New Exhibition Tells Emotional Story Of Britain's Child Migrants

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21st October 2010, 03:24pm - Views: 1173

On their own – Britain’s child migrants

A new exhibition

Australian National Maritime Museum

10 November 2010 – 3 April 2011

Many would consider them too little to cross the road on their own and yet, from the late 19th

century more than 100,000 British children travelled alone to the other side of the world to begin

new lives. 

British child migration schemes changed the lives of these children dramatically. Some succeeded

in creating bright new futures. Others suffered lonely, brutal childhoods. 

The Australian National Maritime Museum has partnered with National Museums Liverpool UK to

tell the emotional story of British child migration.

The exhibition On their own Britain’s child migrants will explore the government endorsed

schemes and the motivations behind them. Through detailed case studies, visitors will meet a

number of former child migrants and find out more about their different experiences.

Child migration schemes existed from the 1860s through to 1967, when British children were sent

to Australia, Canada and other Commonwealth countries. 

Few were orphans. Many came from poor families who could no longer look after them. Sending

them overseas, it was thought, would improve their lives while also increasing the population of

‘good British stock’ and labour in the colonies.

While children left under different schemes and at different times, they shared powerful

experiences: separating from family and country, boarding a ship, facing an uncertain future,

meeting new friends on board and visiting foreign ports.

The voyage was often the highlight of the child migrant’s journey... full of excitement and hope for

what the future would bring. A charmingly illustrated diary by 12-year-old Maureen Mullins

captures this sense of excitement and wonder. She records all the sights and sounds of her voyage

from Britain to Australia in 1952 from eating spaghetti in Naples to tasting sugar bananas and

coconut in Colombo.

On arriving in Australia however, the reality of their new lives quickly set in...children were

separated from their siblings and friends and taken to remote farm training schools and religious

institutions operated by organisations such as the fairbridge Society, Barnardo’s and the Christian


The exhibition focuses on a number of individual child migrants and their personal experiences

through photographs, letters, and poignant mementoes from their childhood.

A set of rustic farm tools used by children at Fairbridge Farm School Molong (near Orange NSW)

are included in the exhibition. The tools, donated by former child migrant Peter Bennett who was

at the farm school for 10 years, capture the essense of life at Fairbridge.

Misc Miscellaneous Australian National Maritime Museum 5 image

Boys were expected to become farmers and girls were expected to become domestics or wives on

the land. There was little room for education and schooling, instead the children faced long days of

hard work and discipline.

Four-year-old Stewart Lee and his three brothers were separated on arriving at Fairbridge Molong

in 1955. Photos of the little boys are featured in the exhibition together with a metal bowl and

plate from which they ate their meagre meals.

Other items include a boy’s drawing which formed part of his intelligence test to come to Australia

and a canvas bag issued in Britain to the children together with new clothes and shoes, and then

taken from them on arriving in Australia to be used with the next load of child migrants.

Child migration schemes received criticism from the outset. The schemes finally ended in Australia

and the institutions closed from  the 1970s. For many former child migrants however the legacy of

their experience remains. Many still struggle to cope with the hardships and abuse they endured.

In November 2009 the Australian Government issued an apology to children who suffered in

institutional care. And the British Government also apologised to former child migrants in 2010 for

the “shameful” child resttlement programs. Recordings of these apologies are featured in the


On their own – Britain’s child migrants will remain on display, admission free, until 1 May 2011. It

will then tour to South Australia, Western Australia and Victoria.

The Australian National Maritime Museum, Darling Harbour, is open daily from 9.30 am to 5.00

Media images available on request.

21 October 2010    

     Media information, Shirani Aththas (02) 9298 3642; 0418 448 690

This exhibition is supported by the National Collecting Institutions Touring and

Outreach Program, an Australian Government program aiming to improve access to

the national collections for all Australians.

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