Following the Murray River: Corryong to Yarrawonga

Monday 21st May 2012

We left our Corryong B&B hostess after a splendid breakfast, sincerely wishing her well in her somewhat uncertain future.  I can see from an Internet search that the business was sold in due course, so we can only hope that her trials and tribulations are well behind her now.

It was still quite bleak and misty on the road, even at 9.30 when this was taken:

Leaving Corryong, still misty at 9.30am

Leaving Corryong, still misty at 9.30am

Half an hour down the road, the B400, Murray Valley Highway, and we were still deep in a magic landscape of shrouded secrets:

Tallangatta Bridge

Tallangatta Bridge

Two hours later, and we were crossing the Tallangatta Bridge in bright sunshine. Tallangatta and surrounding areas are primarily farming country, concentrating on beef and dairy cattle.

Shortly afterwards, we parked at the Hume Dam complex.  The dam’s purpose includes flood mitigation, hydro-power, irrigation, water supply, and conservation.

Hume Dam

It is not a bad picnic and recreation area either, and visitors are allowed to walk across the dam wall.  The lake created by the dam, Lake Hume (innovative?) is estimated to hold approximately six times the amount of water in Sydney Harbour.

A short distance from the dam, along the shores of Lake Hume, lies the Bonegilla Migrant Experience.  During the Second World War, Bonegilla was built as an army camp.  After the war, in 1947, it was converted to a Migrant Reception and Training Centre.  For more than 300,000 post-war migrants and war displaced persons, it was their first home in Australia. People from more than 50 countries were transferred through its modest wooden accommodation huts and kitchen messes, waiting to hear where they would be allocated work or resettlement locations.

BonegillaMy own father arrived here in 1952 (not that I met him until 1980 – but that is another story altogether).  In July of 1952, the 3,000 strong Italian community rioted over poor living conditions, and the lack of promised work.  They had been enticed to Australia by government policies instigated a couple of years before (Populate or Perish).  By the time they arrived, the economy had collapsed and Australia was experiencing a recession.  People who were used to hard work found themselves hanging around with too much time on their hands, and worrying about the income that they had promised to dependent family members left back home. Well, that is probably a simplification by correct historical standards, but it does give an idea of what happened.  I can remember my father making reference to the riot, but I think he arrived shortly after the outbreak.

Migrant Huts at Bonegilla

Migrant Huts at Bonegilla

Inside what would have been a recreational hall

Inside what might have been a recreational hall

Can you imagine being a European immigrant, perhaps from one of the great cities of that continent, boarding a vessel for the long passage to the land down under, being put on to a train in Sydney, and then hours and hours later, being off-loaded at the lonely Bonegilla railway siding?  Being met there by army personnel who provided transport to the camp, security and catering services.  Jolting in the back of a truck, one or two suitcases in hand, the newly arrived would have looked out on open pastures and a vista of grey-green half dead eucalyptus – nothing like a verdant beech or pine European forest.  Welcome to your new life!

If you can get hold of an old (1984) Australian film called Silver City, you can glimpse the experience through the eyes of the central character, Nina, a Polish immigrant, played by Gosia Dobrowolska, who was actually a Polish immigrant, albeit three decades later than the film’s setting.  I particularly remember a scene involving the trees 🙂

The nearest town to Bonegilla was Albury (NSW) or Wodonga (Vic) each about fifteen-twenty kilometres away from the camp.  The influx of homeless, displaced and migrants brought profound cultural change to Australia, the biggest demographic shift since the Gold Rush a hundred years earlier.  The population of the twin towns of Albury-Wodonga, straddling either border of the great Murray River, were amongst the first “true-blues” to feel the effect.

A trip to what is now the living, outdoor museum of Bonegilla is highly recommended for any Aussie with migrant links, regardless of whether their ancestor passed through this camp.

Now, if that is not your cup of tea, you could continue along the Murray Valley Highway, which crosses over to the Victorian side of the river, and spend some time in the wineries of Rutherglen.  We skipped that option on this trip, and headed to Yarrawonga, in search of a bed for the night.  More of that in the next post.

Next Destination: Echuca

6 thoughts on “Following the Murray River: Corryong to Yarrawonga

  1. I lived in South Melbourne at the time and we used to go to watch the boats arrive at Station Pier. With the distances involved I would be surprised if many migrants sent to Bonegilla arrived via Sydney. There was some even more temporary accommodation near the pier between it and Fisherman’s bend but I think that this was only used whilst awaiting transport to Bonegilla.
    Although times could be tough in Australia they were very tough in devastated Europe. I am amazed that migrants expected to be able to send money home. Given that all countries had currency restrictions at the time. No one had any spare cash. I wonder if there were unrealistic expectations?
    Many of our neighbours were newly settled migrants from many different countries. They were married and were starting families here. I went to school with their children.
    It never dawned on me that Mr Ferrari or Mr Wong or Mr Tzimopoulous were in any way different.
    Given that so many were being settled and integrated successfully it shocks me to hear of riots at the camp. I know that many problems happened later when there were so many migrants that we got Italian enclaves, Greek enclaves and problems such as the “Free Croatia” movement.
    But initially at least I only met people who were happy to have escaped with their lives and were able to start a new life.

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    • Hello Andrew, I am delighted you found this post and took the time to give such a thought provoking reply. It inspired me to look again at my father’s immigration record. You are quite correct. He arrived via Melbourne, off the Lloyd Triestino vessel, the Neptunia, on 4th January 1952 . It was from a much later voyage from Italy to Australia that he disembarked in Sydney. I wonder how long was the train journey from Melbourne to Albury? I can see it takes four hours now, and that diesel was not introduced until July 1952, and that the rail gauge between Vic and NSW was not unified until 1960s. That last point is probably not significant as the break of gauge was at Albury anyway. So I guess it was a steam train – would you have any info on how long that took? As for the expectation of sending money home – that was very real for the Italian migrants who were enticed here after Arthur Caldwell visited Italy and promised a land of plentiful jobs, even for the most unskilled. They signed a contract with the government, and I suspect it contained a clause that passage and living money were to be repaid to the govt over time, but by 1952 Australia was in economic depression. Written of the next five years, my dad’s letters are full of his frustrations at not having regular enough work to send back as much money as he wanted to, but he definitely was sending money to his parents regularly. I can imagine that persons coming from Central Europe from the displaced persons camps in the years immediately after 1945 had different feelings. If you google Trove, and look up old newspaper clippings you will see several articles on the strike of 1952 which explains what the Italians were promised, and even the rates of money they were issued while waiting in Bonegilla. E.g. The Melbourne Argus, Sat 19th July 1952. I am glad to hear you enjoyed your multicultural links. Me too. I went to school opposite the Villawood Migrant Hostel. At least 70% of the 1000 strong enrolment were not born in Australia, and we had great friendships. Some were exceedingly bright, and sadly held back by their lack of English proficiency, even though our school had one of the first special English programmes. When my dad told me of some of the slurs he faced in the early years, I thought he was exaggerating, but apparently it was true from some quarters. We see it again today in the mass assumptions we make about the attitudes and outlooks of one cultural group versus another. Anyway, thanks so much for your comments!

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    • I left school in 1971, at which time it was still called the Villawood Migrant Hostel. A couple of years before, the Nissan huts had been replaced by two storey brick buildings which could be described as large motel style, or very small town house style. Then with the wave of Vietnamese boat refugees, a small section was denominated ‘Villawood Immigration Detention Centre’. By the early eighties, the hostel (and I guess assisted immigration?) was abandoned altogether and the whole thing given over to ‘detention’ status. Ostensibly for people who have overstayed their visas or had them cancelled, but has also housed asylum seekers. The buildings appear to be dilapidated, as far as anything can be made out from the street. All very high security now. Definitely still operating, and still directly opposite the high school.

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    • Thanks! I am very familiar with the Nissan huts. I went to High School opposite the Villawood Migrant Hostel. (only thing you needed to do to be in the ‘A’ class was speak English). Actually, the Bonegilla huts internally were more cramped, shabby lino on the floor, little wall lining. Initially, husbands and wives were quartered separately. Each doorstep in the hut is a separate person/s entrance. It must have been pretty grim, but they were only supposed to stop a month or so there.

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