Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre was the largest migrant hostel of all. It is estimated that 1.5 million of the present population of Australia are descendants of migrants who spent time there.
Between 1947 and 1971 over 300,000 migrants passed through Bonegilla that at one stage could accommodate 7,700 people plus a further 1,000 in tents. In the 1950s one thousand were arriving every week. The numbers are mind boggling!
The centre was situated on the border of NSW and Victoria on what had been Bonegilla Army Camp. Facilities were very basic.
In the early years, each hut housed 20 same sex migrants but there were no partitions for privacy and families were split up. Naturally family separation was extremely distressing. The huts were divided into 24 blocks each with kitchen, dining and communal washing facilities. The toilets were army pit latrines and often required a walk of more than 100 metres. There was no heating or insulation in the huts so it was cold in winter and boiling in summer. The corrugated iron walls of the huts were said to make cracking noises as the metal expanded in the day and contracted at night. The metal army beds rattled and clanged at night and babies could be heard crying across the camp. There are vivid memories of the burning sun, flies, spiders and bull ants and the isolation of these alien surroundings.
Migrants were transported to Bonegilla by train and alighted at a railway siding in the middle of a paddock, to be loaded up into awaiting buses. Many likened the experience to arriving at a concentration camp. On arrival the migrants would have medical examinations, be issued with a name tag and clothing and advised about welfare benefits to which they were entitled. Their English and their employment potential was assessed. Within a few hours of arrival they were served with a meal intended to make them feel welcome but not often to their taste! Queues at the canteen were long and the 7-day menu was monotonous and full of mutton, lamb and sloppy vegetables. At the end of each meal migrants were expected to wash their cutlery in the scullery.
The camp employed between 400 and 1,000 migrants as internal staff at any one time; such work was prized as it afforded more comfortable family accommodation and security. Their memories of Bonegilla were rosier-tinted than those of the majority. Despite gradual upgrading of camp facilities it was true to say that a silk purse was never made out of a sow's ear and for most people who spent time there Bonegilla was a definite mood chiller. The austere conditions of this 'beginning place' would have encouraged many a migrant to move out and set up their own home.
Bonegilla rarely made the news but hit the headlines in 1949 when 13 children died there of malnutrition and an inquiry criticised the medical facilities at the camp. In 1952 inmates' protests about the food, lack of heating and of recreational facilities were also made public. In 1961 further protests were made and signs posted outside the camp emblazoned with the despairing legend, 'Bonegilla, Camp Without Hope' that led to clashes with the police. These incidents spurred the government to review its settlement policies and finally in 1971 Bonegilla was closed.
Bonegilla is no longer receiving and training migrants but has opened its doors to visitors of all ages and nationalities as an open-air museum, having been placed on the Australian Heritage List. Block 19 has been carefully restored and is an amazing place to visit, walk around and imagine the people, the sounds, the emotions and the challenges faced by post-war migrants arriving in a new world.
Visit the Bonegilla Migrant Experience website to find out how to get there. Block 19 is a must visit for anyone interested in Australia's immigration history!
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