We Came by Boat at Christmas Time

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Orion – full steam ahead at sea. Photograph taken by & © Alan Judge (UK)

Check out this site for further details of the ship we came to Australia on in 1962. I’ve been thinking of that voyage because today, December 16th is the anniversary of our arrival in Melbourne at Station Pier. The ship finally docking at 8.00pm.

Where have those 53 years gone?

We were met by Dad’s sister, Chrissie and husband Bill, and their friends Edna and Ron Gray, Malcolm and Elizabeth Andree, Muriel and Eric Scrimshaw and Doreen and Dick Triggs (the parents of Human Rights Commissioner Gillian Triggs).

All of those couples generously volunteered their cars and time knowing there were eight of us, plus luggage! What kindness, what generosity, what a welcome!

I’ve reminisced about our trip to Australia all those years ago – a voyage of discovery, which had a profound impact, etched on my memory…

Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.

Miriam Beard

In the city the other day, I lined up to view Myer windows – an annual Christmas event for Melbournites and one I remembered from that first Christmas here all those years ago.

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60 years of animated windows at Myer – Santa’s Journey into Space featured 1962

The migrant ship, P&O’s Orion left cold, foggy Tilbury Docks in London on November 14th,1962. The first stop Piraeus, Greece, in the Mediterranean before the liner, continued through the Suez Canal to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and onto an Australia in the full bloom of summer – hot, humid tropics all the way and my first experience of a heatwave.

An unforgettable month long voyage for nine-year-old me, born in Greenock, Scotland, the city with the highest rainfall in the United Kingdom.

The Orion, used as a troop ship during WW2 had been refitted to carry the army of assisted migrants to Australia and New Zealand in the late 50s and early 60s. She was the first British ship to have air-conditioning in all her public rooms so we were more fortunate than my father’s sister Chrissie and husband Bill who sponsored us to Melbourne after migrating in July 1952.

We were all considered ‘ten pound Poms’ although we were actually Scots.

 

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The open and spacious design with sliding glass doors and removable walls, made the ship’s communal areas roomy and egalitarian. The Orion now a one class ship, sported breezy passageways and staircases with chromium and bakelite fittings; as well as the polished mahogany, found in wealthy British homes of the time. The ship suited tropical cruising and life on board definitely a jaw-dropping wonder to the majority of working class passengers, who like us were heading for what we hoped was ‘the promised land,’ sunny beaches and casual living.

Farewelling fogbound Tilbury
We began our journey across the sea
The apes of Gibraltar glimpsed
But only in our imagination
The Bay of Biscay tossed and pummelled
Brother George succumbed to seasickness
And I discovered my sea legs.
Piraeus, Greece glittered in the moonlight
Monuments of an ancient past shadowing a busy port.
Spruikers cluttered the docks
Committing daylight robbery
On gullible migrants
Sister Catriona and I hugged
Our Greek dolls while the boys discovered
Cars with no engines.
Bright traditional costumes of the dolls
soft, silken,beautiful and exotic.
Poukamiso – chemise, segouni – vest,
bodia – apron, zonari – sash, mandili – scarf
and tiny Tsarouhia – shoes.

Clothes never seen on the 500 migrants
Who shuffled on board that night
Belongings bundled in sheets
Squeezed into battered suitcases
Secured with string and hoisted on
Backs used more to manual labour
than dancing to bouzoukis
Greece an intriguing taste of
Somewhere different to Scotland
Our first foreign port, a window into another world.

We discovered the cabins could be stuffy, especially when shared with Mum and my five siblings. Not enough room to swing the proverbial cat after toddler Rita’s cot was set up. Did we care? Not really. We spent as many hours as possible away from the cabin, immersed in the swimming pool or roaming the various decks playing quoits, table tennis, hide and seek, getting into mischief while avoiding serious trouble.

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The pool on board – courtesy Museum Victoria

The swimming pool an exciting magnet for most of the children on board. Many like us, had never been in a pool or been able to swim in the sea beyond paddling in the shallows while shivering through cool British summers. We loved watching the sailors clean and refill the pool with saltwater each day, even learning to swim aboard ship, as did many migrants. If you didn’t master swimming, you at least floated secure in a life ring and appreciated the relief from the heat.

When we crossed the equator and ‘met’ King Neptune I don’t think anyone escaped the shenanigans or sampling the pool. No plastic sandals needed here before getting in the water, nor danger of hypothermia – the climates experienced as we moved through various zones very different to Scotland!

 

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The ship steamed into the Suez Canal
To enter a land straight from
Arthur Mees Children’s Encyclopaedias.
Hours spent on deck peering through
Dad’s binoculars at pyramids, camels,
Sand dunes and a Bedouin unaware
Of our spying eyes as he prepared
Breakfast beside a solitary tent
The Valley of the Kings hugging
A horizon bathed in liminal desert dawn.

Closer to the ship a flotilla of Arab merchants
Beguiling the English Mrs Simpsons
And Scots Mrs MacGregors
Offering fancy leather goods,
Carved wooden elephants and watches
With rubber bands keeping hands ticking
Until the ‘Bum Boats’ skedaddled back to shore
A thief chased by the sergeant of Arms and
Caught by local police provides a distraction
Like an episode of Z-Cars or Softly Softly.
Everyone seeks a bargain and the banter
From ship rail to boats below ranged from
The comedic to course, respectful to rude.
While adults bargained, the Gully Gully Man
Fluted his cobra to awe and frighten children
The snake’s sewn mouth unnoticed as it uncoiled,
Swayed, stretched and struck before being grabbed
And thrown into a tense crowd
That evaporated squealing, like steam from
A whistling kettle.

Dad shared a cabin with the father of another large family in the cabin opposite to ours. Both men, in a two-berth cabin at the end of the corridor, worked out amicable arrangements to have private time with their spouses and family. Because Dad had been a shift worker his banishment to another cabin didn’t really affect us, although no doubt it affected Mum. We were delighted we actually saw more of him than we usually did.

A ship is a great adventure playground, and we made the most of it. We spent countless hours just standing on deck watching the ocean, fascinated by the dolphins, flying fish, the occasional albatross and of course watching for land when we were due to call into port. The sunrises and sunsets magical and memorable like the mesmerising sea.

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Considered ‘all right for a girl’, I tagged along with older brothers Iain (11) and George (10) and their new friend Kenneth (12). They hatched exciting plans, whereas my older sister Catriona, who at thirteen attended the adult meal sittings with my parents, thought our games childish (and often she was right!).

Mature for her age, physically and mentally, Catriona was caught in that awkward in-between world of adolescence. The young deckhands ogled and whistled thinking she was older,but she pined for her school friends left behind in her first year at high school.

Colombo, Ceylon reached but a free Sri Lanka
Whispered chatter in dining halls and Kitchen
Of the ship. The lascar crew toiling at lower wages
Than white-skinned counterparts.
Colombo’s sweltering heat endured as
Dad searched for a ring for Mum, an anniversary looming.
We passed colourful saris and glossy black hair,
Boisterous beggars with blood-toothed grins advertising
Their love of Areca wrapped in betel leaves
Gobs of chewed nuts blackened by the sun
Dotted the streets. To my nine-year-old eyes
They were bloodstains. The smell of rotting vegetables
And sweaty humanity becoming the smell of death.
A cacophony of sounds, high pitched, persistent.
Buzzing flies biting, unfriendly like some people
Resentment at colonial betrayal simmering
Poverty displayed by stick legs and arms,
Gaunt faces, body sores, desperate words as
Crippled babies thrust into the faces
Of privileged whites streaming ashore.

Most days at sea on our month-long voyage
Spent exploring the one-class ship
Its First Class trimmings an exciting attraction
To our freewheeling gang of urban escapees
From the austerity of post war Britain.

One day, after seeing a school of flying fish the boys decided to go fishing although our only experience of this pastime in Greenock was catching tadpoles (we called them minnows) in jam jars, or  watching the tadpoles turn into frogs in our ‘secret lake’ (a big pond at the end of the Aileymill road).

English Kenneth described proper fishing, with a rod, hook and bait. We listened in awe at his expertise before scattering to find substitute equipment.

An empty toffee tin took the place of our usual jam jar. Discarded pieces of string and ribbon knotted together and tied around the rim of the tin transformed it into a ‘net’. Using orange peel as bait, we searched the decks for the best spot to launch our line and decided on a corner of the deck for crew only.

We had the run of the ship and within a couple of days knew it like our old neighbourhood ashore; certainly better than most adult passengers. We were rarely told to leave any area – an advantage of being a child.

Ignorant about the distance from the deck of the ship to the sea, and being children with an average height of four and half feet, we assumed our bundle of string more than adequate. We found a secluded corner, squeezed our skinny forms through the deck rails and hung precariously over the side.

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Our imagination only accommodated fish, pods of dolphins and fanciful birds like the albatross and pelican. The voyage beautiful and benign, providing a remarkable, unique time in our young lives. We concentrated on the task at hand, unaware of the dangers of falling into shark infested waters.

Several pairs of hands took turns lowering the tin down. Kenneth received a quick lesson on democracy à la large families. Our fishing line bounced its way down the side of the ship, but stopped well short of the enticing water line. A collective groan of disappointment manifested as downturned lips and wrinkled brows. What to do? Our mission a failure, our enthusiasm fizzling like a damp squib on Guy Fawkes Night.

What happened next is one of those unpredictable solutions children invent. With almost silent agreement, our aim changed from catching fish to seeing if we could guide the tin into an open porthole. This turned out to be a much more engaging project, requiring all the skill we could muster.

We speculated what was behind the porthole immediately below, and if we’d get into trouble, but any hesitation was brief, and dismissed. We were now commandos penetrating a German submarine with a secret weapon that would win the war. Our concentration so intense the shrieks of laughter from the swimming pool above and the roar of the ship’s engines below faded to be insignificant.

We even forgot our persistent rumbling tummies stirred by the ever present smells of food lingering in every nook and cranny of the Orion. Smells drifting from the dining rooms, restaurants and decks, and from the cabins below where many of the 500 Greeks who had boarded in Piraeus cooked exotic, alluring food.

The tin edged closer to the narrow opening and the capable hands of Iain guided it to success. In the celebration, he almost dropped the string, George bumped his head on the deck rail as he cheered and Kenneth saved me from sliding head first into the briny. A little huffed because he hadn’t been the pilot, Kenneth brought us back to reality with, ‘Gosh, let’s scarper.’

Iain dropped the string as if it was a death adder.

We extricated ourselves from the deck rails, but not before I glimpsed the angry face of the Maitre d’ peering up at us. On cue, music burst from the tannoy announcing the children’s sitting for lunch.

We raced back to the cabin to collect Mum, forgetting the initial shock of the Head Waiter’s face as we giggled and revelled in the thrill of mischief. He couldn’t recognise us from hundreds of children on board – could he?

We entered the dining room with some trepidation, beginning to worry about Mum’s reaction should the Maitre d’ make a fuss, and worse would Dad find out. Our bravado tested when we saw our fishing implements sitting among the paraphernalia of the Head Waiter’s workstation. The man himself, looming larger than his six foot physique,  stood at the entrance of the dining room, head poised like a Roman Emperor watching everyone troop to their designated tables.

His patrician nose that Dad joked was more of a limb than a feature, sniffed the air for miscreants and Mum, as she often did made a pun without realising it. ‘What’s got up his nose?’ she asked Gordon, our dining room steward.

Gordon, a young man from Barrhead who had taken a shine to our family,
whispered and pointed at our tin, ‘That landed through the porthole when we were setting the tables.’ He laughed and shrugged. ‘A kid’s prank but Himself sees it as sullying His dining room.’

‘Is that so,’ said Mum laughing. ‘Wee bisums were smart to get it inside without a boat!’

The boys flashed warning looks at each other and signalled to me to remain silent. Mum’s admiration would become admonition if she knew it was her children being ‘smart’.

Kenneth, already seated, buried his head in the menu refusing eye contact. If challenged, we’d be on our own. Mum smiled and started to chat to Kenneth’s mother as Gordon brought the meals. The Maitre d,’ at the other side of the room sorting out a dispute over seating, no longer a threat to us. We relaxed to enjoy the food.

Every meal on board delicious because of the variety served, and we were always allowed seconds. We left a Britain hit by recession and found being aboard the Orion a luxurious holiday resort.

Gordon indulged our every whim, taking a particular shine to my young brother Alistair, a six year old with a cherubic face and insatiable appetite. His record for “seconds” of favourite meals being six plates of mince and tatties! If the stewards ran a competition on the appetites of their charges, Gordon would definitely win.

We laughed at pods of dolphins and flying fish
Argued over whale sightings and horizon mirages
Had competitions to see who could get closest
To the seabirds landing on railings.
The Wandering Albatross or pretty Petrels
Mesmerising. Each day fascinating.
The baby buried at sea, a stumbled upon ceremony
We didn’t let spoil the rest of our day
Only adult reflections consider sadness, social justice…

We didn’t have to go to school on board, but if we did attend classes, they were only for a couple of hours in the morning and we were given free ice cream. Ice cream in Scotland was sharing a family block after the Sunday roast – if the household budget could afford it. To be offered cones every day, a special treat indeed. However, we didn’t need too much persuading to go to school because the volunteer teachers were a lot of fun.

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Perhaps it was because of the comfortable non-compulsory nature of the classes, or their multi-aged composition, but whatever the reason, I absorbed the lessons, even learning all about L.S.D. (money sums, not the drug!). I became so proficient in maths that when I arrived in Australia Mr Tinney, the Croydon Primary School headmaster wanted me to go into Grade Six. Thank goodness Mum, worried about socialisation and making friends in my own age group, insisted promotion to Grade Five was enough of a challenge especially since George was also promoted to Grade Six. However, being the youngest in class dogged me for the rest of my school life.

From the morning wake-up calls broadcast into our cabin: ‘Wakey, Wakey Rise and Shine, it’s breakfast time on the Orient Line,‘ to the host of organised parties, dress-up competitions, deck games and Housey Housey (bingo) plus talent contests; the few weeks at sea provided pleasant memories.

The ship sailed into Fremantle at dawn
Yet most passengers crowded the decks
Eager for the first glimpse of a new homeland.
And to our surprise the skirl of bagpipes
Drowned seagulls screech, as a young woman
Marched the pier welcoming her sister home.
The loving gesture warmed hearts, calmed fears
The upheaval and journey to the unknown less daunting
As the strains of Waltzing Matilda skirled skywards.

Sultry summer air caressed our skin, a hot December sun disappeared into the sea when we prepared to disembark from P&O’s Orion in 1962, thirty-two days after leaving fogbound Tilbury.

Night now dropped a velvet blanket from the sky, no gradual, long twilight here like the Scottish gloaming.

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Amid harsh fluorescents, the inky sky disappeared as we docked and Aunt Chrissie grinned and waved below, jostled by hundreds of clamouring crowds on Station Pier. We interrupted Dad’s dinner to tell him we saw someone who looked like my godmother, Ina, his cousin. Five of us had heads crammed out the porthole and the lady yelled ‘are you the McInneses?’

We all nodded together and watched tears gather in her eyes to flow down her cheeks when Dad eventually joined us. A frightening crack as the bunk bed groaned under all the weight meant several of us scurried down and raced to be first at the deck rails to squeeze between adult legs and continue our observations of the chaos below.

Tears of joy stained Dad’s cheeks on seeing his only sister after a decade. His initial disappointment as the ship manoeuvred into port that the grimy part of Melbourne visible ‘looked just like Glasgow’ forgotten.

However, on deck, I trembled at the whispers of older boys that Christmas didn’t happen here. The hot night air and absence of snow was certainly unChristmassy!

Fortunately, on the way to our new home in bushy Croydon, Aunt Chrissie’s blue Ford Consul stopped beside a large department store. Myer windows blazed light and colour onto the deserted streets.

Led over to view the display of mechanical puppets narrating Santa’s journey into Space my child eyes ballooned. Had we arrived in Fairyland?
This new country promised an exciting and magical life.

Christmas did happen in summer and our first Australian Christmas proved to be as memorable as the eventful voyage on SS Orion and that very special welcome the evening of December 16, 1962.

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How sad that boat arrivals are now demonised and detained when we were welcomed with open arms. My wish this Christmas is that camps on Nauru and Manus Islands are closed, refugees are welcomed to Australia and we again care about human beings to build and share this land.

 

4 thoughts on “We Came by Boat at Christmas Time

  1. A lovely story Mairi, and a beautiful wish at the end. Merry Christmas to you and the girls and may you all be safe and happy. A big hug, Kaye.

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