April 1 sees Oranges and Sunshine, the new film directed by Jim Loach, open in cinemas across the UK. The film’s subject, the child migrants sent to the far-flung corners of the commonwealth, may not be common knowledge to most, but Oranges and Sunshine will ensure it’s a subject viewers will never forget.
The film is based on the autobiographical book Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphreys CBE OAM, who is portrayed on screen by Emily Watson, and recounts the journey that Humphreys took from Nottingham social worker to providing hope to thousands of former child migrants.
To celebrate the release of Oranges and Sunshine, and the increased exposure it will afford the tragic history, we have taken a look at Margaret Humphreys and her astonishing work.
Margaret Humphreys was working as a child protection officer in Nottingham in 1986 when she first received contact from an Australian woman claiming to have been deported, as an orphan, from Nottingham.
The woman was unsure that her given date of birth and name were correct, and approached Margaret for help in clarifying her past. This interaction, and a similar story from a woman in Margaret’s post-adoption group, encouraged her to try and find the Australian’s origins.
What Margaret found seemed at first to be impossible. With a little more research Margaret uncovered a systematic program of forced emigration. Records showed that very young children in care were shipped off for a new life in the former British colonies; in many cases having been wrongly told their families were dead.
Working tirelessly, Margaret tracked down the Australian woman’s mother and the pair were reunited in 1987.
This happy reunion was to be the tip of the iceberg for Margaret Humphreys. Appalled and outraged by the scope and scale of the migrant schemes, Margaret, with her council’s backing, embarked on a journey of discovery that would take her to Canada, Zimbabwe and Australia.
The earliest fruits of Humphreys’ labour were published in the Observer newspaper, and sparked a wave of correspondence from more former child migrants. It soon became clear that not only were the children taken from everything they knew of home, they were in many cases told that their parents were dead when they were not.
Margaret made it her mission over the succeeding years to find and reunite the victims of the child migration schemes with their long lost families.
The increased attention that the former child migrants were receiving necessitated the establishment of The Child Migrants Trust, with Margaret Humphreys as its director. Margaret took the trust to Australia, often at huge personal sacrifice, to further hear the voices of the victims and help them when possible. It was during these early years of the trust that Margaret’s digging uncovered scandals within the scandal.
The Christian Brothers, one of the beneficiaries of the scheme, was increasingly accused of mistreating and abusing the children placed in their care. Such revelations were not taken lightly by the community, and Margaret soon found herself having to develop a steely disposition as she attracted harassment and intimidation from those who felt the past would better remain in the past.
In the years that followed, the Child Migrants Trust lead by Margaret Humphreys secured government grants and continued to work to offer victims dignity, identity and a chance to be reunited with their families.
Awareness was further increased in 1989 when the documentary and accompanying book Lost Children of The Empire were broadcast and published respectively. This led to increased demand for Margaret and the Trust, and even saw Margaret spending five months in Perth away from her own family home so that she could listen to the stories of thousands of victims and start work into uncovering their histories.
In 1994 Margaret Humphreys published the autobiographical book Empty Cradles which details her first discoveries and the early work of Trust. A
round this time Margaret proved her conviction and determination by holding off legal probes by the Christian Brothers, showing once again a superior level of selflessness and true desire to help others gain closure from the tragic circumstances of their personal histories.
Campaigning for recognition of the victims’ situations, Margaret and the Trust have played a crucial role in securing concessions and apologies from the governments of both the UK and Australia.
Although an often shy personality who plays down her unique and inspiring contribution to attempting to right the wrongs of hundreds of years of child migration, Margaret Humphreys has been deservedly recognised for her role in bringing the tragic situation to light and working tirelessly to this day to ensure that former child migrants are given the most assistance possible in making a future at ease with their past.
Among the honours bestowed upon her, Margaret has been awarded honorary degrees from Nottingham Trent and The Open University, the Paul Harris fellowship "in appreciation of tangible and significant assistance given for the furtherance of better understanding and friendly relations among peoples of the world", the Medal of the Order of Australia, and in last year’s new year’s honours list a CBE for services to disadvantaged people.
Margaret Humphreys continues to work on behalf of the victims of child migration. You can witness the story of Margaret’s fight to uncover the scandal and her work to help the victims find dignity in Oranges and Sunshine, released in cinemas April 1, 2011.