Notts Rebels: Margaret Humphreys

Wednesday 10 June 2020
reading time: min, words

In celebration of the Nottingham Castle Trust’s #VoicesofToday campaign, our Notts Rebels series continues with Margaret Humphreys, the social worker who has devoted her life to bringing justice to the victims of Britain's government programme of Home Children 


Like the NHS staff, bus drivers and various key workers who have been praised for their dedication, generosity and resilience during this pandemic, there are certain professions who have secured their reputations by changing the lives of those they encounter – with care workers being a prime example: rescuing young children from toxic or potentially dangerous domestic situations, and striving to find them a forever family all in a day's work. But for one Nottingham-born care worker, changing the lives of  – and fighting for justice for – over a thousand families across the globe would become her life's work. And it all began with a single envelope.

In 1986, on what would have been an average day at work for the 42-year-old, a letter fell on Maragret Humphreys’ desk, from a woman looking for help. Working in child protection and adoption services for Nottinghamshire County Council, this wouldn’t have been a rare occurrence. The letter came from a young woman in Australia, who told Margaret she had been born in Nottingham but was relocated overseas after she became an orphan at a young age. She had no idea if her name or birthdate were correct, but she was about to get married and required help to source her birth certificate. 

There was nothing peculiar about the letter – care workers received requests like this on a regular basis. But there was a chilling detail in this letter which caught Margaret’s attention: during her retelling of her journey across the world, the woman had mentioned she was not the only orphan on the boat that day. Margaret agreed to do some research for the woman, and set about finding details of her life, and that of her parents too. The latter became somewhat easier when Margaret found the orphan’s mother alive and well, living less than 25 miles away from Nottingham. 

Absorbed by questions over social services actions, her attention was drawn back to an encounter she’d had a few months previously: during a session of a post-adoption group she runs in Nottingham, Margaret had met another woman who had discovered a brother she never knew she had, a brother who had been shipped over to Australia as a child. 

The Archbishop of Perth stated “If we do not supply from our own stock, we are leaving ourselves more exposed to the menacing of the teeming millions of our Asiatic races.”

What Margaret uncovered over the next two years can only be described as an atrocity. Her detective work began with putting advertisements in Australian newspapers, asking for people with similar stories to reach out. After a dozen or so responses, Margaret and Annabel Ferriman, a journalist at The Observer set off to Aus to meet them. The same story played out time and time again – kids relocated to Australia after being told of their parents' deaths who had grown into confused adults, and who, on further investigation, did not really lose their parents at all. Upon Margaret’s return to the UK, and aided by her husband Mervyn – who had signed up for a doctorate at Nottingham University to gain easy access to the archives – they set about uncovering the truth. 

The truth is what is now known as Home Children, a child migration scheme founded in the UK in 1869 under which more than 150,000 British children – some as young as three – were sent to Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and other parts of the Commonwealth without parental knowledge. The scheme hit popularity in the post-war era, and continued until 1970. 

Historically, the forced migration of orphaned children occurred to alleviate the shortage of labour to allied colonies, beginning with the transportation of 100 English children to the Virginia Colony in 1618, but there’s varying arguments as to why it was later reigned. The schemes founder, Annie MacPherson argued that the children would have a better life lending a helping hand on farms in Oz, and shipped them off with the promise of “oranges and sunshine,” but later information suggests economics had a hand in it: it cost approximately £5 a day to keep a child on welfare in Britain in 1947, but only ten shillings for equivalent care in Australia – an appealing stat to a country dealing with the fallout of a world war. Even more disturbingly, race played a part too. When welcoming a boat load of boys in 1983, the Archbishop of Perth stated “If we do not supply from our own stock, we are leaving ourselves more exposed to the menacing of the teeming millions of our Asiatic races.” 

Many children who had grown up in care, or were temporarily living away from home while their family recovered from the financial stress of the war, were told the same lie as the woman Margaret first encounters, or that they were the offspring of British whores who did not want them. Parents were told their children had been placed for adoption elsewhere in the country. The reality of the schene is heartbreaking – sadly the promise of this idicic life was nothing but hyperbole, and many of the children became victis of both physical and sexual abuse. 

Let’s pay attention to her: it’s clear Margaret has a lot to teach us all

In response to the publishing of two expose articles in The Observer in July 1987, Margaret established the Child Migrants Trust, which enabled these former British migrants to reclaim their personal identity and reunited them with the parents and relatives they left behind. Initially financed by Nottinghamshire County Council and later by the British and Australian governments, you can still find Margaret in her West Bridgford office today, working to fill the voids left in families across the country. 

The secondary aim of the trust is to continue shouting about this injustice as loudly as possible. A TV documentary, Lost Children of the Empire, aired in 1989 alongside a historical book, and in 1992 came the biggest spike in attention to date; The Leaving of Liverpool TV series overwhelmed helplines in both Australia and Britain, receiving a total of around 10,000 calls. Margaret published her own account, Empty Cradles in 1994, and her work was then dramatised in 2011 in the film Oranges and Sunshine in which she was portrayed by British actress Emily Watson. 

In thirty years she’s helped reunite over 1000 families, and in that time has only encountered a handful who were actually orphans. Margaret was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in March 1993, and gifted accolades by both Nottingham universities. After lobbying for official state apologies, both former Prime Ministers Gordon Brown and Kevin Rudd (Aus) issued public apologies for participation in the scheme in 2010, and a year later Margaret was recognised in the New Year’s Honours List and was appointed a CBE for services to disadvantaged people. 

But Margaret’s work is far from done, and she’s far from letting the mistakes of a generation before us define the lives of innocent pawns in political wrongdoing. Let’s pay attention to her: it’s clear Margaret has a lot to teach us all.

‘Voices of Today’ is aimed at inspiring Nottingham residents to get creative and represent their experiences or perspectives on activism, protest and rebellion in a number of ways, including poetry, drawing, singing, acting, dance, creating a protest banner or something different altogether.

You can submit your artistic take on Nottingham's history of activism, protest and rebellion at @nottmcastle using the hashtag #VoicesofToday  

We have a favour to ask

LeftLion is Nottingham’s meeting point for information about what’s going on in our city, from the established organisations to the grassroots. We want to keep what we do free to all to access, but increasingly we are relying on revenue from our readers to continue. Can you spare a few quid each month to support us?

Support LeftLion

You might also like

Please note, we migrated all recently used accounts to the new site, but you will need to request a password reset

Sign in using

Or using your

Forgot password?

Register an account

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.

Forgotten your password?

Reset your password?

Password must be at least 8 characters long, have 1 uppercase, 1 lowercase, 1 number and 1 special character.