Snakes in the laundry... and other horrors

Media release: Thursday, 29 May 2014

Snakes in the laundry, dreary meals of mutton and a British reluctance to shower are just some of the memories post-war immigrants have shared in A Place to Call Home? Migrant hostel memories – now on show at the National Archives of Australia.

'While this latest exhibition is based around photographs held in our collection, it is these human recollections, both good and bad, that bring it to life,' said National Archives curator Amy Lay.

'People recalled the tastes, the sights and smells (including the 'rotten' scent of mangoes) which, on our companion website Destination: Australia, evoked memories and strong responses from other immigrants.

'Such memories, with their depth of personal emotion and culture shock, give us an insight into what it meant to cross the world in hope of a new life.'

One woman, 14 when she left England, recalls her mother 'crying and shaking' as they boarded the ship, leaving their extended family sobbing on the wharf. They had little hope of seeing each other again. As the family waited in Brisbane for 'processing', her mother murmured 'Whatever have we done, John?', later describing the migrant camp as 'this hellhole'.

At the end of World War II the Australian Government believed the nation needed a larger population if it was to survive and grow. As well as welcoming displaced persons, it launched a major campaign to entice other immigrants to Australia.

'With hundreds of thousands of new arrivals, housing was at a premium,' said Amy Lay. 'Former army and air force camps were converted into hostels to provide temporary accommodation while immigrants found homes and jobs. The images were taken by government photographers and used to promote Australia overseas as an ideal destination.'

More than 7.5 million immigrants have arrived in Australia since World War II. While some returned to their country of origin, the vast majority have chosen to remain, enriching the nation's cultural diversity. Today about 46 per cent of Australians were either born overseas or have at least one parent who was.

A Place to Call Home? Migrant hostel memories is on at the National Archives of Australia, Queen Victoria Terrace, Parkes ACT until 14 September 2014.

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