2018 marks the 80th year since the Fairbridge Farm School was established six kilometres from Molong on the road to Orange. The first party of children arrived in March, 1938. For more than three decades, Fairbridge played a significant role in this region’s history before closing in January, 1974.
On Saturday, March 18 former Fairbridgians from all over Australia gathered in Orange and Molong to commemorate this special year. At that gathering a proposal was unveiled to establish a permanent Fairbridge monument.
On December 10, a gathering at the Molong Creek opposite the remains of the Fairbridge Farm School celebrated the announcement of a state government grant of $500,000 for the construction of the Fairbridge Children’s Farm Park at Molong. David Hill, committee chair of the proposed park, said the project would permanently commemorate the journeys through life of the children who went through the farm. They will no longer be his Forgotten Children.
Time passes and memory fades. It was so very long ago. Although the many children who went through Fairbridge will have their own memories of what happened there, common themes emerge from those who have spoken after decades of silence. Among these themes are persistent maltreatment in an era of little scrutiny and accountability, the jolting shock of arrival at a child migrant institution, intense and enduring loneliness, loveless environments, powerlessness, home-sickness, separation from family (even within institutions), underpaid staff unsuited to caring for children, lack of educational opportunity, low expectations, and unrelenting hard work.
Child migration has thus been widely and rightly condemned in scarifying books like Alan Gill’s Orphans of the Empire, Philip Bean’s and Joy Melville’s Lost Children of the Empire, Margaret Humphrey’s Empty Cradles, and especially - in the case of the Molong’s Fairbridge Farm - David Hill’s The Forgotten Children. They expose the obscenity of a Britain which got rid of its unwanted children, the only country to export its unwanted young.
An 1862 Punch cartoon by George Cruikshank called Our Gutter Children, reproduced in Bean and Melville’s book, characterises an attitude of class superiority underpinning Britain’s mass deportation of its most deprived children. It shows poor kids being swept off the street into a cart. A lady with a whip says, “I’ll drive off to pitch the little dears aboard of a ship and take them thousands of miles away from their native land so that they may never see any of their relations again”. Unfortunately, this happened too often.
The literature on child transportation presents a scarcely relieved horror story. It reveals scores of well-documented tales of brutal ill-treatment of children, lost childhoods and life-lasting psychological scarring. One of the disturbing aspects of it is that it occurred with very few of the public in Britain and in Britain’s colonies knowing it was happening. Even in Molong and Orange the less savoury aspects of life at Fairbridge were not publicly evident.
Child migration from Britain started as far back as 1618 with a group of orphaned children sent to Richmond, Virginia. Around 150,000 poor and destitute children were ultimately sent from Britain, mainly to outposts of Empire: Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Rhodesia and South Africa. The principal justification given for doing so was to afford such children a better chance in life. For some, like Kingsley Fairbridge, that motivation was undoubtedly true.
Fairbridge, a man steeped in Empire, was a Rhodesian educated in England. Deeply disturbed by the grinding poverty of Britain’s lower orders in a wealthy country which created that poverty, he managed to harness influential support to establish his farm schools. His twin idea was to populate Empire countries with British working stock while simultaneously giving children a better chance in life than afforded by their hopelessness and penury in Britain.
To this end he eventually managed to establish a first farm school at Pinjarra in Western Australia in 1917. He was its first principal until his untimely death at 39 from lymphoma. There followed the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School at Duncan on Vancouver Island, Canada, in 1935; the Lady Northcote Farm School in Victoria; and, of course, the Fairbridge Farm near Molong in 1938, which was so much part of the history of the Orange-Molong area from then through to the early 1970s.
Altruism was a prime motivation of Kingsley Fairbridge. He saw children as being rescued from “poverty, neglect, antisocial influences … deteriorated health, unemployment or blind alley occupations”. There were echoes of his dream in the song we all sang: “Boys to be farmers and girls for farmers’ wives”. More broadly there was the need to populate the Empire with British stock and, less admirably, the provision of a stream of cheap, unquestioning labour.
I was a one of those Fairbridge boys. You might say I was deported to Botany Bay at age 12 for the crime of poverty. I arrived in Molong on December 18, 1953 with my elder brother, David, a younger brother, Robert, and a younger sister, Patricia. We were in a party of 21 children who sailed from Tilbury Docks, London on Guy Fawkes Day 1953 on the P&O Liner SS Maloja. It was making its final voyage before being scrapped. It took about six weeks to reach Sydney via Algiers, Suez, Aden, Colombo, Perth, Adelaide and Melbourne. Twelve of the children left the boat at Perth for the Pinjarra Fairbridge Farm.
It has taken a lifetime to make full sense of what happened to us as children. There was so much reticence for so long. Fairbridgians did not wish to burden their own children or anyone else with their traumas. Uncomplainingly, they just got on with life.
For me, as for many ex-Fairbridge children, the excitement, pampering and luxury of the boat trip to Australia served only to exacerbate the psychologically jolting contrast of arriving at the farm school. It is a shock almost every child experienced on arrival. Robert and I were put into Canonbar Cottage but separated from young sister Pat, only six years of age, and elder brother David. Robert, only 10, cried every day for the first week. One of the group I had arrived with, the feisty Valance Connor, planned to escape after a few days. He wanted me to come with him. I managed to persuade him not to. It would have been futile and we would soon be caught and publicly thrashed.
The cottage mother of Canonbar was an alcoholic, even to a child’s eyes. Her husband was a brutal individual feared even by the tough, elder boys. At the end of my first week he decided I needed a haircut. He gathered the lads around and announced he would give me “the Fairbridge Cross”. They knew what it was. They tittered in fear to please him. He shaved my hair off right across the top from side to side then front to back like a hot-cross bun. This he thought funny. Fortunately, it was during the summer school vacation of 1953-54 so I had a few weeks for the hair to regrow before I began first year at Orange High School.
Despite such profound initial shocks Fairbridge children soon settled in. We had to. Discipline was strict; everyone rapidly learned not to transgress. In The Forgotten Children David Hill painstakingly documents everyday life at Fairbridge: the incessant work within the cottages, brutality such as the public thrashings which would be regarded today as criminal, the muster of children to do work needed around the village, and the power imbalance in relationships with cottage mothers, other authority figures, and the widely feared Boss, FKS Woods. Sport and church were compulsory. Then, there were the feelings of inferiority when attending school without proper uniforms, the lack of social graces, the two-year grind of being a trainee after finishing school (sometimes before age 15) and much more. Life at Fairbridge was tough.
“Footfalls echo in the memory,” wrote T S Eliot, one of the 20th century’s greatest poets. The footfalls which still echo in my memories of those days will ever reverberate. I share the disturbing memory echoes of the many children David Hill interviewed. I too have interviewed ex-Fairbridgeans and empathise with their feelings. I recall, for instance, being belted around the face one evening by the cottage mother because I defended a friend in the cottage who was always being bullied by her. He seemed incapable of defending himself. I ended up being sent to the principal’s house to be thrashed. Remarkably, instead of the beating I was expecting, Woods gave me a copy of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. I kept it as a souvenir and still have it.
There are other dark memories. I recall, also, an effort to sexually assault me by a former Fairbridge boy, inexplicably allowed back on the campus long after he had left. There are other such allegations against this paedophile. Why was he allowed to roam the village for so long? I remember how we feared losing one of the very rare “free days” we were allowed. If a ‘cavvy’ (cottage mother) peremptorily decided to be nasty we might miss out so everyone behaved impeccably for days beforehand. I remember some of the filthy, unhealthy work we were ordered to do; my brother Robert had to get into the foul septic tank outside our cottage up to his waist to clean it out. I recall running baskets of clothes and bedding to the village laundry in bare feet in thick frosts. More than one child got frostbite from doing this and from chopping wood on the village woodpiles in bare feet in winter.
Worst of all, I remember the suicide of the boy who was the eldest in my cottage when I arrived. He was an uncomplaining, hard-working lad, but morose. I never saw him smile. He left Canonbar Cottage soon after I arrived, entering the trainees’ cottage. The next I heard of him was that he had shot himself. My elder brother, David, also in the trainees’ cottage, found him dying up near the sports field.
These are not untypical memories for many Fairbridge children. If you ask them what was wrong with Fairbridge, where so much was so palpably wrong, some will spill the beans. It is no longer a closed subject. Understandably, it might be at the expense of better memories. Some will exaggerate. One boy much-quoted in The Forgotten Children is prone to such hyperbole. I recognise a general truth in what he claims but he paints a lurid, distorting picture of life at Fairbridge.
It was not all gloom. I am not alone in having some fond memories of my five and a quarter years there. There were well-liked adults who genuinely wanted to help the children, like the bursar. Sadly, he ended in jail for embezzling the money his job was to manage, but he was nice to the children and they liked him and his family. My second cottage mother, Jean Newberry, demanded of principal Woods that, like her own son Bill, those of us going to Orange High School be dressed in the proper black and gold uniforms rather than the khaki outfits we had had to wear and which made us stand out embarrassingly. I remember fondly my last cottage mother there, Ilse Boelter. She and husband Kurt, the Fairbridge gardener, made an effort to be kind and to cook tasty evening meals for children. Unfortunately, some of the children were so inured to maltreatment they found it difficult to accept and reciprocate such kindness.
I remember the good side of the feared but also widely respected principal, Frederick Kinnersley Smithers Woods - the Boss. He generously helped me make our Fairbridge Olympics happen. I asked him could I write to seek advice on buying from the USA a 14-foot aluminium vaulting pole for a pole vault competition. He encouraged me. Before those first Fairbridge Olympics, Woods had quite rightly told me that, because I was doing my Intermediate Certificate at Orange High School, I could not go with my British godparents to the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne. It was an invitation made possible because my godfather was manager of Britain’s cycling team.
The Boss’s help in developing our own first inter-cottage Olympics at Easter 1957 was perhaps atonement by him for my missing the Melbourne Games. With the help of a couple of mates and a few musters of other children at the sports field we ploughed, graded and marked a six-lane, 440-yard running track, albeit a bit rough, dug a large pit with boards for both triple and long jumps, made a proper shot putt circle and bought an 8lb 13 oz shot for the event, and made a victory dais. The Boss himself organised the making of the pole vault uprights, standing in their ploughshares. He also ordered pennants for 1st, 2nd and 3rd places in the various events.
Other sports were a strong feature of Fairbridge life. We played rugby league in winter and in summer cricket on the sports field’s 22-yard concrete pitch. Many boys have fond memories of the hot pie we were bought after rugby league matches in Orange. Hockey was played by both girls and boys and there was an inter-cottage soccer competition. My mate Ian Howell and I kept the sand tennis court in good condition, chipping off weeds and rolling and marking it before playing. Some did not care much for sports, especially as participation was compulsory, but for many others sport was a release from the hum-drum and incessant work within and around the cottages.
Above all, there was the camaraderie of the children themselves. Maltreated children in dire circumstances often show resilience. There were many terrific kids in my own cottage, Canonbar. One was Ronnie Wright, whom I taught to do conjuring tricks. After we both left Fairbridge I was best man at his wedding. I was worried about Ronnie’s prospects because he was severely dyslexic, but he had the nous and drive to make himself a millionaire. Recently we were joyously reunited after losing touch for decades.
There were others like Brian Scott, who eventually made a great success of life in Western Australia, generous Don Wood, sadly recently deceased, and athletic brother Geoff. There were the tough, courageous Ray Scotti and brother Alan, and equally hard lads, Jimmy and Laurie Reid. There were many lovely girls like Orange resident Gwen Miller who came from my home town of Grimsby in Lincolnshire. Her father told my father about Fairbridge. Toward the end of my time there Gwen and I ran the kitchen for the whole village for weeks when there was no chef. She was competent, indefatigable and full of fun. Mingling with the girls at Fairbridge, apart from necessary work, was not encouraged though. Because of this Robert and I saw too little of our young, very able sister, Pat.
I remember our very rare free days when we went rabbiting or making dampers and swimming in the Molong Creek. I remember having races on our knees on the old coats we used for polishing cloths in our cottage dining room bringing the wooden floor to a brilliant shine. Our trips in summer to the Molong pool were treasured. I recall the massive frame of the Boss cruising up and down with a couple of small children hanging off him. I became fascinated by hypnotism, and in Terry ‘Mekon’ Wood, had a willing subject I could “put under” in no time. Terry became part of the magic shows I did in the cottage and occasionally in other cottages, such as Brown Cottage, where I had friends like the handsome Mike Walker, the Howell brothers and Tony Stanton. The Boss rightly put a stop to my amateurish hypnosis efforts. A little knowledge is, as Alexander Pope said, a dangerous thing.
In winter we sometimes played what we called stone-age football in the Nuffield Hall. It was really an all-in rough and tumble, with the winner being the team that could make a chalk mark behind the opposing army’s line. There were refreshing outdoor days with the boy scouts, going to the Molong Show, other agricultural shows and being in the junior farmers. Each summer many of us were taken for two weeks’ enjoyable camping at Seven Mile Beach at Gerroa, where we enjoyed once-in-a-year freedoms.
I had friends in other cottages like Ian and Roger Howell with whom I enjoy deep friendships to this day. Well over half a century since we shared lives at Fairbridge we met in Dublin, Ireland, to celebrate Roger’s 70th birthday. There were others like Tony Stanton who returned to England with me and Ian in 1965, and Michael Walker with whom I spent much time living in Orange some years after we had left the farm.
There is an irony: though we had no choice in coming here, and despite our childhood travails, the end of all our exploring is that many of us feel we arrived in a better place.
Many a Fairbridge child will tell you of the generosity of those outside of the farm who helped them. There was, for example, the beneficent Lawry family out near Stuart Town who invited many children out to their farm. My brother David was taken in by the Pearsons in East Orange after he left Fairbridge. A wonderful, warm-hearted family, they treated him as one of their own. Alastair Mackerras, later head of Sydney Grammar School and a most significant mentor to me, invited my brother Robert and me to the family home in Turramurra for holidays in the civilised environment of a highly accomplished, widely esteemed Sydney family. Nearer home I can never repay the kindness of the Prideaux family of Molong who helped me for so long, including years after I left Fairbridge. To me, their home was my home, and Graham, one of the bright Prideaux boys I went to Orange High with, was my best mate.
Alas, with each passing year there are fewer surviving Fairbridgians. There will be fewer still when the 90th anniversary comes around in 2028, and maybe none at all for the centenary if it is commemorated.
That so many ageing Fairbridgians were still able to attend this 80th year commemoration made it special. Many, including me and brother Robert, and Ronnie Wright went to the Molong Museum on the afternoon of March 10. It was a joyous occasion made possible by those like the indefatigable octogenarian, Marie Hammond of Orange, and Sue Milne. The ex- Fairbridgians there mingled with others they might not have seen since childhood. Everyone swapped stories and inspected scores of old photos and Fairbridge memorabilia. They stayed on for the arrival of David Hill and his team who initiated an exciting proposal for a new monument. It has the potential of establishing the legacy of the Molong Fairbridge Farm School into perpetuity.
Looking back on the Molong Fairbridge Farm School I think it important to judge it within the context of its times. The movement has been labelled, somewhat unfairly, a ‘failed Eden’. Life was different in the 1940s and 1950s. It was a much less affluent era. People had less, and thereby valued what they did have more. The media were neither as intrusive nor ubiquitous. Social media scarcely existed. Communications were comparatively cumbersome and costly. Corporal punishment in schools was accepted, though it was nothing like the ritual humiliation and deterring brutality of the public thrashings at Fairbridge. There were many other such significant differences.
Looking back on it all therefore should be tempered by caution. Nevertheless, nothing can exonerate a British government so complicit in getting rid of its poorest children. Thanks to the tireless efforts of people like Margaret Humphrey of the Child Migrant Society and David Hill, it has now admitted its culpability. It is reportedly planning compensation to those it shipped off so long ago. There is little expectation among the many Fairbridgians I know that this will happen any time soon. It is too late for those who have already passed away. Time ebbs away for those of us remaining.
In Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets, TS Eliot wrote: “And the end of all our exploring, will be to arrive where we started, and know the place for the first time”.
Knowing the place for the first time might now be true for all the ageing Fairbridgians who gathered in Orange and Molong for the 80th-year commemoration. It has taken a lifetime to make full sense of what happened to us as children. There was so much reticence for so long. Fairbridgians did not wish to burden their own children or anyone else with their traumas. Uncomplainingly, they just got on with life. We have children and grandchildren here and have made abiding friendships. The majority who stayed here love this land of the fair go, with its strong egalitarian ethic and relative lack of class consciousness.
There is an irony: though we had no choice in coming here, and despite our childhood travails, the end of all our exploring is that many of us feel we arrived in a better place.
DO YOU WANT MORE ORANGE NEWS?
- Receive our free newsletters delivered to your inbox, as well as breaking news alerts. Sign up below …