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"Dragged Off  to Oz..... in'52!"
Brian Smith's Memories of Emigration

A Very Different Story!


Unlike most, perhaps all, entries that will appear in ‘Natives Abroad' I did not want to migrate overseas. I did not want to go to Australia.  I have mentioned earlier in the Visitors Book of being dragged off ‘to the colonies’ kicking and screaming.  Not unlike those early pioneering convicts who initially populated Australia, you may say.  Not so, as far as I was concerned.  They were selected by some of the best Judges in England to repay a debt to society.   What had I done? 


Why did I object to migrating?


A gifted scholarship from I.C.I saw my future in England assured although when I reflect upon it there is a similarity to the guarantees those Convicts were given - my employment, board and lodging guaranteed for 4 years.  But add to that an extension to College then possibly University my future looked brighter than theirs although convicts did receive an overseas holiday for free.  (Mine cost Dad a fiver.)  And then of course there was a girl.

But, father said ‘Australia for you my lad. Regardless!’


Embarking on a New Life


So, on April 30th 1952 we, that is Mum, Dad, sister, brother and I were dockside in Southampton lining up to board the former Empress of Bermuda newly re-commissioned as the migrant liner New Australia the fastest liner on the Australia run taking just 28 days.

Just my luck, I was not in a hurry!

I held the family Identity Cards to give to the appropriate Immigration official.  With my ‘still don’t want to go’ mentality, I surreptitiously slipped my own card into my pocket ‘just in case’.  Either the official couldn’t count or was just slack as he didn’t notice the missing card. (I still have it.)


Above: The odd looking New Australia 28,000 tons formerly the Empress of Bermuda 34,000 tons but minus top decks due to wartime bombing in Liverpool docks.


Old sea lore tells us renaming a ship is unlucky.  It would be interesting to know how the many migrant passengers the New Australia delivered to Australia felt about that years later.


Shipmates & Arrangements


There was only one other teenager on board, fortunately a girl. Marilyn was tall, slim, nicely shaped and appeared to be about the same age as me. Sleeping arrangements saw families were segregated – males down in the lower deck cabins, females and children above. Mum, kid brother and sister shared with Marilyn and her mother. Dad and I shared with 3 other men including Marilyn’s father.

The ship was well appointed and quite grand to us - with two Stewards allocated to our group of ten.  They would serve us in the rather grand Dining Room and also our cabins, cleaning and making up our berths – beds to non nautical types! 

Those two stewards were the ship's characters. Always fun, attracting quite a lot of attention to our table in the dining room but their ‘short sheeting’ didn’t go down too well with one of our cabin mates.  I got the blame for that – it was Marilyn’s father’s berth.


Above: Our first shipboard and only formal dinner 

Around the table L to R: Father ’Bob’,   No! definitely not the Langton tie I was wearing,  the two Merry Widows (who, like our stewards, were also always good humoured and great fun),  Marilyn’s mother.  

Standing - our two stewards, Marilyn’s father hiding behind the R.H.steward (he always avoided  the camera.) Marilyn (sigh), my sister Val,  Mum (Eva Merritt,) and kid brother Colin.

(Look at the faces.  You can pick the two Natives who didn’t want to be there!) 

Table places were initially pre assigned, the dining room working two shifts for each meal to cater for ‘migrant’ numbers.


On board entertainment, both stage and screen, were apparently pretty much as they had been on the pre war Empress.  There were both ladies and gentlemen’s hairdressers, a chemist and several shops supplying necessities.

We two teenagers had the run of the ship to some extent.


Route, Landfalls... and Oz


Our first landfall was the ‘top end’ of the Suez Canal but we didn’t stop at Port Said. Why would anyone live in such a hot desolate place I thought as we traveled along the Canal.  The ‘Great Lakes’ were more interesting with the many wrecked ships both from WWII and some recent troubles while Dad enthusiastically pointed out many features where he had been during The War.  The ship stopped at Aden although we weren’t allowed off.  Soon we were assailed by many hopeful local traders alongside in their ‘bumboats’ although one would think there would be little trade from a shipload of ‘Ten Pound Poms’. (Being under age, I was half price with even less cash to spend!)



Our next port of call was Colombo in Ceylon (Sri Lanka,) - our first time ashore and, for most, our first steps on foreign soil.  I can only recall the market, the humidity, flies, smell and lizards crawling over the fruit and vegetables - all quite nauseating to me. The highlight was when a local approached one of the Merry Widows with “Ten Bob, English lady?”.  That one certainly went around the dining room at dinner that evening!

Our first experience of Australia, the port town of Fremantle, did not impress us with its rusty tin roofs and drab timber buildings. Marilyn and I were free to roam ashore for the day before the ship sailed on to Melbourne.  What an adventure that should have been in this new land but although the sun was shining very brightly, the place was too dull, drab and boring even for a couple of wartime bred teenagers.  One bright point was a very small 4 table family restaurant where we had a meal.  A 14 year old girl and her 13 y.o. brother were completely running the show.  No Dad and Mum was in hospital.  Our introduction to the Australian  have a go - keep things going ’ mentality.


On to Melbourne.... and Journey's End


The impression didn’t change when we arrived in Melbourne due to very heavy rain and the early evening light.  Luckily, the rain eased off as we prepared to disembark in the dark.  Bidding our farewells to Marilyn and her parents, I got one of the first shocks this new country was going to deal me. Marilyn’s father announced that, tomorrow, would be her birthday – her 13th.  Strewth! I thought she was 16 like me!




Dad’s brother organised taxis to take us to his house where we would be staying until we had our own home.  We would be staying in a bungalow behind their house.  It was very dark when the taxi pulled up outside what I could see was a bungalow. Carrying two cases, I followed Uncle’s instruction to take them around to the back door.  Approaching where I thought the back door would be, the next shock greeted me.

Ello you old barrrsterrrdd!, shrieked a voice. Such language was shock enough but screeching out of the path by my feet in the darkness certainly rendered me motionless. That is until a laughing Uncle explained I had been welcomed by Aunt’s pet Cockatoo, a completely naked one too. My first taste of Australian wildlife!

OK, so into the bungalow.

Next shock.  In Australia house = bungalow or anything bigger, but bungalow = typically a single room ‘glorified shed’ in the backyard. (Most were better than a shed, lined and even having 2 rooms plus kitchen.)

Mum, Dad, sister and brother would be sleeping in the ‘bungalow’, I would share with my (male) cousins in the house.

Next shock.  Not only was the bedroom literally a sea of beds but the window was to be left open, not for fresh air though.  It would be left open so that the voluptuous Daphne from next door could climb into our bedroom without waking the parents. What a shock for this naïve lad from quiet Whitstable!  OK, so you may know different but the Whitstable I knew didn’t have Daphne's willing to climb into one’s bedroom!

Next shock.  Our second night there and Daphne did actually climb through the bedroom window. 

Shocked again.  My bed was below the window and Daphne didn’t proceed to cousins’ beds!  “This is Australia?”

I was saved from my ‘What do I do now’ predicament by alert Dad.  From that moment on, I would sleep in the ‘bungalow’.  Regardless.  It was an order!  Yes, father was a bit autocratic.


Education and Employment


My Uncle had secured a job for Dad where he worked while I was to continue my schooling. I would find High Schools here were very different from England’s Grammar Schools.

My next shock - the material I would be studying I had done two years earlier. But, worse still, ‘they’ wanted me to start one year down ‘to acclimatise’.  Gosh!  I didn’t want to come here in the first place.  It was bad enough being in a place of rusty tin roofs, sheds for bungalows, where sink, washing and bath water ran into the street to run along the gutter to the nearest drain, but to go backwards 3 years at school was the end.

I refused to go to school.  I wanted to go back to England immediately.  Father said “No way.  School or work.”  If I had known which direction the sea was, I may have tried running away to that.  Luckily, a cousin immediately found a job for me. Commonsense prevailed. I started work and had a chat with a College Principal (alias Headmaster) about my education dilemma and my then desire to become an architect.  He thought I would be more suited to Engineering and mapped out a series of night school courses for me.  That proved a very worthwhile chat. Wise man.

Following my ‘College Principal’ chat, Dad arranged for me to have a ‘career’ chat with his Works Manager who also thought I would be suited to Engineering.  The company was then the largest manufacturer in the Southern hemisphere - their factory being 80 acres under roof plus twice that as open space. They needed Engineers but, here comes the next shock I thought, when he said all their Engineers (and Management) had first to do an engineering apprenticeship.  I said a rather blasé,  “Yes.”  I was to start work after Christmas.

The closest I had ever been to the inside of a factory was looking through a huge doorway of the Supermarine aircraft factory in Southampton. 


The First Nöel!


Our first Australian Christmas saw us eating the traditional roast – outside in 106 degree heat - without shade!  Mad Dogs and Englishmen!!!  At that time, almost the whole of industry closed down for the traditional two weeks annual leave period. The whole place literally shut down while most people took off someplace for their annual holiday.


Starting a Career.. in Fairisle


After that first Australian Christmas, more shocks were in store for me.  On January 6th 1953, 7 months after arriving in Australia, I joined 38 other apprentices ‘ready’ to start our Engineering careers.  Well at least those 38 were ready.  They had been to Technical College.  I don’t think I had even seen the outside of Canterbury Tech.  They were clad in their blue boiler suits.  I was clad in ……my Fairisle pullover (and tie!)  Talk about standing out in a crowd!

We were progressively taken off to the various departments we were to start in.  That’s when this country delivered what I will call its final shock to me. I walked through Hell.  I know it was Hell because it was as dark as a stormy moonless night and much, much noisier with dark shadowy figures flitting through the glow of Hell’s furnaces. 

The very severe looking Apprentice Master had led me through one of several dingy forging shops built and equipped with oil fired furnaces about the time of WW1.  I wouldn’t be working there, he had simply taken a short cut but I often wondered if my Fairisle pullover had led him to play that little piece on me.  Later we became quite good friends.

I did not know then but my earlier blasé “OK” was the best decision I could have made here. So high was that company’s standing that most of the Royal Melbourne Technical College, Institute of Engineers and Institute of Management examiners were drawn from their Engineering staff.  As long as we were capable and interested we had a career path mapped out from the factory floor to top management – anywhere in Australia.


Social Life


So, what about the social side of life for me.  Well now, the Daphne issue aside, those first 7 months or so were a revelation.  Perhaps I should say my cousins were.  I couldn’t say they were typical Ocker larrikins because they neither drank nor swore but they did have a sense of almost irresponsible fun.  The first Saturday after our Melbourne arrival, I heard some sort of a row out in the roadway.  Opening the side gate, I saw two of my cousins, about my age, confronted by a third very belligerent looking character.  All three noticed my presence.  Words were spoken then suddenly the belligerent one turned and ran off.

Evidently my cousins, like several other nearby families, were under constant threat from the vicious hard drinking bullying son of a neighborhood family – the belligerent one.  Again, quite a different experience from my Whitstable. But cousins had organised a solution.  They let it be known that they had a cousin coming from England.  He was not just a champion boxer of all England but an International champion!  He would ‘fix’ anyone who threatened his cousins.  The belligerent one had bought the story, a ridiculous story considering my skinny 6 foot and maybe 8 stone frame!  But some 20 years later by a very strange coincidence, the belligerent one, broken beer bottle in hand, would remember and again flee – thankfully.

For my first Australian Saturday evening my cousins took me to the pictures.  After the first film, the show stopped, the theatre lit up and everyone went out for ‘The Interval’, a second major film being shown afterwards!  Out to the foyer for drinks, ice cream, chocolate etc.  Or outside for a smoke or around the side for .…….!   Different to the ‘Oxford’ or the ‘Argosy’!

I would quickly learn that it didn’t pay to have an English ‘Pommy’ accent.  Luckily we didn’t appear to have an accent in Whitstable in those days but I did need to hide my Grammar School language  - then I could ‘sit on the fence’ and avoid harassment or outright trouble. 

Sit on the fence?  Why?


Resentment and Whingeing Poms  


From about that time there was a growing resentment towards English migrants.  Considering that over 90% of Australia’s population was either English born or of English stock that may be a surprise.  The issue was that many of the English migrants were earning a reputation as ‘Whingeing Poms’.   Many migrants persistently complained that things Australian were “Not as good as back ‘ome!”  That raised the ire of the existing Anglo population which it should be remembered were all still British Subjects.

Gradually it became fairly obvious that the ‘Whingeing Poms’ emanated from the industrial areas of England. Within my own encounters with them, I found that one could accept the Rivers Severn and Thames line as the southern boundary of  ‘Whingeing Pom land’.  Exempt those from rural areas who appeared to settle in quickly.  Quite obviously, those who had most reason to leave Britain for greener pastures complained most!


The Outdoor Life


On with my life in OZ!  Two of my four cousins took me rabbit shooting.  Quite a new experience.  No ‘Whitstable’ catapult or bow & arrow here but real rifles.  Hitch hiking back home, we were dropped off outside Melbourne’s major gaol.  A major gaol fronting the main Melbourne-Sydney highway and 3 Smiths with rifles in hand was a scenario to attract any policeman.  It did.  After taking my cousins names, they both had Irish Christian names, the policeman turned to me with “I suppose you are an Irish Smith too?”.  “No Sir,”  said I putting on my best rendition of an English upper crust voice, “My cousins have been showing me how you help the farmers keep the rabbit population down.”

With a grin the policeman said “Next time bring the rabbits back and don’t get dropped off here!  Off you go.”  I wondered if our one time neighbour, Constable Fullagher, would have let me off so lightly.

 The above cousins were professional racing cyclists.  Very good too.  I was riding my bike 18 miles to work and back and thought to join them.  But before I could they were both banned for life – for fixing races!  Such dishonest things like that didn’t happen in Whitstable did they?


Building a Home


Like many migrants Dad bought a block of land and we spent the next two years building a house (English bungalow!) for which I had drawn up the plans aboard ship (I had not been totally pre-occupied with Marilyn!). Until about March ’53, Dad and I spent the weekends building, living on site in a shed and going home Sunday evenings as many of our migrant neighbours did.

Once the roof was on the completed frame, it was the norm to clad the rear half and live in that.... which is what we did, just as many other migrants were doing. (It would take two more years to fully complete the house.)

My temporary bedroom was the eventual bathroom. Mum and Dad had what would be my bedroom while younger sister and brother slept in the eventual laundry. By the time an Australian brother arrived just before Christmas ’53, we were all in our planned bedrooms except sister who was still stuck in the laundry and, luxury of luxuries, there was a real bath in a proper bathroom. Mum had her kitchen but the toilet was a ‘dry pan’ affair in the backyard, the area not yet being sewered.

I can only assume that ‘dry pan’ meant there was no reticulated water attached because the smelly thing was never dry.  Once a week, the ‘Humdinger Wagon’ aka ‘The 24 Door Sedan’ would arrive outside.  A man with a flat topped cap supporting a fresh (!) lidded 20 gallon pan went to the rear of the ‘cludgy’ (that’s old Whitstablese,) opened a flap and replaced the existing pan with the new, cleaned, freshly tarred and disinfected pan, having removed the lid to place it on the ‘used pan’ before carrying the latter away on his head!  Most embarrassing for those who were ‘on the job’ when he arrived! The area was eventually sewered but migrant numbers were building too fast for such infrastructure to precede them well into the ‘70s in some areas.




We were lucky with public transport though.  Four times a day, the ‘Stagecoach’ would pass our house, twice in the morning, twice in the early evening, half that on Saturday and Sunday.  It wasn’t really a horse drawn coach but, as a bus, it wasn’t far removed!  Very ‘pioneerish’.

Dad and I had a 1½ mile walk to work, Mum the same route to the shops or the nearest railway station.  The younger kids also had a similar walk to their Primary School. Groceries were delivered free and Doctors made home visits but I cannot recall milk being delivered!  Just as well in the Australian sun.  No refrigerator either.  Just an ice box –  like a 2 compartment cupboard with a large block of ice in the top one.


Settling in and Writing Home


My social life expanded, sort of.  I had joined a local football team, real football not the Aussie Rules thing. Playing Saturday afternoon, training Tuesday, Thursday evening and Sunday morning complemented four evenings each week at night school, Saturday evening at the pictures in Melbourne and working with Dad on the house left me enough time to write to the girl I had left behind.

 June 1st 1953 marked the end of our first year. I still had not escaped.  


Twenty One... and Adulthood


Rules were very, very strict here about what one could do until ‘of age’ i.e. 21. 

By the time I reached that milestone, I had re-established a career path, had my third car, was in the middle of a National Service commitment and, as previously noted in the Visitors Book, my Australian wife of now 50 years was on the scene. 

We married a couple of years later in August ’58 having five quid left over but, before Christmas 1960, were able to move into our own newly built home on a 25% deposit  ‘just down the road’.  A total of £4500 covered land, 3 bedroom triple fronted house, fully fitted kitchen and laundry, hot water service, bath, shower and even the driveway was paved and all fences installed.  We furnished it too including a ‘fridge, gas stove, washing machine and wrought iron front gates. All except the gas stove, without hire purchase!

Could I have done that in 1958/60s Whitstable?  I couldn’t do the equivalent here now!


A Man for All Seasons?


Upon reflection I never did actually decide to stay in Australia.  In accepting Australian Citizenship, I did not have to rescind my British Citizenship.  With our Lottery’s cooperation I would be quite happy to use my dual citizenship to enjoy the best seasons of either country! 

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