Balgownie Hostel, 1954

In 1954 my Mum (Lavinia, 37) and Dad (Alan, 37) decided to emigrate to Australia.  At that time, they had three sons: David (15), me, Eric (10), and Peter (6) and they were concerned about their future as we were living on the small island of Guernsey with perhaps few prospects.  (Little did they know that Guernsey was to become a leading offshore financial centre).  Dad completed our application to come to come to Australia on 18 January 1954 and by June 1954 our application was approved.  Then on 22 September 1954 we departed Southampton on the SS New Australia bound for Australia.

The following text is an extract from Mum’s written memoirs and it sets the scene for their life-changing decision:

“Alan came home one day and told me that he may soon be having to look elsewhere for work so we talked about emigrating with the thought of the boys and their future regarding apprenticeship and work.  First, we wrote to New Zealand, but they could not accommodate us (too many kids?).  Then we saw an advertisement in the newspaper “Australia your future”.  A representative from London was in Guernsey so I went for an interview and got all the details which was about in February 1954.

From then on we had correspondence with a booklet explaining what to expect in Australia.  It would be hostel accommodation, work would be available for Alan, land prices etc.  We decided to go ahead with emigrating…… Alan and I had to go for a medical examination.  Everything went in our favour.  Our home was put up for sale and within approximately 7 months we got our sailing date.  With this we packed our possessions of clothes, household utensils such as blankets, crockery, cutlery etc., Alan’s tools, my sewing machine, but no furniture.  The last week in Guernsey was spent in a boarding house near where we lived.  Our farewells said, we boarded the mail- boat from Guernsey to Southampton and spent one night there.  The next day we boarded a ship called “New Australia”, bound for Australia”.

We were just one of thousands of families known as ‘Ten Pound Poms’, a colloquial term used by Australians to describe British subjects who migrated to Australia between 1945 and 1972 under the “Assisted Passage Scheme”.  The Government promised immigrants employment prospects, housing and a generally more optimistic lifestyle.  However, in return for the subsidised fare, immigrants were obliged to stay in Australia for at least 2 years or face penalties.

No doubt Mum and Dad talked to us kid about their plans to emigrate, but my memories of that time are a bit ‘patchy’ to say the least.  I remember going to the boarding house just down the lane that Mum mentions in her memoirs but nothing of the family farewells, travelling to Southampton on the ‘Mail Boat’ nor boarding the ‘New Australia’.

At Fremantle, our first Australian port, heads of families were ’interviewed’ regarding their trade skills which matched a job opportunity and therefore determining which hostel they would go to.  Mum mentions in her memoirs that Dad was, “interviewed in Perth (Fremantle) regarding work”.  A fellow passenger, William Nash, wrote in his account of the voyage, “an official of the Immigration Department came on board and directed you to the hostel of their choosing.”  When we left Guernsey, our immigration papers said, “Bonegilla Hostel”.  But at Fremantle this was changed to Balgownie Hostel.

On 24 October 1954 we arrived in Sydney NSW.  I don’t remember much else except sailing into Sydney Harbour and seeing ‘The Bridge’.  It was early evening before we eventually boarded a bus that would take us to our new temporary home.  I assume we carried our own suitcases off the ship to a waiting bus.  All the crates and trunks containing all our ‘goods and chattels’ marked “Not Wanted during Voyage” were later unloaded from the ship’s cargo hold and stacked in defined areas according to where they had to be delivered by truck the next day – hopefully the same place as we were going.

It was a tradition that buses would stop at Bulli Tops to view the lights of the Illawarra (the area containing our future home) because it was a ‘stunning sight’ – then half an hour later we arrived at the hostel which was much less spectacular.

My memory of what happened on our arrival at Balgownie Hostel is again vague.  I know it was dark and one can only imagine the scene as Hostel officials tried to explain to a couple of busloads of tired and bewildered immigrants what was going to happen in the next 24 hours or so.  I assume this would have included things like: arrival of the crates containing our possessions, meal arrangements, (for us a 2-minute walk to a large Dining Hut) etc.  Then each family was called up and issued with soap, towels, bed linen, etc and then escorted to what would perhaps be their accommodation for the next two years, more or less.  We were then shown the nearby amenities which was a unheated building containing toilets, hand basins and ‘all concrete’ shower cubicles which had no curtains!  As light dawned on a new day, no doubt there would have been a few people, who perhaps had the same thought as William Nash whose family went to Finsbury Hostel SA.  In the last sentence of his story of emigrating to Australia, he wrote, ‘My God!  What have we done!’.

Our ‘home’ for the next two years was a Nissen Hut – a prefabricated steel structure, made from a half- cylindrical skin of corrugated steel with plasterboard lined interior walls and a bare concrete floor.  Imagine spending weeks and weeks under the hot Australian sun in this uninsulated metal building – well we did!  I well remember during our first summer in Australia we endured 6-7 days at a time where the maximum average temperature was over 100°F (33°C).  Nights were a little cooler but still very humid.

The day after our arrival at the appointed hour we all went back to where the trucks carrying our crates would arrive and waited.  Finally, the trucks arrived and the unloading of trunks and wooden crates began with some literally thrown or kicked off the back of the trucks.  Dad was keeping an eye out for our crates and when he saw them he walked up to the men and shouted, “please be careful with those they have crockery in them”.  But despite his best efforts when the crates were unpacked there were a few things broken. But Mum was happy that her Sewing Machine was not damaged.

Various countries had a name for the enforced separation of black and white people, e.g. in America – Racial Segregation and in South Africa – Apartheid. Australia had a ‘White Australia Policy’ from 1901 to 1966.  On Balgownie Hostel, we were all ‘white’ and included families from the UK and all parts of Europe – Spain, Germany, Italy, Holland, Yugoslavia, etc.  Generally, the kids all got on reasonably well, but this could not be said for some adults who perhaps carried some war time prejudices, etc.

Not everyone coped well with the conditions and “home sickness” was common particularly amongst non-working women.  A few families, not realising what they had let themselves in for, began almost immediately to make plans to return to England or wherever they come from.  They had a choice of waiting for two years or paying the Government the equivalent of £120 per adult (the cost of their original assisted passage to Australia) as well as pay for their family’s return air or ship fare.  Apparently, they then spent the time until they departed complaining about the food, accommodation, jobs, hot weather, etc, etc. i.e. everything and anything to the great annoyance of all those who just wanted to “make a go of it”.  Australians had a name for them: “whingeing pommies”.  Later there were stories of people who had returned ’back home’ only to realise Australia wasn’t so bad after all and some even paid to come back to Australia again.  Mum and Dad were determined to ‘make a go of it’ and make a go of it they did!

In Mum’s memoirs, she wrote (perhaps still wearing ‘rose coloured glasses’): “We were accommodated in a Nissen Hut which was quite comfortable.  We had a large living room (12’ x 12’?) with sideboard, table and chairs, 1 large (10 x 10’?) and 2 small bedrooms (8’x 10’?) with beds.  We put the three boys in the large bedroom, Alan and I had one of the small bedrooms which later would sleep an addition to the family, Pamela.)  The other ‘bedroom’ was used for Alan’s carpentry workshop.  After settling down, Alan made himself a work bench and made all the window frames for the house we were planning to build.  We had to go to a communal Dining Hall for our meals, paper bags were supplied for lunches for those who were going to work and school.  We had to write our name and our preference of fillings for sandwiches. “

We had an ‘Ice Chest’ to keep our snacks and drinks cool.  The ice chest was similar in size to a small modern-day refrigerator but needed no electricity.  The top section was for a solid block of ice (approx. 14”x 12” x “10”) which obviously had to be replaced every couple of days.  In those days, bread and milk were delivered to homes and so was ice.  The ‘Ice Man’ would come around and take orders and then leave your block of ice at your door – too bad if you weren’t home when he called, especially on a hot day.

Baby Pamela joined the family on 11 August 1955.  Dad said in his memoirs: “We now had the daughter we had always wanted”.

Dad soon bought a ‘Ute’ which would serve not only as transport to work each day but being a Carpenter/Joiner, he of course knew it would come in very handy to carry tools and materials needed to build our family home.  Mum and Dad bought a block of land at Coniston NSW with part of the £400 they arrived with in Australia.  David obtained an apprenticeship as a Carpenter and helped Dad to build half of our house which we moved into 2 years after arriving in Australia.

David, Eric, Peter and Pamela all went on to have successful careers and families.  David now resides in Victoria, while Eric, Peter and Pamela still live in Wollongong.

Alan and Lavinia lived at Coniston NSW until 1990 then decided to move to an independent living villa at a Warilla Retirement Village.  They were subsequently moved to a Retirement Hostel at Mount Warrigal NSW where Alan passed away in 2004.  Needing more care, Lavinia was later moved to a Nursing Home at Unanderra where she passed away in 2012.  No doubt Lavinia and Alan Taylor were happy in the knowledge that David, Eric, Peter and Pamela are extremely thankful that they choose to emigrate to Australia.

Eric Taylor
19 October 2019