Rotterdam, Holland on 19 April 1960
Sydney on 23 May 1960
Wacol, near Brisbane, Queensland for six weeks
Family bought house in Ipswich, near Brisbane
I was told I was going to be a cowboy but I ended up weeding onions at a farm near Goondiwindi, Darling Downs, in Queensland!
Wool mill and meatworks near Wacol; painter for father’s business in Ipswich; circus horse groomer in Narrabeen, N Sydney; clothing industry; newsagent manager and co-owner of food shop in The Rocks, Sydney; bus driver in Camden region, SW of Sydney.
My earliest memories go back to the [Second World] war. Rotterdam [in Holland], where I was born, was flattened. We used to play in piles of bricks. I also remember the cold. A pair of shorts, that’s all the boys wear, right through winter. There wasn’t much around.
After the war, Dad [was] awarded a medal by Prince Bernhardt. Big banners around the hall had “Welcome Home, Willem the Hero”. That left quite an impression. [I was] about seven years old [and it] made us wonder what happened. When we found out, it was quite impressive. It made us feel proud.
Dad joined the Underground [war movement and] was a wanted man by the Germans. Mum wasn’t very happy at that time, had three little kids and wanted [Dad] home. She pretended to have a nervous breakdown as the German soldiers were looking for Dad, when he was only a few metres away, hiding in a wall cavity.
Dad fought for three days to defend Rotterdam. He got captured and escaped. A month later, Mum [could] hear some shuffling up the street at night. She could hear by the walk it was Dad coming home. She first thought it wasn’t him because he was 47 kilos. He’d made it from Poland back to Holland. On foot.
Another war medal Dad was given was the silver cross. It’s the highest honour. The little bars [are] for [each] deed of heroism. Dad got two extra bars to say there was three instances where his life would have been in danger. Dad would not speak about it. I think it did affect him – the stroke, psoriasis, nervous conditions.
[Eventually] there was 13 of us. Eleven children, mum and dad. [The youngest] wasn’t even a year old [and] the eldest, she was 18. Times were pretty tough in Holland. Dad had two jobs to keep the family fed. He was a painting contractor [and] had a furniture factory which folded because he had kidney problems.
We were mad soccer fanatics. Dad used to play in the reserve grade for one of the biggest teams in Holland, Feyenoord [and] sprained his ankle. He was laid up at home, off work. It was freezing cold [with] ice and snow. Dad got a card from Australia from his brother with palm trees and white beaches! He was in Queensland, near Brisbane. I remember reading it: “Willem, you should come over here with your seven boys [and] start a painting company. All the houses here need painting. There’s so much work and in Holland you’re sitting in the cold.”
Dad said to us, “What do you think?” My eldest sister wasn’t that keen. She had a boyfriend, but for us, we thought, “Yeah, the beach!” I was 15 [and] quit school. For two or three months, I [was] working as an office boy.
It just so happen we lived on the back of the immigration bureau. We were approved under the assisted migration scheme. As you see on the receipt, we were booked on the next ship within weeks. It’s very exciting! The boat ticket was 100 guilders and 80 cents [for] the whole family. That was an affordable sum of money at that time.
We brought all the furniture over from Holland, all our beds and lounge suite, you name it. The whole house was empty and put in the big crate. As a boy, I [enjoyed] ice skating and brought these little ice skates. There’s so much water in Holland, nearly every street has a little canal. Just tie them up around your feet, underneath the shoes. Most kids had them like that. I still remember it.
These are the sort of things you always hang onto, you treasure. It brings back memories of your childhood which you never had here. All of a sudden, when you arrive here, it’s a different way of growing up. To adjust to the language and make new friends, it all takes time. Looking back, there was about three years before you started to integrate.
The Waterman left on the 19th of April, 1960. Excited, I was. It took six weeks but it was like a holiday. We made girlfriends on the boat and [had] fun all day long. We had a ball. I remember going down the [Bay] of Biscay and coming up the Mediterranean. Port Said was not that nice, but very interesting. It opened up your eyes at how other people live around the world. Aden was similar. I’d never seen the Middle East, never even could imagine it. There was not enough information in Holland as to how the rest of the world lived, different culture[s].
I’ll never forget as we arrived in Fremantle, the beaches were white and we went, “Oh, this is glorious”. It stopped for 24 hours so we had a bit of time to get onshore and walk around. We were happy. [After] Melbourne, we disembarked in Sydney on the 23rd of May.
Sydney was huge. Wow! Much bigger than Rotterdam. We had a very funny [experience] because we had that photo taken. As we came out, the paper, the Telegraph, thought we were the largest family to migrate [to Australia]. I do recall [posing]. We thought, “Why?”, because straight after the war in Holland it wasn’t unusual to have big families.
We went on the train, departed in Sydney’s Central Station. I think it was ten o’clock at night. We were mostly wearing suits and white shirts. Seeing Australia for the first time, we were sticking our heads out the window and ended up black because [of] the soot of the locomotive! We were cramped in [a] compartment [and] sitting, tried to sleep. I remember trying to sleep on the baggage rack at the top. That’s the only place I could stretch out.
We arrived early in the morning at Wacol immigration camp, an old army barracks near Brisbane. We went to Brisbane because my dad’s brother was there with the wife and three young girls.
We had our own facilities and Mum cooked. It was a lot of fun, just play, no problems. We thought it was summer here. We put our swimsuits and bikinis on and lay in the sun. Everybody was wearing coats and jumpers [but] for us, 18-20 degrees was warm!
But it soon changed. Within a week, myself, brother, sister and Dad had to find jobs. The others had to go to school. We were called into the camp office. “What job or profession do you have? What would you like to do?” Dad got a job as a painter. The first thing I thought, I said. “I want to be a cowboy.” That’s what they had in Australia, I thought. They said [I] was in luck. A farmhand [was] wanted near Goondiwindi. They organised the train tickets [and] said you have to get off at stop 15.
I’d travelled half a day on the train and when I saw the station, I got off. That was a mistake. There was nobody else there. Luckily the guard put a little parcel there, so I thought somebody will come. All the way around I could see no houses, nothing. This outback was frightening. Vast, open spaces. We had never ever seen that before.
The guy who pick up that parcel said to follow the railway line. I said, in broken English, “What about the next train?” He said, “There won’t be a train until tomorrow”. So I walked about four hours in a suit with a big suitcase, about 40 degrees heat.
It was nearly dark when I arrived at the Pattersons. By that time, the dogs started to bark. It was one of the houses on stilts, which I looked at in amazement. The shower and the toilet was underneath the house!
My first Aussie meal was terrible. Up until that day, my mum cooked, and we cook totally different. This little gauze pantry had some ham on a plate just laying there. They sliced a couple of slices with a few lettuce leaves. I thought, “Why would you put the ice cream on the same plate?” It was a spoon of white and a spoon of orange. It turned out to be mashed potato and pumpkin. Never seen that before in my life, so it was quite funny.
The next morning, the rooster woke me up. It was starting to come light. I said, “Where’s the cows and horses?” And he said, “Oh no, no. We don’t have that here. I’ll show you what we’re going to do”. He took me out in the utility, I’ll never forget this, and as we got over the crest of the hill he had onions as far as the eye could see. Both left, right, north. And he showed me one of these little blades [for] weeding. This was not cowboy!
They thought I was going to stay six months, but I said I wanted to go home within one week. I explained to them I thought I was going to do something different. The farmer’s wife, she felt a bit sorry for me. She could see I was unhappy. I was homesick.
He got my pay and counted out 20 florins. I had no idea what it was, but it was big coins so I thought that must be good. But as I got on the train the next morning, the guard said Wacol will be 21 florins, so I had to get off one station earlier and walk. That was a bit mean.
I was very happy [to be reunited with my family]. As I was coming back, [people] were kicking this funny shaped ball. We’d never seen a rugby ball. We were all soccer mad. Two stations back at Bundamba [there was] a soccer field. That was the only one I’d seen. My younger brother and I went to the ground and took our soccer boots. I was 15 and he was 14. There was a guy with a little Victa lawnmower, mowing the whole field. Very primitive!
They gave us a shirt and signed up in the club. That first game we won 15 goals to nil. My brother scored 7 and I scored 8. They all went crazy. Within the following week, we were both playing in the first team, like seniors.
We had a good time there. We made champions three years in a row. One of the guys in the team was a manager at the wool mills. I didn’t have a job [and] did that for about six months.
At the woollen mills, it was hot. There’d be huge carpet snakes in the roof, all curled up. What an experience! We were in the finishing rooms. You had huge lengths of blanket and would lower it into the machine. You’d get the other end, put it through rollers and as the other end come out you’d have to get a big sewing machine and stitch it together. Then it would go through a washing cycle.
You started to meet friends at the wool mills. We all liked a bit of fun. They used to teach me English, always the wrong things first, of course! My workmates would take us out hunting. The very first night, I’ve never been so scared. We come across this huge python. This was in the dark in the bush. It looked about six metres. The boys were teasing because we nearly trod on it. They said, “There’s always a mate, they’ll come looking!” We bolted for the cars and locked ourselves in. But then we got used to that and went swimming in the Bremer River and see snakes in front of us.
One of the friends I made at the mill said the meatworks next door pays double. We needed the extra money, you wanted to buy a little car and things like that. So I became a slicer. It was huge, beautiful meat, but it turned me off meat at the time.
Because of technical college, I was the only one [in] the family that had English. Especially for Mum and Dad, I would have to be the spokesman – the real estate, anybody come to the door. I would say the wrong thing sometimes. If I wasn’t feeling well I would say to people, “I’m sick in the head.” But I didn’t mean that!
Within six weeks, with four of us working, Mum and Dad found a home in Woodend in Ipswich. We bought it [and] put a small deposit down. That was the family home for about four years. I think it was only £2 a week.
Around Ipswich, we never saw the coast. [The postcard] was totally different to the outback side we ended up, [with] little corrugated iron buildings and sheds. We had more modern cities [in Holland], rebuilt after the war. We’d never seen things like that before and thought it was behind the times.
It was very, very, very quiet at Woodend. But, at the same time, we didn’t mind that. With a big family, we made our own entertainment; we still are very close-knit. We had this huge backyard which we’d never had before. We made a veggie garden [and] had mango trees. We’d never seen a mango before. We didn’t know what they were, and it was a taste we had to acquire.
We were really settled. Dad started to work on his own. He’d been working for a painting contractor but then started to get contacts. I started to work for my dad as a painter and [an]other brother joined. That’s when I first saw the coast. Fabulous! We went to Surfers Paradise and Southport to do most of the work. Around Ipswich, there was not that much money, you know.
We decided to come to Sydney[‘s northern beaches] for a holiday. Dad had a Volkswagen Kombi van where all the kids would fit and one sedan which would follow. We broke down [and] found out it was a part that ate into the holiday money. So Dad, my eldest brother and I [needed] a job for a couple of weeks in Sydney while [the rest] holiday[ed at] Narrabeen caravan park with a huge army tent [by] the beach.
There was a circus at Narrabeen Oval that needed labourers and a horse groomer. I’d always been interested in horses so us brothers ended up joining the circus for about three months. Dad got such a good painting job that we ended up stay[ing in] Sydney. None of us have looked back. I’ve never seen any regrets in Mum or Dad. Never were sad about coming here ‘cause [they] realised it was going to be better times ahead.
After Narrabeen, we went to Ashfield [in the inner west], a nice, huge old federation home, I think six bedrooms. I played soccer at a higher level, in a team where it had a lot of Dutch people, Sydney Astral. One of the sponsors offered me a job in the rag trade. When I finished in the afternoon, I used to go over to my wife, then my girlfriend, who was a shop assistant at a newsagent at the Rocks. They had massive newspaper deliveries throughout the city, so I used to help out. By the time we married, we both were managing that place.
The neighbours at Argyle Place had a sandwich shop and asked [if we] want to buy this. That looked like a good opportunity so we ended buying a sandwich shop, hamburgers, hot meals and all that. Before 5 o’clock in the morning we were up all day, all night, six days a week [at] Linda’s Food Bar, our first own shop.
When we left the shop, we ended up buying a place in Wentworthville, only for $60,000 in 1985. That had a huge backyard, 300 foot, an older fibro style home. [Property developers] offered us double what we paid [in the same year], [so] I looked for five acres somewhere. That’s our dream. So we build [this] home together with my sister.
When we came out here, I loved this, the open. Here 16 years now. I couldn’t imagine myself back in the suburbs but I don’t think I want to be a hermit away from the crowd [so] I enjoy bus driving very much. The last 10 years I have done country runs around The Oaks, Camden and Warragamba [south-west of Sydney]. I enjoy the company. You get the same people on the bus. You pick up old people from homes [and] the school children love [it when] I turn the radio on as hard as it can go on the rock stations!
I’ve got beautiful daughter and son, beautiful grandchildren now. Australia gives you the opportunity to own a little piece of paradise. Come home, leave the pressures behind and have peace and tranquillity. This is made in heaven.
Andrea Fernandes, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
8 April 2008