Era: 1945 - 1965 Cultural background: English, Scottish Collection: Powerhouse Museum Theme:Aviation Government Hostels Refugees Settlement
British flag from the Nissan Hut dining hall at the Westbridge Migrant Hostel, Villawood, c.1950- 1960s, Courtesy Powerhouse Museum
Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia.
‘Union Jack’ Flag.
British ‘Union Jack’ Flag used at the Westbridge Migrant Hostel, Villawood, New South Wales, Australia between 1950 and1960. Hessian flag mounted on metal poles with spearhead. Dimensions: 1000mm high X 450 mm wide.
After World War II, Europe was in chaos, Germany was crushed and the map of Europe was being carved up by the United States and the Soviet Union. Western Europe was supported by the United States while Eastern Europe was invaded by the Soviet Union. Migrants began streaming out of Eastern Europe to places like Australia and the United States to get away from the oppression in their homelands by the Soviet Union. The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union meant that nuclear war was a real threat and some people saw Australia as a safe place to live.
Between 1945 and 1965 more then two million migrants came to Australia. ‘Populate or perish’ became the catchcry, as the Australian Government embarked on an intensive international promotional campaign to encourage migration to Australia. Most were assisted: the government paid most of their fare to get to Australia. The campaign initially targeted Britons with schemes such as ‘Bring out a Briton’, then expanded to provide assistance and reunion schemes to other Europeans.
The first major post-war wave of migration started with displaced persons. These people had fled their countries of birth due to war, dislocation and the redrawing of national borders. Between 1947 and 1953, the Australian Government assisted over 170,000 displaced persons to migrate to Australia. Many came from Eastern Europe where they had suffered terribly during the war. In return they had to stay in Australia for at least two years and work in whatever jobs the government gave them. A number of migrants spent their first months in Australia living in migrant hostels while they tried to find themselves a home. Some found work in factories; others did the hard and dirty jobs in heavy industry. Skilled migrants found it hard to find work to suit their training and qualifications and had to accept what work was available. All migrants, especially those who did not speak English well, had to put up with prejudice. Thousands worked on the Snowy Mountains Hydroelectric Scheme that was commenced in 1949. Dams, power stations and tunnels were built so that the water from the Snowy River could be used to provide power and irrigation. Workers lived in camps and in newly built towns like Cabramurra doing hard and dangerous work.
The second wave of post-war immigration arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, and consisted of those seeking employment and better living conditions. These included migrants from Italy, Greece, Malta, Croatia and Turkey. These programs were an enormous success. The origins of ‘New Australians’ changed markedly, with British migrants only making up half of the intake, and many migrants coming from southern, eastern and northern Europe. In 1955, the one millionth post-war migrant arrived. Mass migration to Australia continued until the 1960s.
Minister for Immigration Arthur Caldwell meets Scottish migrants c1945. Courtesy National Library of Australia
The Villawood Migrant Hostel, including Westbridge Hostel, was administered from January 1952 by Commonwealth Hostels Ltd as a Commonwealth owned company. It operated until 1978. It was established, like many other migrant hostels, to accommodate displaced persons and assisted migrants after World War II. It was part of a network of hostels in NSW. These hostels were converted from former Army and Air Force camps such as the ones at Bathurst and Scheyville. As such, they form part of our military history. Photographic and administrative records are held by the National Archives of Australia, many in the Sydney facility at Villawood. The accommodation was temporary until migrants were able to find or afford houses in the community. The shortage of housing in the post-war period resulted in many migrants living in the hostels for many years. As such, their early history in Australia, and that of their children, was inextricably linked to these hostels.
The British made up the main population at Villawood in the 1950s and 1960s. The flag was hung in the Nissan Hut dining hall at the Westbridge Migrant Hostel in the 1950s and 1960s. It was hung with an Australian flag and they flanked a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II.
British migrants arrive in Sydney on the Fairsea c.1963. Courtesy National Archives of Australia
The flag has historic value as evidence of post World War II mass migration and the attempt by the Australian government to build the nation’s population with European migrants at a time when the White Australia Policy was firmly enforced. The flag is also evidence of the sentiments of the British, the majority of the population at the Villawood Migrant Camp, Australia’s links to Britain during the Second World War and after as a constitutional monarchy with Queen Elizabeth II as Queen of Australia.
The flag has social value as a reminder of the experience of thousands of post war migrants and the sentiments of the residents of the Villawood Migrant Hostel, as a symbol of assimilation, Australian migration policies and law and order of the Commonwealth.
The flag is well provenanced to the Nissan Hut dining hall at the Westbridge Migrant Hostel in the 1950s and 1960s. It was gifted to the Powerhouse Museum by the Commonwealth Accommodation & Catering Service in 1986.
The flag represents a time when Australia saw itself as a predominantly British culture, but was embracing people from other European nations. The Australian government assisted the migration of nearly 200,000 people from Europe, while maintaining the White Australia Policy and the Immigration Restriction Act to keep Asian and Pacific Islanders out.
The flag appears to be in good condition.
The interpretive significance of the flag is considerable. The flag is an object that interprets the attempts by the Australian government to build up Australia’s population of European migrants at a time when the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 was still firmly enforced.
Heritage Office & Dept of Urban Affairs & Planning 1996, Regional Histories of NSW, Sydney.
Heritage Collections Council 2001, Significance: A guide to assessing the significance of cultural heritage objects and collections, Canberra.
Migration Heritage Centre
June 2007 – updated 2011
Crown copyright 2007©
The Migration Heritage Centre at the Powerhouse Museum is a NSW Government initiative supported by the Community Relations Commission.