South Australia’s British Migrant Stories – Podcast 3 Transcript

The podcast you are about to hear explores stories of British migrants who came to South Australia under the assisted passage scheme. My name is Birgit Heilmann and I am a curator at the Migration Museum in Adelaide.

This podcast was created on Kaurna Country and I acknowledge the Kaurna people and their continuing connection to this land. To those listening in from outside Kaurna Country I also acknowledge the traditional custodians of that country.

The travelling exhibition, British Migrants – Instant Australians?, produced by Museums Victoria and on show at the Migration Museum in 2020 sparked my interest to look for some South Australian stories. I dug out oral history recordings which were conducted by the History Trust of South Australia and Adelaide University between 2012 and 2014 for the ‘Hostel Stories Project’.

Between 1947 and 1982, over a million Britons immigrated to Australia, most of them hoped for better life opportunities far away from post-war Europe. There were several assistance schemes that helped British migrants to settle in Australia. One of the most popular one was the ‘Ten Pound Pom’ assisted passage scheme that allowed Britons to travel to Australia for only 10 pounds and their children to travel for free.

The South Australian Housing Trust played a big role in building new suburbs for migrants in Adelaide’s north and south, including Elizabeth, Salisbury, Noarlunga and Christie’s beach. The construction for Elizabeth began in 1954 on 3000 acres near Salisbury purchased by the Housing Trust. The city was inaugurated by Thomas Playford in 1955. The layout of Elizabeth was based on the British model of their new towns, providing neighbourhoods within the town with their own primary schools, shops, local facilities.  New arrivals were able to find work at industrial sites such as the Weapons Research Establishment, General Motors-Holden, Pinnock’s and James Hardie.

Elizabeth was used as a drawcard to bring particular Britons to South Australia. In 1958 South Australia House was opened in London. Migration officers handed out promotional material outlining the different types of housing available in Elizabeth. The Housing Trust participated in migration schemes to sponsor migrants who would commit to buying a house. This is what Jan’s parents did when they migrated from Chester with their family in 1964. After the family had arrived in Elder Park Hostel, Housing Trust staff showed them around what they had on offer.

‘My Mum and Dad and my brother and sister, they then went with Housing Trust officials in a bus to look at houses to see where we were going to live and that’s what they did on the days when I was working, they’d be looking around.  And they took them to Christies Beach, that was the place that the Housing Trust was trying to settle and of course out to Elizabeth and Mum and Dad eventually chose Elizabeth, they liked it out there.’

How does Jan remember their new home in Elizabeth?

‘Well, not a tree – not hardly a tree, flat, dusty, but we liked it because it was modern. I’d come from this very old city – very ancient city, so it looked absolutely sparkling and modern to us and we were quite impressed with that.  And the other funny thing, there were what we call bungalows, all the houses were bungalows. In England if you haven’t got stairs, that’s what a one level house is a bungalow, we didn’t know that was the norm over here so that was quite interesting.’

House prices for the different styles of bungalows ranged in 1969 between $10000 and $12,400. Between 1957 and 1965 1000 houses were built each year. By 1960 Elizabeth was the 2nd biggest town after Adelaide. 

Other migrants tried out different places and accommodation before eventually moving to Elizabeth. Joyce remembers moving from Elder Park Hostel to Roland’s Flat before settling in Elizabeth North.

‘We went out looking for a place, we didn’t know where to go, we didn’t have a lot of money to spare and we saw a, I remember coming down to Henley Beach and looking for a place where they had, you could share half a house and share the kitchen and that. We didn’t really like that so then we saw another one at Roland Flat in the Barossa and we knew that eventually Harry would get another house for us in Elizabeth or Salisbury and because, he’d been promised one.’

Advertisements in newspapers and short films promoted Elizabeth as the City of Tomorrow, providing a new modern lifestyle only 27 kilometres from Adelaide. But some information was misleading – many migrants were surprised that Elizabeth was not close to the beach.

‘That was a surprise. You had to have a car to get to the beach.’

I chatted to Justin Madden who was in involved in the Hostel Stories project at Adelaide Uni. Justin looked a bit closer into British Migration in post war South Australia for his master’s thesis. He was particularly interested in the expectations and lived experiences of migrants.

‘I was really interested in this idea of publicity. There was this perception out there that they all had been sold a beautiful fantasy so to speak and a big lie how brilliant Australia would be and they’d got here and thought it was terrible. That seemed to be the perception when I started out. So I was interested in that.’

Migrant expectations and their actual experiences after they arrived in South Australia depended often where migrants settled and how much information they collected beforehand.

JM: ‘You sort of had to groups really, one were very engaged with first of all the general publicity then subsequently they dug deeper. They approached Australian Migration officials and sought more information about the sorts of areas where they would be going to, Elizabeth included in that. Once they arrived and settled into the area they tended to have a more realistic expectation of what the area was going to be like, as supposed to the other group. They may have seen the sort of bright posters the sunshine beaches – whose types of things but then hadn’t sought any further information.’

So what was the biggest challenge for migrants moving into the new satellite city of Elizabeth?

JM: ‘For many I would probably say the isolation of the environment – the lack of transportation, the lack of things to do in the early years of Elizabeth. In the first decade of the town’s existence, from 1955 over the next 10-15 years, you know there were a lot of new things opening in Elizabeth, but they generally were important public buildings like schools and churches. There weren’t really areas for entertainment things that came along later in the late 60s and 70s, things like drive-ins and movie theatres, these kinds of things.’

Although there was a train connection from Elizabeth to Adelaide, a car was useful to get around. Jim, who migrated with his family 1958 from the North East of England, remembers getting his first second hand car:

‘Once you were settled everybody was buying a second hand car, you know, a real old bomb and the first one we had was a canvas topped thing and – everybody was the same, you know, they just, on a Sunday morning, especially, everybody took the car out to wash it and clean it and up with bonnets, and everybody was a mechanic, everybody knew how to fix cars and some of them knew less than yourself, you know, but that was the community type of life that you had there, if you lifted your bonnet there would be half a dozen heads in there to say, oh yeah, I could fix that for you.’

All in all, Jan didn’t mind the distance from Adelaide; as she was involved in the Elizabeth community.

‘But everything else was pretty well there. I mean I was a teenager and I was into rock and roll and that so I liked my dances so we used to go to dances at Salisbury Youth Centre, which was a big thing then. That’s where the Twilights started in case you’re interested – and the Octagon in Elizabeth; so it was – yeah, we had everything we needed really.’

The Octagon Theatre opened in 1965 and was a popular spot for Blue Light discos and music concerts.  Elizabeth produced an amazing number of pop and rock musicians, for example, The Twilights and Masters Apprentices of the 1960s were followed by The Angels and Cold Chisel in the 1970s. By the way, Joyce who you heard earlier in this podcast is Glenn Shorrock’s mother – the singer of the Twilights and later Little River Band.

However, Elizabeth took some time to catch up with European pop culture. Jan remembers that it was quite a different vibe at the dances;

‘My sister and I went to a dance one night at the Salisbury Youth Centre. I came out with my mod clothes, so I had three quarter boots on, I had denim, I had a black tartan vest thing, you know, the works and we went to the dance and we were freaks.  Nobody came near us and all the girls wore sticking out dresses and long gloves we were just – they were just so far behind us.’

In the end, not all migrants who moved to Elizabeth found their new future there. A couple wrote the following letter to the Housing Trust in 1958:

‘Dear Sir,

Having lived in Elizabeth North, ‘The satellite city of tomorrow’ for a period of 14 months, my wife and I have decided that ‘tomorrow’ will never come in these parts and so we are moving on to a brighter land!’

That’s it for today. Thanks for listing to this podcast which was produced for the History Trust of South Australia.

I would like to thank Justin Madden who talked to me about his project. Many thanks to the interviewees, Jim Rowe, James Lamb, Jan Coolen, Joyce Shorrock, and Jim and Mary. They were interviewed by Rachel Ankeny, Karen Agutter and Justin Madden from the University of Adelaide and Catherine Manning from the Migration Museum. Thanks also to Daniella Pilla from University of Adelaide for assistance in accessing the oral histories. The interviews were part of the research project’ Hostel Stories’ undertaken by the University of Adelaide, with support by a Linkage Grant from the Australian Research Council in partnership with the Migration Museum and a range of other community partners.