Solihull, West Midlands, England
London, England on 9 July 1973
Sydney on 10 July 1973
East Hills for ten days
Endeavour for six months
Flat in Bondi Beach, Sydney
I was Industrial Engineer for Leyland Australia in Zetland and Bondi Junction, Sydney. My wife, Judith, also worked for Leyland.
Census worker; computing manager, technician and trainer
I was born in 1936, left school at 15 and joined the [British] Royal Navy as a boy seaman, second class. Our wages were 17 [shillings] and sixpence a week, of which we got two shillings and two bars of soap! In those days working class blokes like me didn’t get overseas very much. The only way to get abroad was to join the forces. I was stationed in Malta and Halifax in Nova Scotia, Canada and went to about 39 different countries.
I went through the naval ranks to Leading Seaman, transferred to submarine service in 1955 and left the Navy in 1962 to get back to “civvy street”. I had three children and a wife – being in the Navy and having a family doesn’t work out because when you’re at sea you can’t come home. I had one or two jobs and got a transfer for Rover Motorcars to Solihull which is my home town, I’m an old Silhillian! I bought a house there and the whole family moved.
Life was getting boring so I decided to join the Territorial Army, which in Australia is the Citizens Military Force. I decided to become a paratrooper and to my horror I realised I’d joined a commando unit but it was great fun. I managed to get through the training – two weeks of sheer hell.
I had a nice three bedroom semi-detached house, garden and garage in Solihull. My wife and I were working at Rover on very good salaries. The kids were going to excellent schools. The area was a heritage village and the kind of place [where] retired admirals live. And we came to Australia. I’d been in the Navy, round the world, I’d been moving all the time, so to me it was just another move to look forward to, it was different. My wife Judith didn’t want to come really. She only came because I came. I didn’t find this out ’til later.
I had a half-brother in Melbourne. I was originally going [there] but we were snatched up by NSW [as] one of the last of the assisted passage schemes; the migrant people in Birmingham told us, “you’re lucky, you’ve just squeezed in”. The deal was we came over either by boat or plane and I chose the plane because I would lose less work time. We paid ten pounds for the wife and me and nothing for our boys Carl (13 years old), Kenneth (11) and Mark (10). The deal was [to] stay in Australia for at least two years – if we returned within then we had to pay back the full passage money for five people.
We got the plane from Heathrow in London. The kids brought The Dandy, a comic, with them for something to read on the plane. I had my father’s World War One medals; my mother gave them to me when he died in 1966.
There were two stops – Bahrain and Singapore. The transit lounge in Bahrain in those days was a tiny, tiny place and all you looked out on was desert.
It was 10 July [arrival in Sydney]. We were going through the throes of selling the house [in Solihull] so we went to the hostel at East Hills (in western Sydney). They were two storey blocks – the people with babies were put in the top block because of the poisonous snakes and spiders. Looking at the sparse accommodation after the comfort of a semi-detached house in the Midlands, the kids were totally dismayed; one of [them] burst into tears. I suspected what the standard would be like, I’d been in the armed forces, but my family had no idea. Judy hated [East Hills]. She’d been brought up with her own house and food.
East Hills was many miles from Sydney. The “red rattlers” were the trains [which] looked like cattle trucks with seats and travelled at 60 miles per hour with doors wide open to the track. This was a culture shock to us. My eldest son said it’s like going back 25 years in a time machine.
We were there (East Hills) for ten days and then went to Endeavour Hostel (in Sydney’s eastern suburbs) for six months. It was less spartan, much more modern. It was an itinerant place. People didn’t stay long to get to know each other very well. The Australian Government put you there on a temporary basis until you got yourself established.
These were the original marbles used by the kids – they brought them across with them, it was still a game in those days. They played marbles with other migrants in the hostel and taught people from places like Portugal, Spain, Lebanon how to play.
I still have a letter from Endeavour in August 1973. [It begins], “Dear Mr Sorge, your son has been selected to represent NSW Hostels in a series of soccer matches”. That was our Kenny – he’d already made his mark after only a month in the country.
The first Christmas was 1973-1974. It was pouring down with rain. The hostel people did their best to provide a multicultural Christmas dinner. Muslims, for example, might not be too interested in Christmas and roast turkey, so the hostel chose a middle way.
I went to Leyland Australia (British car manufacturer) in Zetland. They had to give me a job because I was waving a magic letter from the managing director. He was in Solihull promoting a brand new car and heard I was coming to Australia. I had an interview with him and he personally wrote me a letter of introduction. I came over with the grand title of Industrial Engineer. It was the fledgling days of computers in industry and they didn’t have that expertise. That’s how I got into computers.
I’d bought some land in Saratoga in East Gosford and wanted to use it as collateral to build a house. It was bought using the sale of the house in England. We went to the Government as advised by the migration people for advice on how to buy land in Australia. Unfortunately the people who advised us weren’t exactly the sort you could trust – we didn’t really get any help off anybody. To cut a long story short we had been cheated by the organisation that was selling us the land and we never got to build the house. Of the $12,000 I had then, which was a fair amount of money, I ended up with $200 and nothing. I was left with three children and a wife and nowhere to live. But I did have a decent salary and Judy also had. She worked for Leyland and was in the banking department. We accepted the position we were in [although] I was a bit offside with Australia with the problem of buying a house.
We hired a flat in Bondi Beach. We were paying $66 a week for a three bedroom flat. The kids went to school there and [later] Dover Heights. The boys settled in, particularly Kenny being an extrovert – and this a country of extroverts – so Kenny was part of the crowd. They used to gather at Bondi Beach and claim each ramp as territory.
Gough Whitlam was the Prime Minister at the time and came up with the three car industry [policy] – he wanted three major vehicle companies working in Australia and British Leyland wasn’t one. He came across to me as Anglophobic. Leyland Australia restructured and I was part of the company that remained. The head office moved to Bondi Junction and eventually Leyland itself broke up. In 1979 I came up against discrimination [in another workplace], Australians against Poms. The project leader voted against me and did his best to make sure I wasn’t working [there] in a year’s time. He told me, “I don’t want you Pommie bastards working for me”.
I was retrenched in 1988. You just couldn’t get employment at 52 in those days [but] I managed to land a one year contract with a senior girls’ college in Roseville and was employed as the computer technician. It was the best job I ever had in my life. Girls between 11 and 15 are the easiest to teach to use computers; they’re not scared to say they don’t know and admit making a mistake. It was then I realised I missed my vocation. I should have been a teacher. I really enjoyed it!
Since 1997 I have been back to the UK every two years because the older I get the more I realise I am an Englishman and that’s where I belong, in the UK. It’s not all bad in Australia. It has advanced incredibly in the last 33 years from a backwater to the forefront of the world [but] I miss the cold weather, I miss the snow, I miss the English humour. Carl says, “Dad, go home and set up a base for us to come and visit.” Kenny’s definitely Australian; Carl understands Australia more than I do and Mark accepts the situation he’s in. Judy’s wanted to go back but then she wouldn’t because of the grandchildren. We stay [in England] with Judy’s sister in Birmingham and our friends in Solihull; they were our original neighbours and still live there.
I retired in 2001. At the moment I [voluntarily] teach elderly people and pensioners how to use computers, email and Internet [and] am attending a class as a pupil, teaching us to create webpages. I’m going to put a webpage up with photographs and a bulletin board called “The Sorge Family Magic”! It’s for the family but anybody can read it.
Andrea Fernandes, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
16 August 2006
With assistance from Kenny Sorge