I am delighted to be involved in this blog tour today. I have a fascinating guest post from the author about the truth behind the story in The Vanished Child. It’s a really interesting, though sad, read that I would recommend everyone reads before reading the book itself.
Blurb: What would you do if you discovered you had a brother you never knew existed?
On her deathbed, Freda Duckworth confesses to giving birth to an illegitimate child in 1944 and temporarily placing him in a children’s home. She returned later but he had vanished.
What happened to the child? Why did he disappear? Where did he go?
Jayne Sinclair, genealogical investigator, is faced with lies, secrets, and one of the most shameful episodes in recent history as she attempts to uncover the truth.
Can she find the vanished child?
This book is the fourth in the Jayne Sinclair Genealogical Mystery series, but can be read as a standalone novel.
Every childhood lasts a lifetime.
Purchase Link – myBook.to/vanishedchild
Guest post: How true is the family history in The Vanished Child?
Between 1869 and the end of the 1960s, around 130,000 British children, both boys and girls, and some as young as four years old, were sent to the former colonies. This is a best guess, as nobody has come up with an exact figure yet.
They were part of a child migration scheme involving children from problem families and single-parent families, illegitimate children and children whose parents had abandoned them. Despite their description at the time, very few of these child migrants were actually orphans. The majority still had at least one parent still alive in the United Kingdom.
Until 1987, the plight of these children lay buried beneath a shroud of official blindness, bureaucratic incompetence, official secrecy and downright lies. At this time, Margaret Humphreys, then working for Nottingham Council as a social worker, became aware of the children by accident when a case she was working on revealed their existence. She went on to form the Child Migrants Trust, which is still the leading charitable organisation for these children.
My own knowledge of their plight came by accident too. I was researching in Manchester Central Library one summer’s day, on June 30, 2016, when I came across an exhibition in the foyer of old inmate books, dated 1894, from a children’s charity.
One of the books was open at the page for Mary Nettleship from Ardwick in Manchester. Her story was sad but unfortunately typical. Her mother had died and her father was an alcoholic. She and her sister were placed in a care home at the ages of 9 and 12. On May 9, 1895, both sisters were sent aboard the SS Vancouver, bound for Canada. There was a picture in the book taken of Mary, wearing a long black dress, with short, cropped hair and a lonely look in her eyes. On the next page were two reports from a Canadian inspector, detailing that Mary had been placed with a Canadian family in Adolphstown, Ontario to work as a domestic. She had also been separated from her younger sister.
My curiosity was aroused. How had a young girl from Manchester ended up across the Atlantic? How had her father allowed this? (In the book it stated that he couldn’t be found.) Had he given permission? Why were the sisters separated? What happened to young Mary?
A week later I was in London to meet with my editors and publishers at the HarperCollins summer party, being held in the Victoria and Albert Museum. By chance, I noticed the museum had an exhibition on child migrants. I went back the following day and spent the afternoon looking at the exhibits.
The seed for the book was planted that day, and I spent the next two months researching the history and personal stories of the child migrants.
The more I researched, the more I became perturbed by their experiences of transportation to Australia. The Australian Commission into the Child Migrants concluded that between 7,000 and 10,000 children were sent to the country in the post-war period, mostly in the 1950s. The organisations involved were the Catholic Child Welfare Society, the Fairbridge Society, Dr Barnado’s, the Salvation Army and the Church of England.
In a difference from Canada, most were not sent to people’s homes or adopted. Instead, they were placed in institutions to be ‘trained’ as farmers and domestics before entering the workforce at the age of fifteen. Again, most were boys and girls, aged between four and fourteen at the time of transportation.
My book is a novel, and all the main characters are creations. However, I have tried to remain true to the experiences of the child migrants.
Harry’s early life with the Sisters of Mercy is based on contemporary memoirs and notes. The voyage out to Australia uses a wonderful book by David Hill, The Forgotten Children, as its main source, plus a host of archival material from government reports, Royal Commissions, oral histories and memoirs from the child migrants themselves.
The speech of welcome given to Harry and the child migrants in Perth is actually an earlier speech given in 1938 to a group of children by the Archbishop of Perth. But there are other examples in the post-war archives of the church’s involvement in the White Australia policy, and a desire to increase the population of young Catholics in Australia.
Harry’s experiences in Bindoon Boys Town are shocking but unfortunately confirmed by the memoirs and evidence presented at a number of Royal Commissions.
Emotional, physical and sexual abuse were all rife in the institution. The migrants were used as child labour to build the place itself; long hours of work were accompanied by severe beatings. Emotionally, they received little or no affection or love, and were treated as objects rather than children.
Sexual abuse was also commonplace in the Boys Town. Several of the former brothers were convicted of the abuse of children, but others were not charged with any offence.
As a consequence of their treatment, many of the residents have reported the inability to form relationships with other human beings as a consequence of their treatment at Bindoon. Many have also experienced problems with alcohol, drugs or an inability to settle in one place.
One of the most painful things to do is watch the children arriving in Fremantle in the newsreels of the period, seeing the smiles on their faces as they looked forward to a new life in a new country and knowing what actually awaited them.
As a Roman Catholic myself, I have no desire to excoriate the church. In truth, the abuses of children and child migrants were systemic in government homes and in other charitable institutions, both in the United Kingdom and Australia. However, the treatment of the child migrants in the four Christian Brothers institutions in Western Australia was particularly cruel, calculating and abusive.
And what happened to Mary Nettleship, the young girl who started me on this path?
I researched her history as far as I could through the documents available in Canada. She worked as an unpaid domestic until she was eighteen, and then she married a carpenter, with whom she had four children. She settled down in Toronto to bring up her family, but unfortunately died of heart disease in 1929, aged just 42. Her husband died later in the year, leaving their children as orphans. Was her death precipitated by her early life and the domestic labour she endured from twelve years of age? We will never know.
And what of Mary’s younger sister?
I have been unable to find her after the census of 1901. Did she marry? Did she die? I have not been able to find out what happened to her so far.
Perhaps, I will be able to discover the truth one day. So that she will not be forgotten like so many of the other migrant children from the cities of Great Britain.
I don’t believe any writer can do justice to the experience of the child migrants, but their story needs to be told.
As David Hall says in his book, ‘Every childhood lasts a lifetime.’
This is true for all of us.
About the author:
Martin has spent most of his adult life writing in one form or another. As a University researcher in history, he wrote pages of notes on reams of obscure topics. As a social worker with Vietnamese refugees, he wrote memoranda. And, as the creative director of an advertising agency, he has written print and press ads, tv commercials, short films and innumerable backs of cornflake packets and hotel websites.
He has spent 25 years of his life working outside the North of England. In London, Hong Kong, Taipei, Singapore, Bangkok and Shanghai, winning awards from Cannes, One Show, D&AD, New York and London Festivals, and the United Nations.
When he’s not writing, he splits his time between the UK and Asia, taking pleasure in playing with his daughter, researching his family history, single-handedly solving the problem of the French wine lake and wishing he were George Clooney.
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