Journeys to Australia

Celebrate the journeys that changed Australia forever

Immigration is a vital feature of Australia's history and national identity. Since 1788, millions have made the long journey across the oceans to Australia seeking fortune, opportunity and freedom. They came by clipper, steamer and liner until the aeroplane became established as the main means of long distance travel in the 1970s.

These journeys were accompanied by feelings of sadness, excitement, fear and hope. They ended at a number of ports around Australia, in particular Fremantle, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.

This website and the online exhibition Station Pier: Gateway to a New Life celebrate the journeys that changed Australia forever.

Explore the journey through immigrants' stories. Discover the changing routes and travelling conditions experienced over the decades 1850s–70s, 1900s–20s, 1940s–60s and 1970s–2000s. Find out what departure and arrival meant for those seeking a home in this distant land.

Students and teachers may choose to use the activities and other resources as part of a unit of work incorporating an excursion to the Immigration Museum, Melbourne.

1850s-70s

A Long and Dangerous Journey

1850s Sailing Clipper illustrated by Bill Wood
1850s Sailing Clipper illustrated by Bill Wood

For those who travelled to Australia in the nineteenth century, the journey was often long and dangerous. In calm weather a sailing ship might take as long as four months, while a well-run clipper ship with favourable winds could make the journey in a little over half this time. These ships represented the pinnacle of sailing ship technology. With their streamlined hulls and acres of sail designed to catch even the slightest breeze, clippers were built primarily for speed.

By the 1850s it was possible to make the journey by auxiliary steamer, using a combination of steam and sail. However steam technology was still too inefficient to allow a ship to travel all the way to Australia under its own power. With the strong prevailing westerlies on the 'Great Circle' sailing route benefiting the clippers, sail continued to dominate the trade until the end of the 1870s.

Life at sea was uncomfortable and often hazardous, particularly for passengers who travelled cheaply in 'steerage' (the lowest deck and below the water line). Storms were common in the Southern Ocean, but were not the only danger. Hygiene was poor at the best of times and worse in bad weather. 'Batten-down the hatches' meant passengers on the lowest deck were confined without ventilation or light in conditions that were ideal for the spread of disease. The use of candles or oil lanterns was restricted and sometimes forbidden – cramped conditions with timber, straw mattresses, hemp (rope) and tar caulking, meant a fire could spread with terrifying speed. A disaster at sea or shipwreck on the coast left little hope for rescue – few sailors or passengers could swim, and there were rarely enough life-boats for the numbers on board.

Settler Origins

Regardless of the difficulties in getting to Australia, it had become an increasingly popular destination for free settlers. Convicts were no longer the major source of new arrivals to the colonies. With the discovery of gold in 1851 and a booming economy, people were now coming to Victoria and Australia by choice. People came from many countries, the majority from England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, America, China and Germany. (For details, see Origins - the First Census.)

Emigration pamphlet circa 1858: 'Practical Hints for Emigrants to our Australian Colonies'.
Emigration pamphlet circa 1858: 'Practical Hints for Emigrants to our Australian Colonies'.

However, not all settlers were welcomed equally – for example, from 1855-61 ship's captains had to pay poll taxes of up to £10 per head for each Chinese passenger they landed in Victoria. Word soon spread back home, and many young Chinese seeking their fortunes subsequently disembarked in South Australia and walked overland to the Victorian goldfields.

Cartoon, 'A Flood of Celestial Light pouring in upon the Diggings', reproduced from the Melbourne Punch, 1857.
'A Flood of Celestial Light pouring in upon the Diggings', reproduced from Melbourne Punch, 1857.

Chinese immigration remained controversial for many decades. The following verse from a song by Charles Thatcher perhaps encapsulates the attitude of many colonists to the arrival of immigrants from China. (Thatcher became a popular music-hall entertainer on the Victorian goldfields after his arrival in 1878).

You doubtless read the paper
And, as men of observation,
Of course you watch the progress of
Chinese immigration.
A thousand of these pig-tailed chaps
In Adelaide are landing,
And why they let such numbers come
Exceeds my understanding!

The Journey by Steam

The first iron-hulled steam ships made the journey to Australia in 1852. However, these early steamers, known as auxiliaries, still carried a full set of sails, as their inefficient engines and the lack of coaling ports en route to Australia prevented the use of the new steam technology over long distances.

Postcard, 'Mail Steamer Leaving Melbourne Port', circa 1903. Steam stacks and sail capacity are clearly evident.
Postcard, 'Mail Steamer Leaving Melbourne Port', circa 1903. Steam stacks and sail capacity are clearly evident.

Whilst speed was not initially improved by the introduction of steam, comfort and strength were. The change from traditional wooden hulled ships to iron hulls enabled steamships to be larger and stronger, with much greater space below the decks.

In the 1860s the more efficient compound steam engine, in which steam was expanded in successive cylinders, was introduced. This enabled ships to make the voyage to Australia entirely under steam power. However, it wasn't until the 1880s after the introduction of a government mail subsidy, that steam ships became profitable and began to carry the majority of immigrants. Less reliant on wind, they travelled at a constant speed and provided power for electric lighting, refrigeration and ventilation. Grand saloons were able to be provided for first class passengers, and small cabins instead of sleeping berths were provided in steerage class.

Navigating the Journey

Navigational instruments: sextant, nautical telescope, marine compass and ship's log
Navigational instruments: sextant, nautical telescope, marine compass and ship's log

Navigating the route to Australia was a complex task, requiring great skill on the part of the ship's captain, as well as the use of various navigational tools. These included the telescope, marine compass, ship's log and sextant. However, navigation was also dependent on the ship's captain having a good working knowledge of the position of the stars in the night sky.

Telescopes were an essential tool of marine navigation for examining sightings of land more closely and for identifying ships passed en route. This was especially important in times of war.

The compass is an instrument used for determining the direction in which a ship is travelling. It consists of a freely moving magnetised needle, which indicates magnetic north.

The introduction of iron hulled ships such as the Great Britain created complications for the use of the compass. The metal in the hull of these ships interfered with the behaviour of the magnetic needle, requiring special adjustments and calculations to be made for accurate readings.

Charts and navigation maps were developed by the Admiralty for the use of British naval and merchant ships. Detail and accuracy were very important, and many are still in use today. Charts and maps were always kept in the chartroom on board the ship.

A sextant is an astronomical instrument used for taking latitude readings, by measuring the angle of altitude of the sun, moon or a star above the horizon at sea.

A chronometer is a timepiece that is able to keep accurate time on board ship. It enables mariners to calculate longitude by observing the position of certain stars in the sky at specific times, and comparing their observations with the data contained in a nautical almanac.

A Ship's Log looked very similar to a torpedo but was used to measure the speed of a ship. When dragged behind the vessel, movement of water past the propeller caused it to rotate, turning the small needle dials to record the distance and speed travelled.

Sailing Routes

Ship navigational chart showing Australia from 1873
Ship navigational chart showing Australia from 1873

In their dash to reach the Victorian goldfields in the quickest possible time, many ship's captains adopted the new 'Great Circle' route in the 1850s. Passing far south of the Cape of Good Hope, they sought the 'Roaring Forties' – the strong prevailing winds that blew from the west to the east between 40 and 50 degrees south.

This route involved enormous risks from drifting icebergs and the wild seas generated by frequent storms. It required exceptional navigational skills, as even the slightest error could lead to disaster. The large number of ships that were lost when navigating the narrow path between King Island and southern Victoria led to the West Coast of Victoria becoming known as the Shipwreck Coast.

Print of 'Wreck of the Loch Ard near Sherbrook River', from Illustrated Sydney News and New South Wales Agriculturist &​ Grazier, 13 July 1878, p. 13
Print of 'Wreck of the Loch Ard near Sherbrook River', from Illustrated Sydney News and New South Wales Agriculturist &​ Grazier, 13 July 1878, p. 13.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 gave ships coming from Europe an alternative route to Australia. However, as early steamers still partially relied on wind power, most shipping lines continued to use the 'Great Circle' route. It was several decades before steam engines were reliable and efficient enough to enable ships to complete the entire journey to Australia under steam.

Initially, it was only mail steamers from the P & O and Orient lines that travelled to Australia using the Suez Canal. Government contracts made the route profitable for these companies.

'Brief Sketches of Life onboard a Steam Vessel'

Extract from transcript of Ally Heathcote's diary: Saturday, October 31st 1874

HT 1104
Diary - Ally Heathcote, England to Melbourne, Victoria, Onboard 'SS Northumberland', 1874

We were just wondering how long the storm would last and sending up a silent prayer for protection when crash went something on deck, and the water swept over the decks and down in the cabin, we gave ourselves up for lost and the people rushed out of their cabins looking terrified. Ma sat quite calm, I looked at her and could see her lips moving, she was pale as death and so was Papa, we did not know what had been the matter, some thought it was the cookhouse washed away but one of the passengers who is a Sea Captain went on deck and came and said it was only a little bit of the flimsy part of the bulwarks gone, the hatching had broken open in the second class cabin and they were almost able to bathe, as the water then had come in, they all had to get to work baling out, all hands were called up, even the waiters had to start baling water out of the saloon as there in some parts it was a foot deep, the windows were all smashed and the things were all floating, we in our cabin fared the best, as we had not much in comparison.

Life at Sea

Most migrants making the voyage to Australia in the second half of the nineteenth century set out unaccustomed to sea travel, but by the end of the journey shared an experience few others had – a passage through some of the world's most treacherous oceans. With the introduction of the faster, but more dangerous 'Great Circle' route in the 1850s, free settlers were ironically less likely to survive the journey than their earlier convict counterparts.

Illustration showing married couples' accommodation in steerage: bunks to the left and right; central table; light from the uncovered hatch, from Illustrated London News, 13 April 1834.
Married couples' accommodation in steerage, by unknown artist, taken from the Illustrated London News, 13 April 1844.

For 'steerage' passengers in particular, cramped and unhygienic quarters became worse when tremendous storms were encountered in the Southern Ocean. At such times, all passengers were confined below deck for days, sick and tossed around, often in complete darkness, and fearing for their lives.

Our water barrels were rolling from side to side and our cans, teapots and cooking utensils were adding to the confusion by bouncing one after the other down the area between the bunks. Some of the young ladies [were] screaming and some tried to climb up the hatchways screaming to the officers to let them out.
– Anne Grafton migrated from England in 1858

Unfortunately, the ship's doctor was not able to offer much in the way of relief from seasickness – 

(It is) enough to pitch my insides out. It's all up to me. I am not able to stir. The doctor can give me no relief, but at that I am not surprised. He is very young, never been to sea and is just as ill as all the other people.
– William Merrifield travelled to Australia on the Lincolnshire in 1858.
Engraving, 'Burial at Sea', by unknown artist, taken from the Australasian Sketcher, November 1880.
Engraving, 'Burial at Sea', by unknown artist, taken from the Australasian Sketcher, November 1880.

Deaths at sea were tragically common. As many as one in five children, and one in 60 adults died on the voyage to Australia. For the burial, the body was sewn into a piece of canvas or placed in a rough coffin (often hastily knocked up by the ship's carpenter) and weighed down with pig iron or lead to help it sink.

A plank had been placed on deck, one end over the ship's side, and upon this plank the sailors placed the body, covering it with an ensign. The sailors gently lifted the ensign and running out the plank and lifting up one end, the body dropped over the side into the water.
– Thomas Park arrived in 1852 from England, aboard the Great Britain's maiden voyage.

In the late eighteenth century, Captain Cook and others had discovered that a lack of vitamin C was the cause of scurvy. The juice of oranges, lemons and limes was subsequently given to sailors and passengers to prevent death from scurvy.

Water kept in wooden barrels would become very stale after a few months. Rats and mice would fall into the open barrels and drown, and algae would grow in the barrels and make people violently ill. The link between cholera and contaminated drinking water was not discovered until 1848, but even after this, ships continued to draw water from polluted rivers in ports that they visited.

To feed the sailors and passengers, stores were kept in the hold and opened as needed by the cooks. Stores such as pickled meat (pork or beef in brine) flour, sugar and dried pulses (peas) were kept on board in wooden barrels. These barrels were usually fitted with lids, but were often kept open overnight. The stores could be raided by hungry rats and mice, leaving traces from their nocturnal visits, and the grain and flour stores were often infested with weevils. Adulterated food and water caused diseases like dysentery to be commonplace, resulting in many deaths on some voyages.

Vinegar and chloride of lime were used to wash the wooden floors and decks of the ships, as fresh water was reserved for drinking and cooking. Cleaning with vinegar helped prevent the spread of disease and made the ship smell better. It also removed the vomit of people suffering from sea-sickness and other diseases.

The death toll among passengers squeezed into cramped and uncomfortable steerage berths on clipper ships was often very high. On one of the voyages of the Marco Polo, captained by the infamous 'Bully' Forbes, 53 passengers died. All but two were children. In contrast, the loss of only seven passengers on a voyage of the Champion of the Seas was considered as commendable –

The ship Champion of the Seas has again made a highly successful voyage to this port [of Melbourne] bringing about 400 passengers - 277 of whom are passage-warrant holders. Dr. Bowden, surgeon-superintendent, reports them to be in a highly healthy state, no diseases but measles having exhibited itself. There were seven deaths during the voyage - six of them infants not more than five years old, and one, the ship's engineer of consumption.
The Argus, November 1865.

'Brief Sketches of Life onboard a Steam Vessel'

Extract from transcript of Ally Heathcote's diary:
Friday, October 23rd 1874

HT 1104
Diary - Ally Heathcote, England to Melbourne, Victoria, Onboard 'SS Northumberland', 1874

Another fearful cold day. We are starved to death almost, our good ship rolls us about in a frightful style, every meal time we have to hold on to the tables and seats and keep our cups from wandering all over the cabin. During the night, we have been constantly on the move, first one side then the other, and we have been troubled to an alarming extent during the hot weather with a brown kind of insect, a terror to tidy English matrons and maidens, and one of the ladies in my cabin says she will pin a letter onto her berth to certify that it will accommodate a regiment of things besides a lady, of course you will comprehend the name of the regiment. We have fared better than the second cabin passengers, as they have the engine right in the midst of them and it made it much hotter.

It would take up too much room to dot down all the mishaps and adventures we encounter, so I must be brief, we often as we sit down in our cabin see the water rising much higher than the bulwarks, and then we hear a rush and a hearty laugh, as it is too comical a scene to witness a lot of folks running out of the way of the sea, and it rushing after them and giving their toes a slight ducking, not many ladies appear on deck except if they have an escort, as it is almost impossible to stand alone, but tonight we had quite a grand procession headed by one of the officers and one engineer, we walked two abreast and pretty soon got quite warm. I stood inside the cook house to warm myself before going down and the cook gave me some cocoa, he is very kind and often gives us some little cakes, he says he likes to oblige the ladies, but now it is bed time and the storekeeper will be down in a minute or two to order out the lights so I must close. Today's log is Latitude 41 - 30, Longitude 13 - 25, Distance 245 knots.

Privies and Hygiene

'Sea bathing in the Tropics', sketch from Edward Snell's diary on the Bolton, London to Melbourne, 1849
'Sea bathing in the Tropics' from the illustrated diary of Edward Snell, who sailed from London to Melbourne aboard the Bolton in 1849. This illustrates the difficulty of keeping clean onboard, not least the lack of privacy available.

Most ships provided only basic toilet and bathing facilities. Authorities complained that even these were under used and the sailors often had to wash the upper decks which passengers used as open-air toilets. Some steerage passengers had never used a privy or a water closet before. Buckets of water were used to flush contents down to the bilges [under steerage], which were emptied when the ship finally docked at port. The smell would have been disgusting.

The toiletting process became much worse in storms, or during the night, when passengers in steerage were locked in and no lights were allowed. Accidents were messy affairs. As people did not understand the basic rules of hygiene, and toilet paper had not been invented, rags or clothes were soaked in vinegar and hung on the back of the toilet door to be used by all. This led to the spread of diseases like dysentery and typhoid. Deaths at sea were common.

On better managed ships, the areas below deck were thoroughly cleaned every few days by sailors and many of the women in steerage. Bedding which was usually made of straw, attracted fleas and cockroaches. People brought up their bedding in fine weather to shake it out and air it. However, in storms and bad weather, the bedding was often soaked through and this led to outbreaks of influenza and pneumonia. In the over crowded conditions in steerage, epidemics were common. Most victims were babies and young children, who often died of complications and lack of medical care. Infected passengers often came on board, having passed undetected through pre-boarding medical checks. Tuberculosis, an infectious disease of the lungs, was one of the most dangerous diseases.

The sleeping berths were disinfected as often as possible, using a mixture of vinegar and chloride of lime. But often the cracks in the wooden slats of the bunks harboured lice, cockroaches and fleas. It was not uncommon for rats or mice to be found in the beds and bedding.

Many people in the nineteenth century didn't bathe regularly and the connection between personal hygiene and disease was not well understood. Due to the cramped and overcrowded conditions in steerage, people could not really take baths and made do with a clean-up with a damp cloth under a blanket. Most people did not have the room to change their clothing and often wore the same garments or clothing for the entire voyage. Facilities for washing clothes were very restricted. Underclothes were virtually unknown to many people at the time, deodorants were not used and many people did not clean their teeth. One can only imagine the smells of soiled nappies, grubby clothes, and unwashed bodies in a crowded environment!

'Brief Sketches of Life onboard a Steam Vessel'

HT 1104
Diary - Ally Heathcote, England to Melbourne, Victoria, Onboard 'SS Northumberland', 1874

Extract from transcript of Ally Heathcote's diary:
Wednesday, October 7th 1874

Awoke this morning to find it raining heavily, rather a miserable day to look forward too but our folks are taking some buckets to catch the rain water as we intend having a washing day, if we are spared till tomorrow. The sailors scrubbed our cabin out this morning, they do it twice a week, Wednesday and Saturday, they use chloride of lime and it makes the boards look quite new and white, tomorrow we are hoping to cross the line and then we expect to have the trade winds, if we had been on a sailing ship, probably we should not have been any farther than the Bay of Biscay. We have some delightful evenings, and the sunsets are much more gorgeous than we see them at home. The log for today is Latitude 4 - 21, Longitude 16 - 22, Distance 188 knots.

Recording the Journey, 1850s–70s

For those migrants who were able to read and write, it was a common practice to keep a diary or journal of the voyage. For most migrants the journey to Australia was a once-in-a-lifetime experience and keeping a diary was a way of recording this important event.

Ally Heathcote's diary titled 'Steamship Northumberland', describing her voyage to Australia in 1874, opened at pages 4-5.
Ally Heathcote's diary titled 'Steamship Northumberland', describing her voyage to Australia in 1874, pages 4-5.

Diaries were also kept to lessen the pangs of homesickness and provide a routine with which to fill idle hours during the long monotonous days at sea. Some also had an eye towards publishing their memoirs.

Nearly every one with even a moderate acquaintance with the three R's keeps a diary, which he or she, as the case may be firmly proposes to transmit to fond relatives at the earliest opportunity. Or more ambitious still, to publish in a book form so as to astonish the colonials with their extraordinary powers of observation.
– Illustrated Australian News
, 24 March 1875.

However, whilst first hand accounts offer us a valuable insight into the migrant experience of the educated, the memoirs of non-English speakers and working class migrants are noticeably absent. Instead we can only rely on observations such as the following to provide us with some understanding of the treatment received by these groups. The following extract highlights the discrimination often encountered by Chinese passengers.

As the boat drew nearer, we could see that something unusual was happening, for sitting in the aft part of the boat were three natives of the Celestial Empire and some luggage. Evidently, they were coming aboard as passengers, for as soon as they reached the gangway, they scrambled on board, luggage and all. This was the signal for a very loud outbreak of indignation, and loud were the complaints about having these Chinamen forced upon us. We absolutely refused to allow them to join us in the saloon.
– Thomas Park arrived from England in 1852.

Often to while away the long hours on board ship, someone would begin a newspaper to keep fellow passengers amused. The following was produced in The Champion of the Seas Times, No. 11. Monday, September 24, 1855.

Obituary
On Thursday last, died at her residence on deck after a lingering illness, "the cow". The doctor has not given any official report of the complaint under which the patient suffered. We believe however, it was from general disabilities caused by the exhausting process carried on for some time, which while it made our tea more palatable, and the babies more chubby, tended to bring the generous creature to a rapid death. Rest in Peace.

Ships, 1850s–70s

Marco Polo, 1852–65

'MARCO POLO Well known Emigrant Ship of the Fifties', painted by Thomas Robertson, 1859.
'MARCO POLO Well known Emigrant Ship of the Fifties', painted by Thomas Robertson, 1859.

The Marco Polo was the first clipper-style vessel constructed for bringing immigrants to Australia. The ship was built in Canada in 1851 and had a hull made of the best softwood. Captained by James Nicol Forbes, the Marco Polo made its first voyage from Liverpool to Port Phillip Heads in 1852 in the record time of 68 days. Forbes pioneered the 'Great Circle Route', sailing far south in the Southern Ocean, where he could catch the strong, icy Antarctic winds.

Captain J.N. 'Bully' Forbes became renowned in shipping circles for record sailing times and for compromising passenger well-being. On this first voyage an outbreak of measles and influenza in icy conditions led to the deaths of 51 children and two adults.

The Marco Polo offered luxury for first-class passengers, whilst below deck the majority were squeezed into cramped and uncomfortable steerage berths where food and hygiene were of poor quality.

Great Britain, 1852–76

The Great Britain was designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel and launched in 1843. It was the first ocean-going, iron-hulled, steam-powered passenger liner, and when built, was by far the largest ship in the world. It was originally built for the North Atlantic trade routes, but it is primarily remembered as an emigrant clipper. It was responsible for carrying over 15,000 immigrants to Australia.

The three masted sailing vessel Great Britain among icebergs off Cape Horn.
The three masted sailing vessel Great Britain, one of the most popular and long-lived auxiliary steamers on the Australia emigrant trade, among icebergs off Cape Horn.

When the Great Britain first anchored in Hobson's Bay in 1852, local excitement was overwhelming. Over 4,000 people paid a shilling each to tour the ship.

In addition to cabins for 750 passengers and 130 crew, the Great Britain also provided accommodation for livestock. To satisfy the dining needs of those travelling from Melbourne to England in 1861, the following livestock were taken on board the ship: 550 chickens, 250 ducks, 150 sheep, 55 turkeys and geese, 30 pigs, a couple of lambs and oxen, and a milking cow and calf.

Today, the restored Great Britain is on display in the city of Bristol, England, resting in the dry dock where it was originally built.

1900s-20s

An Assisted Journey

Poster, ''The Southern Cross': The stars which shine over Australia: the land of opportunity', advertising Australia to potential migrants
Poster, '"The Southern Cross": The stars which shine over Australia: the land of opportunity', advertising Australia to potential migrants

By the turn of the twentieth century, the journey to Australia for passengers was shorter and far more comfortable than it had been in the 1850s-1870s.

By 1914, six major companies, the Aberdeen Line, Blue Funnel Line, Orient Line, P & O Line, P & O Branch Line and White Star Line dominated the regular England-Australia run.

The opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, gave ships from Europe an alternative route to Australia. By the early 1900s, steamships had become the established method of transport. No longer dependent on the strong winds encountered on the 'Great Circle' route, many shipping lines now travelled via the Suez Canal, reducing the length of the journey to Australia to 35 or 40 days. Travel by steamer also led to reliable travelling times, and with larger iron hulls replacing the traditional wooden ones, provided increased room below deck for the passengers. The new steamers offered greater passenger comforts, including grand saloons for first-class passengers and small cabins, instead of sleeping berths in steerage class.

Following World War I, passenger shipping was further transformed by the introduction of steam turbines, cleaner oil-fired boilers and, later, the first diesel-powered motor vessels. However, many passenger ships in this era also carried cargo to remain profitable, leading to compromises in passenger comfort, particularly in third class.

'Australia's Offer to the British Boy' advertisement for British emigrants, 1920
'Australia's Offer to the British Boy' advertisement for British emigrants, 1920.

Most of those making the journey to Australia in the early twentieth century were British migrants seeking a healthy and prosperous life in another part of the Empire. After World War I, it was recognised that a larger population was needed to protect the Australian nation in the event of another war. The Australian government looked to Great Britain as a source of immigrants, and encouraged those willing to consider resettlement in Australia by offering them assisted passage. British immigrants were also eligible to receive land grants, or encouraged to take labouring positions in rural areas.

Assisted passage schemes were important throughout this period. The Empire Scheme, established in 1922, assisted over 200,000 British immigrants to come to Australia during the following decade, while the Big Brother Movement, founded in 1925, was responsible for sending 12,264 young boys and men to Australia.

There were a lot of young men like myself, assisted passengers, married couples and children, and a lot of younger boys going to Australia under the Big Brother Movement; people in Australia guaranteeing to look after them.
– Young man, 20, migrated from England in 1923

The Journey by Steam

The first iron-hulled steam ships made the journey to Australia in 1852. However, these early steamers, known as auxiliaries, still carried a full set of sails, as their inefficient engines and the lack of coaling ports en route to Australia prevented the use of the new steam technology over long distances.

Postcard, 'Mail Steamer Leaving Melbourne Port', circa 1903. Steam stacks and sail capacity are clearly evident.
Postcard, 'Mail Steamer Leaving Melbourne Port', circa 1903. Steam stacks and sail capacity are clearly evident.

Whilst speed was not initially improved by the introduction of steam, comfort and strength were. The change from traditional wooden hulled ships to iron hulls enabled steamships to be larger and stronger, with much greater space below the decks.

In the 1860s the more efficient compound steam engine, in which steam was expanded in successive cylinders, was introduced. This enabled ships to make the voyage to Australia entirely under steam power. However, it wasn't until the 1880s after the introduction of a government mail subsidy, that steam ships became profitable and began to carry the majority of immigrants. Less reliant on wind, they travelled at a constant speed and provided power for electric lighting, refrigeration and ventilation. Grand saloons were able to be provided for first class passengers, and small cabins instead of sleeping berths were provided in steerage class.

Immigration Restriction Act

King's Theatre playbill poster circa 1909, promoting the play 'White Australia or the Empty North', designed by Troedel & Co.
This King's Theatre playbill poster circa 1909, promoting the play 'White Australia or the Empty North', illustrates the role race played in creating national identity. Poster designed by Troedel & Co.

While the Australian Government encouraged British immigration with offers of assisted passage, at the same time it restricted non-Europeans, especially Asians from immigrating to Australia.

The Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, or the 'White Australia Policy' as it became known, stated that immigrants had to write and sign, in the presence of an Immigration Officer, a passage of 50 words in a European language as directed by the officer. The Dictation Test was usually first given in English. If the prospective immigrant passed, but was considered to be racially or politically unsuitable, the officer could then give the test in another European language.

The Dictation Test was given 805 times in 1902-1903 with 46 people passing, and 554 times in 1904-1909 with only six people passing. After 1909, no person passed the Dictation Test. People who failed the test were refused entry to Australia and were deported.

The most infamous case involving the Dictation Test was that of Egon Kisch in 1934. The Prague-born Jewish socialist had a valid visa for Australia, where he had come to address the Movement Against War and Fascism. However, the conservative Lyons Government was concerned that Kisch was a communist and attempted to stop him from disembarking in Fremantle. Kisch proceeded on to Melbourne, and when he was arrested, jumped from the liner onto Station Pier and broke his leg.

Kisch was arrested again and sent to Sydney. When he disembarked, the authorities gave him the Dictation Test in Gaelic, as he spoke English and a number of other European languages fluently.

His case was taken to the High Court and Kisch won. The Attorney-General, Robert Menzies, was humiliated in the High Court and parliament, and Kisch went on to address huge crowds throughout Australia.

To read more about Egon Kisch, go to the article "The Big Jump: Egon Kisch in Australia" on the National Centre for History Education's 'Ozhistorybytes' website.

The Immigration Restriction Act remained in force until 1958, when the Dictation Test was abolished, and was not fully dismantled until the introduction of the Racial Discrimination Act of 1975. For a copy of the original Immigration Restriction Act and a further discussion of its history go to https://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/item-did-16.html

Life Onboard, 1900s–20s

The introduction of steamships led to greatly improved facilities for immigrants. Grand saloons were provided for first class passengers, and small cabins instead of open sleeping berths were available for steerage class passengers. In addition, the extra crew carried by steamships relieved passengers of many daily chores such as cooking and cleaning, which they had been obliged to do aboard sailing ships.

Small boys on a greasy pole on the SS Beltana. One boy is straddling the pole while another is leaning against it. There are two crosses marking the boy on the far left.
Boys playing greasy pole, T.S.S. Beltana, 1925.

Steamers also provided more space for recreation, with the addition of the promenade deck and boat decks above the main deck. Most people took advantage of warm weather by lazing around in deck chairs. When the weather was mild, passengers spent most of their time walking the deck and playing deck games. Quoits, indoor cricket, shuttlecock, badminton, table tennis or ping-pong, and shuffleboard were all played to pass the time and keep the passengers fit.

'Cricket on the Voyage', from a bound album of postcards published by Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., depicting some of the activities engaged in on a voyage east via the Suez Canal, in about 1915.
'Cricket on the Voyage', from a bound album of postcards published by Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., depicting some of the activities engaged in on a voyage east via the Suez Canal, in about 1915. The inclusion of activities such as cricket illustrates a largely British passenger list.

Indoors, in the warmth of the saloon, passengers played cards, chess, dominoes and cribbage. Separate areas were set aside for quiet reading, sewing, and practising music. Sometimes, school rooms were set up for the younger children.

Men were allowed to smoke on the top decks, and in those days smoking was even allowed in the dining rooms. On most voyages, committees organised regular concerts, which provided some of the few opportunities for single male and female passengers to mingle.

'Concert on Deck', from a bound album of postcards published by Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., depicting some of the activities engaged in on a voyage east via the Suez Canal, in about 1915.
'Concert on Deck', from a bound album of postcards published by Peninsular and Oriental Steam Navigation Co., depicting some of the activities engaged in on a voyage east via the Suez Canal, in about 1915.

However, whilst concerts and other shipboard activities gave passengers the opportunity to mingle, the social distinctions of the 'Olde Worlde' remained firmly in place. For most of the time, each social class was kept apart.

After World War I, the number of migrants increased. Conditions for passengers in third class became more restricted.

The upper deck was First Class passengers, and us common migrants had the main decks. All our cabins were built around the cargo space, four bunks on each side of the cabins, two high.
– Young man, 20, migrated from England in 1923

Routes, 1900s–20s

With the introduction of compound steamers, ships no longer needed the winds encountered on the 'Great Circle Route' to assist their journey to Australia. By the turn of the twentieth century, steamships were increasingly making the journey via the Suez Canal.

Routes to Australia by ship, 1900s–20s
Routes to Australia by ship, 1900s–20s

The most common route to Australia from Britain and Europe was via the Suez Canal. Stopovers were at Port Said in Egypt, Port Aden in what is now Yemen, and then via the Arabian Sea to Colombo in Sri Lanka (formerly called Ceylon). From there the route continued across the Indian Ocean to the Western Australian Port of Fremantle.

The other route was via the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of the African continent. This route took the big ships from London via Lisbon to Cape Town, and then across the Indian Ocean to Fremantle, Melbourne and Sydney.

Recording the Journey, 1900s–20s

ST 41214
Postcard - Alfred Galbraith, Egypt, 1915-1916

Assisted immigrants in the early twentieth century were actively encouraged to write home. Shipping companies offered free writing paper, or postcards for those who could only manage a few lines. Another popular, as well as efficient form of communication was the telegram, which relayed messages from ship to shore via the International Morse Code and later the teleprinter.

Immigration authorities and the shipping companies realised that sending information home was a good way to ease the pain of separation, as well as good promotion for the shipping lines … providing the feedback was positive, of course!

The Post Office had a lad on board to take any messages to shore, so I bought a post card of the Tri Screw steamer the Demostenes, stamped it and wrote a letter to my mother to say I was on board safely.
– Young man, 20, migrated from England in 1923

Morse key and telegrams from migrant ships
Morse key and telegrams from migrant ships

Ships, 1900s–20s

Orient, 1879–1909

When it was launched in 1879, the Orient was the largest steamship built for transporting immigrants to Australia. It offered comforts unheard of for the period, including a promenade deck, refrigeration, and later, electric lighting.

On its maiden voyage from London to Adelaide via the Cape of Good Hope, the Orient set a new record, making the journey in just 38 days.

The Orient originally carried an auxiliary sailing rig, but eventually became totally steam powered. Its bunkers held 3,000 tonnes of coal, and this was fed manually into the boilers to power the huge steam engines. At the stopover ports, loading coal by manual labour often took a few days.

Painting of the sailing ship Orient on the sea, 1927
Painting by Charles Dickinson Gregory of the sailing ship Orient on the sea, 1927.

Her extensive decks provided accommodation for 120 first-class, 130 second-class and 300 third-class passengers. The first-class saloon was fitted out with ornate brass furniture and elaborate wooden carvings, whilst the music saloon boasted a grand piano and an organ amidst profusely growing ferns and dracaenas. There was an ice-making plant and other electrical equipment for the vast galleys (kitchens). On the aft-deck were stables for horses and cages for pigs, sheep and cows – destined to become fresh meat for diners in first-class. More importantly, there were plenty of lifeboats.

One of the longest serving steamships of its era, The Orient remained in service on the Australian run for thirty years.

Ormonde, 1919–52

The Ormonde was originally built for the Orient Line in 1918 and served on its regular passenger and mail service between Britain and Australia until 1939.

After the Second World War, the Ormonde was chartered to the British Ministry of Transport and brought the first shipload of assisted post-war British migrants to Australia in October 1947. It continued this service over the next five years, transporting some 17,500 British migrants to Australia.

Jervis Bay, 1922–39

Commonwealth Government Line, T.S.S. Jervis Bay passenger ship bringing people to Australia ca. 1900 - ca. 1954.
Commonwealth Government Line, T.S.S. Jervis Bay passenger ship bringing people to Australia ca. 1900 - ca. 1954.

The Jervis Bay was the last of five large passenger cargo liners built for the Australian Government after the Great War. Launched in January 1922, the Jervis Bay offered mainly third-class accommodation for more than 712 passengers.

Large refrigerated holds provided 360,000 cubic metres of space to carry exports of frozen meats and dairy products for the voyage from Australia to England. On the way out from Britain the holds were fitted out with temporary partitions and bunks for extra accommodation.

The Jervis Bay continued as a migrant liner until the outbreak of World War II, then was sent to London to be fitted out as an armed Merchant Navy cruiser.

1940s-60s

A Journey for Many

Poster, 'Australia: Land of Tomorrow', circa 1948.
Poster, 'Australia: Land of Tomorrow', circa 1948. It was displayed in Displaced Persons camps across Europe to attract migrants to Australia. Designer: Joe Greenberg

The outbreak of World War II closed Australian ports to immigration. At the end of the war, hundreds of thousands of displaced people from Eastern Europe needed somewhere to go. Others, especially Britons, were keen to make a fresh start.

In the period after the war, immigrants from Europe often experienced crowded conditions aboard hastily refitted troop ships. Dormitory style accommodation was provided to transport as many passengers as possible in order to meet the demand. However, conditions soon improved as shipping companies started to compete for the lucrative migrant trade.

In order to attract passengers, competing shipping companies promoted the exotic ports on the Suez Canal route. However, the canal was closed to liners during the Suez Crisis in 1956-57 and again in 1967-75 following the Arab-Israeli wars. In these years, passenger ships returned to the old route down the west coast of Africa and around the Cape of Good Hope.

'Populate or perish' became the catchcry, as the Australian Government embarked on an intensive international promotional campaign to encourage migration to Australia. The campaign initially targeted Britons with schemes such as 'Bring out a Briton', then expanded to provide assistance and reunion schemes to other Europeans.

Barbara Porritt from Britain is Australia's one millionth migrant, 1955.
Barbara Porritt from Britain is Australia's one millionth migrant, 1955.

The first major post-war wave of migration started with Displaced Persons or DPs as they were called. These people had fled their countries of birth due to war, dislocation and the redrawing of national borders. Between 1947 and 1953, over 170,000 DPs came to Australia, many from Eastern Europe, where they had suffered terribly during the war.

The second wave of post-war immigration arrived in the 1950s and 1960s, and consisted of those seeking employment and better living conditions. These included migrants from Italy, Greece, Malta, Croatia and Turkey.

These programs were an enormous success. The origins of 'New Australians' changed markedly, with British migrants only making up half of the intake, and many migrants coming from southern, eastern and northern Europe. In 1955, the one millionth post-war migrant arrived. Mass migration to Australia continued until the 1960s.

Routes and Stopovers

In the 1940s-1960s, the most common route from Britain and Europe was via the Suez Canal. There were stopovers in Port Said in Egypt, Port Aden in what is now Yemen and Colombo in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) From there, the ships travelled across the Indian Ocean to the Western Australian Port of Fremantle.

The other route was via the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa. Ships taking this route travelled via Lisbon to Cape Town and then across the Indian Ocean to Fremantle, Melbourne and Sydney.

Ships initially returned to Europe via the Suez Canal. However, by the 1960s many were taking advantage of the increasing tourist trade and adopted a round-the-world route, returning to Europe though the Panama Canal in Central America.

Stopover Ports

Passengers buying from boats alongside a liner at the Port Said floating market, circa 1959.
Passengers buying from boats alongside a liner at the Port Said floating market, circa 1959.

'Stopovers' were a practical necessity for passenger liners, to restock with fuel, fresh food and water, as well as to load and unload passengers. They were also an advertised attraction for migrants, many of whom had never previously travelled outside their home country. The stop-over ports were adventures, offering opportunities to meet the locals, bargain for souvenirs, and sample a heady mix of sights, sounds and smells.

The ports visited depended on the shipping line and the route taken to reach Australia. If the passengers were on lines that used the Suez Canal, they would sail across the Mediterranean Sea to Port Said in Egypt. There they entered the narrow canal and travelled through to Port Aden in Yemen, and out into the Red Sea.

Souvenirs from ship voyages purchased in Port Said.

The big ships went single file through the Suez Canal, and often had to 'queue' at Port Said. The passengers could go ashore and book tours to the pyramids or go on camel rides. Buying from pedlars in small boats or at exotic bazaars were entertaining novelties for most migrants travelling to Australia.

We were overwhelmed at the (Colombo) wharf by an all-pervading, enveloping aroma, which we discovered once on shore to be the smell of curries from the motley array of food stalls beyond the terminal. From one of these we tasted real fresh coconut for the first time.
– Joe Vella migrated from Malta in 1955.

Snake charmer in Colombo, holding a cobra and 'Been' flute, circa 1957.
Snake charmer in Colombo, holding a cobra and 'Been' flute, circa 1957.

The liners' next stopover would be Port Aden in what is now Yemen. They would then call at Bombay (India) or Colombo (Sri Lanka, then called Ceylon) before crossing the equator on the way south to Fremantle in Western Australia. Many passengers would remain with the ship and sail to Station Pier in Melbourne or perhaps on to New Zealand.

Buying souvenirs was a particularly exciting part of the stopover experience. Passengers often purchased the unusual and exotic as a keepsake of visits to places that they had never seen before and might never see again.

Life Onboard, 1940s-60s

Converted Troop Ships

Post World War II Migrant Ship History: Orcades, 1948-1972

After World War II, many ships that had carried soldiers were converted to meet the urgent need for the transportation of migrants. Passenger comforts on these 'troop ships' were extremely limited. Large empty holds were fitted out with double or triple tiered bunks. The food was plain and sometimes inadequate. Many European migrants were not used to the English fare that they were given to eat, and missed their traditional spiced foods. Similar food was provided in the hostels and reception camps when they arrived in Australia.

Overcrowding was a common complaint. Everyone, including families, which were split up, was accommodated in men's and women's quarters.

The General Langfitt was clean and well maintained, but had no luxuries, as it was designed to carry American troops during the war. The dormitories were crowded with bunks; it had communal toilets and salt-water showers. Our only treat was the refrigerated drinking tap in the passage, but it broke down after a few days at sea.
– Ale Liubinas migrated from Lithuania in 1949.
Dad had to bunk below with the other men on the lower deck. At times it was not pleasant below deck because of the heat and the motion of the ship. People from below deck cabins often took their blanket and pillow and slept on deck.
– Veronica Morris migrated from England in 1951.

Living in such close confines had some benefits, however. Passengers formed close friendships, often with people from countries and nationalities they had never encountered before.

The best people I found were the Italian guys!
– Karoly Lubanszky migrated from Hungary aboard the Fairsea in 1956.

Passenger Liners

As post-war migration continued and the migrant trade was recognized as profitable, shipping companies began improving on-board facilities in order to attract passengers. 'Tourist Class' cabins replaced the large dormitories on lower decks, and air-conditioning, swimming pools and cinemas were installed.

Daily newsletters, port-of-call booklets and decorative menus were provided. Balls, parties and sporting competitions were organised, and children were better catered for with playrooms and organised deck games. Free English lessons were provided to prepare non-English speaking migrants for their new lives.

Souvenirs bought on ship voyages to Australia

On-board souvenir shops were installed to boost revenue, offering souvenirs such as postcards, dolls, ashtrays and spoons – all sporting the ship's name or emblem.

The Italian crew were experts at organising people to entertain themselves. They had heaps of theatrical costumes and endless ideas about improvising. As a result, we had some memorable evenings, including Wild West night, 1920s night, Arabian night. Everyone got into the swing of it because the days were so boring.
– Robert and Maureen Hallam migrated from England in 1969.

While shipping lines and immigration officers planned and promoted a fun-filled trip, the experience could rapidly become the opposite as even the sturdiest of ships fell prey to high winds and rough seas.

Passengers vomited anywhere, everywhere … The corridors stank, and this added to further worsen queasy and unsettled stomachs. The mess decks were emptied of people unable to face the smell of food. Fresh air, the easiest and best remedy, was hard to come by as the waves crashed over the decks in spectacular fashion accompanied by scudding rain.
– Joe Vella migrated from Malta in 1955.

At other times the monotony of sea travel became the greatest enemy.

For two weeks we never saw land and many passengers grew more and more restless and bored, resulting in minor fights breaking out. Many deckchairs were thrown overboard.
– Connie McQuade migrated from Denmark in 1960.

Crossing the Equator

Crossing the Line ceremony on the Oriana
Crossing the Line ceremony on the Oriana

The final leg of the journey out to Australia included a celebration when crossing the Equator. Everyone was involved, as it tended to alleviate the boredom of life on board the ship. And by this stage people had come to know each other quite well and some of the initial shyness and inhibitions had been broken down.

The origins of this ceremony go back to ancient times when sailors were very superstitious and made obsequious pleas to the God Neptune, the ruler of the seas, to bring them home safely.

'Neptune's Journey' or crossing the Equator has been a feature of immigrant voyages since the 1800s, However, it became increasingly elaborate in the twentieth Century, as shipping companies sought to attract more passengers.

Initially, the celebration was largely a recognition that the equator had been crossed safely and a significant part of the long journey was over. However, as the journey became safer, the ceremony became more entertaining and took on the flavour of the period.

Presently old Father Neptune made his appearance dressed in full regalia. The crown on his head was dazzling in its brightness and the trident he carried was a formidable affair.
– Thomas Park migrated from England in 1852.

In one 'Crossing the Equator' ceremony, the crew were dressed in flowing robes or grass skirts and had painted faces. Passengers who volunteered were covered in shaving cream, shaved with razors and then thrown into the pool. Everyone received a certificate to mark the occasion.

Group of three Crossing the Equator certificates
Certificates - Crossing the Equator

The following is a program printed on board the Fairsea, a Sitmar liner, and distributed to the passengers on December 13, 1964.

Grand Equatorial Ceremony
Hear Ye! Hear Ye!
All loyal subjects of His most Serene Majesty King Neptune are requested to come to the Sun Deck at 4.p.m and bow in submission to their Liege Lord.

Recording the Journey, 1940s–60s

By the 1950s it was increasingly common for the journey to Australia to be recorded on film and in photographs. Migrants were able to purchase cameras, photo albums and scrapbooks on board and added photographs and film to the souvenirs they collected on their journey.

Pages from the J. R. Alderton scrapbook, a collection of images and mementoes collected aboard the Fairsea in 1967.
Source: Barbara Alderton

Onboard newsletters also became popular and were encouraged by the shipping lines, although they did not always result in the positive image sought. For example, the 'Kangaroo' newsletter from the Hellenic Princecontains an article written by the passengers complaining about sanitary and other conditions on board.

People vomited anywhere and everywhere. The corridors stank and this further worsened queasy and unsettled stomachs. [This sort of report was usually not included in printed materials or newsletters that appeared on board the ship.]
– Joe Vella migrated from Malta in 1955

However, many migrants recorded a much more positive impression of their journey to Australia, and have fond memories of their shipboard 'holiday'.

The Fairsea – our home for five weeks, was the best part of my early life. I had been born in an air-raid shelter in London, so only knew destruction around me. My trip was very exciting. We had lovely meals, dances, entertainment, deck games, swimming and many other pastimes. We stopped off in Aden and rode a camel through the streets. I can't even remember feeling sad at leaving my home country, England.
– Doreen Hakowski (formerly Sillett) migrated from England in 1956.

Ships, 1940s–70s

In the decades after 1948, many passenger liners berthed carrying a large proportion of the immigrants who came to Australia from post war Europe. The month long journey is still remembered by many.

Fairsea, 1949–69

After serving as the aircraft carrier and troop ship HMS Charger during World War II, the Fairsea was rebuilt for migrant service in 1949. However the ship's accommodation initially left much to be desired.

Postcard of the Fairsea
Postcard of the Fairsea
The Fairsea was huge, a converted troop ship with no cabins, just huge big open spaces with triple decked bunks, so cramped you couldn't sit up straight in them. Men were assigned to one section, women to the other. The toilet and shower facilities were one huge long one, and everywhere you went there was an awful reek of 'White King'. People threw up because of the smell not just the swell!
– Frank Kriesl migrated from Hungary in 1951.

Between 1949 and 1969 the ship made 81 voyages to and from Australia – for several years chartered by the Australian Government to transport assisted immigrants from Britain.

Orcades, 1948–72

The Orcades was the third ship of this name to be built for the Orient Line. It was the first purpose-built passenger vessel to enter the Australian migrant trade after World War II, and set a new standard in style and accommodation – multiple saloons, shops, a hair salon, hospital, swimming pool, and a range of cabin choices.

Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt, 1950–63

Referred to as the JVO, the Johan Van Oldenbarnevelt was originally the largest ship ever constructed in Holland when launched in 1929. After working as a British troop ship in World War II, the JVO was refurbished and returned briefly to its previous route between Holland and Indonesia, before joining the Australian migrant trade from 1950 to 1958.

Castel Felice, 1952–70

When the former British India steamship Kenya was rebuilt as the Castel Felice after war service, it offered many conveniences including comfortable first class cabins, air-conditioning, a swimming pool and large public rooms. But for tourist class, things were still cramped.

The Castel Felice arrives at Fremantle
The Castel Felice arrives at Fremantle.
As far as we were concerned, the Castel Felice was already in the scrap yard. The crew tried their best, but the ship was unsteady. We were eight men in a double cabin – four tiered bunks! There were no luxuries for us.
– Wolfgang Kahran migrated from Germany in 1960.

Between 1952 and 1970, this ship carried over 100,000 immigrants from Italy, Germany and Britain, to Australia and New Zealand.

Purpose-built liners

Nicknamed 'The ship of the future', the Southern Cross made waves when it came onto the migrant circuit in 1955. Big, bold and beautiful, the distinctive light-grey hull and pale-green superstructure held many modern features including fully air-conditioned cabins, stabilisers to reduce rolling, and rear mounted engines and funnel, creating space for the largest open sports deck of its time.

The Southern Cross was the first British ship launched by a reigning monarch, and is especially remembered by fare-paying British migrants coming to Australia and New Zealand.

On the uppermost deck we would play cricket matches. Movies were shown at noon, 4pm and at night. Dinner was usually three courses followed by a disco.
– Kester Thomas migrated from Trinidad aboard the Southern Cross in 1967.

In 1959 the Patris became the first liner in the Greek owned Chandris fleet. The ship was popular with passengers despite having the dishonour of running aground in the Suez Canal during a sandstorm.

The Australis (1965–78) was originally launched as the luxury liner America in 1939. Two years later the ship was converted into an American troop ship and renamed the USS West Point. In 1965 it was sold to the Greek owned Chandris Line and converted to a fully air-conditioned single class ship for the Australian migrant trade. Renamed the Australis, the ship retains a significant place in our migration history as the last ship to carry government assisted migrants to Australian shores (in 1977).

Galileo Galilei, 1963–77

Named in honour of the famous Italian astronomer, the Galileo Galilei was an instant hit, reducing travelling time from Italy to Australia from four to three weeks on its maiden voyage in 1963.

The Galilei and sister ship Guglielmo Marconi, were the last passenger ships purpose-built for the Australian immigrant service. Its elegant award-winning Italian design featured a novel telescopic funnel-top designed to be raised at sea to better disperse fumes and lowered to maintain appearances when in port.

It was a beautiful ship, nice, big lounge rooms, comfortable cabins. But because of strikes we had to spend three days at each port and we were given money to spend onshore.
– Maria Teresa Perria migrated from Italy aboard the Galileo Galilei in 1971.

The Journey by Air

1960s Qantas Boeing 707 Jetliner, illustrated by Bill Wood
1960s Qantas Boeing 707 Jetliner, illustrated by Bill Wood.

Ocean liners remained the main form of transportation for immigrants to Australia well into the 1960s. However, wealthier immigrants had been migrating to Australia by air from the 1930s. The first organised flights for immigrants occurred in 1947, although it was not until the introduction of long-range jet aircraft a decade later that a significant number of migrants began to arrive by air.

Among the first occasions on which aircraft were chartered to bring migrants out from Europe were following the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1968. On both occasions there was insufficient time to organise transport by ship.

The transition from mass sea travel to mass air travel for most migrants in the 1960s had a profound influence on the immigration experience. No longer was there a quiet period of several weeks between departure and arrival during which people had a chance to contemplate the past and the future. Instead, they experienced the disjuncture of being at home one day and in a new country on the next.

I came by air; my husband paid ?450 for a Qantas ticket. This was most unusual as no-one travelled by air at that time. I left Rome on Wednesday and arrived at Essendon airport on Saturday. I spoke no English and no-one on the plane spoke Italian. We stopped at many places; I remember Cairo and also Manila. It would have been a lovely trip if I had not been alone. I was not afraid on the plane, but I was frightened to get off at the stops as I understood nothing. 
- Carmela travelled to Australia to join her husband in December 1957. (Extract from Wardrop, Bella Susi, By Proxy: A Study of Italian Proxy Brides in Australia, Italian Historical Society Co.As.It, Carlton 1996. Reproduced courtesy of Co.As.It.)

1970s-2000s

A Changing Journey

"Dispelling the Myths about Immigration": Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs booklet cover, circa 1966.
"Dispelling the Myths about Immigration": Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs booklet cover, circa 1966.

By the 1970s, the wave of post-war migration by ocean liner to Australia was largely over. The advent of container ships meant that migrant ships could no longer rely on cargo to finance their return voyages, and more people were coming by plane. In 1977, the Australis became the last ship to carry assisted passage immigrants to Australia. Henceforth, all off-shore migrants coming to Australia travelled by air.

Immigration to Australia fell dramatically during the early 1970s. It reached a post war low in 1975, before recovering in the early 1980s.

Those making the journey to Australia today by plane have a very different migration experience. Air travel has made the world a much smaller place and the journey to a new home is relatively quick. Reduced travel time and much improved communications make it easier for migrants to keep in touch with friends and family back home, or to return on a visit to the 'old country'.

Since the 1970s, Australia has welcomed migrants from many countries including Vietnam, Turkey, Lebanon, Britain, China, India, New Zealand, South Africa, Chile, Poland, East Timor, South East Asia and the Horn of Africa – Eritrea, Somalia and Ethiopia. Some immigrants, escaping war and conflict in various parts of the world, have arrived in small and often unseaworthy boats.

Somalian school children, 1992
Somalian school children, Flemington, 1992.

The migration programs of the 1970s–2000s have given Australia a very multicultural population. Victoria is now home to people from over 233 different countries.

The Journey by Air

1960s Qantas Boeing 707 Jetliner, illustrated by Bill Wood
1960s Qantas Boeing 707 Jetliner, illustrated by Bill Wood.

Ocean liners remained the main form of transportation for immigrants to Australia well into the 1960s. However, wealthier immigrants had been migrating to Australia by air from the 1930s. The first organised flights for immigrants occurred in 1947, although it was not until the introduction of long-range jet aircraft a decade later that a significant number of migrants began to arrive by air.

Among the first occasions on which aircraft were chartered to bring migrants out from Europe were following the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 and the Czechoslovakian crisis of 1968. On both occasions there was insufficient time to organise transport by ship.

The transition from mass sea travel to mass air travel for most migrants in the 1960s had a profound influence on the immigration experience. No longer was there a quiet period of several weeks between departure and arrival during which people had a chance to contemplate the past and the future. Instead, they experienced the disjuncture of being at home one day and in a new country on the next.

I came by air; my husband paid ?450 for a Qantas ticket. This was most unusual as no-one travelled by air at that time. I left Rome on Wednesday and arrived at Essendon airport on Saturday. I spoke no English and no-one on the plane spoke Italian. We stopped at many places; I remember Cairo and also Manila. It would have been a lovely trip if I had not been alone. I was not afraid on the plane, but I was frightened to get off at the stops as I understood nothing. 
- Carmela travelled to Australia to join her husband in December 1957. (Extract from Wardrop, Bella Susi, By Proxy: A Study of Italian Proxy Brides in Australia, Italian Historical Society Co.As.It, Carlton 1996. Reproduced courtesy of Co.As.It.)

Immigration Policy

Since the 1970s, Australia's immigration policy has reflected international agreements about equality and fairness. A 1973 amendment to the Migration Act introduced a non-discriminatory immigration policy, and the 1975 Racial Discrimination Act formally rejected the racist bias of the White Australia policy.

In the past two decades, between 76,000 and 120,000 immigrants have arrived in Australia every year. They have been selected from four broad categories:

Skilled migrants

Poster - "Australia, a safe investment for the whole family", circa 1990s.
Poster - "Australia, a safe investment for the whole family", circa 1990s.

During the 1980s, the Government introduced business migration programs, encouraging immigrants with particular professional skills, business experience, Information Technology skills, significant capital or a sponsoring employer. Since 1997, Skill Stream immigrants have outnumbered Family Stream immigrants. In the current period, there is a need to fill vacancies for health professionals, pastry-chefs and hairdressers.

Family Reunion

Enabling the reunion of families, Family Stream immigration was emphasised in the 1970s and early 1980s. Successful applicants are selected on the basis of a family relationship to a sponsor in Australia.

Humanitarian migration

This provides for refugees or other people in urgent need of resettlement. Humanitarian Stream immigration comprises offshore and onshore resettlement programs. Australia's intake of refugees has declined since the 1980s, from 20,000 each year to 12,000 in 2002.

Special migration

This Stream caters for people with special sporting, cultural or artistic talents. For example, Tatiana Grigorieva (a pole-vaulter from Russia) is one of the people who qualified in this Stream to migrate to Australia.

Recording the Journey, 1970s–2000s

Those making the journey to Australia have recorded their experiences in many different ways over the years. Records have varied, depending on the materials available and the skills and preferences of the person making the record.

The following paintings and descriptions beautifully evoke for us the journey made to Australia by Mai Ho, a Vietnamese 'boat person' in the 1970s.

Detail from "The Escape" by Thomas Le, a pencil drawing circa 1998 which depicts the first stage of Mai Ho's escape from Vietnam.
Detail from "The Escape" by Thomas Le, a pencil drawing circa 1998 which depicts the first stage of Mai Ho's escape from Vietnam.
"On the Ocean" by Thomas Le, a pencil drawing circa 1998 which depicts the five nights spent at sea by Mai Ho and her fellow refugees.
"On the Ocean" by Thomas Le, a pencil drawing circa 1998 which depicts the five nights spent at sea by Mai Ho and her fellow refugees.
"Rescue" by Thomas Le, a pencil drawing circa 1998 which depicts the rescue of Mai Ho and her fellow refugees by a British oil rig.
"Rescue" by Thomas Le, a pencil drawing circa 1998 which depicts the rescue of Mai Ho and her fellow refugees by a British oil rig.
"Life in the Camp" by Thomas Le, a pencil drawing circa 1998 which depicts the time spent by Mai Ho and her family in a Malaysian refugee camp.
"Life in the Camp" by Thomas Le, a pencil drawing circa 1998 which depicts the time spent by Mai Ho and her family in a Malaysian refugee camp.
Detail from "Settling in Australia" by Thomas Le, a pencil drawing circa 1998 which depicts the journey of Mai Ho's family to Australia and shows their first few months here.
Detail from "Settling in Australia" by Thomas Le, a pencil drawing circa 1998 which depicts the journey of Mai Ho's family to Australia and shows their first few months here.

Mai Ho's story in words and images

So we still waiting, and then one hour later, nearly 3 o'clock in the morning [...] and then they come, they say that "Okay it's ready. The taxi boat is here, now everybody slowly get out one by one." When I went there everybody was there [...] Many house in that village was packed with people, 161 you see.

And then we go half an hour later or nearly one hour later we saw our boat, our ship, it was very far from that and then they were loading people from the small one, many small one, four small one into our boat.

All the sailors gone mad, and we was you know, we praying and then all the people underneath were praying, and the sailor come and let us know what is situation, and they say that "Please pray for our safety, please pray, everyone of you, according to your own religion. Just pray now. Concentrate and pray and don't make any noise. We must keep quiet because lots of other boat went pass by and they all government boat, they can come and have a look at the problem and check and you will be all arrested. So.

If we could not get out of Vung Tau we would be arrested because that where we could be arrested you know. [....] After we get in to the international border the first night was okay, the second night was level 6 and level 7 wind. So, up and down, up and down, up and down, up and down. And I was thinking that we will die in the sea [...] and everybody vomit, all vomit you know. And then they say that "If we know it was so dangerous like this, we wouldn't escape" (laugh). Because you wouldn't, you couldn't have a whole comprehensive thing of how horrible it is. You couldn't, you could not imagine.

Because you know it's dark. So we saw – they said there's an oil rig and [...] then we saw [...] all this light. [...] it was the most beautiful thing, 'cos you know. And [...] when we opened our eyes we thought it was stars and everything.

So we was put in this [...] basket three, four at the same time and then they lowered us on their ship so they continue for a few hours, until 9 o'clock in the morning, so everybody actually on their ship. So was a beautiful moment.

When we were sent to the refugee camp in Malaysia that is Pulau Bidong we actually first didn't really go to the refugee camp because of all the stories that we have heard in Vietnam. We would like the oil drill to take us to, back to Australia but it would be impossible so we came to Malaysia to Pulau Bidong Island with anxiety feeling.

Before my father die he ask me that "Go for your life, and go to Australia."

Two and half month later it mean that one and a half month after we live in the Sungai Baisi camp then come one day in the afternoon at about 3 o'clock the announcement from the [...] camp saying, reading my name, "Aaah, we'll be arrive in Australia on 15th of December. You will fly from Malaysia at that time at say 6 o'clock, 4 o'clock you will be blah, blah, blah and you will be arrive in Australia on the 16th of December 1982. [...] I so happy. [...] All night I couldn't sleep and count the days and count the days that we will be arriving in two weeks. They let us know two weeks before the day we fly.

And so we actually fly on the 15th of December 1982. We were taken to Malaysia Airport and everybody was very happy. [...] asking me how was the experience in the aeroplane. How big it is. What it is. And then I say that is an iron bird. And then they ask me is it beautiful. I said that "Well, it bring the dream to us. So of course it beautiful than we ever can thought about." So they wonder because I try to, you know, older mother always want to bring fairy tale to tell their children. So I bring my dream with a fairy tale to my children about the aeroplane.

[The flight's] about ten hours, eight, ten hours. We can't remember. [...] We were so anxious to know what Australia look like, [...] but then because we travel at night time so you don't see anything underneath. All we see is Malaysia with lots of lights [...] Once the flight going up we don't see anything any more. [...] All we see is dark. Only darkness.

You just fly from the sea, you know all the same, and then you say now is Vietnam and now is Australia [...]. And then near Melbourne the sky gets brighter and brighter. The flight slower, lower and lower. And then I can see and we very anxious. [...] We try to look over the window to see how Australia and there we see a big land. All we see is the brown, the browny colour of the ground, of the land, of the soil. Then we don't see any house. We only see trees, but then we only see... the most thing that we realise is all the squares, square by square, you know from the aeroplane. [...] And then I say "Oh my God, I've travel to a desert or something! How come we haven't got a city life like I imagine?"

Departure and Arrival

Millions of people have made the journey to Australia since the first European settlers arrived in 1788. Many came seeking a new home. Some fled from the ravages of war, hunger, religious persecution or political repression. Others have been lured by a sense of adventure or by the prospect of a new beginning, owning land, making a fortune, or being reunited with loved ones.

Over the years, people migrating to Australia have recorded a range of emotions upon departure – fear when embarking on a dangerous journey or the excitement of setting out to seek a new and prosperous life, and the sadness of leaving family or friends.

Immigrants arriving at Port Melbourne Railway Pier, 1910
Immigrants arriving at Port Melbourne Railway Pier, 1910

Landing at an Australian port has also been marked by a variety of emotions. For those who migrated by clipper in the 1800s, arrival often meant relief that a long journey had ended safely. Those migrating from continental Europe after World War II were often more concerned with how their new life would differ from the one they had left behind.

Today the experience of migrating to Australia may not be so different. Regardless of whether travelling by air or sea, the excitement of landing is usually tempered by feelings of anxiety about starting a new life in a different country.

Farewell

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
– Lao-tzu, 604-531 BC

The motivations of people departing their homelands have varied greatly over time, from those seeking adventure and their fortunes on the goldfields of the 1850s, to those fleeing war-torn homelands today.

"Diggers on way to Bendigo", watercolour, 1852-3 by S.T. Gill
"Diggers on way to Bendigo", watercolour, 1852-3 by S.T. Gill

Generations of immigrants have shared many reasons for leaving home and setting out for a new life in a distant land. Leaving Home, a permanent exhibition at the Immigration Museum, identifies the following key motivations for why people migrate from one country to another:

• A better life • Family • Freedom • Disaster • War & Conflict

German migrants embracing, 1956.
German migrants embracing, 1956.

The decision to migrate and make a new life far away is followed by the heartache of having to say goodbye to home and loved ones. This has always been difficult for people, regardless of when the journey was made. Prior to the development of international air travel, people were very conscious of the fact that they would probably never see their friends and relatives again.

It was very affecting to see those who had friends waving handkerchiefs and weeping as they gazed at them, perhaps for the last time on earth.
– Anne Gratton migrated from England in 1858.
Needless to say there will be many heartaches and tears [in secret] on my own part. Sometimes my heart seems to turn to water.
– Susannah Nicholls migrated from London in 1923.
Starting out at 11p.m. and listening to the people on the piers saying "Will ye no come back again?" And tears dripping from everybody's face, making me feel nearly as bad as I had the night before.
– Alex Morrison migrated from Ireland in 1948.
Assisted passages to Australia poster, "See you in Australia", 1963, in which a woman and a man hold hands as they run merrily in water up to their shins.
Assisted passages to Australia poster, "See you in Australia", 1963.

Others, however, have been excited by the adventure of coming to a new land and a new beginning. The people who flocked to Victoria for the gold rush were particularly eager to get to the diggings. Many people in the days of sailing ships were just glad to have arrived safely, while others were pleased to be far away from the problems and worries that they had faced at home.

The thrill and the challenge to be on my own.
– Anne Gratton migrated from England in 1858.

Keepsakes and Necessities

Girl holding a doll. Photo taken in Melbourne in 1935 by Vincenzo Candela
This doll, named "Ruthie", was bought by Eileen Wyke in England when she was 11 years old, using money she received as an Easter present. When her family immigrated to Australia in 1926 Eileen brought Ruthie with her. Photo taken in Melbourne in 1935 by Vincenzo Candela.

Over the years, migrants making the journey to Australia have often taken something with them to remind them of home, as well as to comfort them on the long journey. These keepsakes included photos, jewellery, items of national dress and gifts from loved ones. Children usually brought their favourite toy or book.

Individuals and families also brought a variety of items with them in anticipation of what they would need for the journey and for their new life in Australia. From little things like vegetable seeds, olive oil or salamis, to larger household items such as carpentry tools, coffee-makers and blankets, expectations about life in Australia were reflected in what migrants brought with them. People knew little about their new homeland and made assumptions about climate, food and employment – sometimes correct, sometimes misinformed.

New arrivals were often guilty of bringing in items that had to be confiscated by customs. Unfamiliar foodstuffs could be deemed contraband, suspect to a predominantly British cuisine culture. Plant seeds were a threat to the Australian natural environment. Doonas did not appear on lists of taxable goods and were seized. So migrants sometimes smuggled things in.

Coffee percolator - Neapolitan, circa 1950s
The love of a good brew prompted an Italian migrant to bring this Neapolitan coffee maker from Italy in 1953.
My mum knew she was doing something wrong, but she still stuffed her bra, girdle and the body cavity of my dolls with her favourite Italian vegie seeds and smuggled them in.
– Maria Attardi migrated from Italy in 1960.

Many items brought to Australia by immigrants were not readily available in Australia. Half a century later, they are now part of Australia's culture.

Australian Ports

In the early decades of European settlement, Australian ports were a life-line. The Australian colonies were totally dependent on ships for supplies and news from the 'motherland', Great Britain.

"Sydney Heads, 1854", painted by Conrad Martens
"Sydney Heads, 1854", painted by Conrad Martens

Sydney (New South Wales) and Hobart (Tasmania) served as Australia's key immigration ports in the penal era, largely because they both offered natural well-protected, deep water harbours. As agricultural and pastoral settlement spread to other Australian colonies, further ports were established at river mouths. Shallow water typically restricted large vessels from entering these ports until extensive engineering works were undertaken.

During the 1850s gold rushes, Melbourne (Victoria) became the preferred port for migrants. By the 1880s, steamers using the Suez Canal and Cape of Good Hope routes were also regularly calling at Albany (Western Australia) and Adelaide (South Australia), with Fremantle (Western Australia) only becoming a major international port after 1900.

Brisbane (Queensland) was also visited by the British mail steamers, but many other shipping services terminated at Sydney, leaving smaller coastal vessels the job of transferring migrants further north.

Port of Melbourne

The first direct overseas immigrant ships to reach Melbourne arrived in 1838. Unlike the small coastal vessels that established the settlement four years earlier, these ships were too large to pass up the shallow Yarra River. People and goods were off-loaded into small boats and carried overland from Williamstown or Liardet's Beach (now Port Melbourne), creating costly and inefficient double-handling of goods.

With the discovery of gold in Victoria in the 1850s, thousands of hopefuls came pouring into Melbourne, placing enormous pressure on the already inadequate port facilities.

Hobsons Bay Railway Pier, Sandridge (now Station Pier, Port Melbourne), about 1878, showing one of two small steam locomotives used for shunting goods trucks on the pier.
Hobsons Bay Railway Pier, Sandridge (now Station Pier, Port Melbourne), about 1878, showing one of two small steam locomotives used for shunting goods trucks on the pier.

The Melbourne & Hobsons Bay Railways Company conceived a scheme to improve the port by building a railway line from Melbourne to a large, deep water pier at Liardet's Beach. Known as Railway Pier, it was rebuilt in the 1920s to become Station Pier. The line linking the pier to the Melbourne central station had been Australia's first steam-powered railway.

Parties from Melbourne are requested to raise a smoke, and the boat will be at their service as soon as practicable.
Melbourne Advertiser, 1838

Port Adelaide

Aptly named 'Port Misery', the first regular landing place of Adelaide was situated a mile up the Port Creek (Adelaide River) where boats stuck fast in the mud-flats and new arrivals had to wade through the mire to reach the shore.

"Pioneers landing at Port Adelaide", a watercolour by John Michael Skipper, 1839.
"Pioneers landing at Port Adelaide", a watercolour by John Michael Skipper, 1839.

Over the years facilities were greatly improved and migrants found themselves stepping from ship onto solidly constructed wharves. The construction of a railway and private telegraph line in 1855 ensured that the transfer of cargo and people from port to city was more efficiently managed.

The shore is an uninhabitable swamp, and the few people who are living in the wigwams at Port Adelaide are too busily engaged … to take any notice of a party of ladies and gentlemen up to their knees in mud trying to reach the shore.
– Thomas Horton James, 1838

Sydney Cove

I despair of being able to convey to any reader my own idea of the beauty of Sydney Harbour … (it) is so inexpressively lovely that it makes a man ask himself whether it would not be worth his while to move his household goods to the eastern coast of Australia.
– Anthony Trollope, 1850s

Entering Sydney Harbour was not so lovely. Sailing through 'The Heads' was notorious, and many ships came to grief. One stormy night in 1857 the immigrant ship Dunbar crashed into the rocky cliffs. The loss of all aboard, bar one went undiscovered until morning when debris and bodies greeted incoming vessels.

With so many small coves, the developing port spread to various locations. Small privately owned piers and wharfs sprang up. The handling of goods and passengers was made easier with the development of the state railway system in the 1850s.

Port of Fremantle

Crowd with streamers farewelling a ship at Fremantle, 1934
Crowd with streamers farewelling a ship at Fremantle, 1934.
Photo: Dorothy Davidson.

Early shipowners considered Fremantle a port to avoid and demanded high freight rates in order to compensate for the risk of calling there. A rocky bar blocked the Swan River entrance, and the few jetties situated outside the river-mouth were exposed to the strong south-westerly winds (known as the Fremantle Doctor).

Frightened migrants would have to wait for the weather to calm before making their first intrepid steps to shore. In protest, vessels headed 400 kilometres south to the safe deep-water anchorage of Albany.

In 1892 work began on creating a safe, deep and protected harbour with the first migrant ships tying up at the new Victoria Quay in 1897. From this time on, Fremantle replaced Albany on the Australian shipping route.

I would not come to this port again and be obliged to discharge at this wharf, if they made me a present of the vessel.
– Captain D B Shaw, 1892

Land Ahoy

The first sighting of land – whether that has been by sea or from the air, has always been momentous for new arrivals to Australia. For those with long-held assumptions about what their adopted homeland might be like, the coastline could trigger delight or despair.

All we saw were trees and greenery and I just fell into my mother's arms crying. We were both crying because we thought we had come to the end of the earth. There was no city in sight.
– Mariam Baker migrated from Egypt in 1966.
I remember flying into Sydney and it was really early in the morning. The plane banked, and all I remember is the sun on the cliffs, and the beaches. It was so beautiful.
– Juliet Wilson migrated from Canada in 1992.

Arrival by sea was an exciting experience. Streamers sailed through the air, creating colourful paper spider webs. Teeming crowds jostled for position, with friends, relatives, prospective husbands and employers waving, shouting, laughing and crying. Eager migrants leaned over the ship rails searching the crowd for loved ones while the band played anything from Waltzing Matilda to Greek music.

The wharf was always crowded when a migrant ship docked. There were immigration and customs officials, baggage handlers and delivery personnel, photographers, industry representatives spruiking for new recruits, welcoming parties and sightseers. Hostesses employed by the Harbour Trusts known as the 'blue' or 'red' ladies (according to the colour of their hats) were on hand to guide and assist, while community organisations such as travellers aid societies provided support, especially for the more needy. Inside the terminals, the shops and information booths opened for business.

The excitement of disembarking, however, was tempered by farewells to new shipboard friends.

Soon, the people you had made friends with while on board went their separate ways, either to meet family members or sponsors; most never to be seen again.
– Connie McQuade migrated from Denmark in 1960.

The end of many journeys, however, have been cause for celebration.

We all yell(ed) "Ahhh!". All yell and then all the people underneath there they try to climb up and all of us yell and clap hands and laugh and hug each other, yeah and hugging each other and say that "Yeah, we made it, we made it, we made it!" And all the sailor was singing and thanking God and all of us at that time all kneel, all kneel and pray to God and thank God that we already reach the safe land.
– Mai Ho migrated from Vietnam in 1981.

'Brief Sketches of Life onboard a Steam Vessel'

HT 1104
Diary - Ally Heathcote, England to Melbourne, Victoria, Onboard 'SS Northumberland', 1874

Extract from transcript of Ally Heathcote's diary:
Monday, November 16th 1874

Welcome Tidings. Land at last. Though first I will just mention that all day yesterday, especially at service time, we could not stand on deck without holding to something, and last night just at bed time, the vessel went as still and steady, Ma said it awoke her coming steady all on a sudden and she lit the lamp and sat up, eating some cakes and raisins Maggie had had sent her. I suppose we had got in a calmer sea.

This morning a little after three o'clock, one of the passengers came down and called out land and lighthouse ahead, but he called out don't get up - What an idea, to tell us to lay in bed when Australian shores were in sight, you may imagine with what light hearts we quickly dressed and went up on deck. Ma and I were the only females on deck, it was so early.

[..] About ½ past 4 we saw the first Australian sunrise, first thing the sky was bathed in one mass of bright red and then changed to green and an endless variety of magnificent tints, presently the sun just appeared above the edge of the water but rapidly rose to its full compass, the sky is beautifully clear and pure, far different than in the manufacturing towns in Lancashire. It is Cape Otway we have sighted, all are up and bustling about by this time seven o'clock.

First Impressions

After we left the boat we walked across the railway pier up to the station. We had first class tickets given us from the Ship Owners as our passage was paid up to Melbourne. We had to wait till a train came up and as soon as we had sat down, they came and locked us in, and off we steamed to Hobsons Bay Railway Station in Melbourne. As we sat in the train we could see along the bay all the ships at anchor. Then a little farther we crossed the Yarra Yarra, and presently the train steamed into the station. Then the guard came and let us out.
– Ally Heathcote, writing after landing at Sandridge Pier in November 1874.
Well, arriving in Australia. See… Austria is so spick and span, and so clean that it is nearly not natural! Then we came… to Port Melbourne, oh, it looked so black and smoky and oh!! Then I said to my husband "now, how dirty it looks here!" "…oh that is only the port" he said.
– Leopoldine Mimovich, remembering arriving at Port Melbourne in July 1948.
And then near Melbourne the sky gets brighter and brighter. The flight slower, lower and lower. And then I can see and we very anxious… All we see is the brown, the browny colour of the ground, of the land, of the soil. Then we don't see any house. We only see trees, but then we only see… all the squares, square by square, you know from the aeroplane. And then I say "How come Australia look very funny, only squares?" And then I say "Oh my God, I've travel to a desert or something! How come we haven't got a city life like I imagine?" You know, and things like that… Then my brother say, "Well, we can have farm"… So we start to plan from imagination until we landed on the airport…
– Mai Ho, recalling arriving at Tullamarine Airport in December 1982.

Diary Entry on Departure

'Brief Sketches of Life onboard a Steam Vessel'

HT 1104
Diary - Ally Heathcote, England to Melbourne, Victoria, Onboard 'SS Northumberland', 1874

Extract from transcript of Ally Heathcote's diary:
Monday, September 21st 1874

We came on board with our relatives at noon, a little after them as we had to pass the Doctor, I suppose to ascertain whether we were bringing any contagious disease on board. We went below to see our future home for the following two months, the first look at our berths was not so favourable as we would have liked but we must put up with inconvenience on board a vessel like the one we had chosen for the means of transport to our adopted country. We had left our native town amid the prayers and blessings of our dear relatives and friends, and I am sure no one left their country with more prayers than did my parents, brother and sister and I. We are leaving one home to make another in the opposite extreme of her Majesty's dominions.

At the appointed hour for starting, the bell was sung for the visitors to leave the ship, we had to bid farewell to our dear relatives for a time at least and as soon as possible the anchor was drawn up and our good ship, amid the cheers of the crew and the firing off of a gun, glided elegantly out of the harbour at Gravesend.

Smoothly she sailed down the Thames and we stood on the bulwark and viewed the scenery which was fine, we passed several vessels in and about the harbour, some were coming in from their outward voyage. The scenery was quite new and interesting to me but still in the midst of it my thoughts wandered to the dear ones I had just bid good-byes to. We retired to our berths at half past eight, very tired and sleepy.

Ally Heathcote's diary
76 page hand-written stitched journal, densely written in ink on front and reverse pages. Sheets are faintly ruled, no cover; includes loose sheet with list of Sunday services. Diary commences with a 'Preface' and then continues 'Steamship Northumberland – passage to Australia in 52 days – Brief sketches of life onboard a steam vessel'. Narrative divided into dated, day by day descriptions.

The diary has been written with a sense of audience - near the beginning is an undertaking to her uncle to keep a diary. At its conclusion there is a letter written by Ally from 88 Drummond St Carlton to her aunt and uncle which implies that she sent it to them in England. It invites them to circulate it and even to perhaps get printed in the Times.

Ally's experience represents the experience of thousands of late nineteenth century migrants and provides an invaluable research tool in terms of her descriptions of shipboard life, other passengers, navigational details and first views of Melbourne. The diary concludes with a fascinating glimpse into the initial landing, Yarra Yarra and Hobsons Bay, train journey from Sandridge to the Pier and then on through Brunswick St Fitzroy to Northcote. Her style is very engaging, light, heartfelt, and sometimes humorous.

This diary was written by Ally Heathcote, from Preston in the North of England. She came out to Australia at the age of nineteen with her parents and, we think her siblings, Willie and Maggie, whom she states 'had for years thought of visiting Australia at length'. Ally also states that she had often thought of immigrating but that she 'never had the remotest idea that my dreams of travelling 16 thousand miles would ever be realised.' They left on Monday 21 September 1874, travelling on the steamship Northumberland (have considered travelling by clipper but due to her mother's health, wanted the shortest journey possible). Ally details the route, shipboard life, food, illnesses, navigational details such as longitude and latitude, distances and speed, first impressions of Australia and general feelings of excitement, the sorrow of separation, the joys and relief of arrival.

Resources

Further stories about the journeys made by Australian immigrants can be found at Melbourne's Immigration Museum and other cultural heritage organisations. A wealth of additional information is available online and in print.

Cultural Heritage Organisations

Immigration Museum
https://museumsvictoria.com.au/immigrationmuseum/
Old Customs House, 400 Flinders Street, Melbourne, Victoria
Telephone 03 9927 2700 or Education Bookings 03 9927 2754
Exhibitions explore stories of people from all over the world who have migrated to Victoria since the 1830s. Education programs and Immigration Discovery Centre provide resources for all ages.

Migration Museum
https://migration.history.sa.gov.au/
82 Kintore Avenue, Adelaide, South Australia
Telephone 08 8207 7580
Exhibitions focus on immigration history, cultural diversity and settlement in South Australia. Education programs actively promote cultural and ethnic tolerance.

National Museum of Australia
http://www.nma.gov.au/
Lawson Crescent, Acton Peninsula, Canberra, ACT
Telephone 02 6208 5000

Online Resources

Australian Bureau of Statistics
http://www.abs.gov.au/
A range of information and statistics online, including: Migration Australia (series 3412.0), recent Year Books and the Population Clock.

Australian Centre for the Moving Image (ACMI)
https://www.acmi.net.au/
Exhibitions include Transiting Bonegilla short films by women who passed through this post-war Migrant Reception Centre, and an extensive catalogue of films and videos available for loan. These include Mike and Stefani, a documentary-style production released in 1952 to publicise Australia's participation in the international program to re-settle the 'Displaced Persons of Europe' after World War II.

Australian Human Rights Commission
https://www.humanrights.gov.au/
An organisation set up to foster greater understanding and protection of human rights in Australia and to address the human rights concerns of individuals and groups.

Citizenship in Australia: A Guide to Commonwealth Government Records
http://guides.naa.gov.au/citizenship/
Materials held by the National Archive, collected under themes such as nationality and citizenship, naturalisation, the treatment of aliens, assimilation, concepts of racial and national identity. Available in print: 114p, 1999, ISBN 0 642 34408 6, No. 10.
Also More People Imperative: Immigration to Australia, 1901–39
http://guides.naa.gov.au/more-people-imperative/
An overview and guide to records in the National Archives collection on Commonwealth immigration policies from 1901 to 1939, including both those that encouraged and those that restricted immigration. Available in print: 236p, 1999, ISSN 1326 7078, No. 7.

Department of Home Affairs
https://www.homeaffairs.gov.au/
Includes current Australian immigration information: https://www.australia.gov.au/information-and-services/immigration-and-visas

Documenting a Democracy
https://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/
This Australian National Archives website tells the story of Australia through the documents which give our national, state and territory governments the right to govern. It includes copies of Immigration Acts and related documents grouped by date, State or theme (eg Immigration Restriction Act: https://www.foundingdocs.gov.au/item-sdid-87.html).

Horizons: The peopling of Australia since 1788
http://www.nma.gov.au/exhibitions/horizons/home
Extracts from an ongoing exhibition at the National Museum of Australia about the 10 million people who have migrated to Australia since 1788, where they come from, and how migration has shaped the nation we know today.

Immigration and Nation-Building
www.abc.net.au/federation/fedstory/ep2/ep2_events.htm
Section of the Federation Story project produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation for Australia's centenary of Federation.

The papers of James Günther, 1837–42
www.newcastle.edu.au/centre/wvp/papersofjamesgunther/
Vol 3 Transcripts of Letters and Journals sent to the London Corresponding Committee of the Church Missionary Society, 1837-42. Letters 1-3 include first hand accounts of a weather-affected voyage to Australia in 1887.

Monash University Centre for Population and Urban Research
http://arts.monash.edu.au/cpur/
Publications include People and Place, which presents information on migration patterns and related topics (past editions are free to download).

National Archives of Australia
http://www.naa.gov.au/
Extensive records and information services, including Making Australia Home – a service that provides migrants and their descendants with copies of records that document their family's arrival and settlement in Australia: http://www.naa.gov.au/collection/explore/migration/home.aspx

National Film and Sound Archive (formerly ScreenSound Australia)
https://www.nfsa.gov.au/
An extensive catalogue of films and videos is available online; many can be viewed at NFSA Offices or Access Centres. Education programs are also available, including Voices and Visions based on the film Mike and Stefani (as for ACMI listing above).

Newspapers

The Age
https://www.theage.com.au/

The Australian
https://www.theaustralian.com.au/

The Courier-Mail
https://www.couriermail.com.au/

Mercury
https://www.themercury.com.au/

The Sydney Morning Herald
https://www.smh.com.au/

The West Australian
https://thewest.com.au/

Origins: Immigrant Communities in Victoria
http://museumvictoria.com.au/origins/
An overview based on census data 1854–2006, with the immigration histories of 70 communities presented in English and community languages.

Parliament of Australia
https://www.aph.gov.au/
Includes current parliamentary committee reports on migration, related issues such as detention centres, Hansards and much more, including historical information.

Refugee Review Tribunal
www.rrt.gov.au
Database of published reports, together with information about the tribunal and its functions; includes a review of decisions made by the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (previously Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs - DIMA).

State Library of Victoria
https://www.slv.vic.gov.au/
A wide range of catalogues and databases online, providing access to digital images of Manuscripts and Pictures (photographs, prints and drawings).

See also:

National Library of Australia
https://www.nla.gov.au/

Northern Territory Library
https://ntl.nt.gov.au/

State Library of New South Wales
https://www.sl.nsw.gov.au/

State Library of Queensland
http://www.slq.qld.gov.au/

State Library of South Australia
http://www.slsa.sa.gov.au/

Libraries Tasmania
https://libraries.tas.gov.au/

State Library of Western Australia
http://slwa.wa.gov.au/

United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR)
www.unhcr.org
Up-to-date news, facts and statistics about refugees world-wide.

Victorian Railways
https://museumsvictoria.com.au/railways/
Includes a database of photographs with historic images of Sandridge, Railway and Station Piers.

Resources in Print

Coffey, B R (ed), Sunburnt Country: Stories of Australian Life, Fremantle Arts Press; ISBN 186368364X
A selection of autobiographical stories and short fiction about Australia and Australians of all ages, including some who made the journey to Australia.

Cole-Adams, J and Gauld, J, Australia's Changing Voice, Rigby Heinemann, 2003; ISBN 0 73123 430 8
Before European settlement, over 250 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages were spoken in Australia. Although many of these languages are extinct, a similar number of other languages from around the world are spoken here today. Includes examples of Australian colloquial language from various decades. Also: Our Voices multimedia series for primary students, exploring historical and contemporary issues in Australian life.

Lewis, Robert, Destination Australia: the Migrant Story Study guide, ScreenSound Australia, National Screen and Sound Archive. (Now National Film and Sound Archive)
The story of immigration to Australia – from 1901, when the Immigration Restriction Act was created with Federation, until the late 1970s and 'multiculturalism'.

Gleiztman, Morris. Boy Overboard, Puffin Australia 2002; ISBN 0141308389
Jamal and Bibi have a dream – to lead Australia to soccer glory in the next World Cup. But first they have to face landmines, pirates and storms as the family embarks on a journey, from Afghanistan.
Also: Girl Underground, Puffin Australia 2004; ISBN 0143300466
Bridget wants a quiet life, then a boy called Menzies makes her an offer she can't refuse – a daring plan to rescue two kids, Jamal and Bibi, from a desert detention centre.

Pung, Alice. Unpolished Gem, Black Ink Australia 2006; ISBN 186395158X
The arrival of the author's Cambodian-Chinese family in Melbourne in the 1970s, growing up in Footscray between two cultures, and the constant battle of balancing parents' expectations with one's own.

Connect with Museums Victoria

Subscribe to our newsletter

Receive the latest news about our exhibitions, special events, programs and offers.

Loading