Post World War II Migrant Ships: Fairsea

The Fairsea holds an important place in the memory of many immigrants to Australia during the post World War II period. She was the first passenger ship of the famous Sitmar Line and the first non-British ship employed to carry assisted immigrants from Britain to Australia.

The Fairsea was a regular sight in Australian waters and made a total of 81 voyages to and from Australia between 1949 and 1969. In her earlier years, the Fairsea seemed stark and uninviting for some, but after renovations, her later voyages were often remembered with delight and a sense of adventure.

The Fairsea Ocean Liner. 

The Fairsea Ocean Liner
Stimar Lines postcard. Source: private collection of Barbara Healley.

Facts at a Glance

Dimensions: 492 x 69 ft (150 x 21.1 m)
Registered Tonnage: 11,833 tons gross (13,432 tons after 1958)
Service Speed: 16 knots
Propulsion: Doxford geared diesels / single screw
Shipping Line: Sitmar Line

History of the Ship

Originally named Rio de la Plata, the immigrant ship Fairsea was built for the American shipping company Moore-McCormick Line for their passenger and cargo service between New York and the east coast of South America.

However, she never served on this intended route, for upon her launch in 1941 (amidst World War II), she was converted into an escort aircraft carrier and commissioned into the Royal Navy as the HMS Charger. Soon after, she returned to American hands and served for four years in the pacific as USS Charger.

After a brief post war period as a troop carrier, the Fairsea was rebuilt for migrant service in 1949, providing very basic accommodation for 1,800 passengers with the intention of transporting displaced people and refugees from Europe to Australia. She laid in wait for a short time while a contract was obtained from the International Refugee Organisation (IRO), before beginning her life as an immigrant ship.

Children charge eagerly up the gangway of the Fairsea, Bremerhaven, Germany

Children charge eagerly up the gangway of the Fairsea, Bremerhaven, Germany, 1956.
Photographer: unknown. Source: Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs.

Immigrant Ship to Australia

The Fairsea made several journeys to Australia under the IRO from 1949 to 1951, carrying displaced persons affected by World War II. She departed Naples, Italy for her maiden immigrant voyage to Australia on 11 May 1949, reaching Melbourne on 9 June. She regularly travelled to Australia from Italy carrying refugees and displaced people, but always returned empty due to the restrictions of the IRO contract.

At sea: Ondina De Marchi with her husband and daughter, all from Trieste, on board the Farisea on its voyage to Australia in July 1955.
Photographer: unknown. Source: The Italian Historical Society Co.As.It.

In 1952, when the IRO contract ended, Sitmar took advantage of the lucrative Australian trade and began to offer paid passage to Australia on the Fairsea. She made a number of these trips over the next few years, except for a brief period in 1953, when she was transferred to the Quebec route.

In 1955, the Fairsea was chartered by the Australian Government to transport assisted immigrants from Britain, which she continued to do until an extensive refit in late 1957. The new configuration provided modernised accommodation including air conditioning throughout, an additional deck and new public rooms, considerably changing her external appearance and internal accommodation. The Australian Government charter was renewed and she continued operating as an immigrant ship, also making voyages to New Zealand.

Passenger Experiences of the Journey

Before the 1957 refit, the minimal conditions of the Fairsea were not lost on her passengers – many immigrants remember the large open dormitories and stark surrounds.

Frank Kriesl migrated from Hungary in 1951:

The Fairsea was huge, a converted troop ship with no cabins, just huge big open spaces with triple decked bunks, so cramped you couldn’t sit up straight in them. Men were assigned to one section, women to the other. The toilet and shower facilities were one huge long one … and everywhere you went there was an awful reek of ‘White King’. People threw up because of the smell not just the swell!

Different voyages created a variety of different experiences. For some passengers, the journey on the Fairsea was an adventure.

Doreen Hakowski (formerly Sillett) migrated from England in 1956:

The Fairsea – our home for 5 weeks, was the best part of my early life. I had been born in an air-raid shelter in London, so only knew destruction around me. My trip was very exciting. We had lovely meals, dances, entertainment, deck games, swimming and many other pastimes. We stopped off in Aden and rode a camel through the streets. I can't even remember feeling sad at leaving my home country, England.

Her Final Voyage

In 1969 while west of Panama, a fire broke out on the Fairsea, completely damaging the engine room. The decision was made that it was not economical to repair a ship that was already 28 years old and so on 9 July 1969, the Fairsea left Balboa bound for the shipbreakers at La Spezia, Italy.

Further Reading

Baty, S. 1984. Ships That Passed – The Glorious Era of Travel to Australia and New Zealand. Reed Books Pty Ltd. Frenchs Forest.

Plowman, P. 1992. Emigrant Ships to Luxury Liners. New South Wales University Press. Kensington.

Stodden, K. 2003 (October). Appendix A – Tally of Voyages. Prepared for the Ship Reunion Lecture. Immigration Museum, Melbourne.

Comments (391)

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Michael A. Zapletal 1 April, 2009 06:58
I shipped back to Europe in April 1960 on Fairsea when I was 6.
Tamara Schreiber ( Lorenz) 5 April, 2009 14:08
I sailed out on the Fair Sea in 1955 i was 5 yrs old to Australia and sailed back to our home country Austria in 1965 was a great voyage back
Margrit Cleall 23 April, 2009 12:31
My mother, Paula Holona, then 21, sailed on the Fairsea from Bremerhaven on 3rd December, 1952 and arrived in Sydney on 8 January, 1954. She remembers singing Christmas songs to all the little children that she taught songs to. She had a wonderful time on board.I have photos and postcards of her journey listing ports of call. Contact me if you want more info. Thanks
hans van dyk 5 January, 2013 15:59
Hi Margrit, I came out to Australia on that very voyage. I have obtained a diary of another Dutch family who were also on board, would love to see if we could exchange some info.
Discovery Centre 23 April, 2009 14:26
Margrit, you would be very welcome to share this migration story with the museum by contributing to the "Share a Story" database. This can be done on computers at the Immigration Discovery Centre located on the Immigration Museum's ground floor.
Zenon Pilsyk 25 April, 2009 05:54
I arrived in Melbourne on Fairsea from Italy on 9 or 8 June 1949
Helga Nikolic 22 August, 2012 23:50
I was also on the Fairsea, boarding in Naples in 1949
Amy 28 April, 2009 21:12
My grandmother arrived on the Fairsea in OCtober 1952 from the Netherlands. It carried all eighteen members of her family to Melbourne.
lilian haverhoek 15 August, 2012 14:22
i arrived in melbourne in 1952 in july with my parents and3 brothers at the age ofnearly nine.
Mary Acton 7 May, 2009 00:58
My dad arrived in Australia on the Fairsea in 1951. His name is Rafael Pertovt and he was born in Slovenia/Yugoslavia. I have tried to find his name on passenger lists but have had not luck. I would appreciate any help. He has a reserved a name place on the History Handrail of the Immigration Bridge which will be completed in 2013. I am also trying to find the passenger list for my uncle, Joseph Pertovt who arrived in Australia on the Cyrenia in 1956.
Lynda Kelly (nee Upton) 7 May, 2009 08:57
I was 9 years old when I travelled with my mum and dad on the Fairsea from Southampton to Melbourne in 1961. We then travelled overnight by train to Adelaide where we lived for the next 6 years. We returned to England in 1967 on S.S. Iberia.
Discovery Centre 7 May, 2009 12:07
The National Archives of Australia is the central repository for Australian Commonwealth Government records and holds information on naturalisation, military service and immigration. The National Archives website features online indexes to records in their collection, and can be searched by name, year and/or ship's name.
loretta malcolm 4 January, 2014 23:11
do you have any other suggests other than the national archives website. i'm trying to find the name of the ship that my husband arrived in 1966/1968 from scotland via the suez canal to sydney.
Terry Brown 29 May, 2009 03:15
As a 14 year old I travelled from Southampton to Sydney February 5th 1960 to 11 March 1960
Sophie Smith 31 May, 2009 17:59
To Mary Acton, My Grandomther was also on the Fairsea in 1951 and I found her name on the National Immigration archives Here is the link bellow: just type in the name, Good Luck!
Michael Burgess 10 June, 2009 16:22
I was surprised to read that the Fairsea underwent a refit from October, 1957 to April, 1958, My parents, together with myself and four siblings travelled from Southampton, England to Sydney, Australia, on the Fairsea. We departed Southampton on Saturday, 7 December, 1957 and arrived in Sydney on Sunday, 12 January, 1958. I have a copy of the travel documents which were given to my father for the voyage. In addition, I have a copy of the first two pages of the ship's passenger list for that voyage, which were obtained in connection with the research I am doing for my family history. It would appear, therefore, that a mistake has been made relative to the dates for the refit. I am able to provide copies of the documents mentioned if desired. Regards, Mike Burgess
Sue Grant 8 May, 2014 22:28
Is Barbara Jean Ainsworth listed on the ship I would love to know
Peter 11 June, 2009 18:02
We came to Aust on the Fairsea in 1958 leaving Southampton on 8 August 1958 and arriving in September. We came through the Suez and stopped at Aden. Incidentally the Gibb Brothers (Bee Gees) were alos on the ship. We were lucky as a family and were allocated to Cabin F (on the Captain's Deck) which was pure luxury compared to the lower decks.
Caroline Hall 4 November, 2012 02:56
Hi Peter: This is an extremely important question as there has been considerable controversy over when the Fairsea had her major refit. When you were on board - did it have a swimming pool? Please respond to my email at Thank you very, very much, caroline
Victoria Nasao 4 November, 2013 20:40
I was on the same ship as the Bee name then was Vicki Wade...I was 10 and my sister Sally was 11. I remember French girls that did not speak English cannot remember the cabin but I remember the bad storm we had, a monsoon I think where everyone was a bit nervous....I remember the BG's playing their guitars and playing at the concert!!!!!
Denise Keen.. nee Dorey 24 September, 2014 14:25
Hi Peter I was also on the same ship I have a photo of myself with the bee gees I was Maurice's girlfriend and I was 8 years old at the time ( started Young ha ha)
Discovery Centre 14 June, 2009 14:58

Hi Mike,

Thanks for your comment - there certainly seems to be some discrepancy here. Please feel free to attach scanned copies of your documents to the following enquiry form, or alternatively, you can bring them in person to the Immigration Discovery Centre at the Immigration Museum so that we may resolve this discrepancy.

Norma Kershaw 18 June, 2009 22:36
I had my eighteenth birthday on board the Fairsea. I arrived to Australia on the 24th May 1960.Although I had an asthma attack every morning until a lovely yung women shared some of her medicine until my mother could buy some at Boot's chemist in Aden, I enjoyed the rest of the tripvery much. It was all very exciting.
Paul Trangmar 20 June, 2009 16:43
Further to comments above from Michael Burgess re: the likely discrepancy of dates (in text above)stating that FAIRSEA was in extended refit from October 1957 to April 1958: Although these dates also show on another internet site refering to FAIRSEA, it is possible that they actually apply to the final stage of a major conversion made to SITMAR fleetmate FAIRSKY, which completed in May 1958. My research appears to show that FAIRSEA arrived in Sydney from Southampton (a 5-6 week voyage)on 26 October 1957 also on 12 January 1958 (as per Mr Burgess's comments) and again c. 1 April 1958. FAIRSEA's major refit of the 1950s took place in Italy from 1 April to 30 June 1955 at the Cantieri Riuniti dell'Adriatico shipyard, Monfalcone. The vessel emerged with vastly improved accommodation, facilities and external appearance, much of which would be retained for the rest of FAIRSEA's career.
caroline hall 2 November, 2012 19:27
Dear Paul: I am greatly interested in what you said. I am writing a book about my father on this ship. I need to verify where you received that information. Peter Plowman is an expert and has written many books and is wrong on this point. Could you please give me a credible source for this information. I can't tell you how very much I would appreciate it. Thank you, Paul
Maureen Walsh nee O'Hara 7 August, 2013 22:04
I write as I left Southampton in Dec 1955 with my family bound for Melbourne via the Suez Canal arriving in Melbourne 10th January 1956. The ship had a pool and had undergone a refit and was apparently on a maiden voyage after the refit. I celebrated my 8th Birthday in the voyage with an Italian crew who were wonderful to all the children on board. Accommodation was with men and older boys in dormitory style, with wives and daughters sharing cabins on upper decks. It was a great time with Christmas, New Year and equator crossings celebrated by all. I hope this might clarify when this refit took place.
peter terhorst 26 June, 2009 14:15
I and my family arrived in Sydney Jan 1953. On board was the family Groenewegen, I was nine at the time. Rietje's family went on to Brisbane and mine left in Sydney I would like to trace my friend Rietje. Groenewegen. Anyone knowing her whereabouts or any other information please contact me on thanks
Myke 10 July, 2009 00:29
Greetings, re MV Fairsea. We arrived in Fremantle from Southampton on the 28th March 1958. The ship had recently been refitted. I would say that a mistake has been made with the dates...
John Schindler 20 July, 2009 20:24
I boarded the Fairsea in Sydney in 1965 as a 19 year old wanting to travel the World by myself. I got off in Naples. I remember when the ship hit the wharf in Singapore when we were lined up to get our visas. I still remember some of the wonderful tunes played by the Italian band eg: Non ho Leta Fond memories of travelling in a bye gone ago. It's all 747's now. Greetings to all those who still remember the "magic" John from Brisbane.
Eveley Dryden [nee Brooks 25 July, 2009 17:43
I was 14 1/2 .I sailed with my parents & two brothers ,we set off from Southhampton on the Fairsea on July 22nd & arrived in Adelaide on August 22nd 1961.I really enjoyed the journey but my poor mum was ill every day from the smell of food & the swell of the sea.
dorothea williams 25 January, 2013 13:32
i also shared the same voyage to australia i note that the schedule in the victoria museum for this voyage has the wrong dates for departure from southhampton 22nd july and arrival in adelaide 22nd august
Rod Harrison 30 July, 2009 16:37
My family travelled on the Fairsea in 1960. According to the National Archives entry we left Plymouth on 20 March 1960. I was only 5 at the time and one of four children.
Norma Kaershaw 3 July, 2014 19:40
I thik I would have been on the same ship as you. But I;m sure we left from Southampton. I believe the archives are wrong. My sister agrees with