Ship name / Flight number: Orion
Arrival date: 02/09/1958
– Len Waugh –
In a sombre mood, made more subdued by the gloomy English weather, I bought a copy of the Daily Express during a lunchtime stroll and sat on a public bench to read it. A small advertisement jumped out of the pages – people were invited to ‘come to the sunshine in Australia – for only £10’. It seemed too good to be true. In March 1958, aged seventeen and a half, a serendipitous moment changed my life. I was working in the Victoria Street branch of the Westminster Bank, in London, close to Victoria Station. It was my first job and far from enjoyable. I was two months into the six months’ probation period and, because of my dislike of the work, I was unlikely to continue.
That afternoon, full of optimism, I went to Australia House in the Strand, showed the notice to the friendly man at the main desk and asked how I might go to Australia under this scheme. He told me that, unfortunately, the scheme applied only to people aged eighteen and over. My optimism evaporated; for it was six months to my eighteenth birthday – an eternity – and I turned to leave the building.
At that point, the information clerk urged me to go to the Big Brother Movement office on a higher; they sponsored boys under the age of eighteen years. My optimism returned – I took the lift to their office, was welcomed and told that I might be eligible to migrate. However, it required parental approval, as the BBM would become my legal guardian until I was twenty-one if I was accepted into the scheme. There were further inducements: if I completed the application form quickly, I could make the April voyage; the cost was only £5, not the usual £10; but I would need to interviewed with my mother before acceptance.
I headed home, fantasising about life in Australia. And all I had to do was gain my mother’s signature on the application form and it was virtually done.
That night I presented the forms to my mother and asked her to sign so that we could have an interview and I’d be away. My mother was clearly pained by this request, was reluctant to sign and thought that I was slightly deranged. In hindsight, she was justified – my father had died less than two years before; my sister married soon afterwards and moved with her teacher husband to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe; she saw her household would soon be just one person and both children overseas.
Nonetheless, I pressed repeatedly. Mother realised that to refuse would cause lasting resentment and, after several days, signed. I rushed the forms to Australia House. The April voyage was now impossible, but my mother accompanied me to an interview. I was accepted and would migrate in late June.
That left several weeks to prepare, which proved to be fortunate as I could watch the World Cup broadcast from Sweden on television, enjoy time with a girlfriend and dream of a future life in Australia.
28 June arrived. My mother was resigned to my departure and thought that, at forty-three years of age, she had years to create a new life. She accompanied me to Waterloo Station, where all Little Brothers were due to take the train to Tilbury. At Waterloo she told me she wouldn’t travel any further, a relief for both of us.
LBs assembled at the station and were met by Mr Cliff Skinner, the group’s escort for the voyage to Sydney. He was nearly thirty years of age, very likeable and easy going. The group atmosphere, itself, raised my level of excitement and it was obvious that others were also excited. For some, this was tempered by the farewells.
Finally, the signal came to board the train; we piled into the carriages and the train pulled away. There were poignant scenes as family members waved to their departing LBs – a sister of one of the boys ran down the platform after the train as fast as she could and only gave up as the train left the end of the platform. It reflected true devotion, and sadness, as her brother left for a new world. I can no longer recall the train journey, only the LBs milling around at Tilbury docks.
After documents were checked, we boarded the SS Orion. That ship contained a world of wealth and privilege – thick pile carpets, braided curtains, golden stair rails. I’d never experienced such opulence, but I loved it. It was all part of the adventure.
Four of us shared a cabin – I was with Chris Watts, Bill Steptoe and John Walker. By good fortune I had a top bunk and, after unpacking our cases, we went on deck.
The ship’s siren told us we were about to leave. Friends and family members of some of the LBs stood there waving; a few stayed until the ship was almost beyond sight. Then we adjourned to cabins awaiting the call for dinner. When it came, we were shown to tables and the steward took orders for meals that many of us had never tasted or seen before. During those first two or three days we absorbed shipboard life, most of us hardly believing our luck. And there was athletic activity on the top deck each morning, organised by Mr Skinner.
For a bunch of lower-middle class scruffs, during the 1950s, visits to other countries were a dream, open only to the elites. For the whole voyage, and for many years in Australia, I never lost the sense of being on a wonderful adventure.
We traversed the Bay of Biscay, with its notorious reputation, but it was mostly calm. At Navarino, to our great delight, a few hundred young Greek girls boarded. I had learned a little Greek at school, but I certainly brushed up during the rest of the voyage. Then, on to Aden, Port Said, Colombo, the southern coast of Australia and finally, Sydney. I was mesmerised as we rounded the Heads into Sydney Harbour and there was the Harbour Bridge. The dream was now reality.
I watched our progress down the harbour with Chris Watts, who was returning to Australia and had lived in Dee Why with his family some years before. As we approached the Bridge, it looked as if we would collide, but Chris had seen this previously and assured me that we would pass through unscathed. He was right.
We pulled into Pyrmont wharf and prepared to disembark; still excited but sad to leave the vessel that had been home for six weeks. A television news crew filmed us on deck before we trod the gangway and piled onto a bus that took us to the BBM offices in O’Connell Place. George Street, which had an American feel, was impressive, as was the glorious, sunny weather. Even though it was Winter, it was nothing like the dreary Summer weather we had left in England.
At the BBM offices, Frank Mansell addressed us all and then another staff member, a nice man who seemed very old, spoke to us all about the Little Brothers who had left without even a thank you; this was frowned upon.
Then we travelled to the BBM hostel at Homebush, unpacked and settled into the dormitories. Our suitcases were locked in a cupboard under the stairs. That evening I chatted with Bill Steptoe and spoke of our good fortune to be in Australia. I was astonished when Bill lamented that, if he were in London, he’d be heading to the pub with his mates – he missed that. I never missed England for a second.
Shortly after, the LBs who were destined to go to rural properties left for a farm hostel. At about that time, a few of us wandered into a shopping centre and chatted with some men outside a pub. They’d seen us on the television news – we felt like celebrities.
I recall little about Homebush, but the married couple in charge were friendly. A week later, BBM arranged for me to have a job interview with the Bank of New South Wales. It was a very friendly time and I was to begin work at the Auburn Branch on Thursday, 14 August 1958.
The hostel people urged us to travel somewhere every Saturday afternoon. David Wade and I took train trips into Wynyard and, the day after arriving, we walked over the Harbour Bridge. Sometimes we visited the Domain where an assortment of speakers, serious or eccentric, would harangue audiences from their soapboxes and were often heckled themselves – great fun. BBM arranged other outings which were all designed to welcome us.
At the bank branch in Auburn, I was pleasantly surprised by the egalitarian views, unlike the stuffed-shirt culture of British banks. The Manager, George Rea, was not treated as a god, and the accountant, ‘Jock’ Shade, was very down to earth. I quickly settled into a regime of catching a train from Homebush to Auburn, returning to the hostel for dinner and sleep.
Despite the comfortable life of the hostel, the boarding school-like strictures, particularly having to spend weekend afternoons away from the hostel, were difficult. Bill Steptoe, David wade and I decided to ‘escape’ and move to a flat in Ashfield. It was a thoughtless and immature decision – none of us had looked after ourselves. Fortunately, the French landlady at the flat was kindness itself.
The next morning, at work, Mr Shade called me over and told me to go to the BBM office as Frank Mansell was very angry that we had absconded. When I saw Mr Mansell he demanded our address. Feeling bold, I declined – his threat to bang my head against the wall changed my mind.
Fending for ourselves in Ashfield proved challenging and David found a place at Wollstonecraft that provided full board for £4 a week. Bill Steptoe remained at the flat, though he left soon afterwards. The house in Wollstonecraft was very large and had eight boarders. The landlady, Mrs Windred, was aged about eighty. Her breakfasts were invariably porridge, though the dinner menu was varied. David and I shared a room until he left.
When the Bank learned that I had moved, it sent me to relieve at branches on the North Shore which meant less travel. The first was Roseville and, later, Lane Cove, Hornsby, Epping, Beecroft, Lindfield, Gordon and North Sydney. The period at Lane Cove branch was pivotal for me. The manager, Doug Phelps, was a short, but slightly intimidating, man, who had the accountant, Campbell Riley in a permanent state of fear. When Phelps wanted Campbell, who was at the other end of the office, he simply yelled out and the accountant responded. But Mr Phelps always treated me genially. In a memorable conversation, I asked if it was possible to be transferred to a rural division, that is, the Bush. I mistakenly believed that the lure of the bush was strong in all Aussies. I found later that staff in country branches were keen to transfer to the city. Phelps promised to help me. I left Lane Cove for the Hornsby branch and never spoke to Phelps again.
In July 1959, while working at North Sydney, I was told that I would be transferred to the Rylstone branch – the Bush. I was delighted and could hardly wait. That was the first of many country towns – Rylstone, Trundle, Canberra, Orange, Temora, Wentworth, Corrimal, Leeton, Dapto, Bega and Grenfell. For all that time, I felt I was holidaying on full pay – it was a wonderful, unending adventure,
From the day of arrival, I’ve felt so fortunate to live in Australia – to enjoy its vastness, security and beauty. That only happened because, on that day in London, I spotted the advertisement about migration. Chance conversations with bank managers introduced me to country life and changed me forever. Later, a conversation with the Grenfell Branch manager’s wife, a former teacher, encouraged her husband to seek a return for me to the Big Smoke to pursue a degree.
Soon after my return to Sydney, I wrote to Frank Mansell, expressed regret that I absconded from the Homebush hostel and hoped that a new relationship could be formed. Frank replied cautiously and thanked me for resuming contact.
Life in Australia, during a long career in the Australian Public Service, took me to live in Sydney, Canberra, Darwin, Alice Springs and back to Canberra. It’s all been surreal, even when my wife, two young children and I survived Cyclone Tracy on Christmas Eve 1974. Our house, which was on stilts, was obliterated and we exited it, as the bathroom floor collapsed, crammed into the bathtub, and flew metres through the air into the garden. We stayed there for hours in the wind and rain. None of us were badly injured, though the trauma has remained.
Nonetheless, I wouldn’t change a thing and will always be grateful to BBM for bringing me to this place that I love.
*Len Waugh is in the middle of the group at the front, with a crewcut
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