridge when the village kitchen supervisor had attacked him and raped him.
When he tried to tell his cottage mother, he was beaten with a stick.
Around a year later, he would be beaten so badly with a hockey stick by the principal his back would break.
‘Trainee’ girls are pictured making butter outside the principal’s house at Fairbridge Farm School. The school was supposed to turn female students into farmers’ wives in future. The working conditions at Fairbridge have been documented in a new book by David Hill
The victims of this misguided scheme have been described as ‘orphans of the empire’ but few were actually orphans. They were more often just trapped in poverty or been stranded by broken homes. Four children from one of the earliest groups to migrate are pictured
All the children worked tirelessly on Fairbridge Farm School at Molong. A bare foot Robert Kirby is pictured carrying eggs down to the village from the poultry enclosure
Children were beaten with belts, canes, electrical cords, hockey sticks, riding crops, and a chimney sweep broom, often for no reason. Boys are pictured gathering hay with pitchforks
British children are pictured on a train shortly before they left the UK for Australia
Frederick Woods, known as The Boss, ruled every aspect of the Fairbridge children’s lives for almost a quarter of a century. He is pictured on the steps of the Fairbridge chapel with his wife Ruth. Woods was repeatedly investigated over allegations he sexually abused girls
He would spend several years in hospital before suffering from severe back pain for the rest of his life.
Despite the 100 million in Australian dollars that was eventually paid out to the surviving ‘Fairbridge kids’, the tragic realisation Mr Hill had during ‘this whole horrible process’ was that no amount of compensation can ever ‘do justice’ to a person who was abused as child.
‘Children who are sexually abused quite often never, ever recover’ he said.
‘We’ve had some big wins, some historic wins… (and) the financial compensation… gives a tangible expression of apology… It makes it fair dinkum and feel like it’s not just empty words… But the most important thing of all about… the compensation (is that) it means for the first time these kids are believed.
‘It’s fantastic that there is now a sense of ownership of this in the community (too),’ he added.
‘People aren’t embarrassed any more… People accepting (the truth) is the best thing that’s happened to the Fairbridge kids.’