The lost boys: New Zealand’s shame

by Pamela Stirling

From the NZ Listener archive

For two small boys, a post-war scheme offering a ‘new life’ in New Zealand provided slavery, abuse and rejection instead.

When 11-year-old Malcolm Axcell boarded the Rimutaka for New Zealand in early 1949, it was the beginning of a long, sad odyssey. This boy was to be the first of 600 child migrants to step ashore in New Zealand in the post-war years.

He had been sent far from his war-tom and poverty-stricken family in London – his stepfather had lost a leg in the war – to a new life in what a New Zealand newspaper article described in glowing terms as the “space and fresh air” of his aunt and uncle’s state house in Meadowbank.

Such was the belief in the ennobling power of hard work in the colonies that Malcolm was seen as lucky to have the opportunity to scrub out the washhouse and dig the garden, as he had done the day the reporter visited. But what nobody noticed was just how much work the boy was made to do. And what nobody asked was how a couple who had been reported to Child Welfare the year before for keeping an 18-month-old foster child tethered to a post in the garden and who had been judged “not satisfactory” as foster parents could be allowed to take Malcolm in a government-sponsored scheme simply because he was a relative.


“All of a sudden,” says Axcell, “I was their slave. They had a new state house and the grass around it was waist high. It was my job to dig that quarter acre. I wasn’t allowed to go out and play after school or at weekends. I had to get them breakfast in the morning, wash the dishes, sweep the floors, clean the house and get the section dug.

“Imagine,” he says, “bringing a child in from Somalia, and putting him to work doing heavy digging all day. Nutritionally those kids are history, and people say it just couldn’t happen here. But it did happen. It happened to me.”

At 11, Axcell was just six stone (38kg). Child Welfare officers noted him as being “anorexic” and suffering from “numerous colds and general malaise”. He was so unwell he couldn’t attend school for the first two months in New Zealand; years later his constitution was still described by welfare officers as “frail”.

But right from the start his aunt and uncle made it clear that he was there only to work. “It was like being in a strict camp. I had to knock before I entered the lounge. They wouldn’t speak to me, they’d just give me orders about what to do. If I didn’t do it properly, or the way they wanted it done, I’d be hurled out of bed and made to do it again.”

Malcolm Axcell is one of the “Lost Children of the Empire”, Britain’s unwanted who were sent to the ends of the earth. From the 17th century to, astoundingly, as recently as the early 60s, 180,000 disadvantaged children were shipped off to the colonies; a fact seemingly forgotten until 1987 when British social worker Margaret Humphreys began to uncover stories of the “horrendous abuse” suffered in institutions by many of the 10,000 children sent to Australia after the last war.

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