The Amblers Arrive in Oz

It was just after dawn when the Oronsay steamed through the Heads and into Sydney Harbour. We had arrived at our destination.

We dressed and went to stand up on deck and watch the foreshores slip by. We could see the top of the Harbour Bridge above the headlands, but there were no skyscrapers in June 1958. The highest block was the AMP Building at about eight floors.

The sun was rising as we rounded the Lady Macquarie's Chair and moved towards the Harbour Bridge. It was an awesome sight. The Oronsay sailed on under it, with what looked to be only a foot to spare, and birthed at Pyrmont.

We stood by the rail, looking for Uncle Don, who was to meet us and take us to our new home. It had been fourteen years since Mum and Dad had seen him. Ted and I had never met him. I don't recall seeing him on the dock, my memories of arrival from here on in are a jumble of customs clearance and baggage and people everywhere. The next thing I remember is being in Uncle Don's car - the four of us, together with Don, Julie, Bruce and Eleanor. It was somewhat of a squeeze.

Don had some business to attend to on the way home so there were a couple of stops to make on the way. By the time he'd done that it was lunchtime. He bought Baked Bean sandwiches for us. I had never, ever, eaten COLD baked beans. That's not to say they weren't nice sandwiches - they were great. I developed quite a fondness for Baked Bean Sandwiches. But at that time it was a bit of a shock.

We were to stay for the first while with Don and Laurel at Woonona (pronounced Wa - noon-a). There was a small flat at the back of their house. It had a bedroom, living room-kitchenette and bathroom. We lived in it - preparing and eat our meals and bathing there. Mum and Dad slept there but Ted and I slept in the main house. I shared Julie's bedroom and Ted shared with Bruce. To all intents and purposes we were to live separately from Don and Laurel and family, but in reality the boundaries were blurred. Julie and I became very much like sisters and still are today, over fifty eight years later. I can still hear Bruce, who was about 4 years old at the time, banging on the door of the flat and yelling, " Are yer up! Are yer Up? I want my breksas!"

Ted was eight and still at Primary school, I was in my first year of High School in England. First thing on the first Monday morning, it was off to find a school for each of us. Ted was easy. He went to St Joseph's School at Bulli, a catholic primary school. In later years I was to be Deputy Principal at the same school!  For me school was St Mary's College, a Catholic girl's secondary school in Wollongong. This meant a half hour train trip each day. My days at St Mary's were not easy. They are a story all of their own.

Australia in 1958 was a very young country. There were not the modern conveniences that we had been used to in Preston. Things were done differently. And the vocabulary was different. We were to learn a lot of new words and the concepts that went with them.

Take for example the 'Dunny' - Aussie for toilet.  Sewer services were not available to homes in a lot of the Wollongong area. In Woonona there was still a Night Cart Service. Once a week the 'Dunny Cart' would come and the Dunnyman would carry two empty, black, lidded buckets to the little shed at the bottom of the yard. He would make a lot of noise, to warn anyone inside the 'Dunny' that he was there. He'd knock on the door, and if no one was there he'd go in, lift the toilet seat and cover off the bucket, replace it with a new one and take it and the old second one away. If the bucket filled before the Dunnyman was due to come again, Dad would go and change the pans over. Each pan has some kerosene in it. This was to put an oily film on the surface of the contents to keep smells and flies away. Somehow it never quite worked and the distinctive smell of the Dunny was part of suburban living. The Dunny Cart left an unmistakable pong behind it on Dunny day and if the Dunnyman tripped or dropped a can in the driveway it was almost unbearable for a few days. The wealthy and the fortunate had septic tanks, either seep away or pump out. The main house toilet at Don's house was septic, but the tennis shed had a pan toilet.

To Mum it was like stepping back a century and she found it very hard to come to terms with this aspect of our new way of life. She was terribly homesick. I found her one day, soon after we arrived, sitting on the steps of the tennis court at the bottom of Don's garden sobbing her heart out. When I tried to comfort her all she could wail was, 'I want to go home, they don't even have proper toilets!'

Another word we learnt was 'Copper'. the copper was the water heater over the bath. It was a copper tank, with a space for a fire at the bottom and a coil of copper pipes that ran around the firebox and out to a tap over the bath. To get hot water in the evening it was necessary to light the copper. Dad stuffed paper into the fire box, turned on the tap over the bath and lit the paper. It roared and banged and shook and eventually hot water came out. The baths were never that hot, nor that deep, but they sufficed.

Mind you, we were lucky. We had a friend and his family to sponsor us and give us somewhere to live while we found our feet. Most immigrants went to the Immigration Departments Hostels. Life 'on the hostel' was pretty gruesome. There were several in Wollongong. They consisted of old army Nissan Huts converted into family units. The accommodation left a lot to be desired and cockroaches, mice and lice were a worry. Meals were taken in the hostel dining room and were very basic. Most hostel dwellers knew no one in Australia before they came here. They emigrated to find a better life in a country they had been told was a land of opportunity, sunshine and wealth. They expected it to be warm all year round and the expected jobs and homes would be easy to come by. They expected to be able to live the same lives in Australia in the same way as they had in England, only in the sunshine instead of the rain......... and most of them were disappointed. What the hostels did do was forge a common bond of friendship between immigrant families of all nationalities. Friendships were made amongst hostel dwellers that have lasted for many years based on their struggle to survive the rigours, discomfort and loneliness of hostel life.

For the men immigration was not as hard as it was for the women. They usually had a job to go to - to be sponsored the sponsor had to provide work. The majority of British migrants in Wollongong worked in the coal mines or the steelworks. The women were left at home to grapple with their homesickness and long for the way things used to be 'at home'. Many families couldn't cope and returned home to England. Others stayed but bemoaned their lot - hence the term 'whinging pom'. Most put their shoulder to the wheel and their heads down and worked until they made a good life for themselves. Thank God my parents were of this ilk.

Dad had a job with Don's company "Heggies Transport". Although he was a fireman by profession, work was not available for permanent firemen at the time. Wollongong had only voluntary fire brigades. He drove a truck for Heggies, loading bricks at the brickworks and taking them to building sites, or beer for the pubs or skins and hides for the tannery. It was hard, dirty work, but it was a job.

Mum started looking for work. She needed to get out of the house and be with other people, otherwise homesickness was going to be unbearable.... and they needed the money if they were to have a home of their own. She was a typist and stenographer. She found work with the Department of Social Security and things began to get better.

Before six months was up Mum and Dad had saved enough to put a deposit on a house. From arriving in June with two hundred English pounds in their pocket, to being able to afford to buy a house in January was pretty good going.

They looked for a home in many areas, but Woonona was such a good place to live that they ended up buying a house in Kareela Road, near the beach. It was a home built of fibro, on a nice big block, with a big garage - and a dunny down the back. But somehow, because it was our own dunny, Mum didn't seem to mind as much. Three bedrooms meant that Ted and I could have a room each - luxury!!! We could have a dog... and we did, a border collie called Blackie.

For the first time in their lives Mum and Dad had a home of their own. It was a financial battle, with school fees to pay for both if us, and a mortgage to meet. For the next few Christmases we got some funny presents. Because the house was so far away from public transport Dad needed a car. So, one Christmas, our present from Mum and Dad was the front seat of the car for six months each! Mum sat in the back.

In 1959 my grandparents sailed from England to join us. They stayed for two years, then returned. They missed their other children and grandchildren in England. They spent the rest of their lives going backwards and forwards between England and Australia. Nanny Leah could never settle, her heart was divided.

My parents didn't visit the UK until 1986. Even then they went reluctantly. I think my mother regretted leaving her family and the country of her birth. She had a strong loyalty to England. But neither of them regretted coming to Australia. They felt that they had enjoyed a better lifestyle and they maintained that we, their children, had far more opportunity to succeed in Australia than we would have in England. I believe they were right. But for all that, life for the first twenty years in Australia was a struggle, emotionally, financially and physically.

When I think of what we had left, and what we had come to, 12,000 miles away from anyone we knew and loved, I have a great sense of admiration and love for my parents. They were 32 in 1958. They had two young children. They were allowed to bring just ten teachests of belongings. They had only two hundred English Pounds in their pocket.

To make that journey, with those responsibilities and such a lack of resources, took guts and determination and a lot of tenacity. Many, many immigrants returned after their two years. I never once heard of it crossing their minds to give up and go home. I could not have repeated that feat, I would not have the courage.

My father was a dear, loving man. He took life and enjoyed with gusto and left the worrying to others. Like Mr Micawber he was always sure that something would turn up.

My mother was the worrier. She saw the perils and it scared her witless, but she went along anyway, because she adored my Dad and it was what he wanted to do. Vera Ambler was a strong and beautiful woman. Her courage, and her devotion are my inspiration.

This was the end of the Fifties. The Sixties were just around the corner.

Latest News

S5 Box