Robert David Harrison

Ship name / Flight number: Orcades

Arrival date: 23/10/1959

I was born in Widnes, Lancashire, on 3 March 1942. I have four older brothers and no sisters. While younger siblings usually copy the older ones, this was reversed in our family on one important occasion, which changed the course of our lives.

My father was a bricklayer and my mother was a housewife who also ran a fish and chip shop. I went to the local secondary modern school and had an average education. When I left school at the age of 15 years, I was absolutely bewildered about what do to next. I eventually got a job in Harrogate, Yorkshire, working in a hotel as a page boy. I worked there for 12 months, but I knew there was no future in it. I was out for a walk one day when I passed a shop and saw an advertisement for the Big Brother Movement in the window. I decided it was worth taking a chance and applied to go to Australia. A couple of my work mates applied as well, but after our medical exams when it came time to leave, they pulled out and I was on my own. I knew I had to do something different, so I stuck to my plan and my parents took me to the station to catch the train to Tilbury Docks where I boarded the SS Orcades.

It was quite a journey! The BBM escort looked after us on the ship, and once we docked at ports in Australia, the Country Women’s Association met the ship and brought us meals. I struck up a friendship with Peter Keyes, another Little Brother, and we agreed to try and stick together. I arrived in Sydney on 29 October 1959 as a wide-eyed 17-year-old.

The BBM asked me if I wanted to work in the bush or the city. I chose the city as I had no experience with farming. I got a job straight away, working in a factory in Greenacre making fold-up plywood picnic tables. Once you got a job, you had to move out of the BBM hostel in Homebush, so I moved into a boarding house in Leichhardt, where I paid £5/week for full board. It wasn’t easy to get public transport to work, so I got a driver’s license and bought a motorbike. Eventually I got another job closer to home – working on the production line at the Big Sister Puddings factory.

I was writing to my family back home and praising Australia as the land of opportunity. Based on this, one of my older brothers, Robbie, decided to migrate to Australia too. He was a boilermaker and got a job at the BHP steel plant in Whyalla, South Australia. Robbie liked it there and said I should join him. I had nothing to lose, so I caught the train to Adelaide then Whyalla and started working at the BHP single men’s quarters, as a chef! I had 400 hungry men to feed. I had to learn fast, but I enjoyed it. Soon I was in charge of the catering.

In addition to the stimulating work, I also met my wife, Aina, through BHP.  She was working there as a data processor. We married in Whyalla in August 1965 and two of our children – Roger and Wendy – were born there.

Left: Bob and Aina (centre) with Bob’s parents Jack and Edith Harrison on the left and Aina’s parents Edina and Albert Dennis on the right.

I liked working as a chef, but wanted more experience, so I got a job at Bowen’s – a food store in Whyalla. They had a canteen, and I regularly had to feed 400 people. Whyalla was booming in the 1960s with the steel works and ship-building industry. The population was growing, partly due to my family! One by one, my four older brothers and then my parents decided to emigrate. If I hadn’t seen the advertisement in the shop window and come to Australia with the BBM, none of them would have come out. They all followed my lead.

In 1980 my family and I moved to Perth with Ronnie. Perth was the boom town now. I got work in a nursing home as a chef and then I got a job with Qantas, working at the airport as a cook. I stayed with them for 20 years. One of the perks of the job was cheap flights, so I took the kids to Disneyland and went back to Lancashire. This only confirmed that I made the right choice to come to Australia. Our four children still live in Perth and I also have three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

I took up long distance running in Perth. By running ten kilometres to work and the long way home after my shift, I incorporated training into my commute. I travelled around Australia to compete in marathons, often winning in my age category. In 1985, I won the marathons in Geraldton and Whyalla in the same week!

Left: Bob Harrison after completing a 10,000 metres race in 1983, talking to his daughter, Julie.

I often wonder how my life might have turned out if I hadn’t seen that advertisement for the BBM in the shop window and come out to Australia. I retired when I was 71 years old, and it was the worst thing I ever did. Coming to Australia in 1959 was the best thing I ever did.

Left: Bob Harrison holding his great-grandson Spencer, 2022.

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