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Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience




Much is known about British migration to Australia1 but little about the reverse phenomenon. To date, the handful of studies investigating this movement have tended to focus on the artistic rite-of-passage travels and exploits of well-known Australians. These range from the singer Nellie Melba and the poet Henry Lawson at the turn of last century to those equally notable Australians of more recent times who have followed in their footsteps, perhaps most famously represented by the larrikin intellectual storming of London in the 1960s by that cultural ‘gang of four’ Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, Rolf Harris and Clive James.2 Whilst it is difficult to overlook articulate and prominent individuals who may flaunt and, dare it be said, even make a profession out of their expatriate Australian ‘identity’, the focus on them leaves the vast bulk of Australians in Britain under-examined. These almost forgotten Australians include the middle-class tourists and soldiers of the first half of the century, and lesser and greater artists, writers, the people and public figures for whom Britain was a chapter in their life and a stage in their development. Perhaps more importantly, we should include those ubiquitous and often little known professionals, dentists, nurses and teachers, the backpacker bar workers and labourers, and today’s merchant bankers, IT consultants and accountants.

This gap in the existing scholarship raises some interesting questions that so far have been ignored or glossed over. What relative weights should we put on each of these categories or social phenomena? Was the diaspora gendered? Was it class biased? How long did Australians stay and where? How much, if at all, did these things change over time? How have overseas experiences affected the lives and imaginings of these Australians? We might also ask whether the sequence of comings and goings has been a regenerative one, building further links over time. Indeed, to what extent have Australians seen Britain as a foreign country? Did the returning or just travelling community of Australians in Britain have a more intimate and dynamic relationship with the host society than other national groups? It is important to answer these bigger and wider questions and this book begins to do so. Demographic analysis must come first and the numbers are most revealing.

Table 1.1 tells us that there has always been a substantial Australian community in England and Wales (and other figures confirm that the same is the case for Scotland and Ireland). The numbers increased gradually from 1901 to 1961, almost doubled in the 1960s, flattened out in the 1970s, picked up again in the 1980s and leapt up by a third in the 1990s. As the cover illustration of this book and Angela Woollacott’s chapter suggest, female Australians have long outnumbered their male compatriots. Bazza McKenzie’s adventures in Pommieland have therefore been those of a distinct, if highly visible, minority. Age-wise, the average Australian in Britain has been consistently in her or his high twenties, which shows that most had made a conscious decision to leave Australia.3

Table 1.1 Australia-born in the England and Wales Census, 1901–2001

Source: UK Census data, 1901–2001

In addition to the numbers shown in Table 1.1 there have always been significant numbers of people born in Britain yet with substantial Australian experience. Of the 100,000 Britons who migrated to Australia between the world wars about a quarter came back and there was a similar return rate for the nearly half million who migrated in the 1950s and 60s. The extent to which these individuals continued to see themselves as Australian is, of course, a different matter. The number of Australians in the UK at any one time is further boosted by the presence of Australian tourists. Tourist numbers from Australia to the UK were between 5,000 and 6,000 p.a. between the wars. By 1950 the numbers had increased some five-fold to 30,000 and by 1968 they had skyrocketed to more than 250,000. Today there are some 800,000 short-term visitors each year.4

The pattern of settlement in the UK has generally been consistent, although there have been some changes in recent times. Census data shows that Australians have tended to live all over Britain with only a distinct minority concentrating in London, though the London concentration is gradually increasing. This pattern contrasts with almost all other migrant groups, but conforms to that for people from the old ‘white’ dominions. Calculated as a percentage of the population of the nation from which they came, Australians are, and have always been, second only to New Zealanders in the relative size of their migration to Britain. Much more work might be done in the area of comparative diasporas in the UK. This also invites the question of whether the Australians living in the UK can be viewed as a diaspora. During the first half of the twentieth century Australians popularly referred to Britain as ‘Home’, yet by the century’s close, this notion had long since disappeared. Regardless of this conceptual shift, it is clear that across the century Australians in the UK consistently shared various defining features of diaspora as identified by the leading scholar in the field, sociologist Robin Cohen. They were dispersed from their ‘original homeland’. They shared and nurtured a collective memory of Australia; and commonly had decided to leave Australia for employment purposes. These characteristics confirm their status as a diaspora.5 For these reasons we and our contributors use the shorthand term ‘Australian diaspora’, alongside ‘Australian expatriates’ and ‘the Australian community in Britain’.

The occupational profile of Britain’s Australians over time provides further insights into who was arriving and for what reasons. In 1901, as Carl Bridge’s chapter shows, the primary male occupations were retail, armed forces, clerical, the professions and living on their own means; while the main female occupations were housewife, domestic service, nursing and teaching. Fifty years later, the census reveals that Australia-born males were concentrated mainly in professional and technical work (including teaching), manufacturing, commerce and finance, defence and clerical, and that the women were on private means, in professional and technical work (including teachers and nurses), clothing manufacture, clerical, and personal service. Today two-thirds of both men and women are employed in professional and technical positions or in the City. Britain’s Australians have been, for the most part, a skilled and talented slice of the energetic Australian middle classes and are increasingly so. Britain’s long-term resident Australians, on the whole, men and women alike, were not free of duties, nor were they merely thrill seekers after liberation and fulfilment, and clearly they worked much more than they holidayed.6

The census data periodically offers insights into other aspects of the lives of Australians living in the UK, such as where they were living in London. In 1901 the top three concentrations were in Kensington, Lambeth and Wandsworth. In 1921 and 1931 they were in Battersea, Lambeth and Woolwich, and still in significant numbers in Kensington. By 1951 Earl’s Court was known as ‘Kangaroo Valley’ and the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea as ‘New South Kensington’. Today, the top concentrations are in Westminster, Hammersmith and Kensington, with an emerging area in Wandsworth. Australians have always tended, then, to congregate in the relatively prosperous west and south-west. ‘The Australian’ pub in Chelsea was so-named as it was the favourite haunt of the Australian cricket team in 1882. The Australian High Commissioner’s residence, ‘Stoke Lodge’, purchased just after the Second World War, is in Kensington, near the Royal Albert Hall. A ‘Kangaroo Club’ nightclub was operating in Earl’s Court in the 1950s, and that famous drinking institution, ‘The Church’, was established in Fulham in 1979. The first of the Walkabout chain of bars started up in 1994 in Covent Garden, whilst the branch in Shepherds Bush, better known as the ‘She Bu Walkie’, is currently one of the largest venues in the city catering for an Australian clientele.

Our book begins, as we have in this introduction, with the numbers. In their respective demographic surveys Carl Bridge and Graeme Hugo interrogate the official statistics for what they reveal about the type of Australian who has decided to head to the Old Dart. Bridge and Hugo provide an overview of patterns that have occurred over the course of the twentieth century. While the two chapters reveal various changes, they are perhaps more revealing for the consistencies that they share. Both reveal that females continue to outnumber males; that their average age remains in the late twenties; and that a greater proportion of these Australians are employed in a skilled or professional capacity. These consistent trends suggest that the attractions of living in Britain speak to a select group of Australians. Each of the subsequent chapters explores different aspects of this appeal.

Most of the chapters in this collection highlight the ways in which the cultural heritage shared by Australia and Britain prompted so many Australians to move to Britain. Before the 1950s Australians popularly referred to Britain as ‘Home’ – even though few would ever make it there. For Simon Sleight’s community of British Australasian readers, Britain was a ‘home away from home’. From its beginnings as a financial and political digest of weekly affairs, the British Australasian broadened its remit to include society news, travel and accommodation advice, sports reports, as well as listings of ‘Australasians’ sojourning in Europe. Long before the advent of such mass-market publications as TNT Magazine (discussed in David Dunstan’s chapter 15), the British Australasian catered to the needs and preoccupations of the forebears of today’s globalised young professionals.

Jim Davidson’s Melburnians in Oxford in the 1920s went one step further. ‘I’m thoroughly at home here now’, declared a new expatriate, ‘I fell in love with Oxford – indeed I lost my heart to all England’. This experience was not a uniform one. Going to Britain may have been an adventure but it did not require these Australians to immerse themselves in an altogether alien culture, let alone learn another language. Oxford was both a logical destination and a necessary rite of passage for an educated colonial elite. But as Davidson reveals the outcomes were not all the same. They were disappointing for some and seen even as academically unnecessary. Far from casting them in some new Imperial mould, the experience tended to help them to better define themselves as Australians. As this and other chapters reveal, learning the subtleties and nuances of life in Britain rather than the fundamentals proved to be the largest obstacle confronted by these Australians.

A common theme is the familiarity that these travelling Australians discovered they had with Britain. Despite living on the other side of the world, Australians were only too aware of Britain’s geography. ‘Arriving in London it was as if every reference point was familiar’ observed Ruth Cracknell, quoted in Angela Woollacott’s chapter. Cracknell goes on to describe the city as ‘A monopoly board come to life, all the reading of the preceding twenty or so years making virtually every street and square and garden familiar’. Australia-born women outnumbered men in every available decennial year, as we have seen (Table 1.1). Sex discrimination was a common reason why Australian women left Australia, according to Woollacott, but colonialism, too, facilitated their move by ‘both creating and validating their attraction to the imperial metropolis’. Richard White’s tourists were similarly drawn by an overwhelming familiarity that stemmed from a lifetime of ‘schools, newspapers, books, plays, cinema, radio, [and] political oratory’. It was, he writes, ‘a validation of the known’. The excitement of finally seeing these famous places was equalled by the thrill of actually being there too. This buzz is conveyed by Graeme Davison’s correspondents upon their arrival in London: ‘We’re very happy here: today we went into town – on a 97 horsepower scarlet painted London omnibus – and watched fascinated – like being in a book’. Even if it was only fleeting, the sense of being in a book or a postcard certainly captured the imagination of countless Australians.

Britain’s status as centre of the empire proved to be another major magnet, particularly for the earlier generations of Australians who proudly regarded themselves as British. John Rickard’s chapter on the painter Tom Roberts explores this relationship. Although Roberts was in fact an English expatriate, his movement ‘to and fro between the centre and periphery’ nevertheless illustrates the ways in which the Imperial capital occupied a prominent position in the hearts and minds of those living in the outer reaches of the empire. Through his painting he created more than one iconic image of Australian national identity and in so doing became one himself. But Roberts’ Englishness was evident to his associates of the Heidelberg school who nicknamed him ‘Bulldog’.

While the Second World War marked the beginning of the decline of the British Empire, Mathew Trinca’s chapter nevertheless reveals that Australian visitors to Britain in the immediate postwar era remained loyal to the empire. ‘As Australians reflected upon London’s wartime valour they often accented the notion of a shared British nationality, rather than a subordinate position in an Imperial world order’ concludes Trinca, revealing the way in which Australians accommodated their dual identities. An equally important aspect of the empire’s centre was its geographic proximity to the Continent. Having travelled half way across the world, Australians recognised that for them Britain provided a convenient base for launching forays into the rest of Europe. Globalisation, mobility, communication technologies and the democratisation of tourism, Richard White points out, all contributed to a situation in which more Australians knew more people in Britain (other Australian visitors as well as British residents) than ever before.

Family and friendship networks within Britain further enhanced the arrivals’ sense of familiarity with their new home. Many would spend their first nights in Britain with their formerly remote relatives, including, as Bridget Griffen-Foley reveals, the future media mogul Keith Murdoch. But Murdoch’s first sojourn in London in the early years of the twentieth century was lonely and seemingly unfulfilled as he struggled to gain preferment in his chosen profession of journalism and to overcome a career-threatening stammer. Only later on his return did he find a place and rise to a position of eminence. Griffen-Foley’s study of journalists covers a similar time span to Woollacott’s of women. A tension emerges between work and leisure, between the exigencies of play and the dictates of career and personal self-fulfilment that were simply not possible in Australia. Griffen-Foley quotes the well-known Australian writer and journalist, Alan Moorehead, upon arriving in London in 1936, claiming the feeling ‘that at last I was in the centre of the world instead of being on the periphery’. An almost unique version of the rite of passage were the ‘ten bob a day tourists’ of the Great War of 1914–18 outlined by Roger Beckett. Few of these soldiers were in Britain to advance their careers. However, the exploits of this ‘workforce’ both in Britain and on the battlefields across the Channel nevertheless reaffirmed the national rite of passage on the international stage. The Australian military, mostly airmen this time, would return to Britain a generation later during the Second World War. The concept of the tourist is in any case a problematic one, but doubly so as Richard White reminds us: Australians whose culture was ‘British by default’ could never claim to discover anything new. ‘Travel to Britain was the necessary validation of the known rather than the discovery of the unknown’.

Some sojourners, of course, became a little too comfortable with their hosts’ homes. ‘Aware of the reputation of Australians for “botting” on their English relatives’, Graeme Davison’s well-mannered Australian subjects instead ‘waited politely to be asked’. While kith and kin provided a solid support base, the chapters in this book imply that friendship networks had a greater impact on the individual’s experience of London. Reflecting briefly on her own experience in London in the early 1980s, Angela Woollacott recalls that she, like the subjects of her chapter, also benefited from her network of friends: ‘I had actually forgotten the density of this network until, in cleaning out my parents’ house last year, I discovered letters I wrote home’. In addition to providing a place to ‘doss’ for those Australians lacking an accommodating relative, friends also provided a handy introduction to living in Britain – from buying a cheap meal to navigating the Tube. Unlike family, friendship networks were often dynamic. Living in a large city like London, for example, was a liberating experience. The anonymity and pace of life of the metropolis enabled individuals to escape their past, reinvent themselves, and to develop new careers and friendships. While some thrived on these opportunities, others suffered terribly from their own enforced anonymity.

Significantly, many of these friendship networks were also used to find the all-important job in Britain’s familiar yet foreign work market. Britain offered enormous career opportunities to young Australians – using London to advance one’s career was a central part of the rite of passage. For some, such as doctors, a stint in Britain was integral to their career, whilst others, particularly in the arts, hoped that the global city would be more accepting of their talents than their country of birth. Simon Pierse thus notes how Australians artists socialised ‘at parties, in favourite pubs or ... at the regular exhibition openings at London galleries’ where ‘contacts could be made and introductions given’. His focus is the 1950s and 60s when patronage, talent and a toleration of antipodean hubris resulted in sympathy and a vogue for Australian art in connoisseur circles. Similarly, Griffen-Foley notes how Australian journalists viewed a stint in London as both a necessity and an opportunity. Flocking to Fleet Street with their letters of introduction (and perhaps a couple of helpful tips from their journalist mates), they all hoped that their career would receive an enormous boost by snaring the next big exclusive. Only a few of them would realise this dream. A constant stream of writers and artists similarly headed for London in the hope that their British peers would recognise their talent but a small number were more interested in the size of the British market. As John Arnold’s chapter reveals, a significant number of Australian authors in the pre-war era were able to reach a larger and more lucrative market through publication in Britain than they could possibly have hoped to reach in Australia. Arnold unearths the murky but commercially successful entrepreneurial publishing activities of some less than well-known figures in the British literary pantheon whose metier was exploitative pulp fiction and describes the associated cluster of Australian expatriate litterateurs and publishers.

The relationship was not, of course, all one-way. During the post-1945 decades, Australia’s relationship with Britain underwent significant change. Britain was no longer ‘Home’ and was increasingly becoming a foreign destination. However, the end of the empire, Britain’s entry into the European Economic Community, and the increasing republican sentiment in Australia did not halt the flow of Australians into Britain. The growing numbers of Australians entering the UK over the course of the second half of the twentieth century reveal that, despite ever tighter immigration laws, Britain had not lost its magnetic pull. The appeal though had changed. Australians were given the opportunity by cheap air travel to have in unprecedented numbers extended work and travel experiences in Europe in the 1970s and 80s. Mobile and wealthy through casual and temporary labour (both skilled and unskilled), the Australian immigrant community became well defined as part of a geographic enclave within the city’s extensive cultural mosaic. As David Dunstan observes in his chapter, the Australian community press in London was reborn in the 1970s through catering to the needs of the new postwar generation of ‘baby boom’ backpackers. The duration of stay was in many instances dampened by the host community’s increasing restrictions but with international travel experience now the norm, enhanced mobility became the defining experience. The Australian community press in these years especially was witness to new expressions of travel and tourism, popular culture, work, entertainment and leisure. This phenomenon was sustained by London’s booming appetite for temporary labour and the attraction of cheap holidays in Europe.

During the latter decades of the twentieth century, fewer Australians were compelled to work abroad. Australian institutions now provided the necessary training for healthcare professionals whilst the government and audiences increasingly provided support for local artists and writers. However, the lure of Britain, or more specifically, London, continued to attract young Australians. The dream of hopping on to ‘escalator London’ to advance one’s career remains very much alive, thanks in no small part to the added incentive of earning a large wage in pounds. The effect, as Robert Crawford’s chapter reveals, saw this generation become ‘more professional, more likely to stay longer than the period of a two-year working-visa, and more integrated into the British community’. Young middle-class Australians were fortunate in having the skills required by burgeoning finance capital and the business skills markets. Such work has also stimulated further travel because these new age guest workers were also well-heeled experiential travellers. Cheap flights from the airports surrounding London meant that weekends were spent not only on the Continent but also in more exotic locations across Africa, the Middle East, and even North America. Tell-tale signs of this expanding Australian community were also becoming apparent in other ways, such as the setting up of the British Australian Rules Football League in 1990 and the creation of the community advertising website in 2000. More broadly, the recent emergence of the online lobbyist Southern Cross Group and of the Advance Global Professionals network has achieved wide penetration in Britain. The new generation of Australian immigrants, sojourners, expatriate workers or experiential travellers – the terms are interchangeable – lives in an increasingly ‘wired’ world. As testified by Ryan Heath, a card-carrying Australian echo-Boomer Generation Y iconoclast living and working in London. Heath argues that communities can exist without any physical anchor and in any number of changing locations, and that the internet is ‘incredibly useful’ as a resource for maintaining all-important friendship networks, which, if anything, are now more extensive, global and instantaneous.7 Thus some verities remain. E-networks are networks nonetheless.

The chapters in this book move beyond the well-documented experiences of eminent ‘baby boomer’ public intellectuals and entertainers and function as an entry point to the wider Australian experience of living in Britain. Nevertheless, many Australian stories remain absent or are mentioned only in passing. Australia’s sporting rivalry with the ‘Poms’, for example, has created a long history of Australian sportspeople arriving in Britain to represent their nation. The stories of those who were recruited to work for various Australian government agencies have similarly not found their way into this collection. And much more detail could be offered about the lives of the masses of Australian teachers, nurses and backpackers in Britain, which would emerge from a more sustained assault on the census data, a large scale oral history project and in-depth analysis of the records of the employment agencies. We have identified some dramatic changes in recent years but these require further work before they can be fully explained. More work of a comparative nature, looking at other immigrant and traveller groups, could be undertaken. A separate question perhaps beyond the scope of this study is what impact the Australian diasporic community has had on Australians’ understanding of themselves. Unfortunately, the limitations of time and space have meant that we have been unable to address all of these issues – to this end, we encourage our readers to take up from where we have left off. Yet despite these gaps, we believe a cohesive story emerges throughout these chapters, revealing the nature of Australia’s relationship with Britain as well as those changes that have taken place within Australia and Britain. Moreover, they reveal that this exchange of people, skills, and ideas has long been to the advantage of both countries. While the imperial connection is a thing of the past, this large and dynamic exchange confirms that the special relationship between Australia and the UK continues to thrive and is as much alive at the beginning of the twenty-first century as it was in 1901.


Many of the chapters in this volume are revised versions of papers given at the Research Workshop ‘The Australian Diaspora in Britain since 1901: An Exploration’, 29–30 September 2005, Australia House, London. This symposium was convened jointly by the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies, King’s College London and the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University with assistance from the Monash Institute for Global Movements. The editors would like to thank Professor John Nieuwenhuysen, Director of the Monash Institute for Global Movements, and his staff for their support and Jean Dunn for her editorial contribution.


1     For some recent surveys see Jupp, 2004 and Prentis, 2008.

2     Prior studies include: Alomes, 1999; Bridge and Henderson, 2004; Britain, 1997; Fullilove and Flutter, 2004; Hassam, 2000; Nichols, 2007; Pesman, 1996; O’Reilly, 2007; Schultz, 2004; Woollacott, 2001.

3     UK Census data, 1901–2001.

4     Serle, 1950; Hammerton and Thomson, 2005; Jupp, 2004, 143; Alomes, 1999,167; L’Estrange, 2004; UK Census data, 1901–2001.

5     Cohen, 2008, 17.

6     UK Census data, 1901–2001.

7     Heath, 2006, 56.


UK Census data, 1901–2001.


Alomes, Stephen. 1999. When London Calls: The Expatriation of Australian Creative Artists to Britain. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

Bridge, Carl; Henderson, Ian, editors. 2004. Australia’s Britain, Meanjin 63 (3).

Britain, Ian. 1997. Once an Australian: Journeys with Barry Humphries, Clive James, Germaine Greer and Robert Hughes. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Cohen, Robin. 2008. Global Diasporas: An Introduction. Second Edition. London, New York: Routledge.

Fullilove, Michael; Flutter, Chloe. 2004. Diaspora: The World Wide Web of Australians. Lowy Institute Paper. No. 4. Sydney: Lowy Institute for International Policy.

Hammerton, A. James; Thomson, Alistair. 2005. Ten Pound Poms: Australia’s Invisible Immigrants. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Heath, Ryan. 2006. Please Just F* Off It’s Our Turn Now. Melbourne: Pluto Press Australia.

Hassam, Andrew. 2000. Through Australian Eyes: Colonial Perceptions of Imperial Britain. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press.

Jupp, James. 2004. The English in Australia. Melbourne: Cambridge University Press.

L’Estrange, Michael. 2004. The Australia-Britain Relationship Today: Patterns of History, Dynamics of Change, the Menzies Lecture 2004. London: Menzies Centre for Australian Studies Kings College London.

Nichols, Dylan. 2007. What Are You Doing Here? The Question of Australians in London. Brighton, UK: Pen Press Publishers Ltd.

O’Reilly, David. 2007. Britain’s Global Australians: Sixteen Profiles. London: Menzies Centre for Australian Studies KCL and Monash Institute for the Study of Global Movements.

Pesman, Ros. 1996. Duty Free: Australian Women Abroad. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Prentis, Malcolm. 2008. The Scots in Australia, Sydney: UNSW Press.

Schultz, Julianne, editor. 2004. ‘Our global face: Inside the Australian diaspora’, Griffith Review (6) (Summer 2004–2005). Meadowbank, Qld: Griffith University.

Serle, A.G. 1950. ‘Great Britain and Australia, 1919–1939’. D.Phil. thesis. Oxford: University of Oxford.

Woollacott, Angela. 2001. To Try Her Fortune in London: Australian Women, Colonialism, and Modernity. New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Cite this chapter as: Bridge, Carl; Crawford, Robert; Dunstan, David. 2009. ‘More than just Barry, Clive and Germaine: An overview of Australians in Britain’. Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience, edited by Bridge, Carl; Crawford, Robert; Dunstan, David. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 1.1 to 1.9.


Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience

   by Carl Bridge