Ch9 Pt4 Arrival in Australia

How can one give one’s first impressions of Australia at a distance of thirty-two years? I kept no notes of our first Australian landfall. I recollect that as we got off the ship at Fremantle for a stop of just a few hours, I was a little dismayed at a lean, lantern-jawed, “typical Aussie” who was trying to sell us obviously worthless and meretricious souvenirs. I was disappointed to have my intelligence insulted by a man who would shortly be a compatriot. But when we got into a bus for the trip to Perth, I was enchanted by the small, neat, fibro and weatherboard cottages, whose corrugated iron roofs were painted prettily in reds and greens. I swore there and then that I would own one just like them, no matter what it cost me in personal effort. 

In Perth itself, I remember the beauty of the Swan River, the cleanliness and openness of the city, the lack of high rise building (at that time!). I thought that the streets were wide and gave one a sense of freedom. I liked the cool, easy, spacious layout of the big department stores. I found the easy, unselfconscious egalitarianism of everybody positively marvellous after that cramped English society which I had left – where everybody classified everybody else in the social scale as soon as he opened his mouth. The nasalness of Australian speech hit my ear with sledgehammer effect as if I was almost listening to a new language. But I did not find this intonation at all unpleasing. Most of the people I met seemed to have a clear idea of what they wanted to communicate, and in these circumstances the accent was of minor importance. Yes, I positively liked the Australian accent, and greatly preferred it to both glottal-stop Cockney and to nauseating plum-in-the-mouth Oxford English.

I remember that the trip across the Great Australian Bight was extremely chilly – those cold winds must have been blowing up from the South Pole. Even so, we had frequent clouds of flying fish fluttering up out of the water for a few moments ahead of the ship, then dropping back again. 

We by-passed Adelaide, but had a forty-eight hour stop in Melbourne. There we looked up Max and his wife Alice. Max was the son of a friend of Irene’s mother with whom both Irene and I had a passing acquaintance, since his mother lived close by Berta, in London. Max had escaped the Holocaust by moving to Australia just prior to the war, studying at technical college to learn English and become an electrician. He extended us his kind hospitality, and Irene and I explored Melbourne a little, moving around Flinders Street, Collins Street and St. Kilda, and having a look at such differing places as Port Phillip Bay and the Zoo.

Shortly afterwards the Ranchi was thrusting its way powerfully northwards in very fine weather, with the east coast of Australia, green and beautiful, about half a mile across the blue water on the portside bow. We reduced speed as we approached Sydney, and the evening before berthing went to sleep with feelings of intense excitement. The following morning, we were up on deck immediately after breakfast to see the entrance into Sydney Harbour. 

We came through the Heads with no indication of what lay before us. But suddenly there was the huge harbour with large rocky areas of bushland rapidly disappearing into urban development. Just ahead there swung into view the immense “coat hanger” of the Harbour Bridge. Having seen photographs of it many times, it was so familiar yet somehow more imposing and breathtaking than we had ever dreamt. I knew the moment I saw this that I was home. I knew somehow in the marrow of my bones, that although I might regret England and Europe many times in my life, Australia was the true place where I really ought to be.

We spent a while in the gloom of the Customs sheds at Woolloomooloo wharf, and it was from this large and disorganised checkpoint that Oll and Alma rescued us. He was tall, bespectacled, fortyish, bald and nasal. She was shorter, rounder, but equally nasal and one hundred per cent Australian. They were both extremely friendly, kind and hospitable. They took us by taxi to Wynyard Station, where we boarded a train for their home in Campsie. Oll had decorated the sunroom in bright colours, and a bed, cupboard and chairs were set aside for us. Everything possible was done to make us feel welcome and at ease. We had our meals with Oll’s family, and we were shown typical Australian hospitality. They were a great family, and my gratitude to them and admiration for them has always been unbounded.

For a week we took it easy, looking around, trying to find our bearings and somehow adjust to this new atmosphere. After the first forty-eight hours of fine weather it began to rain. Some people said it was the worst rain in living memory. I wanted to get a job, but I wanted it to be the right job. The trouble was, I had no idea what the right job for me would be. I was painfully conscious of my lack of any skill, apart from good literacy, which I suppose was something. I began to traipse the sodden streets of Sydney, looking for employment, and exactly at this time ugly rumblings started to come from the coalfields. Jobs seemed to be drying up. But I landed a stop-gap one with the Department of Local Government, at that time situated in an old colonial building on the corner of Bridge Street and Macquarie Street. Then the big coal strike of 1949 broke out. Industry was brought to a standstill, power was cut off almost continuously, people cooked on primus stoves and by the light of candles. Train services were cut back to an absolute minimum during the week and virtually ceased altogether at weekends. All this was happening in a country where labour was short and where there should have been a good living for everyone!

I found it all the more unbelievable because economic conditions were so far ahead of what we had known in England. Unrationed meat literally festooned the shop windows. You could buy as much chocolate as you liked. The greengrocer shops displayed unlimited tropical fruits – bananas in huge bunches, as well as such esoteric things as custard apples and paw paws, things which we had never known in England in the years of peace, let alone during and just after the war. Clothes, too, were in unlimited supply, of good quality and material, and not subject to rationing. The country was rich. What was everybody complaining about?

With the real commencement of the coal strike, factories began to close down all over Sydney for want of power. All of a sudden, thousands were out of work, and I was grateful for my local government job. It did not pay a princely wage by any means, but at least I had a small income to keep the wolf from the door and allow us to live. At this stage many of the Ranchi passengers with whom we were still in touch found themselves stranded. Some lost heart and booked return passages to England, feeling homesick and dispirited by the totally unexpected and quite catastrophic unemployment resulting from the coalminers’ strike.

We had given Oll our word that we would leave his house within a week of arrival. It was a promise that we were unable to keep because of the restrictions imposed by the strike. On his side, he had agreed to accommodate us for six months when he had secured our nomination. It was a contract that we certainly did not want to hold him to. 

But with transport so limited, particularly at weekends when I was free, it became extremely difficult to search for alternative accommodation.

Ch9 Pt1 Sponsorship to Australia

“They’ve published it,” said Irena. 

She held out a short typewritten note to me.

Dear Sir,

Your letter to The Editor was published in ‘The Sun’ today, and we have pleasure in enclosing a cutting.

                “Yours faithfully ………..”

It was signed by The Associate Editor of the Sydney Sun.

“Well,” I said, “let’s hope it will help us to get on our way to Australia.”

Irene and I were in the small upstairs flat near Notting Hill Gate that we had been lucky enough to rent after our marriage early in 1947. The letter, which had just reached us after journeying half way across the world from Sydney to London, was the result of our latest effort to obtain a sponsor to bring us to Australia.

We had decided many months ago that our future lay in Australia. The idea of migrating had been at the back of my own mind for a long time. After the war it was resurrected by the publicity given to the country by its “Food Parcels for Britain” scheme. The Australian Government also initiated a drive for British migrants. The problem was to obtain berths on the limited number of overcrowded ships.

During the war in Britain we had seen quite a few Australian airmen who were regularly engaged on bombing raids over Germany. Also one saw occasional Australian sailors. I do not recall ever meeting any Australian soldiers. After their stint in the Middle East the Australian Prime Minister of the time, John Curtin, had withdrawn them to Australia to fight the Japanese in New Guinea. This was after a ferocious but well-concealed row with the British Prime Minister Churchill who thought that Australia was expendable, and could be liberated from the Japanese after the defeat of the Germans in Europe and North Africa.

Irene had known a few Australians in Cairo. They were rather notorious for misbehaving themselves and taking bars and bistros apart. She said that basically they were lonely and frustrated, and weren’t really bad at heart.

The Agents General for all the Australian States were in the west end of London, and most of them in The Strand. Thus I could walk across Waterloo Bridge from the Headquarters of the London County Council where I worked and read the Australian newspapers, which were always on display during the lunch hour. I did this for two years so that when the time eventually came for us to go, I felt that I knew as much about modern Australia as I did about England, and when we got there, I would not be a stranger. I also read as many books on Australia and Australian history as I could find in the library with the object of making mental preparation for the future.

Irene was not happy with the London climate after the openness and sunshine of the Middle East. The dirty streets oppressed her and the cold winter chilled her to the bone. Moreover, she viewed with alarm the renewed activities of Sir Oswald Mosley’s fascist hooligans, and wondered how many of her friends who thought she was German would still have been her friends had they known that she was not only German but Jewish. Remember that the clap-trap mouthed by these young fascist thugs who openly began to hold meetings in London was identical with Hitler’s ravings which had encompassed the death of most of Irene’s family little more than three years previously.

Sir Oswald Mosley, by the way, who addressed fascist meetings in the east end, dressed in jackboots and black riding breeches and shirt in pre-war years, had been interned during the war. It was always a mystery to me why the authorities did not shoot him. Instead, with that tolerance for which Britain was at one time famous, they let him loose again.

If these things made Irene begin to doubt the wisdom of continuing to reside in London, I saw the city as a huge stone and concrete prison. A kind of claustrophobia gripped me when I walked its dusty streets, devoid for miles of a single blade of healthy green grass.

The general economic situation at this time was also most depressing, and a sense of urgency began to prick at my mind. I was in my late twenties, beginning to look towards thirty, and I had achieved nothing, neither did I seem to have any prospects. Apart from these things, however, there was another even more important matter thrusting me towards pulling up stakes and starting afresh. Quite simply, I had a quite dreadful personal vision of the England of the future.

I saw the rich getting continuously richer and the poor getting poorer. I saw a country with decreasing access to raw materials and a need to rely increasingly on superior technology to import food and resources necessary for its survival. But who could guarantee that with increasing competition, English manufacturing excellence would continue to be triumphant? Beyond this, the tight little island was grossly overcrowded. Furthermore, the nation had always been riven by class distinction and had never been a true meritocracy with equal opportunity. I saw this inequality and class distinction tearing England apart.

I did not foresee racial strife, because West Indian and Commonwealth immigration had barely begun. What I did see, however, was the spectre of nuclear war.

Already we had been almost brought into conflict with our recent allies, the Russians, over the Berlin question – where that city had been divided into four segments under British, American, French, and Russian control.

There was no way in the world that I would have joined up again to fight the Russians, and I am sure that a very large number of ex-servicemen at that time would have been of the same mind. But it was crystal clear that Russia was to become the next enemy. Nuclear bombs had won the war against Japan, with what terrible effect everybody knew. How long would it be until the Russians mastered the technology and laid waste to England?

These, then, were our reasons for wanting to get to Australia. We were held up because of lack of shipping following the war. The Jumbo aircraft of the modern era had not yet been developed, and all travel to the Antipodes was by ship. The Australian Government, in its drive for migrants, was offering free passage to ex-service personnel. But in order not to prejudice the housing situation in Australia, which was very restricted after five years of war in which little building had been permitted, it was necessary for each migrant who was not a skilled tradesman to have a sponsor. This individual would guarantee board and lodging for six months in Australia. Irene and I had no known relatives in Australia, neither had we discovered any friends who had contacts. Therefore, to accelerate processing of our immigration application we had to find a sponsor. This was the reason for my letter to the Sydney Sun. The letter read as follows:

           Waiting, Hoping ……..

                My wife and I first decided to migrate in 1946, and long before the present ‘free and assisted passages’ scheme came into operation, we were investigating at Australia House here in London, generally gleaning all the information about it that we could.

                There are now about 750,000 applicants for free and assisted passages registered with the authorities – and the list is getting longer every day. So it would seem that if government-assisted migrants eventually leave at the rate of 50,000 a year, a wait of “some years” for those without priority such as my wife and myself may mean 15 years!

                In desperation my wife and I booked private passages with the P and O Line. We should be broke when we reached Australia, but at least we should get there while still young enough to feel ourselves part of the country.

                We were told at the time that we would have to wait 18 months for a berth. Today, more than a year afterwards, we are informed that the shipping position has worsened, and that a wait of three years is envisaged before tourist berths become available.

                When such difficulties and delays are put in one’s way, one feels at times like accepting the fact that one is beaten. Only at times, however, because we intend to come to your country no matter how long it takes, and to settle there.

                I wonder, nevertheless, if there is any reader of your newspaper who would care to nominate a would-be immigrant and his wife — both ex-service, and not afraid to work and learn? 

                When we get settled in Australia, we know at least one family whom we in turn shall nominate.”

About a fortnight after receipt of notification of publication of this letter, we received a further letter from a Mr P, of Campsie, Sydney, New South Wales. Mr P informed us that his parents, to his everlasting regret, had christened him Oliver, and begged us to call him “Oll” for short. He also told us that he would nominate us for a free passage if we received no other offers of help. As it turned out, we did not receive any other offers. Thus, a few weeks later Oll, true to his word, and despite the fact that he and his wife had five children, and his own house was, if anything, overcrowded, had nominated us.

Oll was employed at the GPO in Martin Place (now Martin Plaza), in Sydney. He was an upright, honest, hard working Australian gentleman, who took a chance on a couple of complete strangers. I added him and his wife Alma to my very special list of people whom I regarded it as a privilege to have known.