Real-life inspiration for ‘Oranges and Sunshine’

This article was originally on a blog post platform and may be missing photos, graphics or links. See About archive blog posts.

The new British drama “Oranges and Sunshine,’ starring Oscar nominee Emily Watson (“Breaking the Waves,” “Hilary and Jackie”), Hugo Weaving (“The Matrix”) and David Wenham (“300,” “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) and directed by Jim Loach, tells the true story of social worker Margaret Humphreys, who in 1986 began to investigate a major scandal involving the British and Australian governments.

From the end of the World War II to the early 1970s, the British government forcibly relocated British children who had been placed in a children’s home and sent them to Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the former Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe.


The parents in England when they returned to the children’s home to retrieve their youngsters were told that they had been adopted by a good family in England. The children who were sent to Australia had been told that their mother or father had died and they were going to live the good life, filled with oranges and sunshine and a perfect family in Australia.

Instead, the children were sent to orphanages usually run by Roman Catholic brothers in Western Australia or Queensland, where they were abused and forced to work in the worst possible conditions. Humphreys, 67, created the Child Migrants Trust in 1987 to help the investigations. The Nottinghamshire County Council, which employed her, funded these efforts. Humphreys wrote a book about the subject in 1994, “Empty Cradles.” The proceeds from the sales help to fund the trust.

Some 7,000 British children were sent to live in Australia after World War II. In 2009 Australia’s then-prime minister, Kevin Michael Rudd, officially apologized; in 2010, England’s then-prime minister, Gordon Brown, followed.

After 25 years, Humphreys is still working to reunite families or give closure to these now grown children whose parents have died.

The engaging, passionate Humphreys talked about her work to correct this massive, unthinkable injustice and the movie, which opens in limited release on Friday, over a cup of tea in the lounge at the Four Seasons during a brief visit to Los Angeles.

Q: Do you still live in Nottingham and continue to work in Melbourne and Perth, Australia?

A: I say I have the longest commute to work of anybody. My home is in England. I am still doing five trips a year to Australia. We have six social workers in the U.K. and we have social workers in Australia. I used to do it on my own for years. But I never thought I had a choice. I didn’t spend hours thinking, Do I want to do this?

Q: You are still reuniting these now grown children with their families in England?

A: Yes. We had a gentleman who was reunited with his mother who is in her 80s in New York 10 days ago. He had been sent to Australia.

Q: How did these kids end up in these children’s homes in England?

A: It was a variety of family situations which enabled children to be put in these vulnerable situations and sent to the other side of the world. So it could be that it was a single mother and she would perhaps put a child temporarily into a children’s home. Then she would go back to collect her child and the child would be gone. She would be told that the child had been placed with adoptive parents in the U.K., when in reality the child — sometimes as young as 4 — was sent with hundreds of other children on a boat to the other side of the world. People ask me: Why is Britain was the only country in the world to deport their children this way? I suppose one of the answers was that they had somewhere to send them.

Q: I was reading that one of the reasons too was economics. It was cheaper to take care of these children in Australia than England.

A: There was an economic argument to it. It was a push and a pull. The push came from Britain. The pull came form Australia. The country asked for 50,000 white children, only white, to populate Australia.

Q: Why didn’t mothers or parents fight the children’s homes to get their children back?

A: With adoption in England, the doors are closed at the point when the child has been adopted. That is the end. I have worked with hundreds and hundreds of women over the last 25 years who have lost their children to child migration, and one of the things they talk about is the guilt they feel, the pain they feel. And when somebody tells you what they have done it makes you immediately feel that you were a bad mother. You are told that your child is going to be better off with two lovely white married people and your child is going to have a wonderful life and you shouldn’t be selfish. And then to be told 50 years later that their son and daughter had been sent to Australia — they can’t comprehend it.

Q: Were the children sent to Australia mainly from working and lower classes?

A: Child migrations went across all classes in England. All classes. There was no plan whatsoever for them to be with families. Often siblings were separated on the dockside screaming and sometimes never seeing them again for 40 years ago.

[The Australian government] didn’t monitor them; they didn’t look after the welfare or safety. Their names were often changed. Their dates of birth were often changed. They were sent to big orphanages that were run by the Christian Brothers, various churches, and they weren’t treated with the same regard for their welfare as Australian children [in the orphanages].

The Christian Brothers were the most notorious for abusing. I am talking things that were a degradation we can’t really speak about. We don’t have the language to properly describe what happened.

Q: The Australian and British governments finally apologized, but have the various churches?

A: The particular orders were brought to account. There has been an apology for the abuse.

Q: Is it still a difficult task to find these missing children?

A: Yes. Their names were changed when they came to Australia. Perhaps the Christian name has been changed but not the surname. There is always some combination you can look for. But you have a massive search on your hands.

Q: Did you spend a lot of time with Emily Watson before filming began?

A: Never. I have met her once since [the film was completed]. It was her decision. It wasn’t something I gave a lot of thought to. I didn’t want to be hands-on.

Q: What do you think of the about the movie?

A: I have only seen it once and that was in November 2010. Of course, I have been at a lot of screenings, but I don’t sit and watch it

Q: Why?

A: I am too close. I don’t want to be drawn into it that much because I’m still working. I have a day job. However, it’s absolutely faithful to the book and it is faithful to my experience.


‘Oranges and Sunshine,’ Starring Emily Watson; Exclusive clip

Emily Watson: Always Living Inside Other People’s Heads

— Susan King

Left photo: Emily Watson plays Margaret Humphreys in ‘Oranges and Sunshine.’ Right photo: The real Margaret Humphreys talks about the film. Credit: Cohen Media Group