Finsbury-Pennington Migrant Hostel, South Australia

Finsbury - Pennington Migrant Hostel

For most people settling in Australia, as migrants, refugees, or for any other reason, would have been the start of a new life. Unfortunately for some it proved a major disappointment resulting in much unhappiness and, for those who could afford it, an eventual return to their country of origin.

After World War II Australia experienced a massive labour shortage. This made it impossible to accomplish the enormous amount of reconstruction work planned by the government. To make matters worse there was also a falling birth rate. To solve these problems the government embarked on an unprecedented immigration scheme.

Naturally it preferred British migrants but it soon became obvious that they could only supply about 50 per cent of the number needed. In 1945 the Commonwealth Government established the Australian Migration Scheme and introduced assisted passage for British migrants. They soon became known as 'Ten Pound Poms'.

To make up the shortfall the government looked for Displaced Person and after signing the International Displaced Persons’ Agreement in 1947 some 170.00 of them were settled after they had signed a two-year indentured labour contract. World War II forced many Lithuanians to flee their country. Unable to return after peace had returned, over 10,000 came to Australia and of those some 1,500 made South Australia their home. But wherever they came from, these new settlers contributed significantly to South Australia’s population and economic growth.

After arriving, these migrants and their families needed temporary accommodation until they found work and their own accommodation. For these reasons the Commonwealth government established Hostels, which were often located in the cheaper industrial areas not too far from possible employment opportunities. They were soon populated by people from England, Holland, Ireland, Poland, Hungary, Eastern and Southern Europe, Chile, Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos and Iran. By the mid-1980s some three million migrants had entered Australia. Many thousands of them found their first home in a South Australian Hostel.

Among the South Australian hostels were Elder Park, Finsbury, changed in 1966 to Pennington, Gepps Cross, Glenelg, Hendon, Mallala, Peterborough, Rosewater, Salisbury, Semaphore, Smithfield, Whyalla, Willaston, Woodside and Woodville. Work Camps were also established for migrants associated with the railways, munition, coal, forest and steel industries. Both the hostels and camps were often far from comfortable which would discourage migrants from staying too long.

While many migrants enjoyed the facilities provided for them, others complained bitterly about the rough physical and primitive conditions. Among the complaints most often voiced were poor food, lack of privacy, neighbours, staff behaviour and their attitudes, lack of, or no, interpretation services and the high rents.

Finsbury Hostel, later renamed Pennington Hostel, had its share of all these complaints. Finsbury Hostel was established in December 1949 on a 40 acre site of the old Finsbury Gun Park Ammunition Factory on Grand Junction Road, which had opened in 1941. Over the next 35 years it would house many different nationalities, reflecting international problems and Australia’s own changing migration policies.

Housing consisted mainly of former Army huts from England, Quonset huts from Manus Island as well as many Nissen huts. None of them had any insulation. The maximum number housed at Finsbury/Pennington at any time was close to 2300. Rooms were small and sparsely furnished. Bathrooms, toilets and laundries were shared and in separate buildings. Meals were provided in large dining halls. On arrival residents were issued with cutlery, sheets, pillows, a plug, bucket and toilet paper.

Nissen Hut 1966

In January 1950 Finsbury housed 368 residents from Europe, including some from Czechoslovakia, Latvia and Poland. Among them were Wincenty Musidlak and Ludmila Musidlak from the Ukraine. Both stayed 5 months. Josef Sobulis from Latvia was employed as a cook and stayed 5 years. Jan Holly from Czechoslovakia remained for 18 months while F. Kowal from Poland was gone after only three months. They were all looked after by a staff of 42, some of whom were migrants themselves.

In June 1950 Director, A Chambers, reported that some electrical fittings in the laundries required repairs as did some of the asbestos walls and partitions. A month later he requested the repair of several dining-room doors. In August he wished for an additional incinerator. On 3 November he wondered if the Department of Works and Housing could clear a piece of vacant land near the eastern boundary, have it levelled and made suitable for use as a recreation ground.

Many more requests for repairs, additions, improving food, facilities and where possible conditions, would follow over the years. By the end of the year the number of residents had increased to such an extent that additional accommodation was needed. In January 1951 reconstruction of other buildings was started to house the large numbers of British migrants. It would prove to be a difficult year for both migrants and the hostel administration.

Some of the British migrants proved hard to please and as early as April 1951 letters of complains were sent by them to the Chief Migration Officer in London. However when much better facilities at the Gepps Cross Hostel became available in July many of them declined to move.

On 28 April Arnold Colbeck wrote to the High Commissioner of the United Kingdom in Canberra. ‘You might think we are a moaning lot, but when a family comes here with great promises from Australia House in London and have to exist like a pig and pay for it, well the old British Bulldog has got something to bite on.’

Inside a one-roomed Nissen Hut 1966

On 5 June The News reported that British migrants had requested an immediate inquiry into their conditions. Issues most often mentioned were unsatisfactory food, leaking roofs, stagnant water in open drains, no sickbay or public phone and no hot water. To these was soon added the high rates charged by the hostel.

The Australian of the next day stated that Finsbury Hostel was ‘Definitely Sub-Standard’. A week later the Deputy Director of Health, Dr FB McCann, stated that all hostels were constantly inspected by competent health inspectors. According to him catering standards were well above most outside institutions and more hygienic than many public eating houses in the State.

Laundry facilities 1950

By the middle of 1951 many additional Nissen huts were provided for accommodation. In September H.E. Holt, Minister for Labour and National Service, stated that similar hostels to that at Gepps Cross, designed especially for British migrants were planned but the building had been retarded by the coal strikes of 1949, continuous rain and the diversion of labour and resources to defence works. Because of this ‘British migrants had to be accommodated in hostels of lower standard which had been built for other classes of migrants’.

Although the need for improvements at the hostel was great, and £19,380 had been approved on 14 February which included roads, paths and drains, nothing had been done yet by September. In October an additional amount of £2,770 was set aside for the upgrading of the men’s toilets. It took some considerable time for all this work to be carried out but by the end of the year a start was made to remodel the hostel to suit British migrants. It was even decided to establish a Kindergarten.

Regardless of improvements complaints kept coming in. One resident was most annoyed when not allowed to take cut lunches to her room. There was also a general dissatisfaction with the catering staff and British migrants asked that New Australian cooks be replaced with British cooks. Mrs D. Bisson wrote to The News that 90% of British migrants were dissatisfied with the food served at the hostel. Complains even reached Prime Minister Menzies who promised that suitable action would be taken by the Minister for Immigration.

When asked for covered walkways between sleeping quarters and ablution and toilet blocks, they were told that it was not going to happen as the hostel would ‘ultimately revert to accommodation for Europeans’. Finally arrangements were also made to have the long festering problem of the surface drains fixed. It was decided that members of the hostel staff would clear them but they would remain as earth drains only as cementing had been deferred.

When in 1952 the Federal Displaced Person Scheme ended the need for accommodation eased a little in the hostel and the number of complaints decreased but food and charges still generated the occasional problems. In October, in a letter to the Editor of The News J. Cleacer was unhappy about the lack of milk for children and the inferior food served compared to that at the Gepps Cross and Rosewater Hostels.

Arrival of personal belongings
after more than a year. 1966

In November there were still Foreign Migrants in English hostels and some of the English migrants threatened to walk out as they found the rates too high and the food ‘just horrible’. They boycotted the catering system and meals finished up in the ‘pig-bins’. By the end of the year some of the Dutch migrants joined the English and also rejected the food. In an effort to solve the problem the Hostel management advertised for male cooks.

Slowly but surely conditions improved at the hostel. In 1953 it catered for 899 British migrants, 246 non-British and 80 staff. That year the Lacey family from the United Kingdom arrived and stayed for six years and 6 months. By 1954 formal approval was required for admission of non-British families. By the end of that year there were 750 children in the hostel. In January 1955, 12 Nissen huts were transferred from Gepps Cross to Finsbury at a cost of £11,000 to be used by the hostel staff.

At the start of 1956 there were 1328 rooms (still without any insulation) in the hostel and 86 migrants had lived in the hostel for more than two years. The Lambert family from Holland arrived in 1956 but stayed for only 6 months. Sandra Roach stayed for a year, while the MacKenzie family, who arrived in 1957, stayed for 18 months.

Some were happy, 1966

Further improvements were made during that decade and by the 1960s there was a Youth Club and many sporting teams, among them an Australian Rules Football Club. By 1965 the hostel was home to families from Britain, Holland, Scandinavia and several other European nationals. In 1966 the Gillard family arrived from Wales, including their 5 year old daughter Julia, the future Prime Minister. They stayed for only one month. Other families living at the hostel at that time included the Eddowes, Clowes, Clark and Coburn families from England and the Brons, Smet, Verduin, Roeling and Klaassen families from Holland.

During the 1960s several building companies regularly provided free transport from the hostel to visit their show homes in newly opened housing estates. Many of the migrants bought their first home that way or through the South Australian Housing Trust. By 1970 population at the Pennington Hostel was 750.

The 1970s saw a remarkable change in the country of origin of residents at Pennington. During 1972 there were a number of refugees from Chile. The Kotasek family from Czechoslovakia called Pennington home for the next two years. Spanish families recruited by BHP for the Whyalla Steel Works arrived in December and would stay until accommodation became available at Whyalla.

In 1976 the first Vietnamese refugees arrived at Pennington after the fall of Saigon during the previous year. In April 27 of them arrived by plane in Adelaide. They had fled in a nine-metre fishing boat to the Malay Peninsula where they had been cared for by the Mather family while waiting for their entry papers for Australia. A month later the hostel cared for 83 Indo Chinese, 78 Vietnamese, and 5 Cambodians.

Hieu Van Le, AO and Rikie
Klaassen. Both had started their
Australian adventure at
the Pennington Hostel

Seng Ho Diep from Cambodia, age 20, was being ‘adopted’ by Mr and Mrs Wells. He learned English and attended Marion High School and eventually obtained a degree in Mathematical Science from Adelaide University. Hieu Van Le from Vietnam also stayed for a while at the hostel. He became Mr Hieu Van Le, AO., Lieutenant Governor of South Australia. During September 1977 a further seven Vietnamese arrived from Darwin.

During 1978 Pennington was once again experiencing problems between the different cultural groups. There were several ‘incidents’ between Chinese and Vietnamese migrants. In June, President Father J. Foale of the Vietnamese aid group ICRA, Indo-China Refugee Association, was told by hostel manager T. Manley that the group had to quit the hostel. There had been constant complaints from his staff over their interference.

ICRA was formed in June 1975 in South Australia and became active at the hostel in late 1976. When interviewed on This Day Tonight on 28 June 1978, Fr Foale stated that hostels were not equipped to handle refugees as they needed more welfare and assistance than migrants. There was only one welfare officer to look after 350 refugees. The Sunday Mail of 12 November reported ‘Refugees brawl as camp tensions rise’.

The 1980s saw major changes once again. Intake of migrants and refugees had decreased greatly and some of the surplus buildings were removed. In 1980 the hostel got a new name and became the Pennington Migration Centre. By the end of the year it catered for 500 Indo-Chinese and 30 political refugees from Eastern Europe. In 1981 the Assisted Passage Scheme for British migrants was stopped.

Vietnamese residents became the dominant cultural group during these years. Most were happy with the facilities and liked the area. Ample evidence of this is provided by the Vietnamese businesses which have sprung up in that part of Adelaide. In 1985 Pennington was closed as an institutional hostel. It continued to be used for a number of years as a base for support services for migrants housed in nearby 30 brand new, self-contained flats, opened in October 1986.

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