Today Gordon Brown is expected to apologise to my grandfather, Joseph John Rundle. Joe was among the thousands of British children taken from their country and sent to Australia under the child migration scheme. When in 1934, aged 13, he boarded the ship Jervis Bay, bound for Pinjarra, in the west of the country, the scheme was being publicised as a great opportunity for poor and orphaned youngsters. A four-page advertising spread in The Times in June 1934 depicted miserable children in British slums next to happy faces on the docks, with the caption "Good-bye to all that!"
The reality, as we now know, turned out to be very different. Trained only to be farmers or domestic servants, children were often used for cheap labour and there were instances of abuse and neglect. Still, when we look at those who facilitated the child migration schemes it is difficult, if not impossible to demonstrate ill-intent on their part.
It is almost certain that continuing destitution in England would have been the fate of these children. Child migration lifted them out of that likely fate, took them to lands of abundant sunshine. Some, including my grandfather Joe who was sent to a Fairbridge Farm school, received good square meals, a basic school education, and training.
But while there might have been good intentions, there was also a fundamental failing: at no point were these children considered to be the bearers of any kind of choice. Even if in the spirit of rescue, the institutional schemes that attended to their upbringing regarded the child migrants as merely something to be acted on, farmers and servants in the making to be distributed to those parts of the Dominion where they might add value – and, critically, away from where they would not.
My grandfather's story reflects this. He had been signed over to the Child Emigration Society, with the support of the British government, after his father struggled to raise him on his own. His mother had died when he was two. At his farm school in Australia he was assigned to work at a local farm, but he was clearly unhappy. One placement after the next failed to work out. Desperate to leave, he tried to enlist with the army, lying about his age.
However when he eventually left, it seems the scheme had left him ill-equipped to cope with the demands of life. He succeeded in joining the army and got married. But then history repeated itself. His wife developed a degenerative brain condition and was institutionalized. Joe appeared unable to cope and put all of his seven children, aged from two to 15 years, into institutions. Since that day in 1958, my father and his siblings have never again been together in the same room.
My family's story, and that of many others, offers obvious lessons for practitioners of child welfare, social policy, psychology and many other disciplines. But the child migration story also offers some important insights into how the law addresses our most vulnerable. Lessons that infuse my own academic work, three generations later. Although it authorized the removal of thousands of British children to the far corners of the earth, the Empire Settlement Act 1922 actually says nothing whatsoever about child migration. Instead, its most vulnerable subjects are effectively invisible, something to be delegated without mention to the administrative sphere where agreements as to their fate were brokered with the voluntary child migration associations.
Yes the child migration scheme might have been dreamt up with some worthy intentions. But those behind it failed to understand that connection to family and identity, and being regarded as deserving of choices in life, are values too great to measure. If the measure of a civilised society is how it treats its most vulnerable, the lessons of these past failures must be brought to the way that our laws and institutions address the vulnerable today. Apologies are a time not only for recognition, but for putting a mirror to ourselves and our current practices.
After his death, a photograph of his mother Minnie, who had died when he was two, was found in Joe's wallet. He had, it seems, been carrying it on his person since he was 8 years old.
This article first appeared on guardian.co.uk's Comment is Free
Dr Kristen Rundle is a Lecturer in Law, with a specialty in legal philosophy. Her current research interests include law's relationship to agency and vulnerability, and the connections between law and the Holocaust.