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Volume Number 0 - 2006

Likely Lads and Lasses by Alan Gill

Fred Blanks
Category: Book Review

Likely Lads and Lasses: Youth Migration to Australia 1911–1983, by Alan Gill;
BBM Ltd, 2005, $30.

NOWADAYS WE SHRUG OFF the White Australia policy, at least with the benefit of hindsight, as a politically defensible foundation—in its time—of Australia’s immigration policy. One of the pillars of this policy, chiefly between the two world wars, was the enthusiastic support by several organisations eager to bring to Australia youngsters, school leavers ready for work, who had to be white, British and “racially pure”—mainly to work on farms or in outback domestic service. These organisations were working independently of any official government immigration policy, such as it was. Until the axe fell.

Alan Gill has now completed what he calls an unintentional trilogy about this lengthy episode. His first volume was Orphans of the Empire, about child migrants from the orphanages and children’s homes of Britain. The second volume was Interrupted Journeys: Young Refugees from Hitler’s Reich which concerned the Kindertransport and similar schemes mainly in the late 1930s. Now we have the third book, and a conscientiously researched one it is, about such projects as the Dreadnought Scheme, the Big Brother Movement (which has supported the book’s publication), Barnardo’s, the Young Australia League, the Millions Club (renamed Sydney Club in 1962, then fused with the University and Schools Club), the Salvation Army, and other bodies.

The heyday of these movements for filling our empty spaces with good pure British stock was between the wars, and this obviously means that actual interviews with these immigrants now depend on quickly diminishing opportunities for oral contact rather than relying on hearsay or historical notes.

Indeed, one of this book’s strengths lies in its case histories. There are many of these, somewhat indiscriminately spread throughout the text. Many emphasise hardships for new arrivals—extremely primitive conditions on remote outback properties which to young arrivals must have seemed like the portals of another world, inevitably homesickness, isolation from their friends and in some cases even siblings, lack of enough money even to buy a stamp for postage home, something akin to “slave labour” (a six-and-a-half-day week on farms), in some cases insinuations of sexual impropriety and physical or emotional abuse. In quite a few cases these things left a scar for life, but in many others they were eventually relegated to the history of growing up under special conditions, and many young immigrants “made good”, indeed prospered, in important careers.

A major hurdle was the Depression from 1929 when government financial support ceased; on one hand, farmers left entirely without money could not pay even a pittance to the immigrant lads, and on the other hand there was a potent move to stop all such immigration because it was taking away the few jobs left for Australians. Many immigrants joined the defence forces in 1939 as an escape from what looked like a hopeless future.

The Dreadnought Scheme, which came first, owes its peculiar name to a 1909 plan in Sydney to raise funds for buying a Dreadnought battleship as a present to Britain in a gesture of support for British naval supremacy. This idea was scuttled when the federal government announced its intention to establish an Australian navy, making the Dreadnought (“fear God and dread nought”) plan superfluous. So the substantial amount of money already raised was split down the middle: half for a Naval College at Jervis Bay, half to encourage British immigration, partly by buying a farm at Pitt Town, north-west of Sydney, for British youths “of good character and physique”. There was some dismay in Britain, called “the only nation to export its children”; in Australia, the phrase “Pommie bastards” was bandied around.

The Dreadnought Scheme began in 1911. It flourished. But there were suicides and drownings. The outbreak of war in 1939 ended the scheme, which had brought 7500 lads to Australia. Few are now left. Here, in the interest of chronology and numbers, are some other facts taken from one of several appendices in the book. Actual numbers can be uncertain; not all records have survived.

Salvation Army immigrants included unaccompanied juveniles from 1913. The same year saw the start of the Fairbridge migrants. The Sydney Millions Club sponsored Barnardo boys from 1921. South Australia (the Barwell Boys) and Tasmania briefly mounted their own youth migration projects in 1922-23, and in 1923 the first group of Barnardo girls arrived. The Salvation Army expanded activities in 1924. The major coup was the arrival in 1925 of migrants sponsored by the Big Brother Movement, which became the benchmark for such enterprises. Each Little Brother immigrant was assigned to a Big Brother resident here for advice, solace and companionship (this idea later had to be changed when not enough Big Brothers volunteered, or took their task seriously enough). In 1927 the Christian Brothers arranged for Catholic “orphans” to come to Western Australia. Between 1921 and the Depression, more than 18,000 juveniles were brought to Australia as farm labourers. The Big Brother Movement claims responsibility for 85 per cent of all British youth migration after the Second World War before it fizzled out in 1983. Air travel replaced “the ocean liner as king” in the early 1960s; before then, some fifty-nine ships are listed as having carried youth migrants.

Occasionally the story, with its emphasis on “British and racially pure”, hints at undertones of what would now be regarded as racialism, far-right politics, even neo-fascism. There are also hints favouring particular religions. The book acknowledges this (see the chapter “Bands, Banners and Patriotic Homilies: The Young Australia League”). The term “discriminatory” became more widely used.

THIS BOOK IS EXTREMELY GENEROUS with detailed information. Much of this suffuses the case studies. Three particularly interesting ones concern the Rev. Arthur Brawn, who became Dreadnought president in 1979; Norman Monsen, who became Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church in Australia (during the split that resulted in the Uniting Church); and Ernest Thornton, later a leading Communist, called the “Red Czar of Australia” and famous for his long rivalry with Laurie Short.

The book has lots of footnotes collected at the end (two bookmarks are desirable), a thorough bibliography, plenty of illustrations, and an index, but it has allowed quite a few errors, mainly typographical and grammatical, some factual (Leeton is not in northern New South Wales) to slip through the editorial net.

The axe began to fall in late 1982 during Malcolm Fraser’s Liberal-National coalition. Its fall accelerated under Bob Hawke’s Labor governmemt in 1983. Some reasons were direct, others oblique—this is one of the most interesting parts of the book. Suitable British youth immigrants were harder to find. British media claimed that “the lucky country had run out of luck”. In Australia, the Big Brother pro-British movement was considered anachronistic by the multicultural lobby. Its position of favouring white Anglo-Saxons was now “inconsistent with a non-discriminatory immigration policy”. The federal immigration authorities assumed fuller control about who would enter the country. Financial and bureaucratic favouritism for the Old Dart was now unacceptable.

Individual non-government bodies could no longer be involved. Eventually some of them folded. The Big Brother Movement became BBM Ltd, and reversed its policies by giving grants to Australians (presumably white) to spend some time in England so as to bring British ideals back home. This continues. There could be a suspicion that here Alan Gill’s book begins to resemble a Big Brother apologia (BBM did, after all, publish it).

As you approach the final chapters, there is an undercurrent of repetition, even of irrelevance (did you know that the rightful King of Britain lives in Jerilderie?). But if that implies a certain lack of literary organisation, the implication itself becomes unimportant in the overall concept of what must rank as an important, indeed essential study of an episode of Australian history which could easily be swept under the carpet in these days of political correctness.

So the trilogy ends. But I have a suggestion for the author: make it a tetralogy. We could do with an equally scrupulous book about war brides who came to this country.

Fred Blanks reviewed Alan Gill’s Interrupted Journeys: Young Refugees from Hitler’s Reich in Quadrant in September 2004.

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