Our branch of the Hipkin family were ‘ten pound poms’ in Australia from 1951 to 1955. (Aussie rhyming slang: immigrant = pomegranate = pommy = pom.*see footnote Most UK immigrants paid £10 and entered the country on an ‘assisted passage’ scheme). I was only twelve years old when we left the UK, so I wasn’t consulted on the rationale for our relocation to the other side of world, but I guess that it was a combination of our Dad’s itchy feet and occasional correspondence with his very elderly penpal Uncle Sam Hipkin (aka Sam Armiger or Sam Armature).
According to family lore, Sam was from the Hipkin family branch in Syderstone in Norfolk, where he allegedly shot and wounded a gamekeeper and was smuggled away by his younger brother under a wagonload of turnips (or cabbages, or sugar beet, your choice) to Kings Lynn, then to Tilbury where he stowed away on a ship bound for Australia.
Safely ‘down under’ Sam changed his name twice to avoid detection and went on to prosper in the construction business in Enfield NSW – this was in the early years of the 20th century, but Sam remained a part of the family and Dad exchanged letters with him up to the outbreak of war in 1939. In these later letters, Sam’s tone was encouraging, laying great store on the advantages of life ‘down under’ and promising a job and assistance with accommodation if our family decided to emigrate.
Sadly, and as with so many other plans, the Second World War put paid to any early realisation of these dreams. All sponsored emigration ceased because ships were required for the war effort, and Dad spent the war years working as a Radial-Arm Drilling Machine Operator in the gun-shop at the Vickers-Armstrong factory on Elswick Road in Newcastle.
Our parents were very frustrated at the lack of progress with the Australian Immigration authorities, so we were surprised when acceptance agreements came from Australia House, with tickets and arrangements to join RMS Otranto at Tilbury on 14th June 1951. This caused a mad scatter of excitement, packing our stuff, leaving school, travelling back up to Gateshead to say goodbye to those few family members that Mam was still ‘speaking to’, then down to Tilbury for our big adventure.
During this hectic period Dad sent a last letter to Sam, to let him know that we were finally coming and our arrival schedule at Sydney. This was the polite thing to do, and was essential because Sam was our ‘sponsor’ and the guarantor that we wouldn’t become a burden on the Aussie State, etc.
This was in the days before mass air travel, and when our relatives came to see us off at Tilbury, they thought that this would be the last time that they would ever see us, so it was tears and big hugs all round before we boarded – then paper streamers joined ship to shore as Otranto slipped her moorings and slowly edged away from the quayside and the streamers snapped, one by one.
We were excited, running up and down and exploring our floating home, but Mam cried as the shore of England receded and the ship turned south, bearing us away to our new life, perhaps never to return.
The voyage was something out of a cruise brochure — Otranto was a big ship carrying many passengers (we were on ‘H’ deck, with portholes submerged when the ship rolled) and she also carried a fair amount of cargo.
This was in the postwar declining period of the British Empire, but Britain still had substantial overseas possessions serviced by vessels like the Otranto. We called at Port Said in Egypt, through the Suez Canal and the Great Bitter Lakes to the Red Sea at Port Suez, then Aden, then Colombo, then across the Indian Ocean before reaching Perth, Australia.
Shipboard life was great, but the Dining Room was something of a puzzle, with rows of knives and forks, plus menu items like ‘Brown Windsor Soup’ and ‘Sole Bonne Femme’ — dishes that hadn’t appeared very often on menus back in Gateshead.
Salt tablets were also on the menu, a standard 1950s practice and something that could cause major stomach upsets, but we were resilient — something that would be tested more fully in the weeks and months to come.
Bad news — Back to Earth
Between Perth and Adelaide, our Uncle Harvey (my mother’s brother and my favourite Uncle) sent us a telegram with some very bad news. Sam’s family had belatedly responded to Dad’s post-departure telegram and been trying to contact us in Britain, to delay or prevent our embarkation. This was because Sam had suddenly become very ill (he died in 1952) and his elderly daughters didn’t want the stress of dealing with us and formally withdrew their sponsorship.
This was shattering for our parents — they had burned their boats financially, had no money, no home and no furniture, had three kids still at school and the family was going to a foreign land 12,000 miles from home.
The situation became even more complicated when Australian Immigration found out that our sponsorship deal had evaporated. This was only a few years after WWII and some desperate people were trying to get into countries like Australia, Canada and New Zealand by destroying their papers and changing identity to avoid being charged as war criminals.
The Aussie Immigration people suspected that we belonged to one or other of these categories, so they took us and our gear off the ship in Melbourne and arranged to send us to quarantine while matters were sorted out. Our destination was Bonegilla, on the Victoria/NSW border, a camp mainly for non-UK migrants, but with a special section for ‘displaced persons’ like us. This was more bad news, but things got worse as the crane lifted our gear out of the ship. The driver dropped our crates onto the quayside and our crockery and breakables were smashed. We had no insurance (the unsigned Proposal Form was in Mam’s papers when she died). This was the last straw – Mam counted the coins in her purse then sat on the broken boxes and wept as if her heart was broken.
Waking up in an old wooden hut at Bonegilla Camp, with grass growing through cracks in the floor and with loudspeakers giving orders for the day, my first thought was that we had strayed onto a movie set, and that I would soon wake up. I felt better when we located the dining room, although the food was bland, then better still when we learned there were other kids in the camp, and we could come and go as we pleased (although our parents had travel restrictions).
Over the following days we explored the area, climbing over the dam on the Hume reservoir, and watching large mobs of kangaroos bounding over the hillsides. We admired the cockatoos and colourful galahs in the trees that surrounded the camp, and the possums that sat on the roofs of the huts at night. Thankfully, we had been at Bonegilla for only a short time when Dad found a job at his trade in a factory in the suburbs of Melbourne and we transferred to Brooklyn, a very large hostel not far from Footscray – a hostel that we later learned had acquired a reputation as the toughest establishment in the system.
Our ‘home’ for the remainder of our Australian sojourn, this was the place that finally broke our parent’s determination to succeed in a new life – but also where we escaped from parental control and gained almost complete freedom to roam and to do our own thing.
How the Aussies got it wrong
After WWII, the Australian Government decided that medium-term economic development would be retarded unless the population could be increased by skilled and semiskilled immigrants. Various initiatives were started, including subsidised travel and a guarantee of hostel rooms until permanent housing could be obtained. These schemes were very successful, with huge numbers of people coming into the country, but provision of accommodation and availability of jobs lagged behind.
To clear the backlog, old wool stores were converted into primitive lodgings and wartime Nissen huts were re-erected in rows and streets, with communal dining and laundry rooms. Functional and austere in appearance, these places may have been adequate if used on the planned short-term basis — but the weekly ‘tariff’ payable meant that the typical migrant family had to pay most of their weekly wages in rent.
This simple fact trapped many families in the hostel system, obviating any possibility of finding their own place, and guaranteeing that they lived in relative poverty.
Socially, the policy was even more disastrous — the system ghettoised foreign communities in out-of-town locations without onsite facilities or diversions: no jobs, no shops, no pubs, no churches, no communal hall.
Also, by this date any Australian preference for British migrants was over and the inevitable hostel disturbances brought critical condemnation from the newspapers, the ‘whingeing pom’ tag being widely used and enthusiastically repeated by schoolmates and the man in the street.
Unsurprisingly, up to 30% of British immigrants became disenchanted by these conditions and returned ‘home’ although quite a few then emigrated for a second time.
Our new Home
En route from the station, the bus picked people up from other hostels before pulling through the gates at Brooklyn, where a one-man reception committee was waiting. A fellow Geordie, this man climbed into the bus to introduce himself, to tell us the basic stuff about the camp, but in particular to warn parents about the bottom areas of the camp, where poliomyelitis was apparently rampant, and where there had been riots and a major fire when Italian migrants were evicted for not paying their rent.
The adults were horrified, concerned at what they were bringing their families into, worried about their kids getting polio (this was before Dr Salk’s vaccine), and wondering if emigration was a good idea after all.
We passed the concrete bases of burned-out sheds, then huge warehouse buildings on either side. These were originally built as bulk stores for bales of wool, but the outside walls were now pierced with rows of windows and we could see people coming and going through large door openings in the sides and gable ends.
The sheds were very large, about 200 feet wide by 500 feet long, subdivided into ‘flats’ of three or four rooms each, with walls of 4 x 2 inch studs clad with ordinary hardboard on the outside. The inside faces were unlined, with the timber frame showing. Ceilings were clad with hardboard, with a central section left open for ventilation and covered with wire netting to prevent birds from flying in. Flats around the shed periphery had windows that opened onto the outside world, but the inside flats simply opened onto the interior of the shed.
From safety, privacy, or other humane viewpoints, the accommodation was unsatisfactory for anything other than an overnight stay and would certainly have been condemned as long-term accommodation for prisoners-of-war.
Bounded on one side by the large and very smelly Borthwick’s abattoir and meatpacking plant, Brooklyn had run down houses and vacant building lots to the other side. In front was a green field with a smoky and dirty steelworks to the side and the back fence opened onto a wasteland of old quarry workings.
These were generally part-filled with chemically polluted water of unusual hue and were surrounded by scrubby areas with derelict factory buildings and shacks – a paradise of things for boys with time on their hands to explore, climb, swim in and fall from.
Migrants were forbidden to cook in their accommodation, so we ate in the communal canteen (the food was awful) and rarely saw our parents (Dad was soon working overtime, Mam worked unsocial hours in the Hostel canteen, later as a Barmaid in Footscray), so we used our newfound freedoms to the full, made new friends and found our way around the local scene.
The Nissen Hut
After a year or so in the woodshed we had good news — we were to transfer into a Nissen hut. The even better news was that brother Brian and I would live on the opposite side of the hut from our parents and would have our own front door (we were No 12, they were No 1!).
Extra space and freedom brought new opportunities for our interests in music (especially Jazz and Swing) and short-wave radio. We had accumulated some ancient radio equipment, stuff that Brian supplemented with home made receivers and record turntables attached to bits of plywood and with wire aerials slung across our room we would sit up late at night, listening on headphones to the arcane chatter of radio ‘hams’.
The new privacy appealed to me because I was firmly in the grip of teenage angst and could keep away from my parents – communication being largely restricted to weekends.
Summer temperatures were a big problem for hut dwellers, the corrugated-iron soaked up the heat and reflected it inwards, ensuring that the unfortunate occupants slept in pools of perspiration.
I left school at 14 and worked in Smorgons combined abattoir and fruit cannery (yes, really!), while Brian was an apprentice with the Civil Aviation people and we both handed our unopened wage packets into the ‘repatriation fund’ so that the family could accumulate enough cash to come ‘home’ to the UK, although in truth we had nothing to come home to – no house, no jobs, no assets of any kind.
But that’s another story.
If you have photos of Brooklyn, or old documents, etc, then please comment in the box provided and I will be happy to show your stuff on this blog.
In the 1950’s schoolyard at Williamstown High School this was more usually heard as ‘pommybastard’ or ‘whingeingpommybastard’.