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
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.