South Australia’s British Migrant Stories – Podcast 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 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 that allowed Britons to travel to Australia for only 10 pounds and their children for free. British migrants who received assistance had at least to remain in Australia for two years, otherwise they had to repay the fare and their own way back home to England.

Not all British migrants intended to stay in Australia; they just wanted to come for a two-year adventure. Other migrants who intended to stay however changed their minds and returned home. Often they felt homesick and didn’t find in Australia what they had expected; others couldn’t make it work and struggled financially.  It has been estimated that just over 25% of migrants returned to Britain. However, between a third and half of these return migrants re-emigrated to Australia and became known as ‘Boomerang Poms’. 

Let’s listen to some of these stories.

At the age of 34, Jim migrated together with his family to Australia in October 1958 from the North East of England. He and his family first stayed at Finsbury Hostel, which was later known as Pennington Hostel. He was lucky and started work a day after he arrived in Adelaide. The migration to Australia worked out for the family. But Jim knew a lot of other migrants who stayed at the hostel who wanted to go back to England.

‘The only intention they had was to stay there for two years and get enough money to go back to the UK and that was their life that was all they dreamt about, going back to the UK. There was one couple that I knew, I worked with him, his wife worked in Pope’s – the factory – and she used to make these little electronic components for the washing machines and things, and him and her used to sit outside the flats when we lived down in the flats and they would be sitting making these little PC boards for her to take into work the next day which give her a head start, it was all piecework, you know, so the more she made at home it was the easier in the factory for her. They were from the Liverpool area, but they just hated the country, hated everything that it stood for. They couldn’t get back quick enough’.

Sometimes, decisions of going back to England was influenced by tragic unforeseeable developments.

James was 8 years old when his parents decided to migrate to Australia in 1950 from the Yorkeshire region. His dad, an engineer by trade, served in the war but his dream was to become a farmer, migrate to Australia and set up a poultry farm. The first place the family stayed when they arrived in Adelaide was Rosewater Hostel and later Gepps Cross Hostel.

Just one year after coming to Australia and settling into their new life James’ father became ill and was diagnosed with cancer. This changed everything. It was a hard time for James and his mother, especially financially. After James father had died, he and his mother sailed back to England for good in 1954.

‘While my father was in hospital, a chap who my father had become friendly with in the Automobile Association, he used to run the military hospital, and I think they formed a bit of a friendship.  And he had decided that his father was very ill back in Scotland, because he was Scottish, he came from Clydebank, and he decided that he was going to have to go back, and when he and my mother made the joint decision to go back, I don’t know. We went back together; my mother, myself and this friend of my father’s, who ultimately became my stepfather. When we went back to Scotland, mother and I. Although I do remember when we landed back in England at Tilbury Docks my mother literally had no money, and my grandmother – how they did it in those days – I think she had to wire my mother the money, to get the train ticket for us to get back from London, to get from London up to Edinburgh. And I do remember this friend of my father who ended up being my stepfather, he went to Glasgow, so he went in a different direction to us. But I do remember my mother and I landing back in Edinburgh and all we had was two suitcases. The trunk that I mentioned earlier, the big leather trunk and my father’s toolbox, they must have been sent on because they eventually arrived back. But I remember my mother and I literally getting off the train and walking from the station in Edinburgh to my grandmother’s, which was about a mile walk, carrying two suitcases, and that was it! But my feelings were mixed. In a way I was pleased to get back and see my grandmother and aunts and uncles and cousins, and in another way I was very sorry to leave Australia.’

Coming out to Australia was not always a mutual decision within a family. Especially children and teenagers did not have much of a choice.

Jan came out to Australia as a teenager in 1964, together with her parents and two siblings Patricia and Robert. The motivation for her parents to move to the other end of the world were for better life opportunities and a better climate than England could offer.   So, how did Janet feel about coming to Australia and leaving the English music scene behind?

‘Well there was Mum and Dad and then I was the eldest of three children. We were all in our teens and I’d like to add that I didn’t want to come. I never wanted to come. Oh, I didn’t want to come out here. Well, you know all my friends were there, my boyfriend, the Beatles were just starting up, I lived not far from Liverpool.  I mean the Beatles had just started so it was hard, I didn’t want to come. I sulked on the boat for a few days… You did do these things with your parents because twenty-one was the age when you could make up your own mind and so I came with them.’

Well, Jan’s plan now was to save enough money to go back to England and reunite with her then boyfriend and English life. Can you guess what happened next?

‘I never wanted to be here. I had a boyfriend in England, I had a great life in England, so I told my family that I was coming here because I had to and I would be saving to go back to England, and that’s what I did. I got jobs and I saved which didn’t mean I had a miserable life, I had a wonderful time meeting people and going out with lots of people and that, but that was my goal to go back to England. And I had actually booked my passage back, this was after the two years was up but late that year, it must have been ’66, yeah, dad saw an advert in the paper for secretaries on the Snowy Mountains Scheme, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it. And the pay was very good and he said to me, “Why don’t you apply for that,” because he said, “You’ll get some good money and you’ll see a little bit of Australia before you go back to England,” because they all knew I was going, and so that’s what I did. I had to go through various tests, and medicals, and things, and I went to the Snowy Mountains and worked there. And so I had been at home roughly two years then, went to the Snowy Mountains and absolutely loved it had a, you know, fantastic time there, met my future husband but I didn’t know at the time he would be my future husband, and I came back at the Christmas time to be with my family before I sailed in January to go to England, and I got back and I changed my mind…Yeah, I got back to Adelaide and I changed my mind and I didn’t go. So then after that I then went back to the Snowys.’

Joyce felt very homesick after she arrived in Australia. Her husband Harry convinced her to migrate to Australia in 1954 with their two children. Harry thought that they might have a better life Australia, far away from a war-ridden England. He also never liked the cold weather and had a vision of growing oranges overseas. Joyce was 34 at the time. When they arrived in Adelaide she did not find what she’d expected while staying at Finsbury Hostel. Although she got a job very quickly and soon moved into a house in Salisbury, Joyce was still very homesick and decided to go back to England together with the children. Harry meant to follow her back after he had finished his two years in Australia. At first Joyce really liked it to be back but then she started to question her decision. She never had been separated from her husband for that long before. 

‘I really was homesick, I was the youngest of three girls and my mother and- I think I didn’t give it enough thought when I left really. Well, not for long really, I didn’t really, I didn’t stick it through long. I left, I say I had this nice house but I think a couple of my friends thought, they didn’t think much of me because I left my husband behind, I mean, we didn’t break up, it’s just, I wanted to go home and he said, well I’ll do my, I’ll do my two years and then I’ll come back.’ you it was lovely when I first went back, yes. I did, but after a while, you start to think, you know, there was something in favour. The warm weather, of course, was a factor and also I was living with my mother, I mean we got on well but my mother wasn’t used to children around her. But- I wanted to buy a house, I wrote to my husband because in those days I think you had ninety pound and you got your deposit and you could get a house, and, which I wanted to do but he said not until he came home because he, you know, he had intended to come back but he said he would like to see it before I decided to buy one. Which is only natural, now I come to think of it, so we were stuck at mum’s. I mean, mum was very good, she did all the cooking and I say I got a part time work and there was a school a few doors away for Linda and she was quite, she was quite happy at school there… It was a big adventure, it really was a big adventure. It was very hard to get a passage on a ship and we had to go to Bremerhaven in Germany to get it, to get a berth for us. And so we went, I’m trying to think was it Southampton or Tilbury we went from and then we went over on a, over the, what they call it? I think it was the Hook of Holland, we went on a little ship and then we got a train, so we had a big journey, myself and the two children and a lot of luggage too… And then we picked up a lot of Italians on the way, and they were migrants, they were going out too. Then when we got out here my husband was trying to find somewhere for us to live while we, we couldn’t go live with his friends so we went, he applied to Elder Park Hostel.’

Joyce mentioned that migrating a second time, alone without her husband, made her grow up. It was much harder than the first journey, especially because she had to pay the full fare.

Irish born Mary and her husband Jim lived near Liverpool with two children before migrating to Australia in 1966. Mary was the driving force behind the big move and Jim was missing his social life in England quite a bit.   Let’s find out what their migration story is.

MW: ‘He never stopped whingeing, whinge, whinge, whinge because see being English and that he missed his soccer, and he missed going to the pub with my brothers, I had six brothers, and he missed all this socialising thing that I’d never been a part of because I was at home looking after the kids.  So he missed all this and after four years of listening to him whingeing I said “right, I’m sick of this we’re going back”. So we went back.

JW: Oh, the biggest mistake I ever made in my life.          

MW: Yeah. And the union representative on the wharf said to Jim because Jim was going to give his job up, he wasn’t going to keep that job, he just wanted to get back to England and that was it, he was never coming back but the union fella said “look Jim, give it six months”, he said “keep your job open for six months and then if you’re still not gonna come back just write to me and let me know”.

MW: So that was just one of them things, we sold everything and left but the good thing about it was he was on the wharf by then and it was a really good job. DW: And I took special leave.

JW: But when I got home guess what? I got my old job back because there was nothing else.

MW: In that factory that he hated.

JW: And the money had dropped.  So it was the middle of winter, January, I’d come home from the afternoon shift, fire would be out, Mary would be in bed and the kids would be in bed.

MW: We had four kids by then.

JW: Yeah, we had four by then, that’s right.  And I came home this afternoon shift and Mary’s dad had given me a nice warm jacket you know because we were staying with her Mum and her Dad and I walked in, looked at the fireplace, I thought about that job and thought about all the ice outside, I went up to Mary and said “oy Mary are you awake?” and she said “I am now” you know. I said “do you want to go back to Whyalla”?  Oh Lordy, lordy tell you what if she’d had had a gun she would have shot me (laughing).

MW: Dragged them kids all around the world again (laughing).  But we did, we came back.

JW: Yeah.  And we came back with exactly thirty dollars.

MW: And we had to actually, because we couldn’t come as ten pound poms anymore, I even wrote to the Australian Embassy and pleaded and said we’d made a mistake, could we go back again, that my husband had a job to go to and all the rest of it, would they pay the fare.  No they wouldn’t pay the fare and we didn’t have enough, because we had paid to go back to England we’d used most of the money that we’d made on the house that we had in the first place so we didn’t have a lot of money left so we had to go, and my Dad was so upset and his Dad was so upset that we were going to come back to Whyalla and bring the grandkids with us, they wouldn’t lend us, they had money but they wouldn’t lend us any money to come back so we had to go back to one of those horrible lending companies to borrow the rest of the fare to get back to Whyalla.

JW: We actually had a bit of money because if I had got a decent job we wanted to buy a house. We had seven hundred and seventy pounds but it cost a lot more than that to come back.

MW: It cost twice as much as that to come back.

JW: Because it’s not just the two of us, we had four kids by this time.

MW: We had four kids by then.

JW: So we had to borrow money, we more or less ate humble pie like but it was worth it because for the first two years when we came back was a struggle, it was a big struggle, yeah.

MW: It really was terrible, terrible struggle.

MW: It settled him.

JW: But see Mary’s good.  You know, she manages on any kind of money and if you’ve got someone like that it makes you thrifty but we were thrifty, even with the five kids, we’ve got five now like you know, but we always managed to, I mean this house was smaller than it is now but we always managed to save a bit of money, extend out, put a new laundry on out there and all that carry on you know.  It was a bad thing going over but really it settled me.

JW: It settled me yeah.  And a bloke said to me, one of my old workmates just before I left there, you know what he said I must say I admire you for your guts.  I said why.  He said you’ve emigrated once and now you’re going a second time.  I said yeah but I know what I‘m going to this time.

MW: And, of course, when we came back everyone we met would say “oh —

JW: “Told you”.

MW: ”Told you, you’re back again”, you know, so we had to put up with all that.

JW: Oh yeah.

MW: But we took it all, you know, we thought well it was just so —

JW: Why not?

MW:— good to be back.

JW: And the blokes at work, the Australians anyway, when I got back “oh he’s back now, he’s a real Aussie” (laughing). Yeah, yeah.’

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.