Gill Thompson had “a shock of surprise” when she first saw her novel, The Oceans Between Us, listed under ‘Historical Fiction’, she tells Historia. Was she really a historical fiction writer?
I’m not sure I ever intended to be – although perhaps I should have had an inkling. As a child I was obsessed by the Tudors, and forever starting to write novels about Anne Boleyn. All I knew as an adult, though, was that I wanted to write a book with big themes and powerful emotions; a novel that moved people and hopefully stayed with them for a long time.
For years I was too busy carving out a living (I’m a sixth-form English teacher) and bringing up a family to find time to write, although I managed the odd article for an A-level magazine. Then my father died and left me some money. He’d always believed in me as a writer and I knew he’d have approved of me spending it to further my latent ambition.
It was around that time that I was in the kitchen, listening idly to the lunchtime news on the radio and performing some dull domestic task, when I heard an item that stopped me in my tracks. The then Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, was apologising to a group of ex-child migrants to Australia on behalf of a British Government who’d allowed them to be sent across decades before.
The children were told their parents were dead when many were in fact still alive. My first thought was what a shocking account. My second was what a powerful story it would make.
I had been searching for a while for a subject on which to base a novel, and this event excited both my pity and my imagination. I came across the book Oranges and Sunshine (formerly Empty Cradles) by Margaret Humphries, the Nottinghamshire social worker who first unearthed the scandal, and that provided more in-depth information on the ex-child migrants’ stories.
Orphans of the Empire by Alan Gill gave me the historical context to this heart-wrenching story. I discovered that Britain has a long history of ‘exporting’ human ‘stock’ to Australia.
It began with convicts in the 18th century, when the first penal colonies were established, and ended with child migrants in the late 1960s when the changing social attitudes of a more enlightened age finally ended it. It’s estimated that 150,000 children in total were sent to countries in the Empire, with around 10,000 of them to Australia since 1947.
Far from experiencing the wonderful life they were promised, they were sent to live in harsh conditions, were poorly educated, submitted to hard labour and sometimes abused. Britain is one of the few countries in the world to have exported its young in this way. It took 43 years for the apologies to come from the respective prime ministers of Britain and Australia.
But I realised books could only tell me so much: I needed to speak to some of the people who had been through this experience. Firstly it would give my writing more authenticity, and secondly I owed it to the ex-child migrants to convey their stories faithfully. An advert I placed in an Australian newsletter led me to Joan Thorpe, now in her 90s, who had gone out on the SS Asturias, the first ship to go to Australia after the war, as a young nanny in 1947. We exchanged emails and spoke on the phone. A chapter on my protagonist’s sea voyage to Australia is based on details supplied by Joan.
Betty Tredinnick, who lived near Croydon, where her shopkeeper father kept his excess stock of fireworks under her bed for the duration of the Blitz, supplied some of the details of wartime life in England, as did John and Pauline Montgomery. Pauline’s memories of being incarcerated in the Waddon Fever Hospital as a child provided the background for one of my child character’s frightening hospitalisation for polio.
My research took me to newspaper articles, websites and personal accounts, each revealing different stories about child migrants, and each deepening my sympathy and sense of outrage. I have my child migrant character being ‘rescued’ because I think it makes for a more complex and ultimately uplifting story. Fiction writers are allowed to do that! He doesn’t escape unscathed though, and although his experience at Bindoon, the boys’ home where many cruelties were inflicted, is mercifully short, it is still damaging.
I knew the child migrant issue, if fictionalised, had all the potential to arouse the powerful emotions I wanted to create through my writing. Human dramas usually have the capacity to move, but, when based on real life stories, there is an extra level of resonance, a deeper sense of outrage, a more lasting impact. Perhaps it was through a historical novel that I would achieve the kind of book I dreamt of producing.
But I wanted to write the best book I could and therefore needed expert help. Although I have an English Literature degree, and am a voracious reader, I didn’t think that was enough. So I enrolled on a Creative Writing MA at the University of Chichester. My wise teachers and fellow students helped me realised that it isn’t enough to ‘dump’ historical fact in a novel; it has to be carefully embedded, and the readers encouraged to bond with engaging characters and become involved in a compelling plot. Only then will they be fully moved by the impact of historical events.
But I feel a frisson of pride too.
The Oceans Between Us by Gill Thompson is published by Headline on 21 March.
See more about The Oceans Between Us in Historia’s Latest releases column
Children leaving Alverstock National Childrens Home in 1950: theirhistory on Flickr
Child migrants being shown where they will live in Australia; waving goodbye to the ‘mother country’;
on board ship: all as above
Migrant children at Parliament House, June 1959:
Queensland State Archives