I grew up in the 1950s and 60s in Orange on the Central Tablelands of NSW, thankfully as part of a close and loving family. Weekend activities often included a Sunday afternoon picnic or drive. My father would pack us into the car and we’d head off into the surrounding countryside. I have fond memories of those outings as tangible experiences of the togetherness and nurturing of family life.
About 20 km west of Orange, on the road to Molong, we’d often pass the Fairbridge Farm School. In those days it was explained to us that this institution gave British orphans, rescued from poverty in damp cold postwar England, the promise of a better life in sunny rural Australia. But as the video featured here shows, for most of the child migrants housed in its neatly painted wooden buildings, it failed dismally in delivering on those promises.
The Long Journey Home screened on Tuesday evening on ABC1, the day after Kevin Rudd’s apology to the Forgotten Australians at Parliament House in Canberra (it is available on ABC iView until 1 December). It’s a poignant case study fleshing out who some of these forgotten children are, and why there was a desperate need for an apology.
The documentary is not a stylistic masterpiece, but there is something gripping in its plain and straightforward story telling, and its honest portrayal of raw emotion. Former residents explain how they were separated at a tender age from their families, some as young as four or five years old, and sent to far-off Australia. This is shocking enough, but worse was to come as they were forced to do long hours of backbreaking farmwork, and many suffered physical and sexual abuse.
It is based on a book written by the best known alumnus of Fairbridge Farm, David Hill. This former head of NSW Railways, Managing Director of the ABC, and sports bureaucrat is living proof that some children seemed to do well under the austere Fairbridge regime, emerging as leaders in society. This is another strength of the documentary that there is a mix of voices and views, and an acknowledgement of ambiguity. Some interviewees praised Fairbridge Farm and those who ran it.
Hill acknowledges that a small minority did do well – of the thousand or so who grew up there during its forty years of operation, a meagre ten went on to university. But, as he points out near the beginning of the documentary, ‘The majority of children were short changed on a decent education, socially isolated through their childhood, emotionally deprived, and that’s even in cases where there was no sexual or physical abuse. I think most of the children who came through this scheme, particularly those of a younger age, were damaged by the experience.’
After the heightened emotions surrounding Kevin Rudd’s apology, we are now in a slightly messy stage of debate about what to do next. Members of the Forgotten Generation acknowledge the healing power of the apology, and some are arguing for financial compensation.
In an opinion piece in Monday’s Sydney Morning Herald, social commentator Hugh Mackay argued that what is missing in discussion surrounding this apology, and the apology to the Stolen Generation, is any notion of forgiveness: ‘An apology is more than a declaration; it’s not just a message we send to the injured party. It is also, importantly, an appeal to the injured party to forgive us for what we did to them. An apology without a corresponding act of forgiveness is only half the story.’
In response I would say that after years of neglect and abuse suffered by these people, followed by a long period of denial and cover-up, it is appropriate that there is open acknowledgement and an apology for the harm done. Some of the Fairbridge Farm children are mounting a legal challenge to the Fairbridge Foundation, the beneficiary of the sale of the farm in the mid 1970s, arguing they are entitled to some of its funds. This is part of a broader debate about just settlement. Hopefully these steps will form the basis for forgiveness in the future.
Peter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant who worked for 23 years in the Religion and Ethics Unit of ABC TV. He has a Master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.
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20 November 2009
Peter Kirkwood takes us back to boyhood memories of weekend drives past the Fairbridge Farm School at Molong and the view at the time that the occupants were British children "rescued" from poverty to be given a better life in sunny Australia.
By coincidence Geraldine Doogue (raised in Perth) recalls identical memories of weekend drives near the far worse Christian Brothers' orphanage at Bindoon. Her mother (though not her dad) regarded the Brothers and their mission as Godlike.
David Hill, in the doco, observes that before leaving England the Fairbridge kids would be entertained at grand houses as a kind of send-off goodwill offering. Well, that's nothing. Several groups of Barnardo children were given tea at Buckingham Palace.Children sent out by the Salvation Army were escorted to the quayside by a brass band. Thomas Barnardo, Kingsley Fairbridge and others (see my book "Orphans of the Empire" were considered heroes in their day. As for sending out kids at an early age, it might be noted that the British middle classes sent their own children to preparatory boarding schools from the age of seven or eight. I was one of themm.
20 November 2009
This piece reminds me of the Letter of Philemon. I have never seen any sense in the usual interpretations. Neither are freed until each receives each other freely and openly. Paul was pepared to 'go bail' but it would not be necesary.