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Who Are They?
 My family sailed on the “Asturias” from Southampton on the 3rd May 1949 bound for Sydney via Suez.

We were ten pound poms although I believe my father’s passage was free due to being an ex-serviceman.
As a nine year old I recall my excitement of the time, both over the preceding weeks since I’d first heard of the coming adventure as well as on departure day as the liner quietly slipped away from the dock crowded with shouting, weeping and waving relatives and friends.

I wonder how it felt for my parents. My father felt very positive about life in a new land. He had seen something of it during stopovers on war service. For my mother it was more a reluctant journey of faith.

A lasting picture I have is of my maternal grandfather bidding us farewell at the bus stop in Birmingham, one arm raised in resigned farewell salute, depressed, desolate, as if he knew he would never see us again. And he never did.

A confused awakening next morning as I stirred to a deep rumbling somewhere beneath the bed. Once I’d gathered my wits, realized it was the ship’s great engines throbbing and checked that my father was still in the cabin we shared with several strangers, the vibrations became a comfortable and enjoyable purr. Mother and my younger siblings were assigned with females to one side of the deck, men and boys to the other. We could visit each others cabins during the day but really only met as a family at mealtimes. We were among the lucky few families who had a table to themselves. The very obliging steward who served us each day would tell later in the voyage of his plans to jump ship and stay in Australia.
Swells in the Bay of Biscay brought on seasickness for some including my mother. The rough crossing also rolled some children out of upper bunks onto hard floors causing some injuries.

Malta, our first port of call, afforded only a brief stop to take on more passengers. We were fascinated by so many dark skins, they likewise at so many pale faces with fair hair. A second emotional mass farewell then once more into the Mediterranean.

We youngsters were already becoming bored with nothing to see but sea and not nearly enough activities available for young minds and energies. Port Said provided just an obligatory no-getting-off stop. A dock line of rifle toting soldiers added some colour, the area then being the subject of political argument.

At least the next leg had the promise of the Suez Canal. My visions of it had resembled the canal that we’d fished in for tiddlers back in Birmingham, somewhat wider but with the ship scraping the sides and looking into foreign houses and back gardens. The vastness of the canal and surrounding country however and the sparseness of settled areas soon proved tiresome. Most welcome was the occasional sight of another vessel.

At the southern end of the mighty waterway lay a sprawl of buildings known as Port Suez where the ship became surrounded by the small rowing boats of traders shouting and gesticulating to passengers. Lines attached to the ship carried the customers’ money and the traders’ goods back and forth. A couple of displays of mutual contempt added more flavour, a dissatisfied customer petulantly hurling some refuse into a trader’s boat; a trader cutting the line and quickly making off with the money from a bad deal.

A couple of Arab magicians came aboard and set up their act on deck. To the chant of ali-gali-gali-gali-gali they held us enthralled with their sleight of hand with baby chicks running from their clothing and disappearing from and reappearing under upturned beakers. Our vessel moved on, abuzz with the mutterings of those who had been on the wrong end of a raw deal from Pt. Suez; shirts without backs to them, watches that failed after half an hour.

Well into the Red Sea, on our way to Aden, word suddenly passed around that the ship wasn’t moving. Hundreds trooped up to the promenade deck to peer over the side and verify that indeed we were not moving. We were stuck on a sandbar.
A clammy heat filled the ship. Fresh water supplies quickly ran out so we were stuck with an unpleasant tasting desalinated variety. The only refreshment available other than the odd cuppa came from the communal water bubbler, a dribble of disturbingly warm, smooth and slightly salty liquid.

Friend Angus and I had roamed the length and breadth of the vessel many times over the past fortnight until we knew it back to front and inside out. We’d been told off for being too close to the engine room, too near the galley, too often in the lift, warned off the lifeboat deck, hazardous because it had no railings; scolded for running through family groups on the promenade deck and told to ‘shut up’ in the cinema even though the audience were viewing the one and only film, “Green For Danger” for the umpteenth time. Our floating prison wallowed on the sandbar for what seemed an eternity, although only hours, until the tide rose.

Aden. At last a chance to leave the ship for a while. By the time we were allowed ashore darkness had disguised the uglier aspects of a poor city. I remember being fascinated with what was a very backward place then. Ferried to land in a small launch, we moved amongst strange sights and smells, marvelling at feeling so warm yet so lightly clad after dark. My absent minded astonishment caused me to trip over a local sleeping on the footpath. Whatever he shouted at me was obviously not a welcome to town.

Our respite on terra firma was all too brief in view of the ferrying limitations and the obligation of sailing with the tide.
Unable to take on drinking water here because of its dire qualities we were still restricted to the wretched desalinated as we made for Colombo, Ceylon. Prickly heat, evidenced by a fine, itchy rash from head to toe added to the discomfort. Somewhere in the Arabian Sea many heat weary souls tried sleeping in the open air of the promenade deck, anything to get out of the stifling cabin. My father and I settled down with some pillows and sheets on the port side, rocking gently into slumber under the star spangled canopy. An overnight storm swamped those who had chosen the starboard side.
Two weeks into the journey we arrived at Colombo. Being pulled up against the wharf here, not relying on ferries, allowed everyone easy access to a bright and busy town. Father provided the thrill of a sight-seeing taxi ride for the family, a car ride of any kind being a very rare treat for our family in those days.

Spirits were renewed in adults and children alike by this worthwhile stopover, release from the confines of the ship and a change of scene. Irritations between adults eased for a while and the ship felt good once more.
Unfortunately Australia was still nearly another week away which brought on early renewal of discontent in we youngsters. Day after day, friend Angus and I were at the railing looking for the great south land, that still mythical place of many ‘roos and rare rain.

What to do to pass the dreary wave bashing hours? Angus and I came back to our cabin late one morning as soon as the cleaners had finished and while most others were still occupied elsewhere. Totally at a loose end, we sought to ease our boredom with a bit of horseplay, progressing from wrestling to a pillow fight then to belting one another with life jackets.
From atop a wardrobe I took the hardest swing I could muster with the lifejacket at my fellow voyager. Halfway through its arc the jacket fouled a dangling light fitting, tearing the whole thing from the ceiling. Aware that this alteration would be quite unexplainable we did a quick tidy up and vamoosed. Stern tones and faces of officialdom were already in the passageway as we fled, alternating with those of passengers complaining of lighting failure in their cabins. Even by day the cabins with their single port hole needed the supplement of artificial light.

On hearing our worried confession of the disaster my father told us to make ourselves scarce for a while. Subsequently word got around that the stunt had taken out the lighting for half of D deck. I never heard how Dad smoothed it over but considered myself lucky to get away without the customary belting from him.

When Mum casually mentioned one afternoon that Australia was in sight I hi-tailed it up to the ‘prom’ deck then stood with dozens of others staring at the long grey blur on the horizon. Despite the most intense and prolonged staring the blur didn’t seem to change one iota. The following afternoon we berthed at Fremantle. After all my days of nagging I was not to be one of those enjoying shore leave, a stomach complaint having laid me low. My family took the bus for a viewing of Perth but returned all disappointed that a power blackout had ruined their prospects. At least I couldn’t be blamed for that one.
Half a day out of Fremantle the welcome land disappeared again as the coastline turned north and we failed to follow.

From one side of the continent to the other there would be no more going ashore except for those leaving at Melbourne.


Another week of endless waves finally brought us to within sight of the Sydney terminal. Just one more torment remained as we sat out some impatient hours waiting to be declared safe to enter port, an occurrence of measles on board having posed a threat.

On the 4th June 1949 we emerged from our month and a day of limbo between the old life and the new and said goodbye to the friends we had made, the Clements and Ferguson families. Initially we lived at the home of a nominator, a family whom my father had met when in Sydney during the war. That was at Engadine, a quiet little area with dirt roads, about 20 miles south of the city. After a short time we moved to a bush block where we roughed it in a cabin which Dad had built from old packing cases.

As a ten year old I loved the adventure of this new life, the abundant and different wildlife, the bush setting, walking barefoot to school, chopping wood, carrying water. For my parents it was a far more difficult adjustment. The promised job for my father wasn’t available on arrival so he had to make do with bits and pieces. For mother the challenge was catering for her family in primitive conditions including an absence of basic conveniences and the mudmire of one of Sydney’s wettest seasons on record.

During this period another family from the ship who had run into misfortune came to live next to us in a tent and shared our scant facilities amid the mud. By the following year Dad had gained reliable employment in Adelaide to where we all moved and settled at the end of 1950.

The one regret my mother had about migrating was never seeing her parents again. With the prohibitive cost of overseas phone calls, and travel, in that era, the only contact until they died was via the fortnightly blue aerogramme, the cheapest way of sending a letter.

My parents never blamed Australia for any of their woes. They loved their new Country, endured the hard times and made a good life for themselves and their four children.

Submitted by Mike Davies, March 2010.  To contact Mike please send us an email.
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