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 memories British migrants have of their arrival in Adelaide varies from person to person. This shows that there is never only one migrant story but instead many different ones.
Joyce and her husband Harry, together with their two children, Lynda and Glenn, arrived in Adelaide on 11 September 1954 after a long journey from London by ship. They were lucky and got a cabin on the ship to themselves, although the cabin was right at the bottom of the ship; so it was very hot and the engine noise was loud. Listen to Joyce on her first impression of Adelaide.
‘We got off at Outer Harbour and it was on a Sunday and it was very, very quiet and I was very upset coming, there was just our family and one other family and that was all going to the hostel and we had this little bus pick us up and took us through Port Adelaide and very quiet and I didn’t like the look of the Outer Harbour at all- and felt a bit- sad really, when I saw it, it wasn’t what I expected.’
The memories of Mary and Jim are quite different to Joyce’s description.
Mary and Jim travelled on a plane to Australia in August 1966. It was Mary’s first time on a plane and for her the journey was not pleasant as she was stuck with two little children. When they arrived in Adelaide, all the newly arrived migrants were divided up to go to different hostels. Mary and Jim were taken to Smithfield Hostel north of Adelaide.
JM: So we got in this big car and he whipped us off to the city like and we passed all the car yards that were there at the time.
MW: And it was an evening, it was in the evening.
JW: It was in the evening, it was dark really.
MW: Yeah and it was August, very cold. And I can remember that trip like it was today because we came down that road, it must have been —
JW: Main North Road.
MW: I don’t know if it was Main North Road now or that other road that leads the Salisbury way, what’s that called?
I forget what that road was called, see there’s the main road Waterloo Corner Road that goes right into the city. Now over Salisbury way and Elizabeth, there’s another road that leads to Gepps Cross, I don’t know whether it was that road or not, but anyway whatever road it was I can remember all these car yards and all the bunting and lights everywhere and I thought it was really glamorous. You know all these lights, lights everywhere you know and I was really excited.’
Jim who came on the Overland train from Melbourne to Adelaide, in October 1958 also remembers vividly his welcome at Finsbury Hostel.
‘We were met at the station by the Good Neighbour Council, and came to the hostel in coaches and we got a cup of tea and a piece of fruit cake (laughs). That sticks in my mind vividly, I can see the piece of fruit cake that we got.’
Migrant hostels were often the first accommodation for newly arrived migrants. There were at least twelve hostels in South Australia between 1947 and the mid-1980s. Hostels which accommodated British Migrants in particular included Rosewater Hostel, Gepps Cross Hostel, Elder Park Hostel and Finsbury Hostel, which was later renamed Pennington Hostel.
Hostel accommodation was established in existing buildings, often military barracks with communal dining, laundry and shower facilities. Later, transportable structures like Nissen huts were used. Migrants living in the hostels had very mixed experiences. It often depended on personal expectations and the different standards of the hostels.
Mary and Jim arrived late at night at Smithfield Hostel. This is what they remember:
MW: ‘Well it was dark, we were taken into the canteen and given, I think it was a plate of sandwiches, and a drink and then we were shown to where we were going to stay, our little hut place.
Well, I don’t know what I really thought, but I was just, I just wanted to go to sleep, we were tired weren’t we Jim?
JW: Yeah but my heart dropped when I saw it like you know because we come from a lovely house in England, we had a beautiful house like you know, and we step into a hostel you think “oh bloody hell and it was alright, the kids, there was like two single beds in it and the lounge.
MW: There was two single beds in that back room, I think there was anyway, two single beds but in the lounge part there was one of them sofas that you make into a bed and that’s where me and Jim slept.
JW: And it was cold.
MW: It was very cold.
JW: And there was a gap under the door, it must have been I reckon at least three inches. And the wind was coming through so we complained about it and they gave us a little tiny electric fire about a foot long, you know. But we survived anyway so, yeah, yeah.’
At least Mary and Jim together and their children had their own hut accommodation. Rosewater Hostel in comparison consisted of converted woolsheds and provided not much privacy at all, and pests including snakes and rats were an issue. Many complaints were made and the Rosewater Hostel closed down in 1953.
James was 8 years old when he stayed with his parents at Rosewater Hostel in 1950. From a child’s perspective, James remembers the hostel grounds quite differently:
‘For my memory, for my personal memory, it was just a big adventure playground. I loved it. You know, there was plenty of other kids there, and I do remember there was a huge big rubbish tip very close by, which is probably all gone now, I don’t know what it would be. But it was a great adventure playground for kids. There was half a dozen boys and I remember us making rafts, and part of the rubbish tip there would be big pools and ponds and we’d make rafts out of old oil drums and things like that. I would have killed any of my children if they’d done something like that (laughs). It was very dangerous, but as a kid, you don’t think about it.’
Life on a new continent far away from Europe brought lots of new experiences; the different food, especially, stayed in many migrants’ memories. British migrants as well as migrants from other European countries had experienced food rationing during the Second World War prior to their migration. Listen what Jan remembers, who came with her parents as a teenager to Adelaide in 1964.
‘There had been restrictions after World War Two, and I don’t think it was until about 1954 that meat stopped being rationed so we didn’t have a lot of meat, and mum and dad weren’t overly well off so it was pretty plain, pretty ordinary, and everything was in season so we only ever had – the only time I ever had a tangerine, or you call the mandarins here, was at Christmas in the Christmas stocking, we would have perhaps a handful of nuts and a tangerine. I’d never had a fresh peach. I’d had melon in England, but we’d called it sugar melons I think. We had apples and pears of course, bananas hardly ever, grapes only when you were sick somebody brought you a bunch of grapes. Plums and things we had, we had a lot of berries because we grew them. But we came over here – I’d never heard of passionfruit, I’d never heard of nectarine, I didn’t know what one was, I’d never had a fresh apricot, so all of those lovely things. And the meat, there was a lot of meat, which we’d never been able to have. I’m trying to think what else. Oh, the way people would give you buckets and buckets of fruit off their trees, yeah, that was wonderful. You’d come home and there’d be a bucket of plums on the front step, things like that, that was great.’
That’s it for today. Thanks for listing to this podcast which was produced for the History Trust of South Australia.
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.