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Queen Mother tried to ‘rescue’ British child sent to Australia

The Queen Mother intervened to try to rescue a British girl who was deported to Australia as a child migrant after her foster mother begged the royal family for help to bring her home.

Now 71, Marcelle O’Brien shook her head in disbelief as the national child abuse inquiry was told how repeated attempts to return her were made by her foster mother, a woman who had brought her up for four years and had never wanted her to be taken to Australia.

Newspaper cuttings from the UK and Australia in the early 1950s – when Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother was on the throne – were shown to the hearing in central London. They described how villagers from the foster mother’s home in Lingfield, Surrey, at one point raised money to pay for the little girl’s passage home.

Newspaper clippings of O’Brien being interviewed as a young girl in Western Australia, at a Fairbridge Society school, were also shown to the inquiry as the story of the appeal made news in the British colony. But the society, a leading proponent of the child migrant programme, refused all appeals for her return, saying she had been sent for a better life in Australia.

“I didn’t know anything about it,” O’Brien told the hearing.

Visibly moved as she gave her evidence, O’Brien described how, far from having a better life in Australia, she was brought up as “slave labour” at the Fairbridge school in Pinjarra, forced to eat pig swill and called “a little gutter snipe” by the women who were supposed to be caring for her.

She suffered excessive punishment beatings at the hands of a male teacher with sticks, and was sexually assaulted from a young age by the school’s deputy principal.

At one point, while sent to work on a farm by the Fairbridge Society as a teenager, she was gang-raped by three men. She never told anyone because she knew no one would take any notice. “They wouldn’t listen, they never listened. They told us we were dirty bitches and were asking for it, so what was the point in telling them anything,” she said.

None of the alleged perpetrators of the abuse were named in the hearing, however, despite pleas to the inquiry on Monday by David Hill, another former child migrant, that those who carried out abuse be “named and shamed”.

My mum told me ‘the bastards took you from me. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about you’

It was not until O’Brien gained the support of the Child Migrants Trust and saw her files – decades later – that she discovered her foster mother had fought hard to have her returned and that her biological mother had never given permission for her to be deported.

At one point in the early 1950s, when George VI was on the throne, O’Brien’s foster mother wrote to the Queen, asking for help to have her returned. In a letter to the Fairbridge Society, the Queen Mother’s lady-in-waiting, Jean Rankin, wrote: “The Queen commands me to ask you the position and if the foster carer is a suitable person, is there any way by which the child could be brought back?”

But the director of the society refused the request. Instead, he told the Queen that O’Brien had been taken from sordid neglect with an “undesirable” mother into their care and migrated to Australia. They said it was “thought to be unrealistic” for her to be brought up by her foster mother, because she was 60 and went out to work.

But in reality the society had taken her away against the advice of the local authority, and against the wishes of her foster mother and her biological mother.

In what Henrietta Hill, QC for the inquiry, said was a tussle between the Fairbridge Society and Surrey council over what was best for the four-year-old girl, several attempts were made to keep her in the UK by the local authority.

The council said the foster mother wanted to adopt O’Brien at her own expense. She had, the council said, “shown her every kindness”.

“We believe it would be in the best interests of the child to leave her with her foster mother.”

But the society refused, saying a move to have her adopted, they said, created a risk of her biological mother – whom they described as “undesirable” – getting access to her child again, and of “unfortunate influences” being “brought to bear on the child’s life”.

In 1949, at the age of four, O’Brien boarded a ship bound for Australia.

“Where did you think you were going?” Hill asked O’Brien on Tuesday.

“On a tea party,” she replied.

Migration documents from the Fairbridge Society purported to show a signed consent letter from O’Brien’s biological mother to the migration – something O’Brien denied had ever happened. Holding up a picture of her real mother to the inquiry, O’Brien said she had found her with the help of the Child Migrants Trust when her mother was in her eighties. “That’s my mum. That’s a picture of her when I first saw her. She told me: ‘The bastards took you from me. There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think of you.’”