For many migrants to Australia in the second half of the 20th century, hostels were a critical part of their transition into Australian life.
Experiences of migrant hostels differed radically. As expressed by a former resident of the Finsbury (later Pennington) hostel: “For me it was the start of the beginning of a new life. I was an outdoor person before I came, and Adelaide seemed to me to be very bright and airy. I have never lived anywhere else since...” Others found that hostel life failed to meet their expectations, as vividly illustrated by a former resident of the Elder Park hostel: “Nothing could have prepared us, soft pampered creatures that we were, for hostel life. A small, narrow room with four hard beds, a tiny window that could be looked through only by standing on the rail of a bed—the view was an expanse of corrugated iron...The [laundry] water was the colour of river water—horrid brown—and smelled foul.”
What were the origins of the migrant hostels? In 1945, Australia was perceived to be suffering from a massive labour shortage and a decreasing rate of natural increase. Bolstered by the unifying experience of war, the idea that the Labor government should implement a new immigration program became an essential element of ‘reconstruction.’ As a result, numerous British migrants received government assistance under the United Kingdom Assisted Passage Scheme (1945–82), colloquially known as the ‘Ten Pound Pom’ scheme. Ultimately, Britons made up approximately 50 percent of post-war migrants, and often were housed in migrant hostels upon arrival in Australia.
However, the Australian government soon realised there were not enough migrants from Britain to meet its population goals. So-called Displaced Persons (DPs), who were Central and Eastern Europeans dislocated during World War II; 170,000 DPs migrated to Australia between 1947–52 as a result. These DPs immigrated on two-year indentured labour contracts, with the government agreeing to provide initial accommodation in hostels and employment.
After the success of the DP Scheme, with its boon to labour and proof that non-Anglo ‘white’ migrants could assimilate to the Australian way of life, mass non-British migration increased in the 1950s–60s. Formal migration agreements, often involving assisted passage, were made with a number of European countries. There also were intakes of refugees following various wars and uprisings including from Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Chile, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Poland and Iran. Between approximately 1947 and 1983, almost three million migrants entered Australia. Although exact numbers are not available, thousands of these migrants came via South Australia, first residing in one (or more) of the 14 State-or-Commonwealth-operated migrant hostels which have been identified to date.
Migrants were housed in disused army barracks at Woodside; a former police barracks at Semaphore, and old woolsheds at Rosewater. By 1950, some accommodation was purpose-built, using army-designed Nissen huts such as at Glenelg. Hostels were located close to industrial areas such as in Whyalla, or to transportation lines such as in Gawler, located on a former RAAF site. Accommodation was rent-free until residents found their first jobs. Some hostels were designated for families and others for single men. Hostel accommodation was supposed to be temporary (and eventually was restricted to two years); however some families stayed for several years or more on a rental basis.
While many residents enjoyed facets of hostel living, such as the communal sociability, common complaints included the rough physical conditions, poor food, lack of privacy, objectionable neighbours, the disparaging attitudes of managerial staff, and the inadequacy of interpretation services for non-English speaking migrants. During the 1950–60s, British migrants earned the sobriquet of ‘whingeing Poms’ because of frequent protests against conditions. National passions and politics also tended to erupt in hostels; for example in 1978, a two-day riot in the Pennington hostel was attributed by the manager to faction fights between the Chinese and Vietnamese. With rent frequently amounting to 80 percent of income, protests were frequent. The first rent strike was organised at Finsbury in 1952 by the Federal British Migrants Association, which was legally represented by future SA Premier Don Dunstan. The quality and isolated locations of many hostels – characterised by demographer Reginald Appleyard as ‘squalid ghettos’ – reflected the philosophy of not making them too comfortable in order to discourage migrants from staying too long.
The last hostel to close in South Australia, and among the last to close nationwide, was Pennington in early 1990s. Little physical evidence of hostel life remains. In South Australia, the buildings previously used migrant hostels have been demolished at all but one site (the current LeFevre High School includes the buildings which were formerly the Semaphore hostel) and the sites redeveloped. Few of the sites have historical markers (exceptions include Mallala and Elder Park) and a reserve commemorates the Finsbury-Pennington site. Any history of hostel life thus requires participation by former residents and provision of oral histories and artifacts by them. A study is currently underway at the University of Adelaide – through partnerships with the Migration Museum, the cities of Charles Sturt and Port Adelaide-Enfield, State Records, and the Vietnamese Community in Australia (SA branch) and with a grant from the Australian Research Council – to reconstruct this critical phase in our local and national history and to capture the lived experiences of migrants who came through the hostel system. The Migration Museum also plans a major exhibit on hostel life to open in late 2013.
Dr Rachel A. Ankeny, Associate Professor, School of History and Politics and Associate Dean/Research, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Adelaide
If you are a former resident or worked in a migrant hostel and would like to participate in the project by providing information, being interviewed, or loaning or donating relevant materials (photos, artifacts, etc.):
Email: email@example.com, phone: 8313 5570, or consult tinyurl.com/hostelstories