Streamers sailed through the air creating colourful paper spider webs. Teeming crowds jostled for position with friends, relatives, prospective husbands and employers waving, shouting, laughing and crying. Eager migrants leaned over the ship rails searching the crowd for loved ones while the band played anything from Waltzing Matilda to Greek music. A ship had arrived at Station Pier.
This emotional experience was frequently in stark contrast to the bureaucratic processes of immigration and customs. Migrants immediately faced the need to bargain for the transport of larger belongings and find both work and lodgings.
Finally, with belongings checked and documents in order, the migrants stepped off the pier and onto the next stage of their journey.
Chocolates, chocolates everywhere: scattered on the deck, floating in the water, thrown by the people standing at the waiting station on the water’s edge. Anna Maas migrated from Cyprus in 1956.
Excited and anxious, migrants arrive on the Dutch liner Zuiderkruis, 1960.
Source: State Library of Victoria
Hopes and Fears
Dressed in their Sunday best and with hearts thumping, the passengers would gather on deck to view their new home. Holding fast to long-held assumptions about what their adopted homeland might be like, the Port Phillip Bay coastline triggered either delight or disappointment.
Also mixed with these emotions was the realisation that the welcome to Station Pier must begin with a farewell.
When we arrived at Station Pier it was about 100 degrees, and Mum insisted I wear my full English school uniform: jumper, blazer, cap and long socks — pulled right up! I nearly passed out. Newsreader David Johnston migrated from England in 1953.
All we saw were trees and greenery and I just fell into my mother’s arms crying. We were both crying because we thought we had come to the end of the earth. There was no city in sight. Mariam Baker migrated from Egypt in 1966.
Soon, the people you had made friends with while on board went their separate ways, either to meet family members or sponsors; most never to be seen again. Connie McQuade migrated from Denmark in 1960.
Rabbit toy carried on several trips between Italy and Australia in the 1960s. By carefully removing and re-sewing the head of this rabbit, home-grown vegetable seeds were stuffed inside. Despite rigid quarantine regulations, migrants were desperate to establish gardens that could produce vegetables used in the traditional meals of their homelands.
Source: Museum Victoria. Donated by Maria Attardi
From little things like vegetable seeds, olive oil or salamis, to larger household items such as carpentry tools, coffee-makers and blankets, expectations about life in Australia were reflected in what migrants brought with them. People knew little about the distant country they were making their new home and made assumptions about climate, food and employment — sometimes correct, sometimes misinformed.
New arrivals were often guilty of bringing in items that had to be confiscated by customs. Unfamiliar foodstuffs could be deemed contraband, suspect to a predominantly British cuisine culture. Plant seeds were a threat to the Australian natural environment. Doonas did not appear on lists of taxable goods and were seized. So migrants sometimes smuggled things in.
Friends had told me that condoms couldn’t be bought in Australia, so before leaving Italy my husband and I stocked up on them. Imagine how embarrassed we were when customs opened our bags to find 750 condoms! Antonina Buzzotti migrated from Italy in 1969.
My mum knew she was doing something wrong, but she still stuffed her bra, girdle and the body cavity of my dolls with her favourite Italian vegie seeds and smuggled them in. Maria Attardi migrated from Italy in 1960.
Wharf hands sling luggage ashore, 1955.
Source: Australian Customs and Border Protection Service
A Hive of Activity
When a migrant ship steamed into dock, Station Pier erupted into action. There were immigration and customs officials, baggage handlers and delivery personnel, photographers, industry representatives spruiking for new recruits, welcoming parties and sightseers. Hostesses employed by the Harbour Trust known as the ‘blue ladies’ were on hand to guide and assist, while community organisations such as the Travellers Aid Society provided support, especially for the more needy. Inside the terminal the shops and information booths opened for business.
Processing a ship of 700 or more people could take all day and the job continued regardless of the weather. The pier was especially busy when, in 1949, the arrival of the Georgic attracted a crowd of 8,000! News had spread that the ship was transporting the largest single number of migrants to date, a massive 2,000 people.
Two large liners had arrived in Port Melbourne simultaneously and every man with a tray truck and a dog was down on the pier soliciting for business — transporting migrants’ luggage in those days was quite a lucrative pastime. Richard James migrated from England in 1954.
An eager crowd greets the popular Lloyd Triestino liner Oceania at Station Pier, circa 1960.
Source: Public Records Office Victoria
Italian migrants arrive on the Neptunia at Station Pier.
Source: Source Public Records Office