Much has been written, debated and discussed about large scale immigration into the United Kingdom in the last 10 to 15 years ….. ranging from Polish bricklayers to Azerbaijani taxi drivers ….
But not so long ago, the shift in population was in the other direction. Post World War 2 austerity in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s in the UK forced many to consider taking up the British Government’s funded immigration scheme to Australia and New Zealand. British immigrants were colloquially known as “Ten Pound Poms” – that was how much each adult had to pay for a passage to a new life … children went free after 1960.
Australia is a vast country with a considerably less population in the 50’s and 60’s than it has today (aprox 20 million). The Government in the 1940s were acutely aware that its expansive borders and population of just 7m people left it vulnerable. The incumbent government realized that Australia needed to “Populate or Perish” and plans were put in place for a large-scale immigration program.
Living in a council house and never seeing an opportunity to buy their own home, my parents took the plunge and we sailed from Southampton in 1963. We sailed in an ex-Italian cruise ship called the Fair Sky. It was full of £10 Poms.
The 12,000 mile trip is something I’ll never forget. I’d never seen so many sick people in my life as we sailed through the Bay of Biscay. Passing through the Straits of Gibraltar under a Mediterranean sky is another memory etched in my mind. The rock looked huge to me. We later docked at Naples, which at the time seemed poorer than where we came from. Someone on board told us an Italian swear word which we typically employed whenever we passed some Italian kids in the streets … and ran off as fast as we could!
The next stop was the Suez Canal. Our timing was perfect – this was before the canal was closed due to the 6 Day War between Egypt and Israel in 1967. I can still recall how astounding a large ship could navigate through a narrow canal. At occasional stops, the Arab traders would pull up alongside in their fragile sailing craft and barter with the passengers. The product would be displayed on a sort of pulley system and winched up to the passenger decks.
Leaving the Canal, we sailed down the Red Sea and stopped at Aden (in Yemen), dropped into Colombo (Sri Lanka now; Ceylon then), and stopped at Singapore. I vaguely recall walking through some beautiful gardens in Singapore. But the one thing I do recall clearly is feeling sick when we walked around the city, which was poorer than it is now. The alien smells and fumes got the better of me I’m afraid, and whilst my parents loitered in a shop bartering for cheap jewellery, I eventually threw up on the floor, projected almost to the exit door. The locals laughed and cleaned it up…. no major harm done.
From there we dropped off some “Poms” at Perth, about 2 thousand miles west of our destination – Sydney. After another drop off in Melbourne we sailed up the south east coast, arriving early morning at Sydney Harbour in the sharp bright sunshine and glorious blue sky – a sight I’ll never forget. There was a clear tangible sense of excitement among all the Immigrants. After 6 weeks sailing, we arrived in our new country, ready to start again. Such things films and dreams are made of ….
We all piled into the buses and headed towards our “Temporary Immigrant Accommodation Hostel” in the western suburbs. As the bus pulled away from the dock, the comments were positive…. “Lovely area!”, “lots of space”; “smashing houses” ….. but the further west we went, the excitement slowly subsided, the smiles dissipated and the mood changed among the adults. The houses became shabbier, and the “suburbs” nothing like the brochures. We eventually pulled into the Commonwealth Hostel. Our accommodation was Nissan huts – prefabricated steel structures made from a half-cylindrical skin with no cooking facilities … everyone ate in the large canteen, and we’re talking about 200-300 residents. Us children didn’t seem to mind but the adults were quite shocked.
There were many other similar Hostels in Sydney, all more or less based on ethnic lines – Italian, Greek, and Spanish, to name the main ones. On hindsight, having different hostels for each ethnic group was not conducive to assimilating into Australian life. As children, we didn’t seem to mind; open air sports, constant sunshine, and the beaches. Going to school exposed us to many nationalities. For the parents, the story could be quite different. Non-English speaking immigrants were not always entirely welcomed in Australia. And the Aussies even gave us poms a hard time sometimes – but probably down to our age old habit of complaining about things … or in the Australian vernacular “Whinging Poms”!
The accommodation was meant to be temporary. After 6 months immigrants had to find private accommodation or buy a house. But not many did. And the authorities rarely applied this rule. The catch-22 was that the hostel rent was minimal whilst the earnings so high …. for factory workers up to engineers. There was plenty of work and it was the first time they had decent cash in their pockets. Australia certainly was “The Lucky Country” for us in those days. Consequently, few left the Nissan huts. Some had lived there many years and to an extent, were institutionalised. Like the two families from Manchester and Glasgow – the Bells and the McClagens. You didn’t mix with them, according to our parents. They’d been there 5 years. They were hard … well hard. Even the Hostel Manager stayed clear of them.
There was one other condition. If you returned to Britain within 2 years, you had to reimburse the British government the difference between the £10 per passenger originally paid and the true cost – about £100. So how did we get around it? Everyone who decided to go home (returning Brits far outnumbered other Europeans returnees) sailed home after 2 years and one day!
The return journey was just as exciting as the outward trip 2 years earlier. Britain seemed so cold and grey after 2 years in Australia. On reflection, whilst the scheme was abused, my parents saved up enough to buy a house in Poole …. had they not done that, you might never have met me!!!!
1969 was the peak year for the £10 pom scheme, with more than 80,000 people coming to Australia. In 1973, the cost of assisted passages was increased to ₤75 per family. This was still a very cheap fare, but numbers of migrants from the United Kingdom dropped off significantly. Assisted passage schemes were gradually phased out in the 1980s, having profoundly influenced the ethnic and cultural makeup of the Australian population.