Kin and scholarship meet in tale of child migration

LSE academic’s work on Empire Settlement Act draws on a family connection, reports Matthew Reisz

February 24, 2010

Gordon Brown was today due to apologise to the thousands of British children sent across the globe as a result of the Empire Settlement Act of 1922.

For Kristen Rundle, an Australian academic now based in the UK, the aftershocks of those events continue to echo through both her family life and professional research.

Her grandfather, Joseph Rundle, was just one of the many casualties of the resettlement.

He was born in 1921, but his mother died when he was two and his father was unable to raise him on his own.

He was put into the Middlemore Emigration Home in Birmingham at the age of eight and then, in 1934, was sent to a farming school in Australia.

Such schools were the brainchild of Kingsley Fairbridge, a Rhodes scholar who believed they could rescue British children from poverty while also strengthening imperial capacity by turning them into “efficient, God-fearing men and women, keen to build up a fortune for themselves”.

The agricultural training proved an unhappy experience for Mr Rundle, but he went on to join the Australian Army and later got married.

Yet when his wife fell ill with a degenerative brain condition, he repeated the pattern and failed to look after his seven children.

The children were split up in 1958 when they were sent to separate institutions, and they have never been reunited.

Fifty years on, Kristen Rundle, a lecturer in law at the London School of Economics and Mr Rundle’s granddaughter, described her interest in the child migration scheme as “both personal and professional”.

When she was growing up, she said, she and her relatives had distinctly mixed feelings about her paternal grandfather, “oscillating between compassion and resentment for a man who really didn’t understand relations to other people, who didn’t really ‘get’ family, although he carried a photo of his mother for his entire life. I’ve witnessed a lot of vulnerability, trauma and damage.”

Alongside a desire “to address the trauma”, Dr Rundle found that the topic fed directly into her research interests in “the issue of agency and vulnerability in a legal context”, and the ways that “the law shapes lived experience, facilitating or hindering particular choices in our lives”.

There were cases of children affected by the Empire Settlement Act who were deceived about whether their parents were still alive and others who suffered deprivation and abuse while in care.

But Dr Rundle puts equal stress on the negative consequences of the fact that “the law didn’t even address the children”, with the Empire Settlement Act merely referring to government assistance for “suitable persons” who “intended to settle” in the dominions.

“There was a real silence about what was going on,” she said.

“It seemed perfectly natural to be sending thousands of children to the far corners of the Earth, in the context of the empire needing to be strengthened.

“Child welfare was conflated with empire building. Children such as my grandfather were treated as second-class citizens and granted no powers of choice but conceived of as an instrument of empire at the expense of any kind of richer future for them.”

In researching the background to her family history, Dr Rundle added, “the threads have come together in a way that is organic. The personal and intellectual have merged in a way that is enriching for both, though sometimes emotionally draining.”

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

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