Fairbridge Farm Schools—the Failed Eden?

Part One: An Imperialist’s Dream Ends Badly

The old newsreel footage is jumpy, streaked with dust, the images seen through a sepia blur. It’s 1939 and in true MovieTone News style, we’re being treated to footage of British children arriving at the Prince of Wales Fairbridge Farm School in Duncan, BC. The title cards are exultant: “Brothers and sisters reunited!” Everyone is dressed in neat sweaters and shorts or skirts as if attending the finest English parochial school. The newsreel progresses through a boring procession of dignitaries consecrating the school’s new chapel—everyone from the Bishop of Columbia to BC Lieutenant Governor Eric W. Hamber. Much of the film is devoted to a special sports day. Children are seen running races and laughing in friendly competition with other Vancouver Island school teams.

Kingsley Fairbridge, founder of the Fairbridge Farm Schools in Australia and Canada. Courtesy fairbridgechapel.com

Founder Kingsley Fairbridge’s vision for Fairbridge Farm Schools attempted to avoid the pitfalls of other child emigration schemes. Fairbridge, a Rhodes scholar born in Rhodesia, first pitched his dream to colleagues in the Oxford Colonial Club at a meeting in 1909. Rather than simply import children into the colonies and then summarily dump them into the hands of fate, the children were to live in the Fairbridge community until age 16 when they would be free to leave and find jobs. Boys and girls on Fairbridge Farm Schools would live in segregated cottages, 14 or so in each with a cottage ‘mother.’ “It was Fairbridge’s dream to create a rural, village-like environment for the children,” notes the book Fintry: Lives, Loves and Dreams. “The girls taken in would receive training in domestic pursuits, and the boys would be trained in manual arts and agriculture. Vocational training was to be supplemented with moral guidance and leavened with recreational pursuits in such a way that the young emigrants would be able to take their places as productive citizens in the host communities.”

The children were paid wages, half of which was held in trust until their 21st birthday and Fairbridge Farm Schools made an effort to place them in jobs through an employment agency of sorts, “thus providing a nest egg until the day when it will be of most use,” according to the January 29, 1942 Vernon News. “The aim of the school is to be a home to the children, and until a child is 21, he or she may come back to the school at any time, just as a boy or girl, finding himself (sic) temporarily out of work in ordinary life, might return to the parental roof for the time being.” It was a cozy—if unrealistic—picture.

Very much like the legendary Cecil Rhodes himself, Kingsley Fairbridge was an avid booster of Empire and its aims. Fairbridge saw his farm schools as not only rescuing poor children from “poverty, neglect, antisocial influences… deteriorated health, unemployment or blind alley occupations,” but also of converting “unneeded humanity… to the husbandry of unpeopled areas…” thus solving the “problem of Empire settlement” by importing British stock. (Fairbridge Farm Society mission statement.) Fairbridge indulged the classic sophistry of all Imperialists seeking to justify expansion of Empire: promoting the myth that these lands were “unpeopled.”

A group of children pose on the Fairbridge Farm School at Pinjarra, near Perth, Australia. Courtesy fairbridgekids.com

He and his wife Ruby departed for Western Australia in April 1912 to establish the first Fairbridge Farm School on 160 acres at Pinjarra, near Perth. The timing was hardly fortuitous. The outbreak of the First World War forced emigration to a trickle due to German attacks on British ships. “At first, the scheme almost failed for lack of sufficient funds,” noted an article in the January 29, 1942 Vernon News. “But after the war of 1914 he visited England twice, and told governments and societies of his work. This time he found listening ears and willing hearts. Today there are three of these Fairbridge Farm Schools in Australia, one of them having been fully endowed by Lady Northcote. But in 1924, this pioneer visionary died, ill and worn out, not quite 40 years of age.”

Unfortunately the Australian experience at the Pinjarra farm school was hardly what Fairbridge intended. Author Sanchia Berg, writing of one woman’s recollections of growing up there, relates a tale of abuse. “Some children seem to have been fond of their substitute parents, and have good memories of the Farm, but Jackie’s cottage mother was cruel. Lonely and scared, Jackie started wetting her bed at night. The cottage mother would force her head into the toilet and then flush it or lock her into a dark cupboard under the stairs. Jackie tried to run away but she was always brought back. ‘There was no-one to turn to,’ she told me. Jackie was disgusted to learn that the Home Office had been specifically warned about the Farm three years before she arrived but had still sent children there.” (Farm of Fear, http://poundpuplegacy.org)

British social worker Margaret Humphreys, who helped Australian child migrants reunite with family. Courtesy BBC News

The work of British social worker Margaret Humphreys in reuniting Australian child migrants with their families was initially met with a spate of denials from former Fairbridge residents, who loudly defended the institution. This soon gave way to former child migrants who began in the late 1980s to tell stories of deprivation, cruelty and brutality. When Flo Hickson, a former resident of an Australian Fairbridge Farm School visited the site in her 60s in 1987, the flood of traumatic memories caused a breakdown. She was sent to the farm at the age of five, living and working there between 1928 and 1941. Hickson was moved to write a memoir of her experiences. “Always, somewhere in a cottage, somebody was being thrashed with a strap on the bare bottom, as if life wasn’t punishing enough with the deprivation of home, family and country,” she recalls.

Australian newspaper The Daily Mail reported on June 14, 2011 that 69 former residents of Fairbridge Farm School at Molong in country New South Wales are pursuing legal action for compensation for physical and sexual abuse they allegedly suffered there. About 890 children were sent to Molong between 1936 and 1974. Counsel for the plaintiffs Peter Semmler “outlined a number of inquiries and reports from governmental bodies throughout the decades regarding allegations of abuse at the school,” including reports of sadistic beatings. ‘There was evidence British authorities blacklisted Fairbridge Farm School for a short time and recommended no more children should be sent there,’ Mr Semmler said.”

Former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd became the first head of state to offer an apology to former child migrants. Courtesy Wikipedia

To its credit, almost from the beginning, the Australian government supported Margaret Humphreys’ work by providing her with an office and a paid staff member.  Then on November 16, 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd became the first head of state from a former British colony to offer a public apology and reparations funds to its ‘forgotten children.’ “We acknowledge the particular pain of children shipped to Australia as child migrants—robbed of your families, robbed of your homeland, regarded not as innocent children but regarded instead as a source of child labour. For these failures to offer proper care to the powerless, the voiceless and the most vulnerable, we say sorry.”

The problem as always with well-intentioned philanthropists seems to be one of scale. Once the operation expands beyond a certain point, there’s simply no way to ensure that everyone in the firm will be as purely motivated. As child migration expert Dr. Barry M. Coldrey notes, professional standards for childcare staff didn’t exist before the 1960s. “Often the staff were almost as deprived as the young people for whom they were caring. In fact, some had been raised in institutions themselves. They had a sparse, sometimes miserable life and projected their frustrations on to the children.” The sheer scale of the farm schools—and the separation from real family—made Fairbridge’s vision of a village atmosphere nearly impossible. Journalist Janet Wainwright, who reviewed Flo Hickson’s memoir, concluded: “In retrospect, Kingsley Fairbridge’s philanthropic dream to give the British children a better life was no more successful than Australia’s separating Aboriginal children from their parents.”

Coming up: Part Two: Stocking the New Eden: British Columbia

Sources: A History of Fintry, by David RB Dendy, monograph, 1983, Kelowna Public Archives; Fintry: Lives, Loves and Dreams, by Stan Sauerwein with Arthur Bailey, Central Okanagan Heritage Society, 2000, Trafford; The Fairbridge Farm School, Helen Borrell, BC Historical News, Winter 1995/96; Story of the Founding of Fairbridge, The Vernon News, January 29, 1942; 38th Report of the Okanagan Historical Society, November 1, 1974;56th Report of the Okanagan Historical Society, 1992; New Lives for Old, Roger Kershaw and Janet Sacks, National Archives UK, 2008; A Mixture of Caring and Corruption, Barry M. Coldrey, Studies, an Irish Quarterly Review, 2008.

Links: http://poundpuplegacy.org/node/22643

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About seanarthurjoyce

I am a poet, journalist and author with a strong commitment to the environment and social justice. If anything, I have too many interests and too little time in a day to pursue them all. Film, poetry, literature, music, mythology, and history probably top the list. My musical interests lie firmly in rock and blues with a smattering of folk and world music. I consider myself lucky to have lived during the great flowering of modern rock music during its Golden Age in the late 1960s/early '70s. In poetry my major inspirations are Dylan Thomas, Rilke, Neruda and the early 20th century British/American poets: Auden, Eliot, Cummings. My preferred cinema includes the great French auteurs, Kirosawa, Orson Welles, and Film Noir. My preferred social causes are too numerous to mention but include banning GMOs, eliminating poverty (ha-ha), and a sane approach to forest conservation and resource extraction. Wish me—wish us all—luck on that one!
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3 Responses to Fairbridge Farm Schools—the Failed Eden?

  1. Patrick Byrne says:

    I was a home boy at Barnados sea training school from 1948 till 1949 then at 16 I was sent off to sea as a deck boy

  2. Mervyn Humphreys says:

    On 29th June, a class action by former child migrants previously resident at the Fairbridge Farm school in New South Wales, Australia resulted in a settlement worth $24 million.
    Again, it seems that implementing noble ideals can be a risky business and that vulnerable children need much more effective safeguards from ill trained staff.

  3. Thanks for the update, Melvyn. Glad to see some official and legal acknowledgement of the neglect and pain these children suffered.

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