Martin James Harrison
Ship name / Flight number: Australis
Arrival date: 13/01/1966
In 1963, when I was on the cusp of leaving school at the age of 14, my future life in Nottingham looked grim. Mum had already put my name on the waiting list for a council house so that I’d have somewhere to live when I got married and started a family. I didn’t want a life that consisted of getting a girl pregnant, a forced marriage, and a council house. I wanted adventure!
In our final weeks at school, we were encouraged to write to various industries to gain workplace visits and as an introduction into the workplaces that we were expected to enter. There was Raleigh cycle works, Player’s Cigarettes, Cussons soap (where I discovered I had an allergy to soap), Ericsson Telephones, Boots Pharmacies and, of course, the Nottingham coal mines.
I remember asking Mr Millwood, a young history teacher at my school, “how do you become a teacher?” His reply: “you have to go to university so it won’t be for you.” I understood that university wasn’t for working class people like us.
I went to work at Ericsson’s Telephones in Beeston, Nottingham. My Dad, brothers, uncles and aunts all worked at Ericsson’s so it was like family. That’s where I met Len Browne who had been in the Royal Navy for nine years, and told tales of exotic places like Aden and Athens. That sounded like an adventure, so I applied to join the Merchant Navy (Len said it would be better than the Royal Navy). Luckily for me, at the tender age of 16, they rejected me as being too old! This led my friend Julian and I to apply to immigrate to Australia. We travelled to Birmingham for our interviews and were asked if, in Australia, we wanted to work in the country or the city. We were shown pictures of happy lads in wheat fields chasing cows, but Julian and I chose the city. A week later we heard we had been accepted under the auspices of the Big Brother Movement as suitable immigrants, since we were both British and under 18 years of age (the cut off age then).
I remember waving goodbye to my parents on Nottingham Midland Station. I was totally unaware of how they must have felt as I left for the other side of the world, so wrapped up was I in the excitement and enormity of the venture. I was so glad to be getting out of Nottingham and going to the life of adventure that I saw before me.
On the train to Southampton, I met another BBM candidate who was carrying a guitar: Allan Pearson. As it turned out, I was to share a cabin with Allan, who was from Oldham, and Frank Highton, from Wigan, along with my Nottingham mate, Julian. All four of us subsequently became friends and “New Chums”; as Pommy migrants were known in Australia.
What a sight greeted me at Southampton! The train pulled up next to an enormous ship whose name, the “AUSTRALIS”, was lit up boldly on the side among the other lights. I had never seen anything like it. It was like a massive fairground attraction.
From left: Martin, Chris and Frank. Somewhere between Greece and the Red Sea
I remember being shown to our cabin. We were lucky enough to have been allocated a cabin with a porthole fairly high up on C deck and on the outside. Other ‘Little Brothers’ (as we were called) were not so lucky, they were on D Deck and allocated a cabin that had no natural light and the constant thump of the engines and creaking of pipes.
What an experience. What an awakening. Everything was exciting. For a kid from Nottingham who had never stayed in a hotel in his life, and the only restaurant he had been in was a fish and chip place in Skegness with Mum and Dad, suddenly I was in a very adult world.
Going on deck that first night at sea, heading into a gale, blew us off our feet. Even seasickness crossing the Bay of Biscay didn’t dampen my enthusiasm. I couldn’t contain my excitement at the wonders before me. Dinner served at a table in what I thought was the swankiest place. Wine glasses, a menu and for free!! It was beyond anything I knew of.
The first port of call was Athens and we had our first shore visit. Our ‘concierge’ was Doc. Pattern, an Aussie guy from Western Australia, who led us to the Acropolis and the other sites. I stared in wonder at trees lining the streets with orange balls hanging on their branches. I had never seen an orange tree before.
The next port of call was Port Said. It was something else. Grappling hooks thrown, ropes and traders were suddenly everywhere on the aft deck selling everything from killer knives to sapphire ear rings and parts of King Tutankhamen’s mummy. We were expected to ‘bargain’, something I had never heard of, let alone done before.
After sailing through the Suez Canal and the Red Sea, we started the long haul across the Indian Ocean to West Australia. We crossed the line (The Equator) sometime between my 18th Birthday on 26 December and New Year’s Day. I remember the crossing the line ceremony being around the swimming pool. Someone dressed up as King Neptune with his trident and seaweed necklace and we all got sunburnt, some so badly that they needed medical treatment.
To keep us amused and help pass the time on the voyage, we were encouraged to dress up and perform short skits. We dressed as Arabian Nights as we sailed on the Red Sea and sailors for the New Year’s Eve show.
*Arabian Knights Night Show on the Australia in 1966
*New Years Eve 1966. We were given Australis labelled sailor’s hats and T- Shirts and were part of the New Year Show. John Entwhistle 2 L, Julian Ward 4 L, Martin Harrison 5 L, Frank Highton 3 from R, Allan Pearson 2 R
When we arrived in Fremantle, Western Australia, I remember that we were given a special menu and meal to celebrate our arrival in Australia. There were nine courses or condiments which followed the nine letters and spelt out the name of the ship. Here it is in both Greek and English. The Surprise ice-cream was phenomenal: the lights were lowered and the waiters paraded out of the kitchen carrying a tray of flaming ice cream to serve at our tables.
I arrived in Sydney on 13 January 1966. The Australis docked at Circular Quay in the early, misty morning. I missed the experience of sailing through the heads and down Sydney Harbour as I was getting ready to disembark. Doc had made it clear the previous night that we should be dressed in our finest, and that anyone who bought a knife or any plant-based goods en route should throw them overboard as Australian customs were very rigorous, and carrying weapons could result in jail time. When I made it onto the deck, the Australis was tied up and I could see the Harbour Bridge towering through the mist and drizzling rain. I was taken aback. “Did we come under that?”, I asked. I thought the Sydney Harbour Bridge was over the entrance to Sydney Harbour. I couldn’t quite get my head around how we could be in Sydney without passing under it.
Our party of Little Brothers was herded into the vast customs hall of Circular Quay and we were shepherded through customs and immigration. We were given our promised 10 Australian pounds from the Australian Government to welcome us as young migrants, and to see us on our way in Australia.
We were then split up into two groups: those who had chosen the country life, and those who preferred the city life. We said goodbye to Doc Pattern and us city life volunteers were taken to the BBM hostel in Burwood to say hello to Mr Hickey.
The BBM hostel was a three or four bedroom suburban house which had four single beds in each bedroom. Mr Hickey was the overseer and laid down the rules in no uncertain terms. “You will make your bed every morning. You will help make breakfast and wash up. You will be out of here by 9 am and not return until 5pm. You will not go into the pub (which was almost next door on the corner of Burwood Road and the Hume Highway), and you will wear ‘sockets’ whilst in the house which you will purchase for x shillings.” We had absolutely no idea what sockets were. Frank asked, in all innocence: “Are they A/C or D/C?” Hickey rolled his eyes. We found out that he was talking about socks – no shoes were to be worn in the house. We lads were English and the thought of walking around a house without shoes on was incomprehensible.
There were two other lads from the previous group still in residence and they told us of the pressure to move out. As I recall it, a group of British lads, just like us, arrived every two weeks at the house, so you had two weeks to get your shit together and get out into Australia to make way for the next arrivals.
14th January dawned sunny and hot and we had no idea where we were but had to leave by 9am and not return until 5pm. Mr Hickey told us that the Burwood train station was about half a mile down the road and was the only way to get to the city. That’s where the four of us ‘cabin mates’ went: Joe, Allan, Frank, and myself. I can still smell those old red rattler trains, the body odour of the sweaty passengers and the mustiness of Burwood and Town Hall stations. It was 29°C, hot and humid, no air-conditioning back then. We English kids were dressed in suits and sport jackets. What to do from 9am to 5pm? I remember there was a park, somewhere on Burwood Road between the station and the Hume Highway, that had large palm trees and some grass and long beaked Ibis birds, where we would gather until we were allowed back into the hostel at 5pm.
Dinner was served in a café nearby and Mr Hickey gave as a voucher to use. The food, as I recall, was basic English: mashed potato peas and maybe a lamb chop, followed by dessert. It was adequate and nourishing but nothing like what we were served on the Australis. Reality had well and truly hit. Yes, it was Pommy food, but never ran to any fish or chips.
After a couple of days of exploring the city, or just hanging out in Burwood Park, we were required to go to the Macquarie Place offices of the BBM for an interview with the BBM Employment Officer. He listened to my English employment history which was: worked at Ericsson Telephones on a production line, and then as a door-to-door salesman for Betterware.
My sales background did not impress the BBM Employment Officer. He looked me dead in the eye and said: “Son, you need a proper job. The Post Master General’s Department will suit your experience. You will report to Mr Algae Watson, Metropolitan Installation Number one, next Monday at 7.30am at the North Sydney Telephone Exchange. This is the address.” My Australian Government service record lists this date as being 19th January 1966. I had no idea that 36 years later, my lifelong pension and financial security for the rest of my life, would be tied to this date and to the advice and knowledge of that BBM Employment Officer.
Looking around my new workplace, I noticed items of telephone exchange equipment stacked in the loading dock. On closer inspection, I saw they had my signature (and that of Len Browne) on the labels of the relay sets mounted on the equipment. How uncanny is that? It was the very same equipment I had a hand in assembling as a 16 year old in Beeston, Nottingham. When I pointed this out to my new boss, he looked at me in disbelief at first, and then said: “Son, you’re going to be alright here”.
I trained on the job to be an assistant technician. I terminated and soldered thousands of wires to contact points over the next ten years. My work partner was John Marzak, a Ukrainian who had a sideline in recycling from the tip. I bought a Sunbeam electric frypan from him in 1968 for $2 when I was setting up a flat of my own. I am still using it in 2022 and I will leave it to my children in my will.
I knew I had to move out of the BBM hostel in Burwood and so I looked in the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper classifieds for alternative accommodation. A boarding house on Ocean Street, Woollahra took my fancy. I was making my way to Burwood Station with my two suitcases and guitar when a car came from behind and pulled up beside me. Out jumped Hickey, the BBM hostel manager who thundered: “Where do you think you’re going?!” When I told him I was moving out, as I was supposed to, he said: “Not until you pay for your board”. And with that, he put my suitcases in the boot of his six-cylinder Valiant and drove me back to the hostel to pay up.
My cabin mates from the Australis, Julien, Allen and Frank, followed me to Woollahra. The room all four of us shared was hardly fit for habitation. Frank, in particular, suffered what we thought were mosquito bites, but now know to be bedbug bites. We bought bread, butter and jam to supplement the awful meals served up. It was February 1966 and exceedingly hot. We left the windows open to catch a breeze. On several mornings, we were perturbed to find paw prints in the butter (there was no fridge in our room). Was it a rat? Were there monkeys in the palm trees outside our windows? Were there even monkeys in Australia? It turned out to be a possum helping himself to our provisions. This was our first encounter with Australian wildlife.
We decided that the Woollahra boarding house was worse than the council estates in Nottingham, so after perusing the classifieds again, ‘team Australis’ decided that Glebe was the suburb for us. This was based on the fact that it looked close to the city on a map, and that would bring us close to the action. We moved to a block of flats in Glebe Point Road called “Mayfair”, which sounded auspicious (Mayfair is an expensive suburb in London). It was “Mayfair” in name only. You had to light an Ascot heater to get any hot water. We repainted the place and Allan painted a tropical Island with a palm tree on his bedroom wall to brighten it up. The whole place was best described as dingy. In 2022, Glebe is a very desirable address.
In 1966, the Vietnam War was heating up. Even though we were immigrants, that did not exempt us from National Service. Allan and myself were lucky enough not to have our birthdate’s drawn out of the bi-annual ballot, but Frank and Julien were not. Julian elected to return to the UK, rather than kill people, but Frank took the option of serving his two years in a non-combat role.
I continued helping Australia to upgrade its telephone network. Once the repetitive work of running cables, soldering wires and testing equipment was completed around the North Sydney Exchange, I was sent to St Leonards Telephone Exchange to do the same thing. From there, I was sent to Mosman. My employment was defined by the Post Master General’s Department (PMG) as ‘itinerate’ and ‘exempt’. This meant they could send me to work in any telephone exchange in the Sydney Metropolitan area in the northern division, and that I was exempt from the Commonwealth Superannuation Scheme. To gain access to the Super Scheme you had to gain permanent employment, which required passing exams. I did this within two years of being employed. I am indebted to some of the guys I worked with who helped me, including Graham Healy, who would later be my best man at my wedding. We still socialise together 55 years later.
When my brother died tragically in 1972 (he was only 35 years old), I was lucky to be granted six months special leave from PMG and went back to England to see my family. When I came back to Sydney, I shared a flat in Lavender Bay with three young women and through them I met Diane, a Canadian who became my wife. We married in 1975 and had two children – Emma and William – and two grandchildren. Even though we have been divorced for over 20 years and I have a new partner, we still keep in touch.
My immigration through the BBM has made my life so much better, and I am eternally grateful to the BBM. The opportunities Australia presented have been so much more than would have been available to me in the UK. No regrets from me.
Player’s Cigarettes https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Player_%26_Sons
Ericsson Telephones https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ericsson_Telephones
SS Australis http://ssaustralis.com/ss-america-1936/ss-australis-1964-1977/
Post Master General’s Department https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Postmaster-General%27s_Department
Conscription Vietnam birthday ballot https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/vietnam-war-1962-1975/events/conscription/birthday-ballot
* Martin and Anne Harrison – Shell Harbour Village, 2020Contact Little Brother