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In the war years

The advance of the Japanese in early 1942 and Australia's inability to defend itself made it clear to the Curtin Government that something would have to be done in the post war years to increase the nation's population. 'Total War' and conscription put a huge strain on our economy and further emphasized the need to 'populate or perish'.

Before the war concluded, the Department of Information, headed by Arthur Calwell, began to develop a plan to populate Australia. Policies which included encouragement of natural growth were pursued by the government and in fact the birth rate had risen significantly during the war. However, natural increase was never likely to bring the sort of growth that was felt necessary to secure the country against the possibility of invasion.

Large scale immigration seemed to be the best answer. By late 1944 the Australian government had begun negotiations with Britain for assisted migration programs in the post war years. All political parties in Australia supported the White Australia Policy and looked only to Britain and north western European countries for migrants in the belief that people from these countries would more easily accept the Australian way of life. This was the government's vision at the end of the war. John Curtin did not live to see the plan put in place and he may well have been surprised by the eventual large scale migration program after the war.


PM Ben Chifley greets British migrants

PM Ben Chifley greets British migrants. Arthur Calwell is in middle background.

Courtesy National Archives of Australia

Quote from John Curtin
on immigration, 1945

Quote from Arthur Calwell
Government White Paper on Immigration, 1945


The post-war years

The first migrants to arrive in Western Australia after the war came on the 'Asturias' in September 1947. Britons nominated by industry and individuals, including child migrants and Polish Allied ex-servicemen were the first to arrive. In February 1948 they were joined by displaced persons from Europe. Most non-British migrants, however, arrived from 1952, the main source countries being Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and the former Yugoslavia.

The Commonwealth Department of Immigration, under the leadership of Arthur Calwell, handled all aspects of migrant selection, financial arrangements associated with bringing them to Australia, reception on arrival, temporary accommodation and placement in employment. There were four types of accommodation in both urban and country areas: transit camps, reception and training centres, holding centres and workers hostels.

Szedlak family arrive at Fremantle, 1950

The Szedlak family arriving at Fremantle on board the General Hersey, October 1950.
Courtesy Nonja Peters
From: Nonja Peters, Milk and Honey but no Gold: Postwar Migration to WA 1945-1964, Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2001.


Cottesloe did not have any sites suitable for migrant accommodation but the adjoining suburbs of Swanbourne and Graylands offered migrant facilities.

In May 1947 the Department of Immigration leased part of the army camp in Lantana Avenue in Graylands to house displaced persons from Europe. It became known as the Graylands Immigration Training and Reception Centre. The barracks were converted into dormitories with up to five families accommodated in each hut.

These nissan huts, were constructed of corrugated iron with bare timber flooring, no lining on the walls or ceilings and were unbearable in the extremes of hot and cold weather.

In addition to the accommodation huts, there were separate huts for a laundry, a canteen, a shower/toilet block, a kitchen and mess, an ironing area, a hygiene hut, a butcher's shop, a recreation area, a hospital, an outpatients centre plus a regimental aid post and guard hut. 350 people could be housed at Graylands but there was only a limited number of shower and laundry facilities.

Plan of Graylands Reception Centre

Plan of Graylands Reception Centre, Dept. Immigration.

Courtesy Nonja Peters
From: Nonja Peters, Milk and Honey but no Gold: Postwar Migration to WA 1945-1964, Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2001.


Graylands was in constant use as a holding, reception, training and staging centre for European assisted migrants until 1952.

A smaller camp was also set up at Swanbourne in 1947. The Swanbourne Centre was reasonably close to Graylands and was originally built in 1941 as a garrison battalion camp for wartime activities. Eventually the entire camp was taken over for migrant accommodation. Swanbourne functioned as a reception and training centre until 1949 when it was handed back to the army for national service training.

At training and reception centres like Graylands and Swanbourne, migrants were photographed and issued with an alien exemption certificate. This was followed by x-rays as part of the federal Government's fight against the spread of TB and they were provided with new clothing if any was required.

Antonius Berens at Graylands Reception Centre, 1949

Antonius Berens, newly arrived from the Netherlands, awaiting allotment to accommodation at Graylands, January 1949.

Courtesy Nonja Peters
From: Nonja Peters, Milk and Honey but no Gold: Postwar Migration to WA 1945-1964, Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2001.


Some English instruction was provided in things like weights and measurements, money, taxation and citizenship. Unemployment benefits were provided as was child endowment. The Commonwealth Employment Service also interviewed migrants to determine their job propects. Migrants stayed at the training and reception centres for about 4 weeks and were then transferred to a camp, such as the Holden Camp at Northam.

Life at the camps was very regimented. Migrants were provided with bedding which included grey army issue blankets, and were given a camp pass plus a set of camp rules. Meals were provided in a cafeteria style dining hall and they were expected to do most of the work in running the camp including cleaning duties. The dormitory huts were divided by hessian, grey army blankets or sisalkraft screens hung on wire, providing minimal privacy. Single males and females were housed in segregated dormitories.

Hungarian migrants at Top camp, Northam, c 1949

Hungarian migrants at Top camp, Northam, c 1949.

Courtesy Nonja Peters
From: Nonja Peters, Milk and Honey but no Gold: Postwar Migration to WA 1945-1964, Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2001.


Living conditions were generally of a low standard with poor cleanliness which was typified by the communal washing up often being done in dirty greasy water. Water supplies were at times inadequate and sometimes were cut off to camp during the heat of the day. The food featured a lot of mutton and rabbit, potatoes and other vegetables, sweets, fruit, tea, jam and sugar. Some migrants found the smell of food cooked in dripping nauseating, others were just glad to have lots of food.

The mixture of cultures amongst migrants brought some dissension particularly amongst people who had been enemies only a short time before. Mass and other religious services were provided in camp by visiting priests and pastors. They presided over baptisms, funerals and marriages. Local organisations such as church clubs, the RSL, the Junior Red Cross, Rotary and Parents & Citizen groups organised various social functions to help foster assimilation. These activities provided an opportunity for migrants to meet Australians and to experience the local customs. Cottesloe residents had little opportunity to contribute to these sorts of activities unless they were visiting migrants in the training and reception centres.

The post war migration program was to prove to be a very important factor in the social development of Australia but for many migrants the camps were a tough introduction to their new life.

English language class, Swanbourne Reception Centre, 1949

English language class for migrants at the Swanbourne Reception Centre, July 1949

Courtesy Nonja Peters
From: Nonja Peters, Milk and Honey but no Gold: Postwar Migration to WA 1945-1964, Perth: University of Western Australia Press, 2001.

Migration to Australia

Assisted Migrants
Unassisted Migrants
28 943
86 870
115 723
118 840
114 295
233 135
119 109
131 295
250 404
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