From times of Federation, the intention was to strongly discourage the immigration of non-whites, to create a working man’s utopia or democracy with an exclusively British, white population. The Australian Federal Department of Immigration and the White Australia Policy was established in 1901.

Because of the fear of invasion from the north due to the conflict erupting in Asia, Australia was in need of a larger population, both to establish a defence force to protect the country from the advances of the ‘Yellow Peril’ and to assist in the development of the economy.

With no Asian migration having been allowed (White Australia Policy, 1901), the Australian economy was not growing. The White Australia Policy was repealed by the then Immigration Minister Arthur Caldwell and by successive Governments between 1949 and 1973.  Non- British immigrants, including displaced persons from camps in Europe were allowed entry and the ‘Post War Immigration Program’ was established.

Australia took in strangers from Europe’s war-torn countries but officials decided who was to come and where they were to be housed.

Australia’s first Migrant Camp was at Bonegilla. This camp consisted of ‘Barracks’ of a military camp. Block 19 was a collection of huts in wide open spaces where migrants on assisted passage government schemes and displaced persons from war-torn Europe were placed from 1959 to 1970. After the trauma of war and the long and treacherous passage across the oceans, this was a place of sanity and peace.

The standard of accommodation, the plentiful food and general camaraderie experienced at Bonegilla is remembered.

Lucija tells:

‘….At Port Melbourne, we were told that all Slovenians were to go to wait for the train to Bonegilla.  When the train to Bonegilla came, we got on. The trip wasn’t so long. By then, I had lost all concept of time- it was just non-stop travelling.   When we got to Albury, we had to get off the train. We were taken to a very big hall, where a beautiful big, long table was set and prepared as for a wedding, with a white tablecloth and all the plates and cutlery and there was already drink in the cups. It was the first thing that I saw – it was white and looked like milk coffee. I was so thirsty that I took a drink and was nearly sick! It was tea with milk – in Slovenia, herb tea was drunk, or tea with lemon, if you were ill. When the food came, it was beautiful, not sandwiches, the whole plate was filled. I was surprised at the amount. On the way to Bonegilla on the train, I didn’t even notice the countryside or even where we were going. I just wanted to go to a place and settle down.

When we arrived in Bonegilla, we were given one room even though there were three of us. In our hut there were two beds and a small wardrobe, that’s all. Breakfast was in a big communal dining room where there was tea and coffee in barrels and other things to make sandwiches available all day and you could have as much as you wanted, it was very good for us, more than we had ever had before.  Each meal always had lamb or beef. I can’t stand lamb to this day. The beef was fatty and tough. There were potatoes with each meal and sweets.

Washing had to be done in the wash-house. You had to wait in a long queue to be able to get to the wash-trough and water. Sometimes the queue was so long that I would leave the washing till the next day.’

Hinko explains:

‘….There were different blocks at Bonegilla. We were in Block No. 9. It was for single blokes. Other blocks had family groups and young girls were in another block. In the morning we got up, had breakfast and walked around, just killing time. There was a dam there and we walked around it, then we had to come back in time for lunch. There were no problems, we were just waiting around for news of any jobs, although about a month before we got there, there was trouble with some Hungarians. Things were smashed up completely. Everything! It was a protest by the refugees from the communist country who wanted protection. They wanted to control the government. Some of them were sent off to Canada. There were no problems with the food. If you were hungry you ate what was put in front of you. In Italy the food was pretty bad, but you just had to accept what you got when you were hungry. There was plenty to eat. There was kangaroo meat in it – it was darker in colour. But we didn’t know at the time. There was nothing wrong. Everything was clean, you had your own dish and you took as much as you wanted. Families probably got different food for the little ones. You had to do your washing in the laundry. There was the wash house and soap and washing powder. Outside the barracks there was a rope to dry the clothes on. In Bonegilla you got money for cigarettes. If you didn’t smoke you got some pocket money for laces, for shoes or razor blades.’

Maria remembers:

‘…The train stopped in the middle of no-where at a station near Benalla. There we had to get onto a bus which took us to Bonegilla. When we arrived in Melbourne, it was winter and very cold, but in Bonegilla it was hotter in the day and colder at night. The bus stopped at the main office where we got off and we were told where our hut was. We were in Hut 13. There were flowers set up as decoration to make it look nice. We were told to be careful with the water because there wasn’t much of it and that it had to be boiled before drinking.

You were given your own cabin. There was a communal dining room and there was plenty of food, but I didn’t like the mutton soup. We can’t eat lamb, even now. Occasionally, roast lamb was ok but the soup was disgusting.   There was an ablutions block to wash yourself and a laundry to wash your own things. You didn’t have to wash the sheets because they came with clean ones every Saturday and took away the dirty ones. There was a mass said every week. They even gave us two pounds a week for pocket money to buy extra things that we might need. Everything else was provided.

There was the hospital that our baby daughter had to go to because she had boils on her head that she got from being on the ship. When she came back to us, a nurse came to check on the kids.

At Bonegilla, there were sporting groups to join, groups where you could sew or read to keep occupied while waiting for suitable work to be available. We used to play cards a lot. There were movies playing every day, mostly about Australian animals. You tried to keep busy by cleaning the hut or you could go to English classes. At night, boys used to try to get together with girls and used to sneak around in the dark to get to the girls’ rooms.’

Liliana Eggleston-Tomažič


More books on Migrant Camp in Bonegilla: 

Ann Turndern-Smith:  Bonegilla’s Beginnings

Bruce Pennay:  Albury Wodonga’s Bonegilla

Bruce Pennay OAM:  The Young at Bonegilla


More on migration: