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Mary Birss

Migrants to Australia

By Mary Birss nee Rijnvis

In the late forties Holland was in an economic crisis, plus the cold War between the super powers, America and Russia.  This drove my father to think about leaving Holland. We had four countries to pick from and they were America, Canada, Rhodesia and Australia. The latter it was to be.

It was hard for my father to run his trucking and shipyard businesses on a profitable basis. Holland became socialistic.

An older brother Jacob (Jack) Rijnvis went first to see how it was and where to go to begin our new way of life. He was working on a mine in Ravensthorpe and our destination place was to be Hopetoun a place on the map for us to see. He was told by a workmate that was not the place to go, for three teenage girls coming from a city. He went to Albany to investigate and never went back there to work.  Albany was the ideal place for us to settle. A block of land was bought in Brunswick Road near the deepwater jetty and was bulldozed for us to settle.

It took two years to get organized to be accepted into Australia. Holland at that time would not allow money going out of the country. So father took all his machinery, a prefabricated house suitable and approved for Australia, plus a fold up caravan and all new furniture and fittings for the house and a big tent.

We were migrants with money and this gave us a good start, more so than others but it did cost my father dearly. Due to having to pay import duties and the freight for transport.

We Mother, Father and us three teenage girls, Annie 20, March 18 and Alie 14 years sailed from Holland on the 9th May 1952, on the Johan van Oldenbarnevelt and arrived in Fremantle on the 6th
June 1952. We had to spend three days in Perth to catch the train to Albany and this was a sleeper all new to us. There was a railway strike on at the time and it took us eighteen hours to get to our destination. Being used to electric trains, a steam locomotive which had to be watered and oiled on
the way, due to the strike was a big shock to us.

After arrival we spend two weeks in Clifton Hostel in York Street. Us three girls had to walk to the new block every day to clear the unwanted bushes with axe, shovel and pick handle and we were not used to this hard labour work.

Annie and myself found work at Norman house, a boarding house for high school boys. Our names were changed to Anne and Mary and later Alie became Alice. It sounded more Australian. Alice was not allowed to work due to her age and was to go to school but she refused not being able to speak English very much.

In the first two weeks the tent was put up and the caravan, one of the packing cases became our kitchen to cook in and the second packing case was put on the lower part of the block to put all our push bikes in. A little step was made to get up onto the block. All our belongings were in the tent plus all our beds on boards and in a row for sleeping.

Our house arrived in bundles so father and Alice as labourer worked during the day to sort and build the house. Father discovered a bundle of the timber was double and found out another migrant had his bundle so it had to be exchanged. A truck arrived one night late and had to be unloaded there and then. It was pouring with rain and us girls had to do it plus Jack and father. My sister Anne swung a piece of timber and hit the hurricane lamp and smashed it by accident, it was the only light we had and it was the last straw for her and started to cry and scream why did we come to this godforsaken country. She started us off and we girls sat like drowned rats on heap of timber telling the men, to do it themselves, we never had to work like men back home.

The roof, walls and windows of the house were up by Christmas, so we could move into the house to sleep rather than in the tent. We had many stormy nights and often wondered if the tent would crash on us, all the furniture was moved also. The locals told us it was a very nice calm and warm winter to our luck. It was like summer to us in Holland.

It was very hard on us girls due to having to leave our friends and loved ones behind. Anne’s boyfriend came later, but mine didn’t and I cried tears by the bucket for the first two years. I felt my freedom years were taken away from me, for the sake of a better life. As a migrant we were not accepted at first by many but also others tried very hard to make migrants welcome. The good neighbour council and churches did their best for all migrants to simulate into the community. Us girls went to night school for migrants of all sorts to learn English, plus the radio had sessions for migrants learning to speak. I took on correspondence as well. One song remains in my mind forever is: “That doggy in the window”.

Anne and myself rode our bikes to work every morning, to start work at seven till two o’clock, to restart again for the evening meal, from five to seven o’clock seven days a week, with only one Sunday off a fortnight. Anne learned Australian cooking and I was kitchen maid and domestic duties. It was very hard work and I learned later for the hours we worked that we were £2.00.00, underpaid. After fourteen months of work in this boarding house, I was able to get work in Formby’s tearooms as a kitchen maid and was promoted as waitress after six weeks. I met lots of people and found life a bit easier. In the mean time I learned to play netball with a church youth group and the Ladies I worked with introduced me to square-dancing, they felt so sorry for me not having fun. This is where I met my husband an Australian and my life changed from then on and we married three years later. Working over two years in the tearooms I was offered a job in the Rainbow milk bar and this was the best job I have ever had. I learned also there that I was £2.00.00, underpaid. Due to being paid as a kitchen maid and not as a waitress.

I feel personally, due to lack of knowledge and being kept in the dark by the employer and trusting them to do the right thing, that migrants are always the losers.

My father never worked for anyone and when the house was finished, he started with my brother in the backyard, with an engineering business. It was called Melville Engineering.  It was later moved to Campbell Road and it became more construction work then engineering.

My father was a shipbuilder by trade and was hoping to build the Albany tug and I can remember seeing the plans on the table. He was refused to do this due to lack of finance and was not able to borrow money, because he was not long enough in the country to prove he was a worthy citizen.

The Tug was built in Adelaide and called the Kalgan when it arrived in Albany. It was a big let down for him, he felt he could have put Albany on the map for shipbuilding. But it was not to be.