Brothers separated for 43 years by cruel child migrant scheme to Australia finally reunited in Britain after desperate search
- Bruce, Rex and Kevin Wilton reunited in Cornwall after 43 years apart
- Separated in 1970 when youngest brothers were shipped to Tasmania
- Rex returned to UK in his 20s but Kevin remained in Australia
- Youngest sibling was tracked down in New South Wales four years ago
- Brothers were able to reunite with the help of the Family Restoration Fund
- Men suffered ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ abuse while in care overseas
- Over 130,000 children were shipped abroad in ‘shameful’ program
Three brothers who were torn apart when two were shipped to Australia as part of the child migrant scheme in seventies have been reunited in Britain – 43 years after the last time they were all together.
Rex, Bruce and Kevin Wilton were separated as children after being taken into care following the death of their father.
However as authorities decided the care for unwanted children had become too expensive, the boys, like thousands of others, were offered the chance of a ‘better’ life abroad.
While the eldest brother Bruce opted to stay and work on a British pig farm instead, his younger siblings were shipped to work on farms in Australia where they endured ‘mental and physical abuse’.
The boys lost touch shortly after their departure, and went decades without a hint of each other’s whereabouts.
But, with the help of the Child Migrant Trust, the family from Mevagissey in Cornwall have been able to reunite in the UK.
Father-of-three Bruce said: ‘It was very emotional.
‘It was great for my kids and family to meet them. It’s still sinking in that we’re finally together as a three.’
Kevin and Rex Wilton at their childhood home in Cornwall in the 1960s. The pair were sent to Tazmania as children but lost contact shortly after arriving
The boys were taken into care in when Bruce was seven after their father, who had ‘walked out’ on them and their mother, in Cornwall.
After living together in foster homes for seven years, they were offered the chance to go to Australia in a school assembly announcement.
Bruce chose to stay in the UK while his younger siblings boarded the very last deportee plane in December 1970.
The oldest of the brothers told Mail Online: ‘I remember, later, I regretted not going.’
‘As I got older every time I saw a book or a poster about Australia it reminded me I had lost my brothers.
‘We were told it was the land of opportunity. But, now, hearing what happened to them out there, I’m glad I didn’t go,’ he said.
Younger brothers Rex and Kevin were sent to Tasmania where they worked on farms together for several years before being separated.
When asked what kind of treatment they endured, their older brother simply said: ‘Slave labour’.
‘There were hundreds of them out there, hundreds,’ Bruce added.
Rex, who was just 11 when sent overseas said: ‘The whole experience ruined my life. We were treated like slaves. It was wrong and should never have happened.
‘The care home was brutal – if the grass wasn’t cut in a certain way you’d be punished for it and he’d throw things at you like a stone or a shovel until it was done right.’
‘I believe that all our choices, by being in Australia, were taken away from us.’
Disillusioned with the country he’d been sent to in the hope of a better life, Rex returned to the UK in his 20s after selling all of his possessions to buy a ticket.
His search for older brother Bruce took a fortuitous turn one day while on he was on a train to Plymouth.
Bruce, 57, recalls how his younger brother ‘met a rather innocuous woman’ who was able to track him down after the pair got chatting on the train.
‘I don’t know how she was able to find me,’ he said, ‘but she did,’ adding the woman – who neither of them had ever met – happened to know where Bruce worked at the time.
They were reunited and began searching for youngest brother, Kevin, though this proved a more difficult feat.
‘It was just blockage after blockage after blockage – a series of dead ends,’ said Bruce.
‘It wasn’t that we didn’t want to find him it was just so difficult back then,’.
But in 2010, following former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s apology to surviving migrant children, they were able to find their long-lost brother with the help of the Child Migrant Trust.
‘Rex found them,’ Bruce said, speaking of Kevin and his family, who were living in New South Wales at the time.
After their daughters began communicating on Facebook, the men arranged Kevin’s overdue return to Cornwall.
Speaking of their separate lives, Kevin, a retired miner said: ‘I have such fond memories of us as young boys and the jokes and laughter are still exactly the same.
THE CHILD MIGRATION PROGRAMME THAT TORE THOUSANDS OF FAMILIES APART AND LED TO THE HORRIFIC ABUSE OF ‘ORPHANED’ CHILDREN
The origins of the scheme go back to 1618 when a hundred children were sent from London to Richmond, Virginia, with the final party of children arriving in Australia in 1970.
It is estimated that over 130,000 children from the United Kingdom were taken away from their struggling families and shipped to Canada, New Zealand, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and Australia as part of the programme which saw these vulnerable children as ‘ideal immigrants’.
In the post-war era, approximately 3,300 children were shipped to Australia while New Zealand, Rhodesia and Canada received a combined total of about 1,000 children.
It is thought the children, often as young as three, were separated from their siblings and told their parents were dead in order for them to make a fresh start abroad.
They were sent away with the expectation of a better life in a foreign land, but the reality that awaited them was one of torment and abuse.
Most were enslaved to hard labour on farms in Australia and Canada, while in New Zealand children were placed with foster parents.
‘THE ABSOLUTE TRAGEDY OF CHILDHOODS LOST’: BRITAIN AND AUSTRALIA APOLOGISE TO MIGRANT CHILDREN FOR ‘THE DEPORTATION OF INNOCENTS’
In 2009 Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the surviving migrant children in Canberra, expressing remorse for the ‘absolute tragedy of childhoods lost’.
Speaking to an audience of around 900, he said: ‘We are sorry.
‘Sorry that, as children, you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused.
‘Sorry for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care.’
‘A turning point for shattered lives, a turning point for governments at all levels and of every political hue and colour to do all in our power to never allow this to happen again.’
The following year Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a separate apology for the ‘misguided’ scheme.
Speaking in the House of Commons the former Chancellor said: ‘To all those former child migrants and their families… we are truly sorry. They were let down.
‘We are sorry they were allowed to be sent away at the time when they were most vulnerable. We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back.
‘And we are sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded.
‘And we are sorry that it has taken so long for this important day to come and for the full and unconditional apology that is justly deserved.’
Mr Brown subsequently set up a £6million fund to help surviving families reunite.
It was this fund that enabled the Wilton brothers to come together after being separated for 43 years.
‘I never thought we would get the chance to be together as a three again. There’s no way we’re going to lose contact again – I’ve missed them both so much.’
Speaking of the sequence of events that tore them apart, Kevin said: ‘We were too young to realize what was really going to happen.
‘When we arrived out there it was a extremely hard.
‘There was both physical and mental abuse at the home. They treated you just like a number – you never had any choices.
‘Myself and Rex had stayed in contact through letters but we eventually lost contact.
‘They sent me from place to place but over time Australia started to feel like home and I decided to stay.’
During Kevin’s visit the brothers plan to introduce him to other family members and spend their time visiting places from their childhood.
‘We went back to our hometown where we spent most of our childhood. It was like walking back in time.
‘It was very special,’ said Rex.
Though Kevin is due to return to Australia next month, the men are certain not to lose touch again with – especially since their children have established communication with each other online.
‘It was very sad what happened to us back in the 70s,’ said Bruce.
‘But you know, now we’re back together it’s as though we were never apart.’