25 August 2015

British boys growing up in an Australian bush orphanage

After WW1 the British government started taking a proactive approach to their social problems. Prominent clerics supported the idea of removing street kids out to the colonies – the colonies would benefit and so would the children. So some 10,000 young children were taken from British orph­an­ages and sent to Australia to help boost British population there. The programme ran from 1922-1967.

These children were given little reliable identification, presumably to make tracing by their biological families very difficult. And presum­ably the officials within the Department of Immigration who dealt with the “orphans” had to have been corrupt – why else (historians have asked) would they have allowed young children to be shipped off, without the biological parents’ consent. Not for personal gain, of course, but to strengthen the Empire.

Cover of John Hawkins' book
Note Tardun in the background

According to the book The Bush Orphanage (Port Campbell Press, 2011), John Hawkins’ Irish mother gave him to the Sisters of Nazareth as a baby, with the goal of putting him up for adoption with a stable English family. But it did not happen. When he was just starting primary school in 1953, John's world was thrown into confusion - he was about to be sent to Australia as a child migrant. He became seriously ill with a mental breakdown and spent a year, on and off, in a British hospital.

Finally removed from normal life in Britain in 1954, the little boy must have been very confused indeed when he landed up in a remote Western Australian orphanage. [I've spent most of my life in Australia and had never heard of Tardun, a sleepy town in the Mid West region of Western Australia].

Tardun Farm School had been established by the Christian Brothers in 1928 as St Mary's Agricultural School. After WW2, Tardun admitted wards of the state, child migrants, orphans and private admissions. Australian boys, and British and Maltese child mig­rants aged from 12-16 years lived at Tardun. In 1967, the Farm School became an agricultural boarding and day school which operated on the site until the end of 2008. Some children continued to be placed at Tardun by the state government child welfare departments.

What were the lives like for orphans such as John Hawkins? Loss of their biological families, hard labour, physical abuse from some of the Brothers, sexual abuse from some of the Brothers and endless neglect. At times there were inadequate meals, little water and only weekly showers.

But John Hawkins said for the most part he had good exp­eriences and close friends at the school. Some of the caring Brothers took them hunt­ing, bird nesting, to the Mullewa Agricultural Show, campfires and picnics on the beach.

The boys had to quickly learn who was to be feared and who was to be enjoyed. It was a tough and unpredictable childhood, but in some ways not far worse than many of my male school friends experienced in the 1950s. Except for the sexual abuse.

The book The Bush Orphanage could by itself have been the basis for the exhibition On Their Own – Britain’s Child Migrants. And the film Oranges and Sunshine, which starred Emily Watson as Nottingham social worker Margaret Humphreys  and was directed by Jim Loach. What started out as a programme of new and hopeful young lives ended up as one of Britain's and Australia’s shameful colonial secrets.

The Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to Australia's forgotten children, including Britain's child migrants, in 2009. Then the British Prime Minister Gordon Brown apologised to the victims of the scheme, which resulted in thousands of children being sent to Australia and other British countries.

a public hearing into the experiences of former residents at four WA Christian Brothers homes
The West Australian Newspaper, 5th May 2014 

At a reunion of the ex-students in 2009, Hawkins explained he had become one of the founders of the Tardun Old Boys Association to ensure ongoing support for a generation of child migrants. Their objective was to preserve their unique legacy and keep safe a network of childhood friends who had clung together over the decades. Together these friends set up the Australian Child Migrant Foundation in 1995, raising hundreds and thousands of dollars to help reunite child migrants with their families. 

Hawkins said himself that this new and alien world was filled with heartbreak and hardship but also adventure, lifelong friendships and ultimately a happy life. “I have no regrets about my life or any animosity towards those who sent me to Australia. They were misguided and captivated by self-interest to serve a higher goal in the service of God. But they genuinely thought, for the most part, that they were helping British orphans who needed the Christian charity offered freely by Australia”.

Hawkins was actually quite generous. If I had known that some of the Christian Brothers had been beating, underfeeding or sexually abusing young lads in their care, I would have wanted those Brothers gaoled for life where they could be beaten and sexually abused by bigger cell mates.


I have not reviewed the last section of the book that described Hawkins’ attempt to find his biological mother and others back in Britain. The British Child Migration Scheme comes up smelling badly, avoiding their legal responsibilities to the so-called orphans and blocking every search for accurate documentation. But so do the State Governments in Australia, and the churches who were willing partners in the heartbreaking child migrat­ion programme.

The publishers said that John Hawkins was a forced migrant child from Britain who told about the “crimes against humanity” that were committed by both British and Australian government authorities and social workers at Australia House in London. The authorities were engaged in criminal neglect in the frenzy to get British children to fill Australian orphanages, fast.

But the publishers are being ridiculous. In August 1945 during WW2, the USA drop­ped atomic bombs on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagas­aki. The two bomb­ings, which killed at least 129,000 adult, teenage and infant civilians, was a crime against humanity. The Nazi exterm­ination camps that killed 6 million Jewish civilians were a crime ag­ainst humanity. The genocidal mass slaughter of 500,000-million Tutsi Rwandans by the Hutu majority in 1994 was a crime against humanity. Taking young children from their families of origin and institution­al­ising them on the other side of the world was brutal, but it was not a crime against humanity.


Joseph said...

How many years did it take before The Royal Commission took some account of what happened to the young children? Were there any consequences for the Brothers?

Andrew said...

A point well made in your conclusion, not to forget the killing fields of Cambodia either. I wonder what the ratio is of priests who abused or just mistreated children to those who helped and cared for them. It would be quite a wide gap, I think, adjusted for how children were generally treated at the same time. I too had not heard of Tardun. There were so many institutions for orphans and 'bad' children.

Hels said...


It was a VERY slow process. The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse was established in 2013 and got to Western Australia in April-May 2014. The focus there was on four institutions run by the Christian Brothers: Bindoon Farm School, St Mary's Agricultural School/Tardun, St Vincent's Orphanage Clontarf and Castledare Junior Orphanage.

The date for submission of the final report has been extended to December 2017. But by then which of the abusing Brothers from the 1950s and early 60s will still be alive? Even the victims are becoming elderly.

Hels said...


Remembering that the orphanages experienced by boys like John Hawkins were cut off from parental protection and the eye witness of neighbours, I feel this author did not overstate the brutality of the Christian Brothers. The boys all suffered from too much physical labour, not enough education and inadequate food, but Hawkins suggested that the brutal abusers were few, named and known to all.

Bob L said...

Some orphanages must have been horrific. The ABC wrote: "The Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse are being held in Ballarat this week, where up to 40 deaths have been attributed to abuse-related illnesses including post traumatic stress disorder and depression. Reports of abuse in Ballarat's schools, churches and orphanages date back to the 1950s."


Hels said...


thanks for that reference. I can see that Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry produced the Betrayal of Trust report which described criminal child abuse in the Ballarat Diocese orphanages as "systemic" and "undeniable".

So I wonder if Ballarat was much worse than Tardun (or other places in Australia for that matter). Or perhaps the Ballarat survivors did better research on suicides/preventable deaths from traumatic stress disorder better than Tardun survivors did. In either case, it is unbelievably miserable that up to 40 Ballarat deaths were attributable to abuse-related illnesses.

Ann ODyne said...

apologies Hels I cannot read that. So horrific for those children.
Ballarat maybe worse because is very catholic, descended from goldrush emigres escaping the Irish potato famine aka British Genocide.
Children suffering affects me very badly. Today the shocking news of a dead 2-year-old concealed in the ceiling by drugcrazed mother and her witless tattooed defacto. the absent father also out of his head [yes I know 'judgemental' of me to look at their photos and assume]. poor little kids didn't ask to be born.

Hels said...


agreed 100%. Child abuse will always be with us.

But even if the Brothers who ran Tardun Farm School and other similar facilities had NOT been abusive, the underlying problem remained. That young children were shipped off to a foreign country, without the parents’ consent! And that the children were lied to about their parents back in Britain. And records were destroyed. Unforgivable :(

Jim said...

Hello Hels,

These abuse scandals are so massive and have been going on for so long that it raises questions of what forces in society (in addition to the interests of the various perpetrators) were so strong that these serious crimes were routinely swept under the rug. I have a letter from the 1880s from an American high school that outlines a similar scandal, the writer opining that approaching the authorities would have no effect. I have considered printing the letter, which is quite interesting and to a degree amusing, but the school is still in existence, and so publication might seem an attack on its modern incarnation.

It does seem that the special relationship of England and Australia, in terms of both society and physical-historical considerations, created a tailor-made breeding ground for these kinds of problems. I glad that at least a few survivors are getting some redress.

Hels said...


thank you for your note. I believe you should publish the letter, without naming the school, to assess whether abuse of institutionalised children has changed over the last 130 years.

Unless the high school you refer to was a boarding school or was in an isolated country town, I wonder if the parents, neighbours and doctors DID try to take the issue up with the Education Department authorities. If it was my child being abused now, I would go to the police, solicitors, tv news programmes... but parents probably felt helpless decades ago.