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Empty Cradles

Published on 29 Jul 2011 11:43 : margaret humphreys oranges and sunshine book review : 1 comment : 16500 views

I recently finished reading the book Empty Cradles by Margaret Humphreys and can't recommend it highly enough. It's a truly inspirational story of a women's fight for the justice of thousands of children, who up until the 1970s, had been shipped across the world for the opportunity of a 'new life'. The true story describes how many children had been lead to believe that they were orphans and were sent abroad away with no documentation or birth certificates, it's only until Margaret Humphrey starts to dig deeper that they learn they do have families. The very harrowing part is the way the children were treated when they arrived in their new country as many were abused and badly mistreated by those who were in a position of trust.

Margaret Humphreys was a social worker in 1986 based in Nottingham and her involvement began after she received a letter from a lady in Australia who claimed that at the age of four she had been put on a boat by the British Government. The idea sounded incredible and Margaret couldn't quite believe the story at first.

As Margaret uncovered the shocking discovery she became more and more involved in the lives of the 'orphans'. She visited Australia for long periods of time and was constantly flooded by people asking her to help them find out if they had family back in Britain. Many of the children had no memory of their families and for Margaret it was a race against time to track them down before it was too late.

One of the child migrants named Harold Haig arrived in Australia when he was 11 years old. With the help of Margaret he managed to track down his sister, Marie. Unfortunately it was too late to be reunited with his mother who had died just one year before he visited England. In an interview recently he described how he felt growing up, "I didn't know who I was. I didn't know where I'd come from. I didn't belong to anybody. I was in this void." 1

It's estimated that over 130,000 children were taken out of care in Britain and transported to Canada, Zimbabwe (formally Rhodesia) New Zealand and Australia. The youngest children were only seven and many were sent to institutions that had an appalling standard of care such as lack of food and bedding and many were made to do hard labour. It was the extreme opposite to the new and exciting life they had been promised.

One of the biggest struggles for Margaret was getting acceptance from the governments involved. It took twenty-three years for the British Government to apologise. When discussing this Margaret emphasised how long it took, "Twenty. Three. Years," she says. "In the face of my alerting them that every day counted, that every day someone potentially would miss out on meeting their mother or father because one of them would die. Now that's hardly listening and hearing and wanting to help." 2 In February 2010 then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown apologised for the UK's role in the 'misguided' Child Migration Programme and stressed that he was 'truly sorry'. 3

The story is so inspirational because it shows how Margaret has dedicated her life towards helping these adults. I remember a particular quote from the book when Margaret's children travelled to Australia and met the migrants that had formed such a bond with their mother. It was during a dinner and a raffle was about to take place, a lady asks Margaret's son, Benjamin, "What are you going to give this raffle then, young man? What are you going to give?" He quick wittedly replied "I gave you my mother." 4

I urge anyone who hasn't to read the book to read it! Originally titled Empty Cradles it has since been made into a film starring Emily Watson as Margaret Humphreys and been republished as Oranges and Sunshine.

You can visit the Child Migrants Trust website set up by Margaret and her team with the following link:


1 (07/04/2011) Interview with Harold Haig. Available at:
2 (23/07/2011) Contains interview with Margaret Humphreys. Available at:
3 (24/02/2010) From BBC democracy Live, Gordon Brown apologises to child migrants. Available at:
4 Margaret Humphreys. (2011) Oranges and Sunshine. Page 319.


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by Valerie on 5 Aug 2011 09:04 : Report Abuse

I have lived in Australia with my family since 1969 having emigrated from the UK. it was our choice to come. I can't imagine what it must of been like for those children. The movie 'Oranges and Sunshine' which was released here about a month ago was truly an eye opener about what exactly happened. It was something that most Australians never knew about as most of these children were put into the care of the Catholic Church and other institutes and were sent out into the countryside. Fairbridge House in Western Australia which was owned by the Catholic Church at the time was actually superimposed for the long shots in the movie as they were not allowed to use the original one. For internal and close shots they must of used some other big building but not in Western Australia where Fairbridge still stands and now used for other purposes such as conferences etc.
These children were so vulnerable as you can imagine. As the movie stated it was only when they were adults that most of this came out. The damage was already done to their lives.
Our government has also given their apologies to the child migrants. I do believe there are some compensations too but that will never compensate for what exactly went on. Margaret Humphreys is an inspiration and I walked out of the cinema with a tear I can tell you.
Valerie Miles