Southampton, England on 16 June 1954
Circular Quay, Sydney on 16 July 1954
Berkeley, Wollongong for two years from July 1954
Mum was a school cleaner and Dad worked at Port Kembla steelworks.
I went into nursing and worked in Wollongong, Sydney, Goulburn, Northern Territory. Now I’m a lollipop lady!
My mother, father, younger sister and brother [and I] all lived in Essex in England . My mum was a school cleaner and my father worked in demolition. They wanted to get out of post-war England and give us a better life. They tossed up between Canada, South Africa and here, and Australia won. I also suffered from bronchitis so I needed to move to a sunnier clime. It was also the luck of the draw, the one [country] which came up first.
We were called “ten pound pommies” under the assisted scheme. That was ten pounds to come to Australia but you had stay for two years or pay back the money. It was a lot of money for my parents because they weren’t earning much. I remember we had to go to Somerset House and Australia House in London for interviews. I had to see a doctor because I had bronchitis and [to check] that I didn’t have TB (tuberculosis). It was very foreboding for a ten year old.
We left from Southampton and came out on the SS New Australia. We left England on 16 June 1954 and arrived in Australia on 16 July 1954.
I thoroughly enjoyed it [the boat trip]! I disassociated myself from my parents and ran free. I was supposed to go to school and didn’t go. I was supposed to go to church and didn’t. I just ran wild on the ship as did most of the other kids.
My dad and I were not seasick but [other] people were. In the small dining room, with say only 20 people, [when] the weather would get a bit rough and everybody would leave, Dad and I would have as much to eat as we wanted to!
The boat stopped at Fremantle and Melbourne. We were supposed to get off at Melbourne but there’d been an outbreak of measles, chicken pox, mumps and [we] were told we couldn’t go ashore. The hostel we were supposed to go to was under quarantine. We had to come to Sydney and go to another hostel.
This was very daunting for my parents because they didn’t know what was going to happen. When the ship docked at Circular Quay we were all herded off into this big warehouse where they used to have bales of wool. It was set up by alphabet and you had to get behind your letter – Child was our surname so we lined up behind “C”.
You were told [at Circular Quay] this is where you were going [the hostel] by officials. It was a nail-biting time. They said you were going to Berkeley, to Wollongong. Well where’s Wollongong? We hadn’t heard of Wollongong!
We were taken by bus to Central Station then put on a steam train. Figures drifted in and out of the steam as we were told/shown where to go and what carriages to get into. You have to remember this was 50 odd years ago and there were not the buildings and towns between Sydney and Wollongong. As we left Sydney we had immense patches of blackness because there was nothing, just bush. Occasionally we’d go through a station, too fast to read the names; anyway we couldn’t pronounce half of them, it was like being in a foreign country that spoke a different language.
The train was full [with] over 300 people. The carriages became hot and dank, smelling with so many people crushed into a small place – you couldn’t open the windows as it was raining. Mothers were crying asking husbands what they’d got them into; the men were probably thinking how they’d love a drink!
I think it was at Wollongong station that we all disembarked. Some were going to Fairy Meadow hostel, some to Unanderra hostel, some to Berkeley hostel. There were three migrant hostels in Wollongong.
We arrived at Berkeley hostel to be met by staff and it was raining, it was cold. Everybody got called (about 300 people) and were taken to their Nissen hut where they lived. A Nissen hut is a corrugated, U-shaped hut, divided into two three-bedroom units and a living area. The toilet, bathroom, the washing room was communal and outside.
We were the last ones on the list because we weren’t supposed to be there but they quickly found us a hut. We went to the canteen where we had hot soup and bread. It was the first time I had tomato soup. You were made welcome and there were a few speeches. We were shown to a hut but told we would be moved the next day.
[That night] My father was told to go to the canteen at 5am to have breakfast and then be taken to the steelworks. He got his “crib” – lunch in a brown paper bag [with] sandwiches, fruit and piece of cake – provided by the hostel. They were shunted onto buses, taken to the steelworks and given jobs. Some people already had jobs designated for them. My dad hadn’t worked in steel before and worked in one of the blast furnaces. The steelworks were at Port Kembla which was only about half an hour away. When Dad came home I met him at the bus and told him we’d been moved to Hut 2A where we lived for the next two years.
Given I was the eldest I ended up with a room to myself. My brother and sister shared a room, Mum and Dad had their room. It was furnished, but sparsely. Mum and Dad had two single beds which a lot of people tied together as a double. Every Saturday or Sunday you had to strip the beds and take the linen down to the exchange hut.
The canteen was like a big Nissen hut. As you walked in there was a bain marie and a big pile of plates. White ironstone plates, no colour, no decoration in them. People used to complain it was like a concentration camp because you had to queue up for your meals and live in huts which were freezing in winter and boiling in summer.
If you wanted the best cuts and the hottest food, you got there first before the doors opened. The food was always plentiful. My favourite was mash potato and gravy. For breakfast there was porridge, toast, baked beans etc. Bacon and eggs on Sundays. It was a rotating menu. You virtually knew it off by heart. There wasn’t a massive selection [of food], it wasn’t “The Ritz”, but you never went hungry.
At Christmas they put out a menu with all the beautiful Christmas fare. One Christmas I remember was the third one in 1956. We had cream of chicken soup, roast seasoned turkey – that was nice! – baked potatoes, baked pumpkin, plum pudding and brandy sauce, fresh fruit salad and ice cream. I kept the menu card because it was autographed [by hostel residents]. A lot of them are no longer with us. The people who signed the back worked in the canteen and anybody I could get to sign my menu. To me it was just like Christmas dinner in England. The only thing different was it was very, very hot – instead of snowing.
That was the year my dad played Santa Claus. Everyone put in money and bought presents and there was a big party in the hostel hall. There was a dance afterwards for the adults.
Instead of sitting at your own table people tended to push tables together and make a big family. The mums and dads at the hostel became aunties and uncles to us. We all grew up together. To this day, I still have friends I had at the hostel.
When we lived on the hostel we lived such a free life. There were no houses and just fields and paddocks. We used to go mushrooming and blackberrying and go fossicking through the fields. Unanderra and Berkeley hostels had a love-hate relationship and we’d meet on top of the fields and have fights.
To start with they were all from the British Isles [residents at Berkeley hostel]. After the second year, we got Germans, Italians, Hungarian, Polish, displaced persons – which made it very interesting. You have to remember it was very early post-war and there was still some animosity between the English and the Germans. But it didn’t boil over into anything because everyone wanted to make the best of it and became friends.
When I first came [to Berkeley ] there was a one classroom school and it was 100 years old. They built another school [in the next six months]. My mother worked [there] as a cleaner until she was in her 70s. The headmaster was anti-British; he hated the Poms with a vengeance. [There were] at least 75% Pommies [at school]. The Aussie kids used to love [our] nice sandwiches whereas they only had bread and jam or dripping. We had what the hostel made so we used to swap our lunches. They had thick doorstop bread because it was hand-cut and ours was cut on a machine.
At first they used to say, “you whinging Pommies, go back where you belong”, and we used to say, “at least we came out here of our own freewill, not like you with the ball and chain round your leg”. That was the camaraderie. It was so much fun.
Everybody [at the hostel] was advised to apply for a housing commission house – so you put your name on the list because you didn’t have the money to buy one. They offered us a house at Unanderra but because my mother worked at Berkeley and the bus service wasn’t that good they gave us a house in Berkeley. They were brand new homes, just over the hill from the hostel. We lived there until my mother was too frail in 2000. That was from about ’57 onwards. A long time.
After you’d been in it for a certain time they gave you the option to buy it. That was on a 4% flat home loan rate. At 4,000 pounds it was a lot of money back then.
When we moved into the house we didn’t have [indoor] toilets. We had the dunny can at the back. The dunny man came, cleared [it] once a week and carted it off and brought another one back again the same time. It was fun to watch and see if they spilt it – we had 26 steps to our house.
My first high school was in Wollongong, I had to catch a bus and a train. Then they built Berkeley High School and in my second year I transferred there. Then I went into nursing. I spent many years working for the developmentally disabled until 2000. Now I’m a road crossing supervisor, a “lollipop lady”! I have two daughters and four grandchildren.
A friend and I said wouldn’t it be nice if there was a hostel reunion. It [was] at the Berkeley Sports and Social Club in 2004 which was an apt place to have it – my father along with other men at the hostel started the Berkeley Working Men’s Club which led to the social club. About 50 turned up – original hostel people and their partners.
The hostel is no longer. There is nothing to depict the hostel was ever there. It’s only the older generation that know that a hostel ever existed. It’s very, very sad considering the number of people that went through. My family were pioneers. When we moved into Berkeley [hostel] there was only the village called Fishtown, a few old houses and the wharf. That was all. There were only two buses a day to Wollongong. There was nothing here. The migrants who came out then pioneered Berkeley.
Andrea Fernandes, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
15 September 2005
With assistance from the Illawarra Migration Heritage Project and Meredith Walker.