The forgotten tales of home and away

'Ten Pound Poms'
January 13, 2006

In " Ten Pound Poms ", the study of Australia's million postwar British migrants comes of age. Through hundreds of life stories, and with the help of letters, diaries and photographs, James Hammerton and Alistair Thomson masterfully trace intimate journeys and large-scale movements without sacrificing people to abstractions. The characters in this book are buffeted by the forces of history but remain decision-makers, negotiators and knowing compromisers.

" Ten Pound Poms " superbly recovers their transplanting. Each stage of the narrative is anchored by finely tailored life stories. Some were successful, a few felt themselves to be failures, but most knew an ambivalent mix of pleasure and disappointment. Class barriers seemed less daunting in Australia. Children did better than they might have done in Britain. It was easier to buy a house. And there was always sunshine.

Yet whatever privileges their nationality afforded them, British migrants still experienced partings, separations and the loss of home. Australia was at once familiar and, as one interviewee puts it, "awfully strange". These were experiences that neither a shared language nor a somewhat familiar culture could protect you against. And, as was true for Italians and Greeks and Vietnamese, in some sense migration never ended: "like all migrant identities", those of the British "were unstable and shifting, never complete".

This book makes numerous important advances. Hammerton and Thomson explore the phenomenon of return migration, finding unsuccessful transitions alongside the first adventure-driven sojourns. They skilfully trace the significant changes in gender, class, family life and aspirations with which personal histories are entangled. They pay careful attention to the stages of migration and the differences between those leaving behind austerity in the late 1940s and 1950s and those seeking opportunities in the 1960s and 1970s. They recognise that as Britain became more multicultural and affluent, the content of "Britishness" and the perceived differences between Australia and "home" changed.

I am the son of two of these English migrants, who made their way independently from Lancashire and Somerset to Tilbury in 1956, left for Adelaide on the SS Orontes , met in the lower-deck bar and married a year later. What strikes me most about " Ten Pound Poms " is its insistence that my parents were migrants.

Like most of the people among whom I grew up in Adelaide's "Pommy ghetto"

of Elizabeth, they experienced a significant and sometimes daunting separation, but many of us born to these mobile Britons never really understood our families to be migrants. As Hammerton and Thomson put it, the British "often internalised [a] sense of political and historical insignificance". We struggled to measure our distance from Australians, in part because we were always lumped in with everybody else who was not a "real" migrant.

In some ways, Australia's Britons have waited a long time for a history so respectful, judicious and moving. I think we second-generation British-Australians need to accept some responsibility for that delay.

Other second generations have paid more heed to their parents' lives, decisions and accomplishments. We have not done our parents justice in the same way. Happily, this book takes us a long way towards that goal. It is a wonderful book, both for the million Britons who came and for the millions in Britain to whom they remain connected.

Mark Peel is associate professor of history, Monash University, Australia.

'Ten Pound Poms': Australia's Invisible Migrants

Author - A. James Hammerton and Alistair Thomson
Publisher - Manchester University Press
Pages - 388
Price - £14.99
ISBN - 0 7190 7133 X

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