THE journey for Margaret Humphreys started 25 years ago when she was a social worker in Radford and Hyson Green. A woman approached her, claiming to have been sent to Australia as a child from a nursing home in Nottingham.
It was the beginning of an investigation that would uncover the scandal of the child migrants, a secret that the British government had kept hidden for years.
From the 1920s up until 1970, around 130,000 children were sent from UK children’s homes to Australia and other Commonwealth countries without the knowledge or consent of their parents. The reason was for cheap labour and/or to boost white populations.
Many of the children were promised a better life. Many experienced physical and mental abuse.
Margaret Humphreys, who set up The Child Migrants Trust in West Bridgford in 1987 in order to reunite the former children migrants and their parents, wrote about her experiences in a book, Empty Cradles. That has now been made in to a £3m film, which was screened at Broadway on Monday night in front of cast and crew, Post competition winners and former child migrants.
“It’s very faithful to the book and breathtakingly honest,” Margaret told the Post before the screening, a regional premiere.
“I think it’s terrific to have this screening in Nottingham. It’s a way of saying to the people we acknowledge and appreciate all that they’ve done for the Trust and child migrants. It’s appropriate that it open here.”
She admitted it took a lot of persuading from director Jim Loach, to agree to the film being made.
“There is a long history of people having films made about their work and about them and it usually goes wrong. And there was a worry about the child migrants; it’s their private lives.
“But it is important to inform and educate what it’s been like for them. The more people, learn and read and understand about these schemes that caused so much pain and damage to children and families the better. The more that know, the more we’ll be able to stop similar things happening again.
“We need to learn the lessons from this unique group of people. They’ve got a lot to tell us about loss, about separation, about identity.”
Margaret was involved in the making of the film from the very first conversations with Loach eight years ago.
“He sent me scripts, yes but the most important part of the process was the time he spent with the child migrants.”
The 66-year-old has seen the film just once, at a screening in London, with her husband and two children.
“You need someone with compassion and sensitivity to make a film like this and for his first film I think he showed huge courage.”
The film, co-financed by local screen agency EM Media, was shot a year ago in Australia and the UK, including six weeks in and around Nottingham, which is name-checked throughout. Locations included Carlton, Lenton, the Council House, County Hall and Sneinton.
“I didn’t go on set and I didn’t meet Emily until the film was finished,” said Margaret of award-winning actress Emily Watson, who plays her in Oranges and Sunshine.
It follows Margaret from that first meeting with ‘Charlotte’, who eventually finds her birth mother with Margaret’s help, to Australia and other child migrants, some of who suffered abuse at children’s homes.
She encounters violent opposition and threats from those who want the scandal kept quite.
The work puts a strain on her home life and results in her being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“There aren’t enough words to describe her,” said, Harold Haig, a former child migrant who attended the screening.
“She’s amazing. We were very lucky that we ended up in her hands.”
The 73-year-old was deported to Australia from East Sussex in 1949, aged 11.
“I found out through Margaret 30 years later that my mother had put me in to care with East Sussex County Council. This man, who I now know was a politician, asked me if I wanted to go to this wonderful place called Australia, where the sun shines all day and you can pick oranges off the trees. You’ll live in a little white cottage by the sea and ride a horse to school. As I was thinking about it he said ‘you know you’re an orphan, your parents are dead so you might as well go.’”
He ended up in an institution in Australia.
“It wasn’t as touch as some of the children experienced. But it’s the psychological damage. You walk around all your life not knowing who you are. All I had was my name and my date of birth.”
He didn’t find out until he was 52 that both his mother and father had been alive at the time. That was through the Child Migrants Trust’s office in Melbourne.
His parents died before he could meet them.
“Something happened between them during the war. There were no social service benefits so she had no choice but to put me in care. I belive like a lot of parents who put their children in care, they planned to pick their children up when they were in a circumstance to do so.
“But they lied to the mothers when they went back to pick them up and told them they’d been adopted in the UK and were happy in a family. So it would be best to leave them alone. To some mothers they said their children had died.”
Although he never met his parents, Harold, who has a large family of his own in Melbourne, has been in touch with a sister and extended family members.
He adds: “It’s a very fine film and a tribute to Margaret Humphreys.”
Jim Loach, son of acclaimed director Ken, who joined Margaret for a post-screening Q&A with the audience, said the screening was like bringing the film home.
“Nottinghamshire really contributed a lot of good to what happened to this story,” said the 41-year-old.
“Nottinghamshire County Council supported Margaret for a long time. So there is a lot for people here to feel good about. I hope people from Nottingham really take ownership of it.”
Both Australian and British governments publicly apologised for the scandal last year and two months ago Margaret was awarded a CBE for her work, which goes on.
“People are being reunited with their families all the time,” she said.
“They’ve recently been reunited with their mothers during this last eight weeks. We must never give up hope.”
Celia Powers, 46, from Sandiacre, who won tickets to the screening through the Post, said: “She is a remarkable lady with an outstanding story to tell, told by a very moving film.”
Oranges and Sunshine (15) opens in cinemas April 1. There is an advance screening at Broadway on Sunday March 27 at 11.30pm. For tickets call 0115 952 6611.
ALTHOUGH Margaret Humphreys took some convincing to allow director Jim Loach to make a film of her work, uncovering the scandal of the child migrants, for Oscar-nominated actressEmily Watson it was a given.
“It’s an amazing story, just very, very powerful, compelling stuff,” says Watson, who stars as Margaret in Oranges and Sunshine, which opens in cinemas today.
“It was two years ago when I met with Jim on a very snowy day in London. We sat and talked about it for hours. It was one of those things that just felt right from the off.”
The film tells the true story of how Margaret first discovered that children in care in the UK were sent to Australia and other Commonwealth countries with a promise of a better life. Around 130,000 were deported between 1920 and 1970 and many endured abuse.
“I hadn’t heard of them at all,” says Watson of the child migrants.
“I think it’s been a very, very little known fact. It’s better known in Australia obviously because the migrants are there, but in England, no, I’d no idea. It’s outrageous really. Now it’s obviously coming much more into the public eye because of the apologies in both countries.”
Last year both the Australian and British governments publicly apologised.
Oranges and Sunshine opens in 1986 when Margaret, then a social worker in Radford and Hyson Green, is approached by a woman.
“She says she was sent to Australia from England as a small child without parents or guardians,” says Watson.
“Margaret’s first reaction is disbelief. So she starts following the trail and uncovers this incredible story – the woman is just the tip of the iceberg. When she first starts looking into it back in the 80s her boss says to her, ‘Do you want to take a year or two to do this?’ – and in reality it’s been her entire life ever since then. It takes an incredible toll on her physically and mentally and emotionally. She tells herself that she’s keeping her distance, that she has boundaries, but in fact she is diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, just because of the emotional impact of where she’d been and what she’d been hearing.”
To prepare for her role, Watson, 43, who won an Oscar nomination for her role as Jacqueline du Pré in Hilary and Jackie, resisted meeting Humphreys.
“I thought long and hard about it and every day when we were filming I would say to myself, ‘maybe I should have met her,’” says the actress, who has also appeared Cradle Will Rock, Angela’s Ashes, Gosford Park, Red Dragon, Punch-Drunk Love and Equilibrium.
“I’ve played real people before and in a way you almost get too close. It’s very difficult to be objective about them.
“Also, the way they are physically, the way they sound, becomes a very strong imprint and sometimes that’s not helpful when you’re trying to tell a story. You end up just trying to mimic them.”
She did read Margaret’s book, Empty Cradles, which has been republished to tie in with the film’s release.
“For me the most important territory is the emotional stuff and that comes from having your own family and children,” says Watson, who has a two-year-old son.
“It was a case of putting yourself into that imaginative area of what it would be like to be dealing with all this stuff.
“There is something utterly compelling about the thought of your own child being abandoned and deported and sent to an abusive children’s home for ten years.”
Oranges and Sunshine was shot in both Nottingham and Australia and she admits the climate change was a challenge.
“I think Jim had a very strong image before we started of how he wanted her to look – professional, sharp, self-assured. So I spent a lot of time wandering around in the blazing heat in Australia, very unsuitably dressed in a suit and stockings and heels and dying of heat,” she laughs. “But that’s her look.”
Which helped when the shoot came to Nottingham in November 2009.
“It was pretty cold. All the Australian crew were shivering and complaining,” she laughs.
Her co-stars are Hugo Weaving and David Wenham, who play former child migrants Jack and Len.
“Jack just seemed to me to be a man crying out to be accepted and to have his story recognised,” says Weaving, better known as Agent Smith in sci-fi blockbuster The Matrix.
“When we meet him he’s still going through a great deal of issues and a lot of pain. Initially he’s very mistrustful of Margaret.”
He adds: “I wanted desperately to meet the man on whom Jack is partially based – someone who’d actually come out and had that experience. He was incredibly forthcoming. It was an invaluable experience talking to him and that was my primary research.
“The title Oranges and Sunshine is something that Jack says. He was asked as a child whether he wanted to go to Australia, where he could live in a white house, ride a horse to school and be able to pick oranges off the trees for his breakfast and where the sun shines every day.
“That was the sort of golden promise that these children were sold. Oranges and Sunshine? It’s the great promise and the great lie, the great untruth that was told to these innocent children who were damaged for so many years.
“And it’s the journey that Margaret takes to try to heal that and give them some sense of who they are.”