Chertsey, Surrey, England
Tilbury, London, England on 14 August 1956
Melbourne on 26 September 1956
Church hostel, Melbourne
Secretary at James Hardie, Melbourne
Fruit canning factory, northern Victoria; Returned Servicemen’s Hospital, Concord, Sydney; finance company, Woolloomooloo; camera suppliers in Sydney; family photographic business, Surry Hills.
My father was killed in a flying accident before the [Second World] war and my mother was left destitute. She managed but sadly couldn’t look after my brother and I and herself. She struggled for about three years and thought she’d have to give us away. The Royal Air Force decided to look after me [at a] special school for children whose fathers had been killed in service. I went to this school when I was three, my brother went to another one for boys. War broke out and all the children in London had to move.
After 1945 I couldn’t go back to the original [school] building in London because it had been bombed and they bought a country family home with 90 acres of land. They ran it as though we were still back in the Victorian times and children should be seen and not heard. It was very cruel, absolutely devastating, because I’ve a very quiet sort of character. I don’t push myself forward. I sort of stand back. It actually nearly crippled me mentally as far as self-confidence – “you’ll never do any good, you’ll never be anything” – and unfortunately I’ve carried that sort of baggage for the rest of my life. After much denial by the school about passing the entry exams, they allowed me to attend grammar school each day but I continued to live at the boarding school until I was 18.
My brother went to an all boys’ school [where] they weren’t allowed to talk. He found it hard to relate to anybody very well. After the war we went home to Mum’s in Chertsey every holiday and I used to get so excited. I could do what I liked, there was nobody watching me. It was a safe haven for me. My house that I live in now is furnished almost identically – I’ve even got a piano in my bedroom!
After I left school, I did three years [of] nursing training and didn’t finish. The staff were bullies. It even upset the patients the way the junior nurses were treated. I had in mind to not be bullied anymore, to get away. I did a secretarial course and applied to leave the country [for Australia]. I thought England didn’t hold anything for me. I’d been separated from my mother and brother for so long, my father was dead. I didn’t really know any relatives terribly well because I didn’t grow up with them.
After the war the school received food parcels from a suburb of Melbourne called Essendon – the school was in a village called Essendon. I corresponded with this gentleman, John McNabb, whose name was in my parcel, and asked if he could nominate me to come to Australia under the scheme where the government paid £10 and you had to stay two years. You had to have a job when you got here and somewhere to live. He agreed and found me a job at James Hardie in Melbourne and a place to live.
My brother was out of the country when I left. Once he joined the [Royal] Air Force at 16 I didn’t see much of him. In fact it was ten years before I saw him again. As for Mum, I didn’t want her to dissuade me. I just said I was going.
My mother gave me a set of suitcases before I left. I had six and they all fitted one inside the other. I’ve got two left. I brought a cookery book Mum gave me for my 21st birthday. It was a big thing at the time, Good Housekeeping. This book actually uses things that weren’t rationed anymore like proper butter and eggs and plenty of sugar. I still make cakes out of it. It’s wonderful. I wouldn’t be without it.
When I saw the ship I nearly had a heart attack. I was expecting a big fancy liner, like the Queen Mary, and it was this dreadful looking tub of a ship and it wasn’t very big. I thought, “I don’t believe I’m going all that way in that”. The ship really looked as though it had seen better days, and it had because it was scrapped the year later. The Largs Bay was built in the ’20s.
We left from Tilbury in London on 14 August 1956. Initially it was going to be Portsmouth – we were supposed to go through the Suez Canal but because of the [Suez Crisis] they had to change. We went round South Africa instead and it took twice as long. The ship was a freighter carrying 300 passengers and a cargo of motor cars and so our port stops were long. We stayed three days [each] in Cape Town, Durban and Fremantle. We stayed about the same amount of time in the Canary Islands, picking up cargo.
Most were young people on this ship. I got on quite well with the crew and they were all good fun. We had a library, we had a lounge. We were very lucky on that voyage because we had several well-known Australian actors on board and sitting at my table were Slim DeGray and Frank Wilson.
It took six weeks to get here, it was 26 September in Melbourne, 1956. John McNabb met the ship and took me to a church hostel for country girls. I made quite a few friends there and wasn’t alone. They had their dining room, their own cooks, so I didn’t have to worry about food.
The girls went home at Christmas and I found it rather unnerving to be left there by myself a long way from home. Somebody I worked with offered for me to go and spend Christmas Day with him and his family which I thought was rather nice.
My first port of call in Australia was actually Fremantle. It’s got a lovely feel about it, but Melbourne I couldn’t really get into. It seemed very cliquey. Apart from the girls at the hostel, it seemed hard to break into any group. The weather was awful. It could be very cold in December in Melbourne and quite frankly, didn’t like it.
I did secretarial work at James Hardie but it was a bit repetitive and I found it boring. I only stayed there six weeks. I went for an interview at Royal Melbourne Hospital and even though I was only six weeks off finishing [nurse training in England], they said I would have to do another two [years] because they didn’t recognise my preliminary state nursing certificate. I thought, no, I’m not going through all that again.
As soon as the fruit canning season started I thought I’d give it a whirl [so] I went to northern Victoria in January. I never told my mother. She would have been absolutely horrified to think I worked in a factory.
The canning factory had cabins [and] we had breakfast at 6am in a big hall. Actually I quite enjoyed it, to be quite honest. It was so different. Something I’d never done before and something I would never do again. The money was good and I shared a cabin with a nice girl. We found a cat that some of the guys had been using as a football so we came to Sydney when the season was finished and brought the cat with us. We found rooms at Coogee in a private home with our own kitchen. She got married to a sailor and left me by myself.
I got a job working for the Red Cross out at Concord. They still had a lot of people from the First World War; it was a Returned Servicemen’s Hospital and I used to write letters for them. The Red Cross had a little hostel, so I lived there. It’s right on the [Parramatta] River [with] all that factory stuff and I thought I can’t live here too long because it really smelt dreadful. My next job was with a finance company down in Woolloomooloo.
I met a man quite by accident in the city. He was on crutches and he asked me where the YMCA was. When we got the[re] he said [he's] got to meet a Swiss friend. So anyway this guy bounced through the door [with] a spring in his step. I thought, “what a scruff”! He worked down the Snowy [Mountains] and was x-raying those big pipes in power stations for welding cracks. This was one of his trips back to Sydney and I [was] introduced to Val, this Swiss guy. We got on quite well actually and he gave me this, my poor old koala bear that’s lost all its hair, because he had to go back to the Snowy and I was so upset. It sits on the dressing table and he’s got all worn out with age, moth eaten. He’s 50 years old, you know. He gave me that in ’57.
Val came here on his own. He hitchhiked through the Middle East and got as far as Indonesia. He came to Sydney and heard there were jobs down in the Snowy and x-rayed the big pipes 1,200 feet underground. He said there were no safety regulations; he’d be down in this tunnel by himself because of the radiation. In those days nobody worried. You were just stuck there by yourself.
Mum came out in ’59, a couple of months before Val and I married. The lease had run out on her house and she had to move. I said why don’t you come over here and see if you like it. And I think she was lonely. My brother an Air Force mechanic, me out here. No family. There was only the four of us at our marriage because we didn’t have any money. We had £10 the day we got married, Val and I.
Then she went back [to England] in ’60 and realised she was better off here. Too cold – she said it was hard work to survive. You spent half your life cleaning and lighting your fires, trying to keep warm. You had to spend a lot of money on very warm clothing. Here, if you didn’t have any money you could get a bag of chips and sit in the sun.
My brother got a job here; he was brought out by Qantas [because it] was short of mechanics. He brought his wife and three children but she didn’t like it. She’d been saving bits of money and then took off with the kids back to England. She hadn’t told him. He felt terrible. No children, no wife. He got married again and divorced.
After two years in the Snowy, Val thought he should get out because of the radiation safety level. But because he was new to Australia he couldn’t get a job and his English wasn’t crash hot. He wanted a job in photography and couldn’t get one, so his first job when we married was as a demolition worker. He said it was easy to get a job like that. The boss didn’t interview anybody; you had to show your arms and he walked along the line feeling everybody’s muscles! His first job [was] the demolition of the Rozelle post office which he has always regretted.
I got a job working for Kodak which I enjoyed – I wasn’t bossed [around]. But I got sick when I got pregnant with my eldest child and spent months in hospital. I [later] worked in a camera place in the city.
Val had a job with Qantas as an in-house photographer. They sent him to Tahiti because he spoke French. He’s very much an individual; he wanted to do the sort of photographs he wanted to do, not what he was told to do, so he found it a bit stifling. He left after a while and worked for himself and has ever since.
We had premises in Surry Hills which was an old bomb shelter from World War Two. It had six rooms with blast walls, we didn’t need any windows and we’d get local [homeless people] coming around wanting to sleep in there. We had cockroaches the size of cats almost, running up the walls. It was revolting but we worked there for about 12 years until the building started to actually fall apart. Chunks of concrete were starting to fall out of the ceiling and we were running about with crash helmets on because there were bits of steel stuck in the lumps of concrete.
I found out [why] I was bullied a lot [at school] after I came here through one of the girls. They hit my hands and they hit my bottom often enough. In front of everybody, they’d make you pull your knickers down, they’d all stand in a circle and you’d be in the middle and have your bottom walloped with a hair brush. This girl was treated similarly and that was punishment for her father’s role. The penny started to drop; my father was killed in an accident. He wasn’t killed on the Front, he wasn’t killed in active service for his country. That’s why I got bullied so much because his wasn’t an honourable death.
We went back [to England] in ’68 when the children were four and five – the other one was a baby and we didn’t take her. We [also] went to Switzerland so Val’s mother could meet the children. I haven’t been back since.
Mum lived in Canada for about six months, then America. She went to Japan, she went all over the place and went back to England for a year. But eventually she reckoned that Australia was the best place to be. I agree with her. Why would I go somewhere else? My three children were born here, my seven grandchildren are here. We’ve lived in this house for 45 years. My daughter bought the house next door. We’ve got a nice view, walk to the beach. In fact, every day I look out the window and say I am so lucky. Why would I want to go and live anywhere else?
My home is a safe haven. Yes. My mum’s place was a safe haven for me during school holidays. I still have the feeling when I come through my front door that I had when I used to walk through her front door. It’s a safe haven for me.
Andrea Fernandes, NSW Migration Heritage Centre
25 August 2006
With assistance from Karin Sowada and Paul Donnelly