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Stories of the lost children are finally heard

Date

Megan Doherty

Former child migrant Michael Snell shows his diary to Margy Burn, Assistant Director-General, National Library of Australia. He was involved in oral history project of forgotten Australians and former child migrants at the NLA.

Former child migrant Michael Snell shows his diary to Margy Burn, Assistant Director-General, National Library of Australia. He was involved in oral history project of forgotten Australians and former child migrants at the NLA. Photo: National Library of Australia

Former child migrant Michael Snell has more than made up for an early life bereft of love after he was placed in institutional care as a three-month-old in England.

''I was born out of wedlock, that was my crime,'' he said.

After being shipped to Australia from England as a child migrant at the age of 14 following years of cold, strict, brutal ''care'', he eventually married a nurse in Sydney and worked to create a family of his own.

''Fifty-six years later and six kids later and eight grand-children and two great-grandchildren, I'm still going,'' he said.

In Australia, he was placed at a Methodist children's home in Carlingford, Sydney, where he stayed for nine months before he ''shot through'' to work on a dairy farm on the south coast.

Mr Snell said ''the biggest thing in [care] was the loneliness''.

''You never had Christmases or birthdays. The first birthday or Christmas present I got was when I was engaged,'' he said.

The heartbreaking stories of the forgotten Australians and former child migrants have been collected in an oral history project at the National Library of Australia, which officially marked the conclusion of the often emotional work on Friday with the launch of the commemorative booklet, You Can't Forget Things Like That.

The federal government announced in November 2009 as part of the national apology to the forgotten Australians and former child migrants that the library would undertake the project.

A parliamentary inquiry estimated there were 500,000 forgotten Australians and 6000 former child migrants who spent their childhood in 800 institutions across the nation last century.

Forty-one specially-trained historians conducted the interviews across Australia, recording the stories of people in care from the 1920s to the 1980s. The oldest interviewee was 98, the youngest 34.

The library's assistant director-general, Margy Burn, said the project featured more than 200 interviews.

At Friday's function, Ms Burn reflected the powerful emotions of the subject matter, appearing on the verge of tears as she addressed some of the interviewees, saying the project had been ''a deeply moving experience''.

''We've learnt so much from you and were honoured you trusted us to safeguard your stories in childhood and in your subsequent lives,'' she said.

Their stories would ''never be forgotten''.

Mr Snell, 77, living in Sawtell in northern NSW, said his inclusion in the project was ''another step forward''.

''I've been waiting 62 years for this,'' he said.

While Ms Burn acknowledged many of the children in care later took their own life, Mr Snell had survived, enraged by ''all the different religious groups who housed bloody paedophiles''.

''You've got introverts and extroverts and I'm an extrovert,'' he said. ''I'll stand up to anyone, look them in the eye and if I've got to punch them in the eye, I'll do that too. But the introverts go the other way and the paedophiles know it, so they're the ones they go for. They're all cowards.''

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