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The Ballads Of Child Migration

Venue: Floral Hall
Town: Southport
Date: 16/11/18

Ballads of Child Migration is a multi-media show which tells the story of Britain's Child Migrants.

Enforced mass migration of children is a shocking, shameful part of British history , which took place over the span of a century ,from mass child migration schemes to Canada in 1869 , right up to 1970.

During that time many thousands of orphaned and unwanted children , some as young as 4 or 5, were forcibly sent to Canada, Australia , New Zealand and Rhodesia [now Zimbabwe].

Many of these children were ruthlessly exploited and subjected to abuse and brutality.

In 2015 an exhibition called "On Their Own, The Story Of Child Migration" was held at the V&A Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green . BBC producer John Leonard [ The Radio Ballads, The Folk Awards and The Folk Show] commissioned several of Britain's top folk songwriters to write songs for the exhibition and , due to popular demand, the songs became an album [ "The Ballads Of Child Migration" ].

A live performance of the songs premiered at Celtic Connections and now, in November 2018, the songs became a touring show, with five concerts , the last of which was held in my hometown of Southport , at the magnificent Floral Hall.

The touring party had a incredible line-up of eleven of Britain's top folk musicians . We had , as narrator , the wonderful Barbara Dickson , together with John McCusker, Julie Matthews, Chris While, Jez Lowe, John Doyle , Boo Hewerdine, Belinda O'Hooley, Heidi Tidow, Michael McGoldrick and the album's producer Andy Seward. A Premier Division team if ever there was!

The show consists of narration [ by Barbara] , music, photographs and film clips of interviews with surviving child migrants , as well as excerpts from an Australian documentary, "The Long Journey Home".

With such a fantastic line-up of singers and musicians , it goes without saying that the music was of the highest quality and formed a fitting tribute to the children who were promised "happy time" but instead suffered cruelty and abuse.

John Leonard first got the idea for the project when heard John Doyle's "Liberty's Sweet Shore" and John gave us a superb performance of this moving, hymn-like song tonight.

Chris While opened the show with her haunting ballad "Small Cases Full Of Big Dreams" which set the scene and described how the children were led to believe that they were going to a better life "in paradise". Chris's second contribution was the contrasting "Pinjarra Dreams" in which the disillusioned , lonely children dream of returning home - "I wish I had a boat, I would row it back to England".

The ever-popular Jez Lowe performed his four compositions from the album , the jolly "Barnardo's Party Time", the Celtic-flavoured "Snow To Nova Scotia" , the catchy "Landfall" and the rather more sinister "Tainted Blood" in which the child migrants are looked down upon as "flotsam thrown by flood".

Although it does not feature on the "Ballads Of Child Migration" album, "Two Mothers" by Belinda O'Hooley and Heidi Tidow fits in perfectly with the show's theme and their performance of this song from their 2014 album "The Hum" was superb, beautifully accompanied by John McCusker's fiddle and Mike McGoldrick's pipes.

Belinda and Heidi's contribution to the album was to provide an exquisite musical setting for a moving poem by child migrant Frederick Henderson , in which he expresses his joy at returning home. Tonight's performance of this poignant piece was superb with gorgeous vocals from Belinda and Heidi , with beautiful fiddle from John McCusker.

Boo Hewerdine contributed two typically fine songs to the album and to tonight's concert. The first of these was "The Village Bell" , which tells of how the children who were set to work in harsh conditions had their lives controlled by the bullies and "the sound of the village bell".

Boo's other song was the chilling "The Man That I Am", which tells of how the hardships and abuse suffered by the children affected their lives for ever [ "these days I sleep with the lights on"].

Given the subject matter of this project, it is no surprise that the songs are rather dark . This is particularly true of Julie Matthews's contributions. "Alien Land" describes the shock of arriving in Australia and being set to work in harsh ,unaccustomed conditions. "Devil's Heart" addresses the shocking abuse suffered by child migrants at the hands of so-called Christians , a "Holy man with a Devil's heart". The solemn hymn-like setting carries a searing indictment of the hypocrisy of abusers hiding behind religion.

The most recent song in the show , written only 3 weeks ago by Julie and Chris , was "The Clock".

This highlights the shameful situation that the British Government has , so far, failed to implement the recommendation by the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse to award compensation to the surviving child migrants. The clock referred to is the clock which is counting the time since the Inquiry reported and which records the number of former child migrants who have died since then without having received compensation. It currently stands at 21 and Barbara Dickson recited their names.

At each of the shows on the tour there has been an appearance by a local children's choir and tonight we were delighted to be joined by the Michael Hall Theatre School choir who appeared ,in period costume , to sing on two numbers. The first was the 1859 hymn "Whither Pilgrims Are You Going" which was arranged by Belinda and Heidi. The choir returned for the finale, a reprise of "Small Suitcases Full Of Big Dreams" ,on which Barbara Dickson sang a verse, much to our delight.

As well as being a superb concert by the cream of Britain's folk musicians, this was an eye-opening and thought-provoking production which addresses a dark episode in relatively recent British history.

Huge credit is due to Executive Producer John Leonard and Project Consultant Gordon Lynch for bringing this tragic episode into the light.

A closing word should go to Julie Matthews who commented , after the concert "we wrote the songs to raise awareness . It feels important to spread the word about this terrible injustice".

Peter Cowley

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Ballads Of Child Migration


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