Ship name / Flight number: Asturias
Arrival date: 13/03/1950
My name is Ronald Graham Spencer. I was born in Portsmouth, Hampshire UK on 27th May 1933. We were a family of 9, Mum, Dad and 7 of us kids. My sister, Joyce, unfortunately died before I was born so I only knew 5 of my siblings.
I was close to my dad, had similar features and the same hair. Unfortunately, my mum and dad separated leaving my mum alone to raise 6 children during the war all whilst suffering poor health. It upset me a lot when dad left. Things certainly got a lot harder for my mum and us kids after that but we survived. My mum never let us go without food and clothing and each year for birthdays and Christmas she would manage to get us a toy each because she felt as though children should have a toy on these special occasions. I remember storing bacon in the fireplace during summer as we didn’t have a refrigerator, the draft would keep it cool. There was no food wastage either. If the bacon was green my mum would wash it under the warm water to get the slime off it and cook it up. We would have a Sunday roast and had a fry up, which some may call bubble and squeak, with the left overs for dinner the next night. I loved it. We used to have duck eggs instead of chicken eggs or powdered eggs from America. On some occasions the butchers would get the word out that they were selling horse meat but my mum never bought any saying she would never subject us to horse meat no matter how bad things got. I loved my mum, still do, and find it admirable all that she did raising us during such hard times.
In 1948 my sister Phyllis became sick and died from TB. This was very upsetting for me and the rest of the family. In those days they used to leave the coffin in the front room to “Lay in State” and every time I saw it, I would be overcome with emotion. I remember at night going down to get a glass of water and looking down the passage way and seeing my sisters coffin and getting shivers down my spine and feeling spooked. Everyone in the family seemed checked out and negative after Phyllis’ death. I joined the Royal Marine Cadets for 12-18 months. I left school the day I turned 15 and became an apprentice at a co-op grocery, it was a fairly lousy job. One day my mum and I were having an argument and I said “one day I’m going to run away to Australia” and she replied “Good, why don’t you then”. There was an ad in that day’s paper so I applied to the Big Brother Movement and so began a new start for me.
At this stage I was underweight for my height and age so I was put onto a weight gaining diet of cod liver oil, molasses and other various things and I went from 6 stone (38 Kgs) up to 7 stone (44 Kgs). Then went onto the medical exam. The Dr didn’t seem to mind my left arm being the way it was and he passed me for the medical. I then had to pass various tests. I had to be able to clean a house, darn my own socks, sew buttons on and cook a roast dinner which I passed them all.
The next step I hit a snag. My mum was able to verify the above but she wasn’t allowed to give permission for me to travel to Australia. My dad was required to give his permission for me to go so I had to write him a letter and send the paperwork for him to sign. He did that plus he sent me money to buy clothes, the 10 pounds required for the voyage and money to spend on the way. Plus, he sent 3 pounds to be placed in an Australian bank. I was very grateful for this; it was a lot of money for us in those days. He also said that if after 2 years in Australia I wanted to come home that he would pay for me to come back to the UK.
The final days arrived. Mum received a letter from the Big Brother Movement to say she was to bring me to Australia House in London to meet the other boys, however, mum could not afford to go to London so we received permission to go to Southampton to board there. On the 6th February 1950 we all travelled up to Southampton Docks, said our goodbyes and I boarded the SS Asturias and set sail. My sister later told me that my mum cried on the way home from seeing me off.
A new life had started for me. Aged 16, still very thin. Look out Australia, I am coming!
I went to bed that night, woke up the next morning feeling fine until I put 2 feet on the floor and the next 3 days, I was violently sea sick. After 3 days I staggered up to the canteen and bought a bag of plain sweet biscuits and was ok after that. The boys who made fun of the ones who were sick on the first few days were warned by a crew member that they would have their turn and sure enough each of them had their go at being sea sick.
For the rest of the voyage, it was a very exciting moment in time. In my preparation, I had been filled will lots of things like warnings about Aboriginal people walking around with spears and kangaroos hopping up and down the streets. Actually, I never saw any Aboriginal people or kangaroos for about 5 or 6 years. We stopped at Malta to pick up more migrants and we were warned to stay away from the girls because they look sweet and innocent but will likely stab you and rob you. We also stopped at Colombo, now called Sri Lanka, and had a swim in the harbour there. The next day we saw a great white shark hanging on a hook on the docks. We asked where they caught it and they pointed to where we were swimming the day earlier. Needless to say, we did not go swimming there again. We all ended up with ear infections from swimming in the water from the pollution.
The ship arrived in Australia at Fremantle. The first thing we saw of Australia were rusted old rooves and broken-down buildings and we each seemed disappointed and thought what sort of place is Australia. But that was the only disappointing part of Western Australia, the rest was beautiful beaches and wonderful sights. The CWA ladies sent a bus to take us up to Perth for a look around and swim. Then took us back to the CWA hall for a beautiful feed. This was very overwhelming for me coming from the war-stricken UK living on rations to seeing tables full of food, kinds I hadn’t even seen or heard of before. We really demolished that feed.
Back on the boat, we departed Western Australia and went on to Adelaide, South Australia. For some reason we weren’t allowed to land there so we went on to Melbourne. When we got there it was raining cats and dogs. I couldn’t help but think the adverts to see sunny Australia were false. We were met by the CWA ladies again then were taken out for dinner and to see “The Taming of the Shrew”. The utter kindness and attitudes from the CWA in Western Australia and Melbourne left an overwhelming impression on us.
We then went on to Sydney, which was absolutely pouring down with rain again, and were transported to Kensington House. Then we arrived and stopped at the Big Brother Movement War Memorial Training Farm “Karmsley Hills”, now known as Calmsley Hills City Farm. I must admit that due to my age my memories have somewhat dimmed. I remember walking around the hills and countryside. I remember playing chasey around the deck of the farmhouse, not seeing the glass doors and running straight through the glass, shattering it to pieces. Whilst I don’t remember much of my time there it was a good experience and learning time.
After the training farm I went on to Wagga Wagga, NSW, to work on a dairy farm. After a few months of working long hours, being excluded from being able to eat with anyone and being treated like a slave I got in touch with the man who originally hired me. He had retired before I got to Wagga. I told him that I wanted to work on the sheep station. He was hesitant because of my arm so I told him that the last few months I had milked cows by hand, handled pigs, lifted bales of hay and felt as though I could manage well on the sheep station. He agreed and knew someone who owned a sheep station 17 miles (27 Kms) outside of Wagga. So, for about 2 and a half years that was my occupation. I enjoyed the work, but the treatment I received by the owners was something else. I had to eat in a little room alone and I had to sleep in the shearers hut 500 metres away, there was no air conditioning or fan in summer so it would feel like an oven. There was one time I was sick and didn’t show up to work and they didn’t check on me for 3 days. The only time I was allowed in the homestead was on Christmas day for lunch. The other station hand would share evenings with me. I became very home sick. Eventually I moved in to Wagga, made a friend and in Nov. 1952 I became a baptised believer for my Lord Jesus Christ.
In 1954 I moved to Shepparton in Vic and got a permanent job at Shepparton Cannery. It became home and I played soccer for 2 seasons and went to the Shepparton Church of Christ. They had a very big youth group there which was really good. I had become very home sick and decided to write to my dad and ask him if I could come home, he never received that letter. I found out many years later than my father had also hired a private detective to find me but they couldn’t. I do wonder if the detective took off with his money as there was no reason for them not to find me. I believe God had a plan for me here.
During 1955-1956 Christmas and New Year, I went up to Cheshunt for a senior youth camp. I met a lot of new people there, including my future wife, although I didn’t know it at the time. There were a large number from Albury church there and their pastor asked me if I ever thought of moving to Albury to work and live. I said to him if he could find me a career job, I would. On 1st May 1956 I received a phone call from the pastor asking if I could start work on 10th May. That was the start of 31 years in Public Service and the start of a new life.
I became friendly with the Beach family. I had met their eldest daughter, Veronica, at the camp in Cheshunt. We became very good friends and went to Christian endeavour rallies together and we used to walk home together just talking. It was so natural and comfortable and, of course, love blossomed. I had also become friends with an Aboriginal man named Keith. He also fancied Veronica. I rang him up one day and said “Veronica and I are going together, is that ok with you?” and he said yes, he was happy for us. He ended up being best man at our wedding.
One day Veronica and I were walking together and I said oh so romantically said “if in a years’ time we are still going together then let’s get married” to which she replied yes. I asked for her father’s permission to marry her and he gave me his blessing. We announced our engagement in early 1958 at the Cheshunt camp reunion and were married on 3rd of January 1959. Next January we will celebrate our 64th wedding anniversary. We have been blessed with 4 children (2 daughters and 2 sons), 8 Grandchildren and 9 Great Grandchildren, so far. Veronica and I were married at the Albury Church of Christ, had the reception in the church hall, all of our children were baptised in the church and Veronica and I still worship there today. I was a deacon, elder and treasurer for 23 years there too.
I also worked as a clerk for 4 years at Bandiana Raeme Army Base, then transferred to a Commonwealth Health Laboratory as a clerk for 4 years. I used to help out with the technical side when things were quiet in the office. One day the pathologist in charge came in and said “Ron, I’d like you to apply for a position in the technical lab”, so I did and won the application because my boss highly recommended me. Of course, the salary was a lot higher which was a bonus. So, for 27 years I worked in the Laboratory, passed 2 internal exams and eventually became Technical Officer 2. This was incredible from an educational position; I left school at 15 and was no good at maths or science. I didn’t go to university yet I was doing a job that, in these days, you would need a degree for. I even ended up training post graduates in Laboratory work. They even sent me down to RMIT in Melbourne with post graduates to do advanced training in the work I was already proficient in.
In 1973 friends of ours went over to England for a holiday and called in to see my mum while they were over there. They suggested to her to come to Australia and visit us. She felt as though she was too old for that but they replied that they were older than she was and so she wrote us a letter and said “I don’t want you to get too excited but I might come over and visit you next year”. So, in March 1974 we travelled down to Melbourne to pick her up from the airport. When she arrived it was a 30-degree day and she said “How can anyone live in a country that so hot”. My mum visiting made the local papers. She came up to me and put her arm around me and told me she loved me. This was a very special moment to me. She also told Veronica that I was a good boy. I couldn’t work out if she meant now or when I was younger, thinking about it I’d say the latter. I also started writing to my dad over in the UK, I told him that what happened in 1943 was water under the bridge and that he was my dad and I loved him. He appreciated that and we wrote back and forth for several years. Suddenly the letters had stopped and years later I found out that he had passed away. I also found out that he had reconciled with my mum and they were set to remarry just before he passed away.
In the early 80’s, my good arm became very painful and worsened over the years. In spite of all sorts of treatment, they retired me in 1987. This was a crucial time because my mum was ill over in the UK and I wanted to see her. So, in August 1987, with the long service leave pay out, Veronica and I were able to go to the UK and catch up with my mum and other family members over there. As a Christian, I have a firm belief that God worked this out for us.
This year, 2022, I am 89 years old. My Grand Daughter, Kymberly, managed to get in contact with the Big Brother Movement whilst doing some research. She contacted them on Facebook and Maria got in touch with me. She informed me that they were having a reunion in Sydney in June and I was invited to go. My Grand Daughter said she would love to attend with us and so Kymberly, Veronica and I travelled up on the train, met our daughter, Heather, in Sydney and we got to stay with our other granddaughter, Sammy, and her partner, Clint, and had an amazing holiday. Veronica, Kymberly, Heather and I went to the reunion together and I met some Little Brothers like myself and met with Maria and the staff at Big Brother movement. Whilst at the reunion there was a raffle, I was given a ticket and didn’t think too much of it as I never am lucky enough to win. They called out a number and I looked around to see the lucky person who won it and no one seemed to claim it. I looked at my number and couldn’t believe it, I won. I won tickets to the city farm, Calmsley Hills, the same farm I spent the first few months of my life in Australia. So, after 72 years, I was able to go back to the farm and take Veronica, Heather and Kymberly along with me. Whilst things had changed there, I recognised the hills I used to walk along, the farm house I ran around on the deck and into the glass door and the hall we used to eat in. It was an amazing experience and something I won’t ever forget. I want to say a special thank you to my Granddaughter, Kymberly, for seeking out the Big Brother Movement, organising the trip to Sydney and accompanying us on the trip. Without her, I’m not sure we could have done it.
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