On an icy morning in January 1955 my parents began an adventure which determined the direction of the lives of all our family and of those generations which followed.
Our family of five – my Mum and my Dad, thirteen year old sister Jean, five year old brother Phillip and me.
We were “Ten Pound Poms” on our way to Australia on the P&O Liner, “Strathaird,” and I was a wide-eyed nine year old with few memories of being further from home than the Barton bus depot at the end of the road in Beeston, the town in Nottinghamshire where I was born.
Having sold the family house a few weeks earlier we had started the year living for a while in rented accommodation in Mapperley before embarking from Tilbury on that day in January.
The whole trip took about five weeks and started with the roughest of initiations as the ship ploughed its way through Biscay towards the relative sanctuary of the Mediterranean Sea where we called briefly at Malta, but were not permitted ashore. I remember a few days later the vessel gliding like a true "ship of the desert" through the Suez and before that the bumboats alongside our ship at Port Said, clinging to us like burrs as they went about their business of selling their souvenirs and collectables. Brown skinned men in baggy trousers wearing white taqiyah skullcaps, their boats looking as though they had come to us via Aladdin's storeroom, rocking from side to side while with ropes and baskets they passed up their wares and our passengers passed down their money. My mum bought a couple of wooden plates inlaid with shells. She told me years later that one of the first things the local vicar said, when he came to introduce himself as we settled to our new life in the far north of Australia, was what nice collection plates they would make.
There's not a lot that a nine year old would remember of such a trip - but the memories of a long exciting sea voyage left an overwhelming impression, and were a major contributor to my decision to make a career myself as a seafarer a little over ten years later - but as they say, that's another story.
The Strathaird was then already over 20 years old having been around since 1932. With a length of 200 metres and a 24 metre beam, she weighed over 22,500 tons and cruised at 20 knots. She carried a crew of 480 and over 1,200 single class passengers. Like most of her kind she was a troop carrier during the war and along with her sisters, Stratheden, Strathmore and Strathnaver, these wonderful ships delivered a hundred thousand or more fresh faced new immigrants to Australia during the fifties and the early sixties. She was retired from service in 1961 and sold to a Hong Kong breakers yard where I like to think she was recycled into something more dignified than razor blades or paper clips.
Our first opportunity to step on to foreign soil was at the port of Aden, now part of Yemen, but at that time a colony of the British Empire at the eastern approaches to the Red Sea. After that it was on to Colombo in Sri Lanka. It was called Ceylon in 1955; a place of overwhelming smells and the colours and intensity of the sub-continent at its most intoxicating. There were beggars on every street, in every doorway, and by every road. Vendors thrust their treasures in our faces and followed us as we were hustled along the busy thoroughfares. The throng of humanity after the relative calm of shipboard life was overpowering.
Yet for a nine year old post-war schoolboy, the most exciting thing I remember to this day was the thrill of being in Aden and Ceylon and being able to buy postage stamps from those countries to add to my collection. Vendors were everywhere and I pestered the daylights out of my parents to let me spend some money.
After Ceylon the ship made the long trip across the Indian Ocean to Fremantle. We went through some frightening monsoon weather and one night a passenger fell overboard. The ship spent several hours circling around but he was never found - a dreadful way to go.
Shipboard life for the kids was wonderful. I'm sure it was for the adults as well, but I particularly liked sharing a dining table with other migrant kids and our steward, a Londoner who told us to call him Seb saying, “what you don’t want, don’t eat.” Heaven for us was no one telling us to eat our vegetables. We were even brought tea in bed at breakfast time. Of course, we had to attend school lessons of a sort, but it was nothing like real school. We were taught songs about kookaburras in gum trees, and were shown pictures of kangaroos and told something about the history of this great country we were about to call our new home.
We disembarked in Sydney on a hot February day and soon after were on a long train journey north to Brisbane. Together with other Queensland bound settlers, we were accommodated at the Yungaba Immigration Centre, our home for the next few weeks. Yungaba was the first port of call for many thousands of the migrants who came to Queensland. Situated on the tip of the Kangaroo Point peninsula at a sweeping bend in the Brisbane River and with three-sided water views, it was a wonderful location for such an establishment. Although it was a government-run institution, there was a welcoming concern for the comfort and welfare of its residents; not just for compassionate reasons, but also because of the competition that existed between the states as they each attempted to attract migrants who could boost their labour force. I think my parents were quite happy to be placed there even after the relative luxury of shipboard life.
My father had a job organised before we left Britain, and shortly after arriving in Brisbane, Dad flew to North Queensland where he was to start work as a motor mechanic at a small garage in the town of Mossman. Dad’s first assignment was to find a home for us to live in and to get settled into his new job. The rest of us were to follow by train a week or two later.
I have since thought what a harrowing experience it was for my 38 year old mother; literally fresh off the boat, having left a fairly comfortable (if cold) life in England, boarding a train with three children to travel 1,000 miles north to “God knows where”.
The air-conditioned Sunlander was still a few years in the future, as we headed north on a clattering old train into the North Queensland wet season. Even today, conventional rail travel in Queensland can be a slow experience with a frequent stops and starts as bogeys rattle along in narrow gauge 3 feet 6 inch tracks; although Queensland’s Tilt Train is one of the fastest trains in the world using a narrow gauge track. However, nothing was further away than the old rattler which took about a week to get us to Cairns. Stopping at sidings and stations for hours at a time, it was a slow, uncomfortable trip with Mum doing her best to look after and feed three kids. There were no sleeper cars - this was a journey where we were sitting up all the way. Each time the train arrived at a station, passengers and locals would make their way to the railway bar, or if there was no bar on the platform, to the local pub where they would buy and consume more and more booze for the long trip north.
At the Burdekin River which separates the towns of Home Hill on the south and Ayr on the north, the rail bridge was under several feet of water and the train was unable to cross. Together with the other passengers, we struggled from the train with our luggage, and lining up in the rain, waited to cross the mile-wide fast flowing river. With the muddy water almost lapping the gunwales, we were ferried in tiny flat-bottom boats, not much bigger than fishing "tinnies", across to the other shore. Once there we were all squeezed into another even older train for the remaining 300 miles of the journey north.
When we eventually arrived in Cairns, Dad was waiting for us. We had another 50 miles to travel, north along the Cook Highway to our new home. We all piled into an old International truck stopping every few miles along the way to ford another flooded creek or causeway. After a journey which seemed as long and eventful, if much less comfortable than our earlier sea crossing, we eventually arrived in Mossman and our new home.
Mossman was a cane town – it still is. Its sugar mill was not far from the middle of town and the little cane trains with their cargo of freshly cut cane would travel down the centre of Mill Street through the town several times a day, holding up what little traffic there was. The town had five pubs and a little picture theatre in a corrugated iron building with deck chairs for seating where we were to see such wonderful films as Magnificent Obsession and Dial M for Murder.
Our home was a tiny one storey fibro dwelling a long long way from Beeston. To say that Mum was less than impressed with the attractions of this hot, wet little town would have been much more than an understatement. For the next nine months there was a bag packed in the hallway which belonged to my mother - I'm sure she must have come close on many occasions to picking it up and just walking out.
We didn't have a car, something which would have disappointed my father who was always an enthusiastic motorist. We did however, have use of an old International D2 flat-bed truck with a floor-mounted foot starter and a split windscreen which was wound open on hot days (which was most days). Dad painted it red.
We didn't stay in Mossman for long – about a year before moving back down the Cook Highway to the big smoke – Cairns, where Dad got a job as workshop foreman at the Cairns City Council. Cairns was not the modern tourist town it is now – just a few streets, a muddy esplanade, no traffic lights, no parking meters and lots of places for youngsters to go swimming and exploring. There were many adventures to follow, and many memorable years but none perhaps as remarkable for me as 1955.