Seeking Inspiration: Margaret Humphreys

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This is the first in series of posts on JustB about women who inspire, motivate and challenge us. 
These posts are supported by Seek Learning.

Group of British children brought to Australia as part of Child migration schemes – St Vincent’s Foundling Home, Leederville, Western Australia

Margaret Humphreys

Oranges & Sunshine : The Film Based on Margaret’s Life

When I started to think about women who inspire me, Margaret came to mind straight away. I’ve just finished her book and I’ve watched the film about her life, Oranges and Sunshine. I also watched ‘The Leaving Of Liverpool‘, a production Margaret advised on. I know this is a sad story, but I think it’s important that we don’t turn away from events like this. We owe it to the people who lived through it to take some time to think about them.

Let me tell you more:

A favourite inspiring lady: Margaret Humphreys
Her work: Researching, counselling, repatriating and re-uniting former child migrants with long-lost family members. Raising awareness about the child migration scheme.
Lives: Nottingham, England
The things I love most about this person: Persistence, focus, steadfast goodness.
Notable achievements: Margaret established the Child Migrants Trust and provided friendship and assistance to thousands of former child migrants. She was awarded an Order of Australia medal and a CBE in recognition of her work. She wrote the book ‘Empty Cradles‘ which details her work and the lives of former child migrants. The film Oranges and Sunshine is based on her life.
My takeaway: Sometimes your life purpose is much bigger than you are. It’s important to make the care of other people a big part of your life. Don’t give up.

I can’t talk about WHY I admire Margaret without providing a bit of background. So here’s a brief rundown of WHY Margaret is so amazing:

The Asturius arrives in Fremantle, 1947

Between the 1930s and the 1970s, more than 130 000 children were shipped out of England to ‘better lives’ in Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Rhodesia. These children were sent without their parents, often without their parents knowledge and without consent.

In a story which seems too cruel to be true, the Australian government set a proposed quota for child migrants. The British government were eager to comply. Our government wanted as many children as possible shipped here, viewing them as cheap labour and ‘good white stock’ who would eventually help fend off a much-feared invasion from our Asian neighbours. Aided by various institutions, they set about filling these quotas as quickly as possible, colonising Australia with these stolen little people.

Keep in mind that this was a time when many UK families were living in extreme poverty.  Some parents were deemed unfit by the authorities, while others were forced to ask for help, placing their children in the short-term care of religious institutions to ensure their health, care and safety.  In the worst kind of betrayal, these children were then forcibly and illegally removed from care by the British government. They were put on ships that would take them to the other side of the world. All this without their parents knowledge or consent.

This scheme operated as recently as the 1970s.

Picking Peas : Fairbridge Farm School

Children arrived here after a long, excruciating sea journey.   They were promised oranges and sunshine (hence the name of the film), happy families and wide open spaces. Instead they were immediately shipped off to institutions, often enduring hunger, hard labour, neglect and abuse. Brothers and sisters were separated. Many children had their names and birth dates changed, possibly to make them untraceable. These children were denied education, play, kindness and love.  Many were denied health care , basic clothing and food.  Most were told their parents did not want them or worse still, that their parents had died. (In nearly all cases this was untrue.)

Parents who tried to find their children were rebuffed by the English authorities and given no assistance or information. They simply lost their children.

The children were referred to as orphans once they arrived in Australia,  but none were available for adoption. Instead they were put to work by various charitable institutions.  Well known national charities such as Barnardos, the Church of England, the Methodist Church, the Salvation Army and the Catholic Church, played major roles in this scheme.  The Australian government eventually apologised for its role in child migration. The British Government followed suit a year later.

Margaret Humphreys, Jim Loach and Emily Watson
BAFTA Los Angeles screening of Oranges and Sunshine October 2011 via

Margaret Humphreys accidentally discovered the scheme’s existence in the course of her work as a child protection officer in Nottingham.  As she dug deeper, she realised there’d been a huge cover-up, and that the child migration scheme affected thousands of people.  She spearheaded a campaign to raise awareness about the injustices child migrants endured. She committed to helping as many as possible find out who they really were and where their long-lost families might be.  It was too late for many adult former child migrant ‘orphans’ to be reunited with their parents, but there were success stories too, with Margaret and the Child Migrants Trust reuniting people with family members they did not know existed (or perhaps had a distant memory of.)

Margaret endured long stretches away from her own family, as she travelled backwards and forwards to Australia, trying to piece together the jigsaw puzzles of peoples’ lives. She spent hours and hours… years, probably, sorting through Birth, Death and Marriage records, looking for vital clues which might reunite adult former child migrants with their mothers or other relatives.  She endured death threats from people who did not want her talking about the abuse that occurred in so-called godly institutions.  But she kept going, knowing, I am thinking, that this was her life’s work and that she must.

image via Australian Geographic

I’m inspired by Margaret because she has an incredible drive to do what is right. She did not walk away from something that was not only painful and unfathomable, but immeasurable. (Patchy record keeping by the institutions involved mean that the exact number of children involved in child migration will not be known.)

Margaret focused, hung on tight, worked hard and did the right thing… simply because it was the only option for her.  She faced more ‘roadblocks’ than gains on a daily basis and she pushed through. I’m not sure HOW she did this, but I would love to have a fraction of her persistence and goodness, her willingness to do what is right. Her CARE.

When I read Margaret’s book recently, I was really touched by her fairness, her realness and her tenacity. She’s such a good, honest person. I really aspire to be like that too. I think, for me, those are some of the most important cornerstones of adulthood.

When I grow up, I want to be more like Margaret Humphreys.

Here’s FIVE MORE women I love:
Patti Smith
Sister Corita Kent
Julia Child
Mirka Mora
Maggie Beer

Who inspires YOU?  Comment below, Instagram, pin or tweet with the #SeekInspiration tag so we can all gather some EXTRA life inspiration.


(Did you know that former ABC chairman David Hill was sent from Britain to Australia as part of this scheme. He made a documentary about it.)

  • JessB

    What a great story to share Pip, and what a great idea for a series! I can’t wait to read more.

    I am a history lover, and I am particularly fascinated by World War II. I am inspired by Vivian Bullwinkle, an Australian nurse who served during the war. She was a prisoner of war after the fall of Singapore, and survived a massacre of shipwreck survivors by Japanese soldiers.

    She was a really strong lady, who must have cared so much for others, like all nurses.

    • Pip @ JustB

      I love Vivian too! She was an amazing woman. I wish I could have met her. I will write about her next. (I even have a DVD about her, Jess!) GOOD IDEA. x

  • retro mummy

    oh I have to say I haven’t read the book but watched the movie, so powerful! It was really frightening at times and so emotional to watch. Thank you for sharing her story, talk about inspiring and especially the personal sacrifices with her own family.

    • Pip @ JustB

      Thanks so much for reading, Corrie. The book is fascinating and shocking all at once. She’s an amazing lady. Truly an inspiration. x

  • Chickie

    I met a older man years ago in a course I was doing and as we spoke of things about our lives, he mentioned he was one of these children which was why he was so aloof and had failed marriages and estranged from his kids… I dismissed it and kept my distance… it was too far fetched. Then I saw the movie and felt sick, I just thought it was not possible. So sorry.
    So glad there were some good people.

    • Pip @ JustB

      It really doesn’t seem possible, does it? When I talk to people about it, they don’t believe it happened on the scale that it did. I can understand why. It seems too heartless and it’s not been talked about a lot. I think sometimes people like to sweep difficult issues under the carpet, but this really needs to be spoken about. I am thinking it will be when the Parliamentary Enquiry begins. x

  • Reannon Hope

    I remember a few weeks back when you mentioned watching this movie Pip & I said to you something like this story is too sad & I can’t do that sort of stuff at the moment ( I’m an emotional hormonal wreck!) but your right Pip, we shouldn’t shy away from this sort of story. It’s important to be aware of things that happened in history that we aren’t proud of so we can learn from our mistakes.

    Great new series! I look forward to more xx

    • Pip @ JustB

      Oh I totally understand why you’d want to save yourself the tissues. But I do think that knowing about these horrible episodes in history is important. It’s important to those who suffered through it. And even just knowing about it and sharing this with someone else is a good way of raising awareness and making a small difference, if you can’t manage to read the book or watch any of the film/doco/series about it. x

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  • Helen Stevens

    I felt heartbreak as I read Empty Cradles. The dreadful conditions that these children endured was aalmost beyond comprehension.

    Lesley Pearse wrote a fictionalised version of the story entitled Trust Me.

    It is hard to believe that much of the cruelty sufferd by these children was done in the name of Christianity. Things like this make me almost ashamed to be a Christian.

    • Pip @ JustB

      Oh it IS heartbreaking. I can’t imagine how they endured this either. And I can’t imagine how they moved on from it, and learnt to trust people. I didn’t know about Lesley’s book. I will look it up. Thanks. x