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  • Writer's pictureCat Blesing

Child Migrant in the family update

In my previous post I wrote about discovering my husband's Grandfather was a child migrant sent from England to a Western Australian farm school. Since then I have been in contact with a delightful and helpful man, Derek, from Fairbridge Farm School where Peter Owen was sent at 10 years old. Derek contacted the State Library of W.A where the Fairbridge Archives are stored and has been working to have Peter's records sent to us. We've been patiently waiting to see what, if anything is in them.

Yesterday they arrived!

A couple inches thick of scanned records. Opening the envelope with my husband, I was worried about what we'd find, probably because of my research into the area of child migrants and what went on in some of the homes. I prayed Peter hadn't been one of 'those' boys.

We discovered school reports, a couple of health cards relating to illnesses, employment records when he was farmed out for work, receipts of half his wages that Fairbridge kept in a trust account until he turned 21, a photograph of him at around 12, and most precious and informing of all, were hand written letters by Peter himself.

The school reports were startling and confronting, though typical of the terminology used at that time. "There is nothing outstanding about him, but I see no reason why he should not develop into a good citizen. "and "this lad is not overburdened with intelligence." At age 14 Peter had some tests done, and the comments were that his mental age was 11 and that he was " backward and dull, but hardly merits return to England." A psychiatrist report at the same age states: "Though he is retarded, I am of the opinion that his retardation is within normal limits and should not interfere with his usefulness as an agricultural worker."

Oh, let us not interfere with his usefulness!

Here was a child shipped to another country at 10 years old, who possibly had limited schooling beforehand, and they wonder why he struggled. Then he had labels and judgements pronounced on him like these. My eyes watered with the indignation of it all.

Peter's first handwritten letter was for me, emotional. He was 14 at the time, employed as a farm hand, and his writing though neat and full of endearing spelling mistakes, is sweet and clearly written by a young boy. As was the one when he wrote about saving his wages for a bike at age 17. He'd been paying off a Malvern Star at a bike shop and wrote back to Fairbridge worrying about copies of the receipts to prove he'd made payments. He eventually paid off his bike, which completely teared me up for two reasons; his earlier reports said he wouldn't amount to much and here he was madly saving his hard earned wages so he could buy himself some transport, and he'd kept every receipt and track of where his wages were going. The other reason I was emotional was because bikes were in my husband's family DNA. He and his brother have always been mad keen bike riders, eventually graduating to motor bikes. I was so touched that Peter's commitment spoke volumes about his character.

We were hoping for 2 things in this search-The names of his parents, and whether or not he had a brother. In the file is a sole typed sheet with this information:

Name : Peter Owen

DOB: 9th April 1921

Creed: C of E

School Standard: 4

Ability : Average

Mother: Florence Maud Owen. Address not known. Domestic. Character, satisfactory- as far as is known.

Father: Sidney Fred Wright. Address not known-boy is illegitimate.

Character of Child: Good. Considered very suitable for life overseas.

Not much to look at, but it spoke volumes. Firstly we didn't know he was illegitimate. That would have been difficult for his mother in that time following World War One. Both parents address unknown? What does that mean? Did they leave him?

The story we thought was that his parents died and he lived with his Grandmother until she was hit by a bus and he was sent to Australia.

What really happened for him to be sent here?

"Considered very suitable for life overseas."

Those words broke my heart. He was the right age, good white stock, hopefully malleable so he wouldn't be any trouble working hard in Australia. Exactly what was being recruited from Britain in the Child Migrant schemes.

He was just ten years old.

In one letter dated 1946, we found the only clue of what we were searching for. Peter wrote:

I have got in touch with my people. My mother is dead and my brother is in the army over in India so my Aunt told me.

He did have a brother! We were elated to finally confirm this.

We're still searching for Peter's birth records, and are now waiting to see what we can find them from the UK end. Derek has someone on the case over there for us and he said there are 3 more photos of Peter. We still don't know Peter's brother's name and whether he was in fact sent to Canada as part of their migration scheme. But we're getting closer.

Reading Peter's Fairbridge Farm School file, was an emotional experience.

I said to my husband, I feel like we're on an episode of So Who Do You Think You Are.

Then I made the startling connection...

'Oh wait! That's exactly what my next book is about. I'm 25,000 words into it.'

My goosebumps got goosebumps at that moment!

I feel like I'm exactly where I'm meant to be. I hope Peter is looking down on us grateful someone is discovering his story. And perhaps we'll be able to do what we're unsure he was able to: find his brother.

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