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What were the child migration scheme and the Fairbridge Farm Schools?

A new book sheds further light on Britain’s child migration scheme, which former prime minister Gordon Brown called ‘government-induced (human) trafficking’ (Alana Calvert/PA)
A new book sheds further light on Britain’s child migration scheme, which former prime minister Gordon Brown called ‘government-induced (human) trafficking’ (Alana Calvert/PA)

A new book sheds further light on Britain’s child migration scheme, which former prime minister Gordon Brown called “government-induced (human) trafficking”.

The PA news agency examines some key questions around the programme and the notorious Fairbridge Farm Schools in rural Australia.

– What was child migration?

Between 1912 and 1980, the UK sent around 130,000 children from largely impoverished backgrounds to its colonies, including Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia).

10,000 of those children were sent to Australia alone.

David Hill next to the burnt out remains of 'Molong Cottage' at Fairbridge Farm Molong, New South Wales, on April 20, 2022
David Hill, shown next to the burnt-out remains of a cottage at Fairbridge Farm School near Molong, has written extensively on the suffering caused by the child migrant scheme (Alana Calvert/PA)

– Why did Britain export its children?

The idea of the scheme was to solve the problem of the number of children who were born into poverty in the UK while populating the Empire with “good, white stock”.

The belief among Britain’s ruling classes at the time was that children from poor or broken families needed to be “rescued”. It was thought taking children away from financially disadvantaged families was the only way to ensure they did not also become destitute themselves.

In the 1930s promotional publicity in newspapers declared that children from the lower classes were a “burden and a menace to society that could be converted (in)to valuable assets in Australia”.

– What were the Fairbridge Farm Schools?

The Fairbridge scheme was the brainchild of Kingsley Fairbridge, a “child of Empire” and member of the Oxford Colonial Club. As early as the 1900s he was advocating for sending children from England’s “orphan and waif class” to the colonies to take up land as white settlers.

In 1912 the first Fairbridge Farm School open in Australia – in Pinjarra, some 50 miles south of Western Australia’s capital Perth – and many more would follow throughout Britain’s colonies. The plan was to turn boys into farmers and girls into farmers’ wives.

By 1934 the plan had the backing of King Edward VIII (then the Prince of Wales) who donated £1000 to Fairbridge, declaring: “This is not charity. It is an imperial investment.”

King Edward VIII, as the Duke of Windsor (1894-1972)
Fairbridge had the backing of King Edward VIII when he was the Prince of Wales (PA)

– What was the One Parent Scheme?

For the first 50 years of operation, the scheme sought to permanently separate children from their parents. This fact was something many did not realise when they signed their children up and had all contact severed with their children, often forever.

This changed in 1957 when the One Parent Scheme was introduced, allowing one parent to follow their children to Australia to set up a home and find work, and once the children were legally allowed to leave school, they could go live with their parent.

– Why was it introduced?

By the 1950s the number of children being signed up to the scheme was declining due to opposition from social workers. A number of damaging reports also surfaced. The most scathing of which saw Fairbridge’s farm schools in both Molong, some 180 miles west of Sydney, and Western Australia backlisted by the Home Office. The report was suppressed by Fairbridge, which was made to reform in order to keep receiving funding from the British Government.

– How old were the children deported by Britain to its colonies?

Children were as young as four but the typical number was eight or nine.

– What percentage of the children were sexually abused?

At Fairbridge Farm School in Molong alone, more than 60% of survivors won compensation in the New South Wales Supreme Court in 2015 against Australia’s state and federal governments and the Fairbridge Foundation for the sexual abuse they suffered at the institution.

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