Last week we unveiled a new large-scale embroidered work by Melbourne textile artist Melinda Piesse at the museum. Known as the Batavia tapestry (2017), it illustrates the tragic story of the wreck of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) flagship Batavia in the Indian Ocean, off the coast of Western Australia, on 4 June 1629 and the sorry fate of the ship’s company.
This week a very special piece of pewter is coming to the museum … the Hartog plate, on loan from the Rijksmuseum to mark 400 years since Dutch mariner Dirk Hartog made the first recorded European landing on the west coast of Australia in October 1616. As a testimony of his visit, Hartog left behind an inscribed pewter plate that is recognised as the oldest European artefact found on Australian soil.
Last Thursday night saw the launch of the museum’s latest roof projection, A chance encounter, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Dutch mariner Dirk Hartog’s landing on the west coast of Australia in the VOC ship Eendracht. To mark his landfall on 25 October 1616, Hartog left behind an inscribed pewter plate in Shark Bay, Western Australia, which provides tangible evidence of one of the earliest European encounters with Australia.
Four hundred years ago, Dutch mariner Dirk Hartog (1580–1621) sailed into history when, on 25 October 1616, he made the first documented European landing on the west coast of Australia in the Dutch East India Company (VOC) ship Eendracht (‘Concord’ or ‘Unity’). Today his name is synonymous with the inscribed ‘Hartog plate’ that marked his landfall at Cape Inscription on Dirk Hartog Island in Shark Bay, Western Australia. This evocative pewter relic, now held in Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum, provides tangible evidence of one of the earliest European encounters with the mysterious Terra Australis Incognita – the unknown southern land.
Last week I started exploring the fascinating intersection between needlework, craft and maritime history in the museum’s collection, examining an embroidered sampler made by young British migrant Julia Donovan in 1879. Today I will be looking at the sampler’s first cousin – the sailor’s woolwork picture or embroidered ship portrait, affectionately known as a ‘woolie’.
One of my favourite objects in the museum’s collection is a charming needlework sampler made by 19-year-old assisted immigrant Julia Donovan on board the Carnatic in January 1879. Immigration records show that Julia arrived in Rockhampton, Queensland, from England on 5 February 1879, and presumably went into domestic service in the growing port town.
The museum’s travelling exhibition On their own – Britain’s child migrants recently commenced a tour to the UK, opening at Merseyside Maritime Museum at Liverpool’s historic Albert Dock. The exhibition traces the history of the government-sponsored schemes that sent more than 100,000 unaccompanied children from Britain to Commonwealth countries between the 1860s and 1960s. The special guest at the opening was former child migrant Tony Chambers, who was sent to New Zealand in 1951 at the age of nine.
There was something incredibly symbolic about being gathered at this museum on the banks of the River Mersey – where so many child migrants embarked on their long sea voyage to a new life – to hear Tony speak about his experiences. He acknowledged that he was one of the lucky ones, in that he was able to return to England in 1965 and reconnect with his birth mother. Many others were not so lucky, and one of the most common questions I was asked while in Liverpool, and indeed throughout the three-year Australian tour of On their own, was How can I find out more about my/my family’s child migrant history?
A great place to start is the ANMM’s research guide to child migration resources in our Vaughan Evans Library. Merseyside Maritime Museum’s information sheet on child emigration is also very useful for an overview of the schemes and sending organisations.
The National Archives of Australia’s Child migration to Australia fact sheet contains a guide to personal documents of child migrants that are held in national and state archives, while Good British Stock: Child and Youth Migration to Australia includes a guide to archives and libraries in the UK, Canada, Malta and Zimbabwe, as well as organisations that can help former child migrants to find family members.
The Child Migrants Trust provides a range of social work services for former child migrants, including counselling, family research and support for family reunions. It has offices in Nottingham, Melbourne and Perth. The International Association of Former Child Migrants and Their Families advocates for recognition, understanding and reparation for former child migrants.
It is also a good idea to contact the sending organisation, if you know its name, as many have aftercare offices that can provide information to former child migrants or their families. There is a detailed list of organisations and their contact details in the report from the 2001 Senate Inquiry Lost Innocents: Righting the Record – Report on Child Migration.
Find and Connect is a comprehensive web resource for Forgotten Australians, former child migrants and anyone with an interest in the history of child welfare in Australia. It brings together historical resources relating to institutional care and also helps people to connect with support groups and services in their state or territory. The Find and Connect website has a list of commemorative events that have been organised this week to mark the fifth anniversary of the Australian Government’s apology to Forgotten Australians and former child migrants who experienced institutional or out-of-home care as children during the 20th century.
At the Parliament of Australia website you can watch or read the transcript of the historic apology in Canberra on 16 November 2009, when then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised for ‘the absolute tragedy of childhoods lost’ and acknowledged: the particular pain of children shipped to Australia as child migrants – robbed of your families, robbed of your homeland, regarded not as innocent children but regarded instead as a source of child labour.
To those of you who were told you were orphans, brought here without your parents’ knowledge or consent, we acknowledge the lies you were told, the lies told to your mothers and fathers, and the pain these lies have caused for a lifetime.
To those of you separated on the dockside from your brothers and sisters; taken alone and unprotected to the most remote parts of a foreign land – we acknowledge today that the laws of our nation failed you.
And for this we are deeply sorry.
On their own – Britain’s child migrants is on show at Merseyside Maritime Museum, National Museums Liverpool UK, until 4 October 2015.
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration
The museum’s award-winning digital projection Waves of migration returns this Sunday, Australia Day, to once again illuminate the museum’s iconic roofline with a rich tapestry of migration stories drawn from our collection.
Waves of migration explores the history of migration to Australia and the compelling stories of those who’ve come across the seas – from British convicts and early settlers, to Jewish refugees and displaced persons; from post-war European migrants and Ten Pound Poms, to Indochinese boat people and seaborne asylum seekers from Afghanistan. Continue reading
Last week I was invited to speak about the museum’s work at the Suitcases, boats and bridges: telling migrant stories in Australian museums workshop, organised by Dr Nina Parish from the University of Bath and Dr Chiara O’Reilly from the University of Sydney. The workshop brought together academics, museum professionals and museum studies students to discuss how migrant stories have been collected and articulated in a number of Australian museums, ranging from large government-funded institutions such as ours, to smaller regional, suburban or volunteer-run museums.
With plenty of attention focused on the British royal family at the moment, I was delighted to discover a royal connection in a recent addition to the museum’s collection – a framed 1900 print of the Orient liner Ophir in the Suez Canal by British artist Sir Frank Brangwyn.
Ophir was built by Robert Napier & Sons in Glasgow in 1891 and was the first twin-screw vessel to operate on the Australian mail service. It was often described as ‘the opulent Ophir’ because of its sumptuously-decorated interiors.
In 1900 it was chartered to the British Admiralty as the royal yacht HMS Ophir for the tour of the British Empire by the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York (later King George V and Queen Mary). The main task for the Duke was to open Australia’s new Federal Parliament in Melbourne, but the tour also served to thank the colonies for their assistance during the Boer War.
In March 1901 the Duke and Duchess departed Portsmouth on an eight-month tour that took in the following ports: Gibraltar, Malta, Port Said, Suez, Aden, Colombo, Singapore, Albany, Melbourne, Sydney, Auckland, Wellington, Lyttleton, Hobart, Adelaide, Albany, Fremantle, Mauritius, Durban, Simonstown, St Vincent, Quebec, Halifax and St John’s.
The tour was an outstanding diplomatic success, with thousands of people turning out in each port to welcome the royal couple. The museum holds several mementos from the tour, including a breakfast menu and a souvenir copper medallion issued to school children in New Zealand.
Following the royal tour, Ophir’s popularity soared, helping to sell summer cruises to the Norwegian fjords. However the vessel continued to lose money for the Orient Line because of its high running costs and it started to spend increasing time laid-up. During World War I it was commissioned as an armed merchant cruiser and in 1918 it was purchased by the Admiralty and converted into a hospital ship. Ophir was finally scrapped at Troon, Scotland, in 1922 – a sad end for the former royal yacht.
The museum’s colourful Frank Brangwyn print captures Ophir at the height of its grandeur and popularity, surrounded by Arab traders in bumboats as it travels through the Suez Canal. Brangwyn (1867–1956) was a prolific artist whose favourite subjects included ships and life on the high seas. Like many European artists of the time, he was influenced by Orientalism and the colours of the Mediterranean and Africa.
Art historian Libby Horner writes, ‘[Brangwyn’s] paintings, whatever the title, are usually concerned with the dignity of human labour, and the working man.’ Our print certainly epitomises this – it is not a staid ship portrait but a vibrant picture of how Ophir would have been seen by the inhabitants of Port Said or Suez, when it was a regular visitor on the fortnightly Royal Mail route from London to Sydney.
The long-held belief is that Ophir was named after a gold mining town near Bathurst, NSW. However recent research by the P&O archivist Rob Henderson into the personal papers of the Anderson family (co-founders of the Orient Line) suggests that it was named after the biblical port of Ophir, thought to have been on the coast of Arabia on the Red Sea. A wonderful connection between a vessel, a shipping company and an artist so inextricably linked with the Orient and the exotic sights and delights of travel by sea!
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration
Over the past few weeks I have been working my way through a wonderful collection of textiles, handcrafts, photographs and family heirlooms donated by Anu Mihkelson, who as a toddler migrated from Sweden to Australia with her Estonian parents Oskar and Magda in 1948.
The Mihkelson collection is one of the museum’s richest collections relating to Australia’s post-World War II immigration history. Some of the material will go on display later this year in our Passengers Gallery but in the meantime I thought I would show you a few pieces from the collection that combine two of my favourite things – history and knitting!
Anu’s mother Magda Mihkelson was an accomplished knitter who used her needlework skills to help contribute to the family income. She knitted traditional Estonian Haapsalu lace scarves and intricately-patterned cardigans to order, both while part of the vibrant Estonian refugee community in Sweden in the 1940s, and later amongst the rural migrant cane-cutting and mining hubs of northern Queensland, where Oskar Mihkelson worked.
Magda was such a prolific knitter that she even knitted up all her leftover wool as the family travelled by train from Sweden to Genoa, Italy, to board the Lloyd Triestino liner Toscana for the six-week voyage to Australia.
Anu has written a poem about her mother’s knitting that speaks volumes about women’s work, war and displacement, the industriousness of migrants, and the adaptation of European cultural traditions to the Australian context. She has kindly allowed me to reproduce the poem here and I hope you enjoy it.
She knitted when the house was asleep
Occasionally at the child in the cot she would peep
Peace around her to concentrate
With each item a little more money to make.
Jacquard, chevron, cable,
Samples set out on the table
Haapsalu scarves to slip through a wedding ring
Others to wear by those who sing
At an Estonian Song Festival.
Colourful gloves, bonnets, socks,
Patterns counted off graph-paper blocks,
Traditional snowflakes respecting the trust
Of Estonia left behind, in war’s dust.
In Sweden she did this in earnest
For she was a refugee
And her work was done for a fee.
In Estonia it was a woman’s art
To knit, crochet and dress smart
But then in 1944 with her life she fled
Knitting needles now clicked the feelings not said.
The nickel plated needles are worn
Paper ends to hold the stitches, now torn;
Small double-pointed needles
For socks and mittens and cable sweaters.
Crochet hooks in different sizes –
Later the handkerchiefs won prizes.
All the pieces tell a story
Of migration, and someone else’s war glory
My pink jacket and blue skirt with straps
Other cultures fused
The Christening shawl not used
Since I grew and needed a skirt.
All packed in a trunk
I close the lid,
On all she did.
Life was not to be a failure –
Off again, this time to Australia.
At Tully and Mission Beach
For her family safety was within reach
Swim trunks of merino
White angora bolero
Jacket with cherry bunches
Many hours she hunches
The pattern was wrong
It took so long
The client’s payment seemed a song.
Then off to Mount Isa we went
There eight years were spent.
Days were hot and dry
Still, there was wool –
And the winter nights were cool
She knitted, ready for a southern clime,
Sydney … it was time.
You can read more about the Mihkelson family’s incredible journey from Estonia to Australia via Sweden in Anu’s books Three Suitcases and a Three-Year-Old (Kangaroo Press 1999) and The View from Here (self-published 2011).
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration
Earlier this month I was delighted to receive a copy of the new book by award-winning author Nadia Wheatley called Australians All: A history of growing up from the Ice Age to the apology (Allen & Unwin 2013). The book explores the history of growing up in Australia through 80 personal stories, ranging from prominent people such as Ethel Turner and Eddie Mabo, to many lesser-known Australians.
The stories are set against a chronology of significant events including the arrival of the first boat people, the gold rush, the Great Depression, the two world wars, the Vietnam War and the national apology to the Stolen Generations. They are woven together with a rich selection of historical images as well as evocative new illustrations by artist Ken Searle.
In Australians All, Nadia Wheatley has effectively situated personal lived experiences within a broader context of local, national and international histories. This helps to reinforce the notion that history is not a series of disparate events but a fascinating intersection of stories, causes and effects that have resonance in both local and global communities. Wheatley has also succeeded in drawing out shared childhood experiences across place and time, cultures and generations, and because of this I think Australians All will become a very valuable social history resource for young readers today and in the future.
One thing that makes this book even more special is that it features the story of sisters Dzung and Dao Lu, who fled South Vietnam with their family in 1977 in the fishing boat Tu Do, which is now part of our museum’s floating vessel collection. Dzung and Dao’s father, Tan Lu, had built Tu Do (meaning ‘Freedom’) at the end of the Vietnam War, specifically to escape life under the new communist regime.
Prior to departure in September 1977 Tan staged an engine breakdown so that surveillance of Tu Do would be relaxed. He installed a more powerful replacement engine and his group of 38 passengers set off in the dark. Dzung, six, and Dao, four, had been given cough medicine to keep them quiet, and chaos erupted several hours out to sea when they realised Dzung had been left behind! They returned to find her, crying and mosquito-bitten in the mangroves. The voyage resumed, with Tu Do eventually making landfall near Darwin on 21 November 1977. The Lu family were transferred to a migrant hostel in Brisbane and were later granted asylum.
Dzung and Dao Lu were among the 137,000 Indochinese refugees who were resettled in Australia in the 1970s and 1980s. Their story, along with others in Australians All, highlights the importance of childhood journeys and experiences in shaping, and understanding, our national history. The museum is pleased that this story will be more accessible to younger audiences.
The fishing boat built by Dzung and Dao’s father is now displayed at the museum’s wharves and stands as testament to the courage, hope and ingenuity of all refugees. You might like to visit Tu Do during Refugee Week, which runs from 16-22 June 2013, and celebrate the many contributions made by refugees to Australian society.
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration
Last week I went to Albury to install our travelling exhibition On their own – Britain’s child migrants at Albury LibraryMuseum. This lively venue is the only regional stop in our national tour, which has so far taken in Adelaide, Melbourne, Fremantle and Canberra.
While Albury was not a major destination for British child migrants, it does have strong links with Australia’s immigration history because of its proximity to the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre near Wodonga. Bonegilla (1947–71) was Australia’s largest and longest-operating migrant reception centre and many of the post-war migrants who passed through it later settled in the Albury-Wodonga region.
I was fascinated to discover that a small group of British children was sent to St John’s Orphanage in Thurgoona, in the outer suburbs of Albury, in 1950. The 22 girls sailed on Asturias and their arrival was reported in the Border Mail under the misguided headline ‘Orphans arrive here to start their life afresh.’ One of the youngest in the group, five-year-old Pam Wright, was told she was an orphan, even though both her parents were alive. She says, ‘The day before I was shipped, I was with my father.’
Pam’s father tracked her down in Australia and tried to claim her but was told she had been declared a ward of the state. After pleading his case to politicians, Pam was eventually released into her father’s care. In 1990, 40 years after being sent from England, she was finally reunited with her mother. You can hear more about Pam’s story in her interview with ABC Radio.
Pam spoke eloquently about her experiences and their enduring impact on her life at the official opening of the exhibition on 23 February. I spoke of how stories like Pam’s reveal Albury’s connections to broader national and international narratives of child migration. I also mentioned how the exhibition has created opportunities for many former child migrants to reunite with family, friends and the material culture relating to their migration. But I never expected the drama that would soon unfold!
As I led visitors on a tour of On their own, I could hear the commotion at the back of the group when a visitor, Connie – who by chance was visiting from WA – rounded the corner and saw her younger sister Beryl in a photograph in the exhibition. Once her shock and excitement subsided, Connie realised that she too was in the photograph, along with her three brothers. All five siblings were sent to the Fairbridge Farm School at Pinjarra, south of Perth, and this photograph captured them on the very day they arrived in Fremantle on Ormonde in 1950, the same year as Pam Wright.
I had been intrigued by this photograph since I first saw it in the State Library of WA back in 2009. It was part of a collection of well-constructed arrival photographs, surely designed to encourage continued government and public support for the child migration schemes that were once considered generous philanthropy but are now widely condemned as flawed social policy. I was interested in the subjects of this well-composed photograph – the boys in their distinctive striped Fairbridge ties; the girl on the left, who we now know is Connie, with her Orient Line suitcase – but I never expected them to be a family group.
This latest encounter during the national tour of On their own once again reinforces the value of telling personal stories and presenting living history in museums. It also demonstrates the wonderful role museums play in collecting this history, making it accessible and reconnecting people with their heritage and material culture. Here’s to Connie, Beryl and chance encounters.
Curator, Post-Federation Immigration
On their own – Britain’s child migrants is showing at Albury LibraryMuseum from 23 February to 28 April 2013.