Riga Exodus #5

Queensland’s Rockhampton Evening News of 28 November 1940 screamed an indignant headline:


Evacuees do not want to live here!

Further north up the coast, Queensland’s Townsville Daily Bulletin of 29 November 1940 was equally offended:


Queensland’s Maligned Climate

The story behind the headlines was that some of the Baltic evacuees, on hearing that Queensland had agreed to take all 174 of them, were sceptical of its suitability. As the refugees were slowly sailing south from Hong Kong, past the Philippines, many newspapers were running the story. “The authorities overseas had now represented to the Premier of Queensland, Mr Forgan Smith, that since most of the evacuees had lived for many years in a very cold climate they should be permitted to go to one of the Southern States.”

Misinformation had spread that the climate of Queensland was unhealthy and particularly unsuitable for children. “Unfortunately, Sydney and Melbourne seem to be the only places known overseas, and Queensland’s climate — one of the best In Australia — has been maligned by some people!” railed the Minister for the Interior, Senator Foll.

Queensland’s Health Minister, Mr E. M. Hanlon, had something to say on the misinformation. As he rightly pointed out, “Queensland had been pioneered and settled by people from the cold climate of the British Isles.” (To the detriment of the local indigenous populations, but he didn’t mention that.) “If there was any distinction of the climate of Queensland and that of other States it was all in the favour of Queensland,” he continued. “This was shown by the mortality figures of this State as compared with the others.”

Oh dear. This did not sound as if the refugees had got off on the right foot, but fortunately, others among them were more complimentary, as we can see from the letter written by Evelyn Knight, the great-aunt of fellow blogger Derrick J. Knight. You can read what she had to say here. I recommend it to you as it gives a first person insight and is a jolly good yarn.

Evelyn praised Cairns as being a picturesque bright and clean-looking town … very thriving, with attractive shops, providing, delicious fruit – pineapples, pawpaws and refreshingly cool drinks.

During their short stay in Cairns, it seems a Mr Price of the Queensland Tourist Board and a representative from Senator Foll’s department must have saved the day by explaining what arrangements had been made for accommodation in Brisbane and how the refugees were to be supported financially. Ultimately, all but 23 persons stayed in Queensland.

After having left Riga railway station on 27 October 1940, this evacuation party of dislocated British citizens of the now Soviet-occupied Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania finally came to rest in Brisbane, Queensland, on 7th December 1940. Luckily there were no hard feelings from the Australian locals. One report said the arrival was one of the most moving scenes ever witnessed on a Brisbane wharf. “Three cheers for the European visitors” was met by the evacuees “cheering lustily back, women bursting into tears, and men throwing their hats in the air”.

Newspapers went in to a lather of personal interest stories, one of the best being in The Telegraph (Brisbane, Qld) of Saturday 7 Dec 1940, Page 7. If you would like to read the article more legibly, you can find it by following this link.

The evacuees had many questions. “Tell me, please, is this your summer or your winter? How high does the thermometer rise in summer? What is a heat wave? How long does it wave?” (It was the beginning of summer. They were yet to learn what January and February could bring). Many were looking for jobs: some inquired about education. Was it free? Was it possible to work your way through a medical course? Is there any age limit to State School education?

Nearly all had arrived penniless, being only allowed to take with them Fifteen Pounds (some reports say Twelve Pounds) by the Soviet authorities. Some had created inspirational methods of smuggling more money or valuables, but some of those also suffered theft en route.

Way back in Part One I told you about the two unaccompanied children, Peter and Helga. At 14 and 13, their story was particularly appealing to the journalists. Here again, it would be better to read the story directly from the newspaper. The reporter took Helga off to buy a sunhat, and then took both children to the Botanic Gardens, where they “spent an exhausting half-hour trying to persuade the wallabies to hop. They regarded palm trees with interest, a hibiscus flower with appreciation, and a native companion with astonishment. Finally they asked, as though expecting at least one serpent in this Garden of Eden. ‘And do you have black-outs in Brisbane?’ The assurance that such things are not included among the city’s attractions was received without emotion.”

Brisbane in 1940 was a provincial capital city of around 330,00 roughly 50/50 men and women. This kind of story was on everyone’s lips – and where better for it to gain traction than at the hairdressing salon? Once again, the Brisbane Telegraph provides the blow-by-blow details, which, in summary, caused 14 year old Peter Evansa tall boy with a rough fair head, a wide smile and irreproachable manners – to be taken by Mr and Mrs Fred Hart (a customer in the salon at the same as a female journalist from the newspaper) on an eight week holiday at Surfers Paradise, all kitted out with suitable clothing and necessities at their expense. Not to be outdone, Mr and Mrs Glen C. Webb (she being connected with a radio broadcast), took Helga Pihlokas into their home, indefinitely. In future she would be known as Helga Webb (ouch!).

There are many other stories, too many to go into here, about the various social engagements and entertainments, and return courtesies such as the performance of folkloric song and dance by the refugees. A big fuss was made over their enjoyment of Queensland tea. 71 year old Miss N. S. Smith entered into the Patriotic Fund’sQuest for Queensland’s best wartime smile.” Yet another who had also been made homeless during the 1917 Russian revolution, it was probably not going to be too much of a struggle to put a smile on her dial now she was safe in Australia.

Evelyn Knight’s letter tells us what was her next personal journey, and I have also had a little dig around into what life path some of the other refugees took. Stand by…

This series of posts has been inspired by fellow blogger Derrick J. Knight, who recently wrote the true-life story of his great-aunt Evelyn May Knight‘s escape from Soviet-run Estonia in 1940. You can read the original story here. This is my fifth follow-up to the tale. You can read my part one here, part two here, part three here, and part four here.

10 thoughts on “Riga Exodus #5

  1. Pingback: Riga Exodus #7 | The Reluctant Retiree

  2. Pingback: Riga Exodus #6 | The Reluctant Retiree

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