Old boy David Hill ex­humes the shame­ful his­tory of a child mi­grant farm school, writes

The Forgotten Chil­dren: Fair­bridge Farm School and its be­trayal of Aus­tralia’s Child Mi­grants By David Hill Ran­dom House, 338pp, $ 34.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Alan Gill

ABOUT 15 years ago, with re­porters snap­ping at David Hill’s heels, I rang the then ABC man­ag­ing di­rec­tor’s of­fice to seek an in­ter­view, telling his faith­ful as­sis­tant that my in­ter­est was not in pol­i­tics but in his ex­pe­ri­ences as a Bri­tish child mi­grant and old boy of an un­usual res­i­den­tial in­sti­tu­tion, the Fair­bridge Farm School.

He took the bait, which ex­plains how within 48 hours I was ad­just­ing the in­put level of my cas­sette recorder as Hill sang the school song and re­cited a ditty about the mu­seum- piece Fair­bridge school bus. Any­one pass­ing by his door might have been in­cred­u­lous. Or per­haps not. One of his more en­dear­ing fea­tures was to re­ceive rough- hewn vis­i­tors, pre­sumed to be old Fair­brid­gians, who were in­clined to treat his of­fice as their own.

Hill’s rem­i­nis­cences of Fair­bridge, and of Barnardo’s homes he at­tended in Bri­tain, were, I thought at the time, sur­pris­ingly pos­i­tive. His crit­i­cisms of Fair­bridge were mi­nor: poor food, shoes and ties worn only for vis­its by gov­er­nors or of­fi­cial pho­tos, and sim­i­lar deceptions. He made no men­tion of sex­ual or phys­i­cal abuse, but said it would have been a brave per­son who took on the three Hill brothers: an at­tack on one would have been taken as an at­tack on all, he said. Hill con­sid­ered the worst as­pect was that there was ‘‘ no one around to say ‘ I love you’ or give you a cud­dle’’.

Dur­ing the past two or three years, as a re­sult of a her­itage study that evolved into an oral his­tory project, which in turn in­spired this book, Hill has taken an about- turn on Fair­bridge.

He now strongly con­demns his alma mater, as wit­nessed by the word ‘‘ be­trayal’’ in the book’s sub­ti­tle.

Iron­i­cally, much of his ire stems from dis­cov­er­ies made af­ter sources in Bri­tain — who prob­a­bly con­sid­ered him safely on­side — per­mit­ted him to view con­fi­den­tial archives, de­nied to ear­lier re­searchers, in­clud­ing my­self.

Hill’s dra­matic change of views — he did not give ev­i­dence to any of the in­quiries into child mi­gra­tion — to some peo­ple may seem odd, per­haps a means of pro­mot­ing his book. That would be grossly un­char­i­ta­ble.

Hill was not a typ­i­cal child mi­grant, hav­ing spent less than two years at Fair­bridge. He also had the ben­e­fit of know­ing his mother, who came to Aus­tralia and turned up at the farm school to re­claim him.

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