Ch9 Pt2 On the Ranchi to Suez

In the past the authorities at Australia House, despite a pile of correspondence and repeated interviews, had always regretted that they could do little to help us. Now they made up for all their previous dilatoriness. Medical examinations and an interview with a selection committee followed each other rapidly. Finally, four months after Oll’s nomination, on my twenty-seventh birthday, we received a telegram from Australia House saying that we were due to sail within the week. 

Hurried goodbyes were said. It was impossible to visit all our friends and relatives. I resigned from the London County Council and got my severance pay. In twenty four hours, Irene sold all the furniture and other articles in our flat which we had saved every penny to buy. We made arrangements for a carrier to take charge of a large trunk containing all the personal belongings we wanted to take to Australia. Getting that trunk down four flights of narrow, twisting, old-fashioned stairs was a back-breaking job.

One late morning in May, we said goodbye to my father who had come to see us off at St. Pancras Station. We had taken leave of my own mother and Irene’s mother previously. Neither had wanted to come to the station for fear of becoming upset.

Even in 1949, if one went to Australia, one did not come back for a long time. The airfare was beyond the capacity of the ordinary working man, and the duration of the trip was such that most people could only afford to make it once or twice in a lifetime. In a way it was, to most English people, still a sort of transportation sentence.

We were never to see my mother again. We saw Irene’s mother once more. I was privileged, however, to enjoy four protracted visits with my father, some in Australia, some in England, before he eventually passed away.

Our train had been specially laid on for migrants bound for Australia, and we thus had a sense of common destiny, and of leaving the land of our birth quite possibly forever. We piled out of the train at Tilbury, on the Thames Estuary. The railway terminus was very close to the dockside. We had barely time to touch the English earth of the quay in valediction before we found ourselves walking up the gangplank and aboard the P and O liner Ranchi.

We were ten people to a large cabin, males in one cabin, females in another, of course. It was certainly not a luxury cruise, but compared with what we had known in the army, and considering the fact that the journey was free of cost, neither Irene nor I had any complaints at all. We thought that it was a very fair thing. When our bags were stacked, we went up on deck. My thoughts were mixed as I looked at the broadening estuary as it merged with the sea. We were taking our last look for many years – perhaps for always at the “Old Dart” – England – the country which had moulded me, the country which had confined me, my parents and my grandparents to the “lower orders” of society. Yet it was also the country that had offered Irene and her mother, and many other thousands of refugees, protection from a tyrannical Nazi regime. It was ironic that tolerant, kindly England, which had given life to so many of the downtrodden, had at the same time forced so many of her sons and daughters to seek a better life elsewhere. As I leant on the paint encrusted rail of the SS Ranchi, looking at the cranes on the murky wharf side, the waving groups of well-wishers, and the squat sheds became silhouetted against a lowering sky. I reflected how strange it was that a worldwide English speaking brotherhood had evolved, very largely as a result of an enormous emigration from this tiny island.

The voyage of the Ranchi was uneventful. From Tilbury docks we made a straight run for Port Said. One afternoon ten days later, we drew slowly towards the indistinct outlines of the ships and buildings of this gateway to the east. An hour later we were steaming slowly into the actual harbour.

As we drifted past the big ocean-going ships, the palm trees, the buildings with their signs in Arabic and English, a mosque-like edifice which appeared to be a hotel, and the yellow cement police station, we were surrounded by rowing boats filled with merchandise. Below us swam a brilliant array of multi-coloured handbags, pouffes and tapestry work. As the oarsmen of the little cockleshell bumboats pulled frantically to keep abreast of us, vendors stood upright and shouted hoarsely while waving brightly coloured wallets with extravagant designs of the Pyramids, camels and palm trees on them. Strings of beads, green unripe bananas, peanuts and wide brimmed straw hats were offered. As we slid to a standstill and ropes secured us to the wharf, strings with bags attached to them were thrown up to us with remarkable accuracy, money passed downwards, and Egyptian curios upwards.

A fussy little launch chugged around, flying a flag with a white crescent moon and a star on a green background. White uniformed policemen stood at its sides, with fezzes and rifles. Some of them finally climbed aboard our ship. “Watchmen” were there too, in European clothes, to see that fair trade was carried out between the passengers and the Arab salesmen below.

Egypt is a country of mixed races – African, Arab, Greek, Italian and Turk mingle here. Some of the vendors and policemen have white skins, others dark, and there are all manner of shades in between. All this I have seen before, but I got the same thrill as when I first steamed into Port Said with a boatload of troops one black and silent night in 1946. As for Irene, she was as excited as I had ever seen her, dashing here and there and talking to everybody in Arabic.

I noticed particularly that the vendors took great care to exorcise the more colourful flights of English from their conversation. No doubt one converses with tourists, (which they undoubtedly thought we were), on a slightly higher plane than with the rough and licentious soldiery. However, they exercised their usual technique of asking three times as much for an article as it was really worth, and then allowing themselves to be beaten down. Irene bought a wide brimmed straw hat for four shillings when twelve and sixpence had been originally asked. I got a piece of tapestry work depicting mosques, minarets, camels and Bedouin for Alma P, wife of our sponsor in Australia. The price asked originally was three pounds fifteen shillings, but we got it for one pound five shillings and six cigarettes. We had still probably been swindled. But bargaining is fun.

Night falls at last. The dirty waters of Port Said twinkle and shimmer in the glare of the wharfside lights, just as they must have done every night since my last visit there; just as they would do for interminable nights into the future. Astern of us, dancing on the skyline, are the winking lights of the city’s night spots. A few vendors still row around hopefully below us, with lanterns illuminating the wares in their little boats.  

The big, black water barges pull away, and the floating pipe, which has been pouring oil into the Ranchi from ashore, is withdrawn. We are due to sail at half past ten and for the greater part of the night we shall be creeping through the Suez Canal.

At exactly ten thirty a police launch comes alongside, and a Suez Canal official climbs aboard. His business does not occupy him very long. He leaves. The gangplank is hauled up by a team of Indian seamen, and we begin to crawl through the Suez Canal. The sandy banks are walled up to a few feet above water level so that they will not cave in. The scenery is mostly barren – sand – the odd clump of palm trees – occasional bare military encampments. At night, every ship passing along the Canal switches on a powerful searchlight in its bows, and the murky waters, with their navigable depths marked by buoys, are lit up for many yards ahead. During the day the waters of the Suez Canal are green, and seem faintly stagnant. Often clouds of mud appear in the ship’s wake as it slides cautiously along. According to the charts, the average depth of the Canal is between 35 and 40 feet.

The Suez Canal was opened in 1869, and is 87½ miles in length. Of this 66½ miles is actual canal, and the rest of the distance is made up of channels dredged through Lake Timsah, and the Great and Little Bitter Lakes. Traffic is controlled by thirteen signal stations alongside the Canal. We passed through the greater part of the Canal at night, but in the morning crept slowly through Lake Timsah and were able to see the township of Ismailia, looking strikingly green and prosperous against the barren yellow landscape. This town was to be badly shelled in one of the later Israeli-Egyptian conflicts. We saw also big, dirty dredges, with their equally dirty crews. Approaching Suez we passed a massive war memorial erected on a hillock of sandstone, and bearing the legend: “Défense de Suez 1914-1918.”

It was on the day that we passed through the Suez Canal that our stewards appeared in all-white uniforms. The head steward, with his black and gold epaulettes, looked like some South American admiral.

In the late afternoon we came to the end of the monotonous Suez Canal. During the last stretch, between the Bitter Lakes and the Gulf, we came across bomb craters by the side of the Canal, and the twisted and torn hulls of ships which had been sunk during the Second World War and hoisted out of the water on to the sandy bank. Suddenly, there was Suez on our right: white houses, palm trees, macadamised roads, square harbour, and an Egyptian ship lying at anchor and letting off vociferous steam. A busy tug approached, our pilot climbed down the side of our ship and stepped into it. The tug veered away, and suddenly the Ranchi’s engines thundered and we started to put on speed.

That night we steamed at full tilt down the Gulf of Suez, while behind us the waters tumbled and foamed madly. Earlier in the evening, while the light lasted, barren rocky desert had been visible on either side. Now it was pitch black and we were really pounding along. A following wind, created the effect on deck that the air was still, and it was very warm. The smoke from the Ranchi’s huge black funnel poured straight up into the sky, and the night was glorious with stars.

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.