“I travelled from Australia when I was 44 to meet my mother in a hospital room in Leeds, England,” recounts Lambton resident Michael (Mick) Kenny. “When we met, she pulled my baby photo out of her purse, smiled, cried and said I looked just like my father.”
I’ve known Mick for ten years so it’s a daunting task to try to do justice to his story. I’ll tell you some of the things I think Mick would tell you if you met him.
Mick would show you his most prized possession: a letter his mother wrote to the Reverend Mother at Nazareth House, a former orphanage in Romsey, England in 1946. It’s a heartbreaking letter, a handwritten reminder of the greatest tragedy of his and his mother’s lives: promises of a mother’s love, made and kept to no avail. It offers some long overdue answers about a lost childhood. “It feels pretty strange to hold that letter in your hand knowing it had come from hers.”
The letter tells of a frightened 19 year old who feels she has disgraced her family and Catholic religion through her pregnancy to a Canadian soldier; her valiant attempts to care for her child while working to pay for baby food, nappies and rent. It tells of her acting on the advice of her priest, writing to the Orphanage requesting they care for Mick. “Her brother,” she said, “was saving for a house and she would be back for me when they had somewhere to live,” Mick recalls.
With sadness and confusion Mick will tell you that when his mother and her sister came for him after six months they were told he had been adopted “by a good Catholic family. I learned much later that my family was a casualty of the British Child Migration Scheme and that many other mothers and children lost each other this way.”
Mick will tell you of the sense of anticipation he felt during his voyage to Australia, “a magical place with lots of promises.” He disembarked from the SS Ormonde at Circular Quay, was rounded up with 30 other boys from the ship and placed in the care of the Daughters of Charity. He remembers the long train trip to Newcastle, and his arrival at Mayfield’s former Murray Dwyer Orphanage. “It was at the top of the hill, a big red brick building. There was a big pine tree outside. The building’s been knocked down now, but I remember paddocks that used to come right up to the back of the building. The pine tree is still standing there on the empty block.”
Like Mick, we won’t dwell on the documented cruelty, hunger and hardship, neglect, lack of affection and poor education outcomes that were common in children’s institutions and which he experienced for 14 of the first 15 years of his life. Mick will tell you how boys would be presented to families, “a bit like a police line-up”, so they could choose one or more to spend weekends and holidays with them. He’ll tell you of the desolation he felt each time he had to stay behind; of his short-lived excitement when he was about nine and thought a family was considering adopting him.
Sometimes he’ll be brought to quiet tears as he tells you of the dawning realisation that the promises of holiday and adventure in this new land were not for him. “I remember a group of us sitting on the hill one day trying to work out how to build a raft. We could see this strip of water, the Hunter River. We figured if we could just get across that water, like we came, we’d be home.”
“I do have a few good memories of Murray Dwyer,” Mick continues. “When we got to leave the orphanage it was pretty special. We even enjoyed being taken down to the BHP gates on pay day with our donation boxes and “Murray Dwyer” pinned across our chests. The workers were kind; big rough men who’d ruffle your hair when they put money in the box.
“There was one rickety old bike for 130 boys. I’d push off and fly down the blue metal road, bumping along, skidding at the bottom with stones flying up around me. Then I’d push it back up to the waiting queue of boys, not even feeling the sharp stones under my bare feet.
“We only had one pair of sandals that we had to keep good, so we ran around barefoot, even in the winter. We used to follow the cows around so we could step on the warm cowpats. I remember the steaming warmth and the relief from the cold.
“We Pommy boys stuck together. We were a sort of family. That’s how I feel about those guys to this day. We look out for each other and always will. Now we are beginning to bury each other.”
Aged 12, Mick was sent to St Vincent’s Boys Home, Westmead. Apart from his love of playing in the school band and his prowess on the football field, this was a particularly bleak and devastating period. Mick gently moves the conversation on, "That’s another story.”
Aged almost 15, the Marist Brothers asked him where he’d like to live. While Mick was desperately unhappy at Westmead, he had no sense of where else to go. He suggested a family in Cooks Hill, Newcastle, because one of his Child Migrant friends was living there. “The brothers got a bed for me there and got me a job as a spray painter. They gave me £2, a train ticket and the first pair of shoes I didn’t have to share. They told me I could come back to visit. That was it, no goodbye – just like Nazareth House and Murray Dwyer. You’d think I might have felt freedom but it was mainly fear I felt on that train trip.
“It was March 8, 1962 when everything changed for the better. That’s when I met Sue.”
Sue and Mick’s relationship had to endure starkly contrasting family and religious backgrounds. By this time, Mick was ashamed of his past, often having been referred to as a “Pommy bastard”. For a long time Sue didn’t know his real name and believed he belonged to the family in Cooks Hill.
Their relationship has survived Sue and her family’s learning Mick’s truth, and Mick’s serious work accident when he broke his back and faced likely paraplegia, before his 21st birthday.
“From the day I met Sue’s family I knew I’d found my family. My Susie saved me, and she saves me every day. She looks out for me. I am so lucky.”
Together Mick and Sue have raised three children and are the proud grandparents of six. Thanks to Sue’s insistence, they have found most of the pieces of Mick’s puzzle. Each acknowledges that the story is not as simple as the seemingly happy ending in the Leeds hospital. Together they have lived with the impact of Mick’s grief for what he missed, for the life he could have led. They have lived Mick’s learning to be a brother, uncle and cousin in his English family. “The feeling of being torn has continued to be a major part of my life since I found my English family; the bitter-sweetness of reunion with a family you didn’t know you had. Every Christmas I feel the tug to be home, but which home? Sometimes I still wonder who I really am.”
Mick has been the driving force behind a Mass and Reunion for the British Child Migrants being held on 21 October to commemorate the 60th anniversary of their arrival at the orphanage. With the support of Elermore Vale Lions Club, Mick has worked to include a visit to the Murray Dwyer site on reunion day.
Mick was inspired to organise the reunion after the success of the 2002 50th anniversary reunion. A high point then was Mick’s meeting former Bishop of Maitland-Newcastle, Michael Malone, whom he affectionately refers to as ‘Mick’. “He was the first person from the Church to apologise. It was pretty emotional for all of us. His words were heartfelt. You could see he was really moved by our stories. There wasn’t a dry eye that day.”
Mick will tell you of his pride in representing the British Child Migrants at the formal apologies of the Australian and British governments. You’ll observe Mick’s need to raise awareness of the tragedy of the Child Migration scheme and his sense that no matter what is done, it will never be quite enough.
You’ll notice that Mick is not bitter. “I’ve had a fortunate and amazing life. Now it’s rich and full of goodness. I’ve come full circle.”