I was a £10 Pom

Fifty years ago An­thony Weale sailed to Aus­tralia in search of a new life

The Oldie - - CONTENTS -

On the 10th of March, fifty years ago, I left home in York­shire and em­i­grated to Aus­tralia. My mother stood at the front door, wav­ing good­bye, while I crossed the Leeds Road, car­ry­ing a brown can­vas bag and £50 in my pocket, and caught a bus to Har­ro­gate rail­way sta­tion on the first leg of my jour­ney.

In 1945, the Aus­tralian govern­ment, as part of a pol­icy widely known as ‘Pop­u­late or Per­ish’, had in­tro­duced a sys­tem whereby it was pos­si­ble for im­mi­grants – me in­cluded – to travel to Aus­tralia for just £10 a head.

At Southamp­ton I joined a long queue of fret­ting fam­i­lies along­side a tow­er­ing Greek liner, the Aus­tralis. I even­tu­ally climbed the gang­plank and a squat Greek stew­ard led me down to a match­box of a cabin in the bow­els of the ves­sel with two bunks and a tiny basin. Sit­ting un­cer­tainly on the lower bunk was a lean young man from Sh­effield, Bob, who told me he had a job at Syd­ney Cricket Ground. He seemed to have been sep­a­rated from his wife; per­haps there was a rule against mixed sex cab­ins for mi­grants. We made our way to the main deck, found his wife, and watched si­lently as we steamed down the Solent to­wards the sun­set.

I found my­self shar­ing a ta­ble in the vast din­ing room with a melan­choly fam­ily called the Lau­rences. The fa­ther was a car­toon­ist; he sighed heav­ily and fre­quently, while his pale wife tried to feed two tired, pesky chil­dren. Bambi, our waiter, told us there were al­ready some 1,700 mi­grants aboard, with more to come in Athens.

At break­fast the next day, we were or­dered to report to a lifeboat sta­tion for safety drill. Un­shaven Greek sailors did their best to demon­strate the speed with which we might safely aban­don ship when nec­es­sary, but the davits and ca­bles were so clogged with old paint and rust that the lifeboat could not be shifted. Bob and I drifted off to find a beer be­fore we sank.

Af­ter cross­ing the Bay of Bis­cay and sail­ing through the Pil­lars of Her­cules and the Med, we reached Pi­raeus, where we docked for twelve hours to take on another thou­sand mi­grants. I jumped ship to ex­plore the sights of Athens. It was pour­ing with rain. I caught up with a pretty girl in a fur coat, and we spent a wet day to­gether, in­clud­ing a long, in­ti­mate lunch be­low the Acrop­o­lis. In dan­ger of fall­ing in love and aban­don­ing any idea of em­i­gra­tion, I forced my­self back to the docks in the late evening, just as the gang­plank was go­ing up.

The fol­low­ing day we reached Suez in bright sun­light. New mi­grant hordes teemed on deck, lean­ing over the rails, cook­ing on Primus stoves, chat­ter­ing and squab­bling. An army of small boys in striped py­ja­mas climbed on board, sell­ing rar­i­ties from the Pyra­mids. Bob told me that he’d bought a large di­a­mond for his wife, but it shat­tered when he tried to scratch his mark on the mir­ror in our cabin. He wasn’t feel­ing at all well, so headed for the med­i­cal cen­tre. A stew­ard told me later that he had scar­let fever, and that he’d be held in quar­an­tine for the rest of the voy­age. I can’t say I minded that much: the cabin was very noisy but at least I had it to my­self.

We inched through the Canal, and down the Red Sea, watch­ing Be­douin on camels strolling south­wards; af­ter a day or two we reached Aden. The Aden in­sur­gency was in full swing: I dis­em­barked with a Cock­ney lad called Dan, who looked like a prize-fighter, and we wan­dered the streets, keep­ing our eyes open for gun­men. Things were lively that day in the old Arab quar­ter, and armed Bri­tish po­lice con­fined us to the dock area. That night, Aus­tralis broke into the In­dian Ocean. Another ten days to Fre­man­tle.

The food on board was bet­ter than I ex­pected, and it was about to get a great deal more plen­ti­ful. Twenty-four hours af­ter leav­ing Aden, we hit a typhoon, and at break­fast next morn­ing the din­ing room was vir­tu­ally empty. For the next few days, while the huge ship pitched and tossed, and most of the pas­sen­gers hid in their cab­ins, Bambi fed me like a king.

As the storm sub­sided, word went round that two pas­sen­gers from Corinth had dis­ap­peared, a Mal­tese had been stabbed, and a pug­na­cious New Zealan­der had been found tied up in a lifeboat with a bleed­ing nose. By now we’d been at sea for nearly three weeks, with pre­cious lit­tle to do. Most of us had run out of cash, so we could no longer af­ford treats at the bar. I spent hours lean­ing over the side, watch­ing fly­ing fish forty feet be­low, and an al­ba­tross that flew with us all the way to Fre­man­tle.

We re­mained in Fre­man­tle long enough to dis­charge a cou­ple of hun­dred mi­grants, then for five days we rolled across the Great Aus­tralian Bight, reach­ing Mel­bourne on Good Fri­day. A le­gal ac­quain­tance I’d met in Ire­land the year be­fore was there to meet me, and he gave me a bed for the next ten days, un­til I found a job and some­where to live.

In­ter­views were easy to get, and a glass-mak­ing com­pany hired me as a safety of­fi­cer ten days af­ter I’d ar­rived. Over the next four years, I worked var­i­ously on night shifts in a bot­tle fac­tory, sell­ing card­board boxes to Queens­land ba­nana grow­ers, as an ad­ver­tis­ing copy­writer, and pro­mot­ing a fer­tiliser spreader. Af­ter two years, the au­thor­i­ties gave me back my pass­port, which I’d sur­ren­dered as part of the £10 deal.

I also be­came en­gaged to be mar­ried to another English mi­grant, now my wife of 46 years. We de­cided to come home. It wasn’t that we liked Aus­tralia less, but that we liked Eng­land more. I don’t think we were whinge­ing Poms, but the flies were dread­ful.

Aus­tralis at Southamp­ton docks in 1977 just be­fore its last jour­ney to Aus­tralia

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