Farm school victim was threatened after accusing war hero of child sexual abuse
A survivor of a farm school in rural Australia owed compensation by the Prince’s Trust said he received threats and abuse after becoming the first person to publicly accuse Australian governor general Sir William Slim of child sexual abuse.
After decades of silence, Robert Stephens told an Australian newspaper in 2007 the celebrated British war hero had molested him in the 1950s – prompting other men to come forward.
“I was pretty nervous about (going public about the alleged abuse) and, in fact, I was getting threats. People were ringing up and threatening me,” Mr Stephens told the PA news agency.
“There were abusive phone calls and things like that.”
Mr Stephens is among the 277 claimants seeking compensation for the abuse and mistreatment he suffered at the farm school which was run by the Fairbridge Society.
For 70 years the organisation exported tens of thousands of working class children from Britain to its former colonies in a bid to convert a “burden and a menace” to society into “assets” for the Empire.
In 2012 the King’s charity, the Prince’s Trust, became legally liable for the Fairbridge farm schools when it took over the organisation and absorbed its assets.
Then, in response to child sexual abuse inquiries in both the UK and Australia, the Prince’s Trust pledged to pay compensation to Fairbridge survivors and in 2020 it set up a separate legal entity for this purpose – putting it into receivership and tasking joint administrators Chris Laverty and Alistair Wardell of Grant Thornton UK LLP with paying compensation.
In November 2022, the High Court of Justice determined a reasonable amount to each claimant was £204,000 (380,000 Australian dollars) but last month Mr Stephens and other former “Fairbridge kids” were informed they will only receive about 1% of that figure due to the Prince’s Trust having “insufficient monies”.
Each claimant will now receive about £1,000-£2,000 each.
Born in St Albans, north of London, Mr Stephens had only known the inside of orphanages when he was sent to Australia at the age of eight as a child migrant.
Like 60% of survivors of the Molong school in rural New South Wales (NSW) state, 180 miles from Sydney, Mr Stephens was subjected to sexual abuse during his nine years at the institution.
It was not until the 1980s, when he was in his 40s, that the toll of that trauma truly hit Mr Stephens.
He had been visiting London with his wife when he had a nervous breakdown inside St Paul’s Cathedral after coming face-to-face with his abuser – or rather a marble replica of him.
“It was a bust sitting in an alcove. I can still see it clear as day… and I still remember the card with this red flower on it which said ‘From a thankful child in Singapore’. It’s never left me,” he said.
Mr Stephens told PA that in that moment “something exploded” inside him and he could not speak or move.
“I was in a highly emotional state, shaking… everything came back,” the 80-year-old said.
“It’s still quite emotional… prior to that incident in London, (my wife) had no idea what I’d been through… (She still) has great difficulty coping with it.
“Here’s this guy standing there in this bloody cathedral who couldn’t move. She had no idea what was going on.”
From then on, the trauma compounded for Mr Stephens but due to the high stature of his alleged abuser, he did not think he would be believed.
“I tried to deal with it the best I could, but in the end I needed help to deal with it because it had a chain effect on everything,” he recalled.
“It was a terrible time. I try and put it behind me but it’s there.”
The Molong farm school to which Mr Stephens and around a thousand other British child migrants were sent between 1938 and 1974 had been blacklisted by the UK Home Office in 1956 after a fact-finding mission found the Fairbridge institutions were “unfit for children” – yet it had continued to operate for the next two decades.
In the early 2000s, David Hill – a former resident of the school who went on to become chairman of Australia’s national broadcaster – began researching the farm schools and learned the extent to which both the UK and Australian governments were aware of mistreatment of children but had covered it up.
Mr Hill’s dogged interviewing of survivors uncovered the shocking scale of sexual abuse at the school with Mr Stephens the first to confide in him.
They could not believe that Slim did what he did. The Star of Burma people still have that issue because, to them, he was a god
It set off an avalanche of testimony and one by one, survivors revealed to Mr Hill the true horror of the Molong farm school. In just about every instance it was the first time in their lives they had disclosed the sexual abuse to anyone.
“(David Hill) was a catalyst for a lot of people,” Mr Stephens said, explaining being able to speak out about the abuse after decades of silence had been helpful to his healing.
“It was part of that business of me getting over what I’d been through. I’d been pretty crook. I couldn’t work, the family was broke. And I think I was angry.”
Sir William had been so celebrated as a military commander of the British Army during the Second World War that when a statue was unveiled in commemoration of him outside the UK’s Ministry of Defence in Whitehall in 1990, Queen Elizabeth II did the honours.
While Mr Stephens had not mentioned him by name to Mr Hill, another “Fairbridge kid” had. But due to him not wishing to speak on the record, it was not included in Mr Hill’s book The Forgotten Children when it was published in 2007.
In the subsequent promotional interviews for the book, Mr Hill mentioned to a journalist off the record the allegation he had heard against the 13th governor general.
The next day The Sydney Morning Herald ran the story about Sir William “attempting to sexually interfere with a young, impoverished British boy sent to an institution in western NSW”.
The article prompted Mr Stephens to become the first to allege publicly he had been abused by the revered military commander.
“No adult would believe these things happened so you didn’t talk about it. You think you are the only one,” he told the paper.
“Like so many things that happened at Fairbridge, they don’t go away. They live with you all your life.”
His claims were met with threats and abuse from supporters of the late governor general.
“That was difficult. It was mainly people who had served with Slim. They could not believe that Slim did what he did. The Star of Burma people still have that issue because, to them, he was a god,” he said.
“But to other people, he was not quite the person that they knew.”
Shortly after Mr Stephens made the allegation, another two former Fairbridge kids came forward to say they had also been abused by the former governor general as children.
They said that during the governor general’s official visits to the farm school in the 1950s, Sir William would offer the “pretty boys” a ride in his black viceregal Rolls-Royce and make them sit on his lap.
From there, he would slide his hands up the boys’ shorts and assault them.
The three men’s accounts were supported by a fourth man who wrote into The Australian newspaper in 2007 to say he had been a child in Gosford, NSW, during the Queen’s official visit to Australia in 1954 when he had witnessed Sir William touch the crotch of another young boy.
The 1st Viscount Slim died in 1970 but his son, who inherited his father’s title and his seat in the House of Lords, rubbished the accusations against his late father.
A lieutenant who had served under him during the Burma campaign also dismissed the accusations, saying: “We can’t believe that of our great leader. I think it will all waft over and everyone will forget about (the allegations).”
Mr Stephens refused to remain silent and in 2021 he was successful in getting a major road in Canberra which had been named after the former governor general renamed.
For nearly two decades, Mr Stephens had driven down Lord Slim Drive to get to and from the art gallery he owned. That changed when it became Gundaroo Drive.
The sense of recognition from that simple name change was huge for Mr Stephens after suffering in silence for so long, with him describing it as “cathartic”.
“I think, for me, it was a release of what I had been through in terms of all the problems I had had mentally and physically (that) kept coming back to me,” Mr Stephens explained.
“I thought talking about it sort of (helped) me to deal with it better and better as I got along.”
While Mr Stephens admits his family finds the subject of Fairbridge deeply upsetting after learning the extent to his suffering as a child at the farm school, they understand his need to try to stop what happened to him from happening to any other vulnerable children.
“I generally try to be positive and I try to look beyond what’s happened,” Mr Stephens said.
“There was also a determination that I was never, ever going to allow my children to go through what I went through, and I think that underpinned a lot of what I was doing in speaking out about it.
“It still haunts (my wife). The fact that I’m talking to you (the media), she gets upset by. And I can understand that, but I’ve always believed that what happened should never happen again.
“It’s part of our social history whether we want to admit it or not. We’ve got to do what we can.”
The 80-year-old grandfather said the saga of seeking compensation from the Prince’s Trust for himself and the other elderly survivors was an “insult”.
“After years and years of not only being at Fairbridge, but then the suffering that a lot of Fairbridge kids have had to go through economically, it’s a pittance, an absolute pittance for what a lot of them would have been through in their lives,” he said.
Despite leaving Fairbridge at the age of 15 having never known a loving family, Mr Stephens went on to have seven children after meeting the love of his life when he was 18.
Like many Fairbridge kids, Mr Stephens could barely read or write when he left the farm school, but he went on to become a successful businessman with his own art gallery in Canberra and farm where he breeds Angus cattle.
He admits trying to be happy in life has been difficult after the trauma of Fairbridge, but ultimately believes his life has been a successful one due to his wife of 56 years and the seven children they raised, all of whom are high-achievers.
“This is where I’ve been incredibly lucky. I’ve had someone who’s stood there behind me… and as a mother, she’s been absolutely amazing. No question about that,” he said.
“I don’t think the children would be where they are today without (her)… I’m very proud of them.
“Trying to be happy in life has been difficult for me but my success is we’ve brought seven children into the world who have been very successful and are contributing in their own way to life and society.”
The Prince’s Trust and Buckingham Palace did not respond to PA’s request for comment.
- The National Association for People Abused in Childhood (Napac) is a UK-based charity that offers support for adult survivors on 0808 801 0331
- The National Male Survivor Helpline is a dedicated service for men and boys in England and Wales affected by sexual violence and abuse and those who support them on 0808 800 5005
- In Australia, survivors of complex trauma, including violence, neglect and child sexual abuse, can receive help and support through the Blue Knot Foundation on 1300 657 380
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