A modest exhibition at Melbourne’s Immigration Museum poses a fairly simple question: do some immigrants have it easier than others? The answer is yes, though few if any immigrants would describe their experiences as easy. But the exhibition also encourages visitors to consider a more profound question: should some immigrants have it easier than others? British Migrants: Instant Australians? explores the experiences of the so-called ‘Ten-Pound Poms,’ Britons who came to Australia as part of a programme in place from 1947 to 1981, designed to boost the population after the Second World War.
There were incentives and instant benefits for those willing to uproot their lives. For ten pounds, adults could travel half way around the globe and begin a new life that promised warmer weather, affordable housing, and good employment opportunities. Until 1973, British migrants gained the right to vote after residing for six months in Australia, and they were able to become citizens after just one year (most immigrants had to wait five years).
It must have been tempting to leave the traumatic memories and the devastated cityscapes of post-war Europe. For Britons who were judged at home by their accents, their education, or their wealth, it was an opportunity to start anew on the other side of the globe, in communities that were less likely to critically assess such things (so long as they were white and spoke English). As the exhibition illustrates, many churches and local organizations worked hard so that these new immigrants could feel comfortable in their new surroundings.
Almost one and a half million British people took advantage of the programme. Yet it wasn’t all smooth sailing. As the exhibition documents, living at hostels, even for a short while, could be challenging. Migrant hostels for the newly arrived were often located at former military bases, far from major cities. The typical residence was a Nissen hut: a half-cylinder dwelling of concrete and corrugated metal that would have been miserable in both winter and summer. Many immigrants experienced homesickness or even depression, and a significant number returned to the UK. Families were often divided: one parent may have found the experience liberating and exciting, while the other struggled to fit in. Many stuck it out for two years—the minimum period required for the ten-pound fare—and then returned to Britain. According to the exhibition, about a quarter of those Britons who came to Australia after the Second World War returned to the UK, though about a quarter of those eventually returned to Australia.
There was also an unpleasant racial side to the programme, which sought to enact the principles underpinning the White Australia policy. As I’ve discussed in a previous post, the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 had instituted ethnic preference as Australian government policy in an effort to keep the ‘wrong’ migrants out. The point of this post-war immigration plan was to ensure that people of European-British descent dominated the immigrant population: to let the ‘right’ people in. “Our laws have proclaimed the standard of a white Australia … We intend to keep it, because we know it to be desirable.” These words from 1941, quoted in the exhibition, were not those of a Nazi-sympathising extremist; rather they were spoken by John Curtin, Labour Prime Minister of Australia between 1941 and 1945. Admittedly, they came at a time of fears of Japanese invasion, but they remain chilling, to say the least.
The exhibition tells individual stories, mostly but not all sunny, of British migrants who came to Australia for two years or stayed for a lifetime. Objects on display invoke nostalgia (children’s books, a sixties dress—the ‘portable property’ that migrants chose to bring from the old world to the new) and tell stories of migrants who reinvented or explored new sides of themselves (a young Glaswegian who became an exotic snake dancer, for instance). One of the most affecting stories describes a British family in which the husband quickly found a hopeful new life in Australia while his wife felt lost after being separated from her family and friends. Letters from Britain asking her to return didn’t help. Eventually the family returned home, leaving the husband frustrated, the wife guilt-ridden, and the children stuck somewhere in between. Such stories are a painful reminder that the journey to a better life can sometimes foster discontentment or heartbreak.
For those willing to spend more time in the exhibition, a bank of video screens offers interviews with a variety of experts and immigrants from Britain. Having viewed a number of the interviews, I was struck by the difficulty many found in admitting the benefits they had enjoyed over other immigrants to Australia. I don’t blame them; as the exhibition suggests, immigration is rarely simple and never easy. And it’s also true that British immigrants must have experienced different kinds of prejudice from those who came from other parts of Europe. I imagine too that many British immigrants must have been troubled by the instant benefits they received, while indigenous Australians were only granted suffrage in 1962, and only formally recognised as Australian citizens in 1967.
At the centre of British Migrants: Instant Australians? is a striking visual display composed of the kinds of colourful tables and randomly assorted tea cups, saucers, and plates that are found today in charity shops. Few if any of the pieces match; they all seem to come from different sets. Some of the plates have interesting facts printed on them (“British arrivals peaked in 1968-69”), but mostly it’s a clever way to suggest the wide variety of British immigrants and stories: they may seem familiar, but no two are quite alike. At the same time, it all looks terribly old fashioned: former objects of pride, now dated rather than retro, like the ideas behind the government policy they symbolise. The contribution of British immigrants to Australia is inestimable, worthy of celebration and study, and this exhibition is a timely contribution. But in the light of Australia’s vibrant, multicultural cities, the policies that brought so many Britons to Australia seem like a last-gasp effort to hold back an inevitable future.