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I was a £10 Pom

Features |

Fifty years ago, Anthony Weale waved goodye to his mother and sailed to Australia in search of a new life

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.

This story was from May 2016 issue. Subscribe Now