Bathurst Region - Live, Visit, Invest, Study

Migrant Camp

The Bathurst Migrant Camp was established in 1948 on what is now the site of 'Heritage Park'.  

At the entrance is a memorial dedicated to the people who began their lives in Australia at the camp. Clumps of concrete footings and rubble marking the sites of some of the original huts can be seen as you drive into the property. This is all that remains of the camp today. Some of the original buildings are now used on the farm. A large aerial photograph of the camp is on display in the Bathurst Visitor Information Centre.

History of the Camp

The Migrant Camp took over where the Army Camp left off. The accommodation in the ex-army huts was makeshift but had to be used because nothing else was available due to a severe housing shortage at that time. The buildings were iron sheds, wooden barracks and tents. They were cold in winter and hot in summer. Many were in poor condition and needed constant repair. For single people narrow iron beds set out in dormitory style made up their quarters. Married quarters were partitioned off into separate sections but these partitions were flimsy and did not allow for much privacy.

Populate or Perish

When WWII ended, Arthur Calwell, Minister for Immigration in the Chifley Labour Government, promoted the policy of "Populate or Perish". This maintained the need for Australia to take war refugees or displaced persons from Europe and Britain.

It was the hope of the Australian Government to bring out people who would boost the numbers of skilled and unskilled tradespeople to work on building schemes such as the Snowy River Hydro Electric Scheme, the Department of Public Works Housing Project and in the sugar plantations of Queensland. Bathurst became one of the major migrant reception centres in Australia.

Coming to Australia was a great adventure for many of the younger children. Henry, then four years old, his six year old brother and his parents migrated from Poland in 1950. His parents spent the war years in German labour camps where they met and married. His early memories are of queues. Queuing with his parents for departure papers, queuing for medical examinations, for delousing, and then on arrival in Sydney queuing for the train to Bathurst in the cavernous expanse of Sydney Central Railway Station.

On board ship he recalls playing on the deck and being a constant concern to his mother, who had a hard time keeping him away from the deck's railings. He also remembers the seasickness of the trip.

On arrival in Bathurst he experienced many new sights and smells. He can still vividly recall images of that time when the smell of eucalyptus and the formic acid created by bull ants was present along with the dust storms and the amazingly blue Australian sky.

At school the migrant children were regarded as an oddity. They looked, dressed and spoke differently.

Life at the camp was something of an adventure. He was free to roam through the open paddocks and into the creek nearby. He was fascinated with the Australian animals and recalls an encounter with a huge feral cat and the shooting of a large and very dangerous snake near the camp.

Henry's mother, Josephine, learned about Australia from a film shown in the displaced person's camp in Germany and wondered if she would ever see civilisation again! The film showed an Aboriginal corroboree, with people eating snakes and lizards and throwing boomerangs.

On arrival in Bathurst the family had few possessions. They were issued with clothes, shoes, linen and towels. They spent the first winter living in tents and then moved into family quarters in the huts. The migrant camp was like a town with a population almost the size of Bathurst at times. There was a cinema (afternoon movies for children, evening shows for adults) and loudspeakers that broadcast the local radio programmes and made announcements in many languages throughout the day. A bus toured through the camp and travelled into Bathurst for shopping. Josephine recalls that the women were busy during the day caring for the young children and attending English classes while many used their time to make clothing and furnishings for their future homes. Beautiful rugs and tapestries were made while the women lived at the camp. Often the men would be away for days or weeks at a time and the women found companionship with the other young wives and mothers. Christenings, birthday parties and other events were planned.
Food was very different but plentiful compared to war torn Europe. Many of the people became ill through eating the fatty mutton prepared for almost every meal. Families ate in communal dining rooms which were staffed by other migrants. They missed the foods of their homeland and could not buy the ingredients to prepare such meals.

Families were split up
The men and single women of assisted immigrant families were assigned to work in factories, on farms, on building sites and in major construction areas. They could be away from home and family for extended periods of time and were often allocated work which was far below their qualifications and training . On arrival in Australia they had entered into an agreement with the Australian Government to work for two years at an assigned job, then be examined at the end of that time to gain qualifications. Unassisted immigrants who had paid their own way were not required to enter into such an agreement and were free to make their own arrangements. Josephine's husband, Stan found learning English difficult, but when it came to passing his carpentry exams he was able to show he was skilled by the work he produced.

Most people made their own entertainment. The cinema provided films, card parties were held and celebrations of anniversaries and christenings were regular events. One Bathurst woman, a teenager at the time, remembers attending some wonderful dances at the Camp. The camp indeed gained the reputation as the place to go for New Year's Eve celebrations. Many of the migrants were talented artists, musicians, singers and entertainers. A group formed calling themselves ‘The New Australian Opera Company' and staged the opera ‘Tosca' for the camp and Bathurst residents.

Many migrants came to Australia in poor health. Tuberculosis was feared by the immigration authorities and X rays were taken to screen migrants before they came to Australia. Ted, a Polish migrant, recalls being taken to Bathurst Hospital, examined and left out on a verandah with the doctor's words..."We won't see him in the morning". Ted survived and went on to enjoy a happy family life in Bathurst.

Conditions at the camp did little to isolate the residents from infectious diseases and childhood illnesses like measles, chickenpox and scarlet fever spread like wildfire through the camp on many occasions. While the camp hospital, staffed with migrant doctors and nurses, was able to cope with non acute cases, all surgery, childbirth and serious accidents were taken by ambulance to Bathurst District Hospital. Childbirth was a difficult time as there were few older women who could help the younger women. Other children were placed in the child care centre attached to the hospital at the migrant camp, where their fathers could see them, but away from their mothers. Language became a great problem at this time, as most medical staff could not speak German, the language most used throughout the camp.

New Australians
The Chifley Government fostered an assimilation policy whereby all migrants should become New Australians. The attitude was that they would leave their old lives behind them and learn the ‘Australian' way of life which was considered superior. Learning English was one priority and learning the ways of Australians was another. Life was difficult for many, but the spirit of survival was strong and most people kept an optimistic outlook making a new life for themselves in Australia. Even so it can be said that most migrants, despite efforts to assimilate, continued to feel like ‘strangers in a foreign land', and harboured warm feelings for the place of their birth.
Australia accepted nearly 200,000 migrants up to 1950. As many as 8,000 people lived at any one time in the Bathurst camp and by 1952 over 80,000 migrants had passed through its gates.

Migrant Memorial
In May 1985 Bathurst was the scene of a unique event in the history of immigration. As part of the city's centenary celebrations, a migrant camp reunion took place, the first of its kind in Australia. Its significance was not merely in offering a few days of nostalgia for the residents of the former migrant centre but to pay public tribute to the contribution of the postwar immigrants, elevating that era to its rightful position in our history. People attended from all over Australia. Colonel Guinn, who had been the centre director from 1949 until its closure in 1952, unveiled a memorial to those who had passed through the centre and who had since been dispersed throughout Australia.

In his closing speech at the ceremony, Tim de Vries, who had arrived at the age of eleven from Holland, expressed the feelings of many:

"My memories of the migrant camp are few, as you might expect, but I do remember the stress of the adults, the millions of flies, the thousands of rabbits, the peppery sausages, the dining hall of B Block, the old fossicker who lived alone in a cabin dug out of a rock wall in a valley, in walking distance from the camp. I also remember the mountain of empty bottles near his cave, and the small bottle with yellow specks of gold he liked to show us children.

The experiences of the migrant camp and the following years, the 1950s, were not particularly pleasant for our family. They were difficult years of adjustment; no other family; a new language; for my parents a loss of social identity; the heat; the financial difficulties.

And yet despite these, there were also a lot of big ‘pluses': peace, sunshine, space, freedom, opportunity, natural beauty, prosperity, self-discovery and satisfaction.
All these positives could be summarised in one word: Australia.

To many migrants, Australia was a hard land. Because it was hard, one needed to strive to progress. The continuous striving developed personal discipline and self-exploitation. This resulted in self-fulfilment and prosperity, and all this makes for happiness and satisfaction.

Australia brought out the best in the person of very many migrants.

That's why now, 35 years later, we gladly call Australia our home."

In May 1988, many old camp residents, some with their grandchildren and friends returned to Bathurst to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the opening of the camp. In February 1999 an even larger number attended the 50th anniversary celebration.

Take a look at some of the stories of people who came to call Australia home.