After reading my book about Jewish refugee children sent from Germany on the Kindertransport trains, a friend suggested that I might consider the plight of child migrants sent, alone, to Australia. Interested, I began researching the subject. The first book I read was ‘Empty Cradles’ by Margaret Humphreys and from then on I was hooked. Margaret Humphreys, a Nottingham a social worker, set about tracing the families of unaccompanied child migrants, and her book is a fascinating account of her work.
Once I began to read the individual stories about children who were sent without the knowledge of their families, children whose names were changed making them almost untraceable, children who were exploited on arrival by the very people who were supposed to be giving them a fresh start, I realised that this was something I wanted to write about.
It has to be said that many people thought that sending children away from austere, post-war Britain to a new life, was the right thing to do, but the way to hell is paved with good intentions and the system left so much room for abuse that it could never be right.
What I encountered in my research was repeated stories of families being lied to about the whereabouts of their children. Parents who thought they’d left their children in care just while they sorted out the chaos of their post-war lives, found their children had disappeared, ‘been adopted’. Many of the children believed that their parents were dead, that they were orphans whom nobody cared about. They had to learn to survive in a strange place on their own. Some, the strong ones, did well and went on to full and productive lives, others, the not-so-strong, led and maybe still are leading, less than happy lives.
Thanks to Margaret Humphreys, who having begun to help such children to find and reconnect with their families also founded The Migrants Trust, many children who thought they were alone in the world have discovered family they never knew they had.
Once I’d decided that this was the basis for my book, I began some detailed research on the charities and organisations who arranged such migration, but for the book I invented my own charity and my own orphanage.
My ‘children’, Rita and Rosie, come from a family like all too many in the immediate post war years, where the father and breadwinner hasn’t returned and the mother is struggling to support her children alone. I tried to put myself in Mavis’s place, a single mother in 1948, with only a widow’s pension to live on and a lonely bed to return to every night.
The research I did for the Australian end of the book was mainly from memoirs and books written by children who had been sent to, and grown up on, the other side of the world.
My orphanage is entirely fictitious, but what happens there mirrors my research.
My book is fiction, but perhaps it will reach those who otherwise might never hear the story of those throwaway children