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U3A Writing: Australia Bound

Sylvia York tells of migrating to Australia when she was a teenager.

February 17th - March 16th, 1954

It was a cold bleak winter's day in mid-February, 1954, when the four of us caught a Green Line coach from East Anglia to London. The snow was a white mantle on everything we passed on the road that day and it was bitterly cold. This was the beginning of the greatest adventure of my life, my migration to Australia, together with my mother, and her two widowed sisters.

From the age of about five I had cherished a dream of living in a warmer, sunnier place. This would be in my mind, well removed form the eternal grey skies of England and all the continuing hardship that the recent war had caused. It would also be away from the class distinction system, which I had always thought was terribly wrong. Now at the age of 17, and having recently left school, I was starting the greatest journey of my life.

We spent the night at the Grosvenor Hotel in London so that we could catch the early morning boat train to Tilbury. That night, we had a final farewell dinner at the hotel for some of the family. We entertained my mother's youngest and favourite brother, together with his wife, and my cousin Irene and her husband. It was a very pleasant evening but I don't think I realised then that we would never see any of them again. At the tender age of 17 years you don't think of such things.

The next day, which was February 17th, 1954, we left Paddington Station for an hour's journey on the boat train to Tilbury Docks. Upon leaving the train we all had to go through customs, where they took our ration books and identity cards away from us, and threw them all into the nearest wastepaper bin. I can remember being horrified at this. Throughout my life it had been drilled into me that you must never lose either of these items, upon pain of death! I was asked how much money I was taking out of the country, and I remember answering that I had 8 to my name. That was my entire fortune!

We joined a queue and went up the gangplank to go on board out ship, the R.M.S. Orcades which was to be our home for the next month. This was an Orient Line ship and together with several others of the same line, it was used exclusively to take government sponsored migrants (who each paid only ten English pounds) and full fare-paying passengers like us, to the other side of the world. We worked out that the cost of our journey, half way across the world, was a farthing a mile. We eventually found our four berth cabin, which was just about large enough to swing a cat in and unpacked the few clothes we had left for the trip. The remainder of our belongings were stowed in the hold for the rest of the journey.

As we had paid full fare, we had an outside cabin in one of the upper decks, which meant we had a porthole that could be left open for most of the voyage. It also boasted a hand basin, which meant we didn't have to visit the communal bathroom just to wash our face and hands or to clean our teeth. At this stage, the whole ship was open and I managed to have a look around the first class section, before it was cordoned off for the remainder of the voyage. The first class passengers, about 200 in all, had three fifths of the ship to themselves with a fairly large swimming pool. The second-class passengers, which included us, were in excess of 700 and they had one fifth at the stern. Our pool was very small. It was really a cover of one of the holds and had to be emptied and lifted out every time we were going to enter a port. The crew occupied the remaining one fifth of the ship.

In the early afternoon, the Orcades eased away from the dock with the aid of two tugs. We were on our way. Slowly, we made our passage down the Thames estuary and then out into the English Channel. I can remember seeing the White Cliffs as we passed near Dover, and then it was dark and teatime. Everyone hurried to the dining room for our first meal since leaving England.

The next morning, we found that we were travelling down the coast of Portugal. We were just close enough to see the land and soon afterwards, the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Spain in the distance. By now, quite a few of the passengers were feeling seasick. However, one of my uncles had warned me that no matter how ill you felt, it was better never to miss a meal. In other words, it was better to have something to bring up.

Fortunately, I didn't feel ill at all and I spent the entire morning watching the coastline on my own, until the land gradually faded away as we moved further out to sea. It was an odd experience knowing that I was so close to such exotic ports as Lisbon, but having to pass them by.

After a few days we called into Gibraltar. It was only just light and many of us hurried onto the top deck to catch our first glimpse of the Rock. As we were only stopping to pick up a handful of passengers our ship anchored in the bay for barely an hour, and the passengers who were joining us came out by launch. We then set off for our next port of call, Naples.
The Orcades docked at Naples very early in the morning, and all the passengers were allowed off until late afternoon. My mother and her sisters went on an organised tour of Pompeii, but I joined another couple of girls, slightly older than me, and we spent the day wandering around the town on our own. The men there had a nasty habit of trying to pinch our bottoms and saying "Bella, Bella" to us all the time. I found it all a bit disconcerting, really.

We went to an upper part of the town and back by a funny little funicular railway, as it was quite a steep climb. For the first time in my life I saw lemons growing. It was a lovely experience for me. Naples was still rather a war-torn and neglected place in those days. Most houses were in need of a good scrub, or even better still, a coat of paint. The woman hung their washing over balconies for the entire world to see, or from poles leaning outwards from the upstairs windows. That was something I had never seen before. After buying lunch, the three of us made our way back to the main part of Naples again, but then found we were unsure which way to proceed to the docks. We saw some of the special Naples police, called the Carabiniere. Using sign language and very poor Italian, we managed to make ourselves understood and , after taking their photos, we eventually found our way back to the docks and to the Orcades. In the late afternoon, the ship left Naples and headed for Port Said, which was our next stop.
Port Said is the entrance to the Suez Canal and at that time there was much unrest in the area. The Egyptians were planning to take over the canal from the British. Because of this some of the Egyptian Army soldiers insisted on boarding our ship, complete with rifles and paraded up and down the decks. My mother was not amused and she asked our cabin steward to lock our cabin door while the soldiers were on board. She didn't trust them. Only the passengers with genuine passports were allowed ashore; the assisted migrants only carried papers, so they were not allowed off the ship.
Although I had a passport, my mother flatly refused to let me go and walk around the town. It was late evening and the lights shone most invitingly, but I guess she had reason to worry about her young daughter in a strange land.

Our ship anchored all night off Port Said, waiting for a convoy to assemble and proceed through the canal. It was not until early afternoon the next day, with a pilot on board, that all the vessels were ready to start the journey.

The canal was very straight and not at all wide. It was possible to hold a conversation with people on the shore if you wanted. The shoreline was just desert with a road running parallel to the water. There was absolutely no way you could pass another vessel, hence the convey system in one direction only until it reached the lakes about halfway.

We anchored again until the convey coming from the Red Sea direction had left their part of the canal and we could then proceed towards Port Suez. By then, the weather was definitely getting warmer.

After leaving the canal, all the ships have to pass through the Red Sea. We now found that it got warmer at night-time as well as during the day. We were lucky with our open porthole, but the assisted migrants were a deck below us and could not open any portholes, as they were on the water line. Many of them slept on deck from now on. The sailors took great delight in hosing down anyone who dared to sleep on after first light. The clocks were being continually put forward by half an hour every few days now, and most people were feeling more and more tired as their bodies tried to adjust.

The Port of Aden was our next stop. This was mainly a British re-fuelling base in the Gulf of Aden, which is more or less a continuation of the Red Sea. We decided to hire a taxi and go the seven miles to the actual town of Aden, which is situated inland, in an extinct volcano crater. It was certainly an experience! Being in an old crater it was certainly hot and also smelly. The people were so poor, I don't think I have seen such poverty anywhere else. Many ate, slept and pissed in the gutter. Fortunately for us a very nice young man, who obviously made his money from being a guide to tourists, befriended us. He was spotlessly clean and spoke very good English.

People who had been clamouring for money from us, now more or less left us alone. However, we did not eat or drink anything that afternoon, despite the heat. After we rejoined our ship, admittedly with a great sigh of relief, our steward made us a nice cup of tea. He made a friend for life of my mother.

It took us quite a few days to cross the Indian Ocean and arrive at Columbo, in what was then known as Ceylon. This time we all joined an organised coach trip to Mount Lavinia, which was a beautiful place about seven miles drive from the city, overlooking the sea. It had golden sands and waving palm trees, a far cry from Aden!

Our coach took us from the ship to a luxurious hotel there, where we were served afternoon tea on the terrace by turbaned waiters. I was told later that the coach drivers never take tourists through the seedy parts of Colombo, but stick to the leafy, expensive suburbs.

However, we enjoyed the day immensely and didn't mind missing out on the poorer areas. The tea we were served at the Mt Lavinia Hotel was the best I have tasted in my entire life.
We sailed on across the Indian Ocean for almost a week before arriving at our next port of call, which was Fremantle In Western Australia. Some of the passengers disembarked here, but most were continuing on to either Adelaide, Melbourne or Sydney. Again, we went on a coach trip to see the sights. These included the University and the general shopping area of nearby Perth, the capital of Western Australia. We all liked Perth. It seemed such a tidy, clean place. It struck us as being more like a large country town than the capital of a very large state. I have visited Perth twice since those early years and still think it is a truly beautiful city.

Sadly, some of my fellow migrants had decided, before even disembarking in Australia, to return home to England without giving their new-found home a chance. I later found that many Australians referred to the English as whingeing Poms and I could certainly see why. How anyone could come half way across the world without giving it serious thought, I could never make out.

Perth had, even back in the fifties, the most beautiful expanse of native bush set aside as a huge National Park. This was called King's Park, and it was right at the edge of the central city area, high up and overlooking the entire city and the immensely wide and impressive Swan River.

We were there looking at the War Memorial when a large group of mounted police passed by. The Queen was due to be in Perth in approximately a week, so they were practising as her escort.

After leaving Perth the Orcades travelled to Adelaide, then Melbourne, where my family and I disembarked, and then on to Sydney, where the remainder of the passengers left the ship to start their new life down under.

I have never once regretted coming to this country. Six years after arriving, I was to marry an Australian man who, many years later, discovered that he could trace his ancestry back to the very early convict arrivals. I often think how much better my journey must have been than theirs in their crowded sailing ships, which took so much longer to make their very difficult journey to the other side of the world.

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