SCHEYVILLE MIGRANT ACCOMMODATION CENTRE 1949-1964
Johanna Mazanka, former migrant resident, 2005.8
In 1944 Prime Minister John Curtin declared that the government would commit itself to an expanded immigration program at the conclusion of the war. The need to increase Australia's population was emphasised by labour shortages in all industries. The demands of war saw the government unable to maintain services that had existed before 1939. There was a shortage of housing, schools and hospitals, transport services were dysfunctional and blackouts were commonplace.
Initial plans to bring large numbers of 'war orphans' were at odds with the reality of post-war Europe. The British and other governments would not cooperate in large-scale child migration, forcing the Australian Government to invite adult migrants. In March 1946 the Australian and British Governments signed an agreement to provide free passage to Australia for ex-British Servicemen and their dependents. In 1947 the Commonwealth signed an agreement with the International Refugee Organisation to bring twelve thousand displaced people a year from refugee camps in Europe to Australia. Australia also entered assisted passage agreements with the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Greece and other European governments.
The large-scale migration of adult Europeans was a far-reaching change in Australian history and a more significant rejection of the British Empire than Federation and other changes to Australia's political relationship with Britain. Trade unions and ex-servicemen's organisations were initially resistant, but the widening of cultural groups – eventually to include 'non-white' migrants – is today considered a major success by most Australians.
In 1949 the Australian Government announced that Scheyville Farm would be converted into a migrant accommodation centre. Scheyville became one of dozens of migrant camps and hostels housing the new arrivals until they were able to find their own accommodation.
The Centre was greatly expanded to accommodate over one thousand migrants. Fibro huts were built at Scheyville, they were divided with partitions to create three rooms with sleeping space for up to five people. The staff dining room remained in the quadrangle building, while the migrants dined in two large semi circular iron huts, recycled from a war time Pacific air field. New buildings housed communal bathrooms and laundries. A school and a Catholic church were also constructed during the 1950s.
On the 14th December 1949 the first migrants were admitted to Scheyville. By the end of the year there were six hundred people in residence. Rent was paid by those able to find employment, although Scheyville's isolation and lack of public transport was an obstacle to job-seeking. People were expected to stay at Scheyville for up to six months, although some stayed for years. The Windsor & Richmond Gazette reported in 1957 that 'some migrants had been living at the Centre since 1949 and they were unable to face the world after experiencing the terrors of two wars in their countries'.
John Conrad Pohl, former migrant resident, 2005.9
Scheyville's migrants came from all over Eastern and Western Europe. The variety of nationalities and the number of people living at Scheyville created a vibrant community. There was a post office, hospital and maternity hospital, school and pre-school, convent, churches, and a 'modern' recreation centre. There were also many community groups including the Scheyville branch of the Country Women's Association, choral, theatrical, instrumental, social, cultural and religious groups.
These and other social activities provided the opportunity for many to establish relationships that have endured a lifetime. There were many marriages at Scheyville, children were born and baptised, and families raised. The war had severed many contacts and for some Scheyville was a place to be reunited with friends from their former countries.
All the services were communal. Food was provided in one of three messes, two for the residents and one for the staff. All food had to be eaten in the mess, this was a restriction which, until a violent incident, was enforced by patrol officers. Sometimes however when the situation demanded, food was hidden under clothing to bring back to the rooms for the children who were sick or when it was too cold.
Residents lived in small rooms that have been described as cramped and spartan. Some families, as large as six, were accommodated in two small rooms in which they lived for a number of years. The rooms were furnished with the basics which residents would brighten up with colourful pieces of fabric which were placed over packing cases or hung on walls. Photographs and calendars or cards were also popular additions, anything to make the rooms their own.
Richard Cebulski, former migrant resident, 2005.10
Those who were children at Scheyville have many fond memories of the place. The large area and isolation of Scheyville provided freedom and security to play and enjoy life in their new home as never before. Scheyville children report memories of bushwalking, hiking, learning to swim in the creek, exploring, Santa, presents and cordial at Christmas, first communions, preschool and school, singing, dancing and playing music, toys, spying on the staff, playing sport and countless friends with whom to play.
Hazel Humphrey, Admin Clerk, 2005.11
The Department of Immigration ran all of the accommodation centres. At each of the immigration centres senior management staff were appointed. They were responsible for hiring and firing other staff, sourced from both Australians and migrants.
For Australians working at Scheyville it was an opportunity to do something to help people whose lives had been destroyed by the war. Many of the Australian staff recall being told stories too horrendous for the newspapers to report. They also saw their work as an opportunity to meet and learn more about parts of the world they had never seen.
For the migrants, living at Scheyville required flexibility. In many instances the Australian government did not recognise international qualifications, and many migrants were required to retrain in Australian institutions. In the meantime employment was found in unskilled industries. However there were some migrants who were able to find employment in their trade within the centre or were able to adapt other skills they possessed such as interpreting.
Administration staff had their own staff mess at the far end of the quadrangle. Adjoining this was a staff games room with a drinks bar manned by rostered staff. This was the site of many staff parties. The single staff were accommodated in the dormitories at the sides of the quadrangle and others were located throughout the camp and sometimes in separate housing within the camp. In the early days there was a fully functioning hospital on site inclusive of a separate maternity wing.
Since 1945 almost six million people have migrated to Australia and later become Australian citizens. Citizenship is conferred upon people in naturalisation ceremonies during which the candidate renounces their allegiance to their previous nationality in favour of Australian citizenry. Scheyville hosted many of these ceremonies, usually conducted by the Mayor of Windsor. Candidates were presented with a Bible on behalf of Windsor Council, and the women were presented with a bouquet prepared by the members of the Country Women's Association which also provided some choral entertainment.
The 1950s policy of assimilation meant that immigrants were expected to abandon the cultural heritage and customs of their former countries. The migrants at Scheyville were subjected to both sides of the spectrum, as they were urged to both give up, and retain and celebrate, the cultural heritage of their homelands. The Mayor of Windsor was typical in claiming that Scheyville showed that 'our great social experiment, in bringing migrants to our country on a large scale, has a soul'. He also encouraged new citizens to
By 1964 European refugees were a minority of new migrants and the Department of Immigration decided to close the Scheyville Centre by the year’s end. About 300 people were still living at Scheyville. Meanwhile, conscription of young men into the army created a need for training facilities. In 1965 the Scheyville site was converted into the Officer Training Unit Scheyville, which operated until 1973, the end of conscription and Australian involvement in the Vietnam War.
8. Johanna Mazanka, 17/4/05, Scheyville Migrant Oral History Project, Interviewed by Coralie Augustesen, Cameraman Paul Westcott.
9. John Conrad Pohl Former Migrant Resident 17/4/05 Scheyville Migrant Oral History Project, Interviewed by Coralie Augustesen.
10. Richard Cebulski , 17/4/05, Scheyville Migrant Oral History Project, Interviewed by Coralie Augustesen, Cameraman Paul Westcott
11. Hazel Humphrey, Administration Clerk. 17/4/05, Scheyville Migrant Oral History Project, Interviewed by Coralie Augustesen, Cameraman Paul Westcott
12. Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 23 October 1957.
13. Windsor & Richmond Gazette, 19 December 1956.