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Diamond Jubilee



Ten Pound Poms, streaming on Stan


The 19th of June is Juneteenth for Black Americans, to remember the freeing of their enslaved ancestors by Abraham Lincoln; it’s also Paul McCartney’s birthday. And this year it was the 60th anniversary of my family’s arrival at Port Melbourne in the Sitmar Line’s ship, the Fairsea. We were the twenty-pound Poms, because that is what my parents paid for their own passage, while my sisters and I, all five of us, travelled for free. We were travelling, we thought, to a ‘young’, vast, underpopulated country. We knew absolutely nothing of its ancient heritage, its First People. Only eleven million people in an empty continent. ‘You could fit the whole of Great Britain into Australia 32 times,’ said Daddy proudly.

We were leaving tired, grey Old Blighty, which was staggering under a credit squeeze that saw Daddy retrenched; Mummy’s teaching wasn’t enough to keep the whole family going, and they longed for a traditional life where the father was able to support the whole family with his job. The migration consultant promised the world: he was probably paid by the head. Having five daughters was a plus; we were told we were needed in a country where there weren’t enough women. Five girls who could all grow up to be mothers of future Australians. He told us we could ditch our winter clothes, but peace to him: he was probably a Queenslander and didn’t know that we would arrive in Melbourne with no woollies on its coldest winter day in living memory. (And this after suffering the harshest British winter for centuries, so cold that birds dropped frozen from the sky.)  He also told us to sell all our furniture, because ‘the wharfies would just drop anything heavy into the water because they were all Communists’ … We took trunks full of other stuff; many books and light clothing.

A month before sailing we were given painful, ugly smallpox vaccinations in our upper left arms that took weeks to settle down. We thought that was going to be the worst of it.

When I watched Ten Pound Poms recently, only a little of it resonated with me. Set in the 1950s, it was never going to capture the liminality of that pivotal year: 1963, the year the Western world changed from post-World War Two to pre-Vietnam War, The Beatles and all that British youth culture replacing Perry Como and Elvis. In the series, the Nissen huts were portrayed with fair accuracy: bare, dilapidated, often dirty, they were never meant to be permanent. But nothing could have prepared us for what met us at the Brooklyn Migrant Hostel. We gaped, mystified, temporarily uncomprehending as the bus trundled past canyons of gigantic warehouses, former wool stores. One of these was the inmates’ canteen – cooking was forbidden in the huts, so everyone queued up to pay for cheap food as birds flew in the high rafters, dropping their contributions on the Formica-topped tables.

The Hughes family’s first accommodation in Australia was indeed a large Nissen hut – in fact one side of it. The other side was occupied by a large Scottish family. The mother of that family chilled our blood when she said happily that they had been there for three years. ‘We used to live in The Gorbals, so this is like a holiday camp for us!’ she told my mother. The rules had been bent for them: I believe that the length of stay was supposed to be a year. The idea was that you would save your housing deposit; rent was admittedly low, but I can’t remember what it was, although I heard that lower-paid migrants ended up trapped there, unable to move on. But the Gorbals family were quite happy there, with their odorous, dangerous kerosene heater and the biggest TV I had ever seen.


'He tried to find a yesterday’s paper without success. We had no car, no phone, no radio or TV.'


After being waited on for a month and treated respectfully, the change was a tad character-building. We cried, my mum and I. I lay on the grey army blanket of my bunk and wept, with no river of Babylon to weep by in that industrial darkscape. There was a pervading stench, too, that we couldn’t identify. My father, ever the warrior, took time from his investigations into jobs, those jobs that had been breezily guaranteed by our migration agent and turned out not to be there. He went the next day to some sort of government office to ask about employment. ‘Oh, you should just get Wednesday’s Age’ said the guy behind the counter. June 19 was a Wednesday, and this was now Thursday. He tried to find a yesterday’s paper without success. We had no car, no phone, no radio or TV.

By the following day a door-to-door salesman came and tried to sell us a TV like the one next door. ‘I’ll leave it with you so you can decide’, he said, eyeing the five hopeful kids. We discovered the Tarax Show and endless commercials, which was shocking to us Brits, brought up on the decorum of the scheduled ad breaks on ITV that halved or quartered programs. The hectic chaos of frequent ad breaks was one of the biggest culture shocks I remember. We needed that telly. But Daddy wouldn’t buy it and we left it there when we left two weeks later. He did go out and buy a transistor radio, and we listened to ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ for the first time. That was the first week in Brooklyn Hostel. We even attended a local Catholic primary school for a week after. We were coping, a bit. People could get trapped into hire-purchase arrangements for TVs and cars and cheap blocks of land with no planning permission. Our Dad went to the local MP about it later and there was legislation later on about cooling-off periods.

But the stench. That ghastly fug that was worse than the rotted musk of the ship’s diesel. We were burning the most fossilised of fuels, old dead dinosaurs, to drive the Fairsea’s engines and it smelt like it. It was a weird, vaguely organic smell like patchouli gone bad. We kind of got used to it and it didn’t make us sick by the time we got through the Mediterranean. But the Brooklyn stink was in another league.

It turned out that we were right up next to Borthwick’s Meat Works, and its dire incinerators chugged day and night to cremate the unusable bits and pieces of the animals that turned up in giant trucks for slaughter at the unthinkable, hideous abattoirs.

The next Monday Daddy went to a public phone and rang up Fr John Tresidder, who had been returning from a trip to England on the Fairsea. And Fr Tresidder helped us; he must have called some people, because we then went to Geelong and spent three months in the much cleaner Norlane Hostel, leaving for private rental rather than stay another minute longer than necessary. We also were found school places with the Brigidines, and Clonard became my last school. We lived there for all our school years. My sisters still barrack for the Cats.

Daddy and Fr Tresidder had become friends on the ship; the reverend father at Holy Spirit, Manifold Heights in Geelong and the gruff, devout, learned Pommy father of five daughters, who willingly went to daily Mass and became his altar server in the absence of anyone else on that voyage. Sunday Catholics the rest of us were, and lucky he was to get us. Except when the news came through in the first week of June that the Pope had died, and a special Mass was offered for Good Pope Giovanni XXXIII and lots of even lapsed Catholics came along. The Sitmar line was Italian and the captain and officers all attended, remaining upstanding on their well-seasoned sea-legs as the passengers flopped back in their seats and sprawled on the floor as the ship pitched and rolled through the stormy Indian Ocean.

And this, come to think of it, is where the Ten Pound Pom series missed the mark most for me: it completely ignored the sea voyage, which took us a whole month (we were among the last to go through Suez and I had my 14th birthday on the day we docked at Port Said) and was life-changing in more ways than simply bringing us to a new home. It was a different world, an enclosed universe that put you in touch with forces beyond. The sea was a whimsical entity, a smooth, rolling, gentle conveyer of dreams or a raging, deranged, plunging roller-coaster of nightmares. I remember wet waist-high ropes along the decks and dry ones along the gangways for us to grasp so we wouldn’t fall; the windows on the opposite side of the large dining room going dark as the ship pitched and rolled from side to side and all the crockery and glasses crashing onto the floor. We ate from paper plates and cups for days until calm came; they were in danger of running out of china.

By that time I wasn’t seasick any more. I had vomited for a week the moment the ship chugged out of Southampton. We coped with sips of water and ice, confined by nausea to the six-bunk cabin we girls shared with Mummy. Daddy never got seasick; green-faced passengers would ask him his secret and he recommended some devil’s brew that contained, I think, Drambuie and God only knows what else. We were kind of respectable on the B Deck; we had a porthole that looked out to the sea; less lucky ones were in the bowels of the ship with no daylight at all. Daddy shared a cabin with a couple of other men. No staterooms, no First Class. Just a kind of barely acknowledged hierarchy depending on how high up your deck was.

This voyage was the most extraordinary thing that had ever happened to us. How could the makers of Ten Pound Poms ignore such a liminal, transformative experience? It made the gruesomeness of Brooklyn Hostel (strangely enough) less of a shock, since it followed so hard on the heels of the month of newness and surprises that the Fairsea gave us.

There were moments I will never forget, and this diamond year it comes to me that one night in that last week on the ship, Daddy took us up on deck late to see the night sky and look for the Southern Cross as we ploughed through the Australian Bight. I don’t remember seeing the Cross – but gasped and opened my arms to the whole dazzling Milky Way arching out across the glowing midnight-blue firmament like a vast chaplet of diamonds flung across the cosmos. The Southern Hemisphere, with its new-old skies was ours now, with Orion upside-down and the planets still travelling across it, as we were.

It felt like some sort of encouragement that I would later remember. A different new life began a week later, a life that was what you might imagine for a fourteen-year-old girl with dreams. Some of them came true.




Juliette Hughes is a freelance writer. 

Main image: Ten pound poms promotional image. (Image: BBC/Eleven/John Platt/Mark Rogers)

Topic tags: Juliette Hughes, Ten Pound Poms, Stan, Australia, Migration



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Existing comments

Juliette Hughes, I did appreciate this piece! It reminded me of the time, in 1948, that our Australian-born family was evicted from our rented house in a Sydney suburb. The real estate agent told my parents that the house was being sold to a war refugee. I now know that this was just real estate agent spin, but at the time his words fed into common talk about "reffos" taking all our houses. Racism and prejudice against refugees were as prevalent then as they have been in more recent times.

Our family feared being homeless, and had explored the option of moving into Herne Bay public housing settlement (made up of huts used as a military hospital during world war 2). I remember the anxiety of it all. At the last minute my parents found a small flat above a petrol station and we were spared the former army barracks.

As for Herne Bay, some years later my father drove a newly-arrived English family to Herne Bay, which by then had become a migrant hostel. I remember the mother bursting into tears when she saw the barren building where her family were to live. "To think I left a good home in England to come to this!" she said. As soon as the mandatory two-year stay in Australia was over she and her family made a quick return home.

I'm pleased that you stayed and to see some of your dreams come true!

Janet | 23 June 2023  

We arrived in Brooklyn hostel in January 1964. I was 9 years old and adapted quite quickly. However our hut was as close to Borthwicks as you could get and no doubt has a lot to do with me being a staunch vegan now. The smell was horrendous and it was sad seeing cattle trucked in and awaiting their fate.

Rob | 28 June 2023  

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