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Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience




The many thousands of Australian women who travelled to and sojourned in England across the twentieth century did so largely for reasons that were consistent. Despite one critic’s notion that most were ‘ordinary women’, this essay contends that Australian women were drawn to the imperial metropole precisely because of its opportunities for growth, adventure and careers – whether they were single or married, arrived alone, with friends or family. Women could arrive in London both with particular goals in mind and also to be a tourist in the great new and yet familiar city. While there were several notable factors of continuity, there are ways in which we can see historical change. The factors of continuity include the dramatic response on first arrival, evoking at once the familiarity and the magic of London. They also include patterns of sharing housing and establishing networks with other Australians. The changes that have occurred include the attenuation of colonials’ rights to stay and work in the UK, the presence in the late twentieth century of a few Aboriginal women, Australians’ increased awareness of ethnic diversity in London despite their resistance to recognising their own diversity, and their new preparedness to mock the long-existent condescension towards them as colonials.

When novelist Kate Grenville was asked why she left Australia for London in the mid-1970s, for what would become four years based there and a total of six years overseas, she replied:


For a lot of reasons. I’d always meant to do ‘the tour’ – you know how people do, in Australia, and I kept postponing it. I knew that there was a larger life than mine in Australia. I knew that there was more. I knew that there would be somewhere that was totally baffling all the time, and I wanted that experience, of not knowing where I was, or how things worked. It wasn’t just a series of things I wanted to see, or know about, or have done; it was suddenly a whole lot of parts of myself that I wanted to allow to happen.1

Grenville reveals the intimate connection for so many Australian women between the pilgrimage to London, Australia’s historical metropole, and self-development. With a marked consistency across the twentieth century, Australian women went to Britain in greater numbers than Australian men, because it represented opportunities larger than those they could see in Australia. The importance of self-development as a motive helps to explain the higher numbers of women who went. While some women were return migrants and others went with husbands or other family members, many saw London as offering possibilities precluded by gender expectations in Australia and by the constraints of home and family.

In this chapter I extrapolate from my book To Try Her Fortune in London: Australian Women, Colonialism, and Modernity, which looks at the period from 1870 to 1940, to consider Australian women’s attraction to London across the twentieth century. I follow two lines of argument. One reviewer of my book, who was mostly kind towards it, suggested that I had misrepresented the historical picture somewhat by focusing on the extraordinary women who had gone to London for professional, educational or creative reasons. In so doing I had obscured the mass of ‘ordinary women’ who did not undertake such exciting adventures – those who were tourists, and who travelled with their parents and husbands.2 I contend here that this notion of a majority of ‘ordinary’ uninteresting women is itself misleading. Looking at the middle and later decades of the twentieth century supports my argument that London (and England more generally) drew substantial numbers of Australian women precisely because of its opportunities for growth, adventure and careers – whether they were single or married. And I hope I showed in my book that one could arrive in London both with particular goals in mind and also to be a tourist in the great new and yet familiar city.

My second overarching theme is how to balance continuities with change over time. I will suggest that, while there were several notable factors of continuity, there are ways in which we can see historical change.


Let me start with recapping the main arguments of my book. Tens of thousands of Australian women were drawn to and resided in their imperial metropolis between 1870 and 1940. Australians were drawn to London as the largest city in the world at the turn of the century. But it was also the imperial metropolis, the centre of the place that many who never left Australia’s shores referred to as ‘Home.’ Singers, musicians, writers, artists, and others all believed that to succeed they needed ‘laurels in the wider world,’ but specifically ‘the hall mark of London approval.’3 Some colonials were drawn to London for ‘the season’ or for shopping. In an era when tourism was becoming an industry, London was a global tourist destination, both in its own right and as a base for visiting the British provinces and the continent. For most white Australians, London – and the rest of the British Isles – was the locus of inherited cultural memory, the site of ancestral connections and the setting of major historical episodes. Some were drawn by the desire to visit relatives – including those who had left Australia and settled in England. Other components of London’s centripetal pull included its primacy in the publishing, art, educational, reform, theatrical, musical, scientific, medical, legal, and political worlds. In September 1902, the successful Australian soprano Amy Castles was asked by a journalist from the New Idea whether she came across many Australian ‘girls’ in England and Paris. ‘Yes, quite a lot,’ she replied. ‘In fact, I think that far too many Australians are going home to try their fortunes. Competition is very keen.’4

In October 1913 Alice Grant Rosman informed the readers of Everylady’s Journal:


[I]t is safe to say the average Australian girl cherishes an ambition to come to London some time or other, whether it be in search of fame, experience, or mere frivolous adventure. That a large percentage realise that ambition in these days of cheap travelling may be seen from the fact – or perhaps I should say the rumour – that there are no fewer than 25,000 Australians either temporarily o[r] permanently residing in London to-day.5

Rosman’s figures were more fact than rumour. Starting with a trickle of a couple of thousand per year in the 1870s, the flow of Australians and New Zealanders to England rose to around an annual 10,000 from the late 1880s beyond the turn of the century, and then doubled in the interwar period.6 By 1911 there were 23,000 Australian-born residents of England and Wales, of whom 13,000 were female.7 In 1930 an Australian journalist noted: ‘We meet ourselves everywhere; London is full of us, rushing about sightseeing, attending functions, or inscribing our names at Australia House, our national “foyer”.’8

Communities of Antipodeans have been part of London since at least 1884, when the community newspaper the British Australasian was founded. After a short hiatus in the later stages of the Second World War, the numbers in London surged from the 1950s. One source suggests that in 1991 there were 42,000 Australians and New Zealanders in London.9 One of my aims in the book was to present a kind of prehistory to what was already well-known – the postwar attraction of Australians to London – to show that it was a phenomenon with longer historical roots than often assumed. Stephen Alomes’ book When London Calls (Alomes, 1999) is a richly detailed evocation of the expatriate Australian cultural elite in London from the late 1940s to the 1980s, showing the density of the cultural connections between Australia and London in that period – although he perhaps wasn’t fully aware of the extent to which this was a continuation of the pre-war situation.10 But there is less available work on the thousands and thousands of Australians who did not become famous, who went to London for an adventure, to get away from home, to see the world, to pursue education, jobs and careers.

The sources available to the historian privilege the professional and the prominent. But from the turn of the twentieth century large numbers of less visible women also went, taking jobs in music hall or choruses, the food service industry, teaching, nursing and other less glamorous areas. For such women, the romance, the distance, and the promise of adventure were what mattered. England – and London – held such appeal that visits there were often measured in years or could extend indefinitely. White colonial women’s flight to London was culturally intelligible to their families and friends. Because departing for London was a recognized cultural ritual, women could undertake this huge step without being condemned for transgressing femininity through being overly ambitious, at a time when women’s claims to the public domain were limited culturally.

The common formulation of the decision by a woman artist, professional or performer to embark was that she had decided ‘to try her fortune in London’,11 which endorsed women’s rights to compete for success, fame and, indeed, financial rewards. Going to London was therefore a way for an Australian woman to express and act on her ambition: to advance her education or skills, to absorb the latest styles, genres, research or techniques, to study under the most renowned practitioners, to gain access to the most respected publishing houses – or simply to get a job. It was also commonly accepted in many fields that opportunities in Australia were small and confined compared to those in England; therefore, displaying strong abilities was widely regarded as a sign that you should go to the metropole, to a larger arena.

While Australian men were drawn to London too, the statistics and contemporary observations show consistently over time that, except the years of the First World War when Australian troops were in Britain, there were more women than men making this pilgrimage ‘home’. A 1907 commentator, when asked about the principal exports from Australia to Britain, replied that they were ‘frozen sheep and pretty-voiced girls’.12 In 1910 newspaper columnist ‘Peggy’ said of an Australian singer: ‘She was just a unit in the large army of girls with voices – spelled with a big V – who come over yearly with ever so little capital and ever so many aspirations and dreams of conquering the world of music.’13 While sex discrimination in Australia was a common reason that women left for London, colonialism facilitated their move by both creating and validating their attraction to the imperial metropolis. In the racialised and gendered cultural logic of the empire, white women’s desire for London was evidence of refinement and feminine respectability.


Andrew Hassam comments that ‘there is a danger in grouping feminism, modernity and colonialism as transgressive forces when this excludes the experience of the majority of Australian women who came to Britain with parents or husbands’.14 I do not think it’s quite accurate to characterize either colonialism or modernity as a transgressive force; rather, they have been large structuring historical dynamics. Moreover, Australian travellers to Britain have been influenced by both colonialism and modernity, whether they were young single women or older married men. But the point I really want to counter here is the suggestion that the majority of Australian women travelling to London arrived with parents and husbands and without personal ambitions. And indeed, I would argue that the two categories were not exclusive: many women arrived with family members and ambitions.

Familial relationships are complex, and belie assumptions of normalcy or straightforwardness. In 1930 a music critic pilloried the Australian mother who used her talented offspring as an excuse for the trip to Europe she so badly wanted:


If Rosey happens to be one of those whose destinies seem to the public or her immediate circle of admirers to lie in the direction of a career overseas, when Mother insists on coming with her the upshot is almost invariably a disastrous handicap on Rosey ... The mothers sigh that they must make a sacrifice for Rosey; what is really happening is that they are making a sacrifice of Rosey.15

Another contraversion of the idea that travelling with parents was a protected or ordinary experience comes from Penelope Nelson’s account of her trip to London with her mother in 1959, when she was sixteen. Her mother, Micky McNicoll, who had been women’s editor of the Sunday Telegraph and Daily Telegraph in Sydney, was given a round-the-world ticket as a retirement gift, and took her daughter with her. Nelson was taken aback to discover how cosmopolitan and well-known her mother was. Among other experiences, they went to lunch at the Notting Hill house of an Australian woman artist friend of her mother, an experience that Nelson describes as ‘a preview of what would be known as the Swinging Sixties’. Not only was lunch accompanied by claret and port, their hostess offered her a pill she called a ‘purple heart’. Nelson described her trip back to their flat on the top deck of a bus as being ‘bathed by waves of exhilaration’, some interesting colours and a pulsing rhythm.16 A sixteen-year-old having a psychedelic experience when accompanying her mother to lunch in 1959 confounds the assumption that travel with family is necessarily ‘ordinary’ or boring.

In relation to the question of women travelling with their husbands, examples abound of dual career couples. An early example was Amy Mack and her husband Launcelot Harrison who arrived in England in 1914, where Harrison had hoped to take up a postgraduate research scholarship. While he served in the army, including in Mesopotamia, Mack worked in London as a publicity officer for the Ministry of Munitions and the Ministry of Food. A mid-century example, showing how complex and competitive marriages could be, is the writers George Johnston and Charmian Clift who moved to London in 1951 when Johnston became head of the Sun newspapers bureau. While the two continued to write both together and separately, and were celebrated members of the expatriate Australian community, the tensions in their literary careers were interlinked with the tensions in their marriage. Clift illustrates well the point that a married woman could have ambitions for herself.17

It is particularly important to recognise that the Australian women who travelled to London in the twentieth century were not predominantly from the social or economic elite. As I noted in my book, focusing on white Australian women’s recourse to and exploitation of London forces us to see the connections stretching not only to Australian cities, but extending to small country towns, farms, and stations. In 1910 music critic Thorold Waters noted patronisingly that some of the hundreds of Australian women singers recently in London ‘came directly from their little towns of Tantanoola, Bunyip, Gerang-Gerang, or wherever they might be.’18

While affluence and social connections helped, by no means were all Australian women in London well off. Grace Jennings Carmichael, a poet and nurse from Ballarat, died a pauper in a workhouse near London in 1904.19 Others went on scholarships or scraped together a living; accounts of trips to London abound with stories of not having enough to eat, and not having cash to keep feeding the gas meter. Some were from the poorer classes, and some who were not left with only their fare, facing the necessity to work as soon as they landed. Painter of miniatures Bess Norriss left Australia in 1905 having saved thirty pounds for the trip.20 Not only were these women from across Australia and up and down the socio-economic ladder, they were diverse in other ways too, including age and marital status – and these factors of diversity continued across the century.


Australian women arriving in London at very different moments in the twentieth century reacted in strikingly similar ways, evoking at once the familiarity and the magic of arrival. In 1901, journalist and novelist Louise Mack reacted this way: ‘Oh London, London! how did I ever live without you? ... I no longer say to myself, “You’re in London.” I accept it at last, and surrender to the spell of the City of Mists’.21 Actress Ruth Cracknell’s first reactions on her arrival in 1953 were only a little less romantic: ‘Arriving in London it was as if every reference point was familiar. 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, but so much more vivid now that one was a part’.22 Romance and fantasy also colour the description, in a recent memoir by television comedian Noeline Brown, of her arrival in March 1965: ‘As soon as I recovered from my shocking jetlag I started exploring the city. I walked everywhere and loved every minute of it. I was actually Overseas. The little girl who used to hang around the docks and dream about travel was actually doing it.’23 Across the century Australian women recorded their journeys to and sojourns in Britain in diaries, letters, interviews and memoirs. Fictionalised accounts also span the century from Louise Mack’s novel An Australian Girl in London (Mack, 1902) to Nikki Gemmell’s novel Love Song (Gemmell, 2001).24

Another notable continuity was the custom of sharing housing and establishing networks. This was true in the boarding houses of the early century, and remained true. When Adelaide printmaker and writer-to-be Barbara Hanrahan arrived in London in February 1963 to attend the Central School of Art, like so many other Australian young women she found housing with friends of a girl she’d met on the ship. The flat was on the ground floor of a house in West Kensington, and it involved sharing a bedroom with Carolyn and Val and Peggy, all from Sydney. Not only were shared conditions in the house already crowded, if any Australian girlfriends of any of the four turned up, they were permitted to sleep on the floor of the sitting room. Sometimes, Hanrahan recalled, the ‘flat was full of strange girls,’ but most of the tenants didn’t mind because it meant more people sharing expenses.25 That this is still a practice of young Australians in London is shown in Rosie Whittam’s account of her own recent experience. Commenting on the continuing Australian custom of sharing housing together, Whittam reports:


the archetypal London house share can be fraught with problems. I was totally unprepared for the endless stream of flatmates’ travelling friends arriving at short notice to crash. I once discovered a half-naked man, reclining on an airbed, in the middle of my kitchen. The flat was supposed to accommodate four tenants, but at one stage there were twelve crammed inside. The bathroom got so dirty that I stayed cleaner if I didn’t take a shower.26

Australian women created shared households beyond London. While London has consistently drawn the largest concentration of Antipodeans because of its size and opportunities, others have sojourned elsewhere in Britain, drawn by family connections or other motives. In late 1972 Susan Marsden, a recent graduate of the University of Adelaide, arrived in England with friends Jane Lockwood and Margaret Mary Farrell. At first they headed for Doncaster to stay with Jane’s sister, uncle and grandmother. Soon the four young women moved to Cambridge, where they rented ‘Wiles Cottage’ in the nearby village of Waterbeach. They decided on Cambridge for their joint adventure because of connections the Lockwood sisters, whose father was an academic, had there. For historian-to-be Susan Marsden, Cambridge was in many ways an archetypal experience of a metropolitan sojourn. She found a day job working for the Leicester Permanent Building Society, and at least for a while also waitressed in the evening. Like so many other young Australians, she travelled around Britain (often hitchhiking, a mode of transport not considered feasible by later arrivals) and the continent. Yet in some ways her sojourn was shaped in singular ways by Cambridge itself. She and her housemates made friends with Cambridge undergraduates, and soaked up the historic architecture of the colleges and the ambience of ‘the Backs’ and the Cam. Marsden reacted to her new Cambridge friends in ways shaped both by gender and colonial resentment. Her new male friends, still themselves undergraduates, seemed unimpressed by her status as a recent graduate, perhaps because of a slight disregard for an Arts degree (as opposed to science or engineering), and perhaps because of an Oxbridge condescension towards a colonial university. Marsden recorded in her diary: ‘You feel something of an imposter declaring that you’re a University graduate, or even having been at university. Of course, the feeling is partly fostered by our own defensiveness; what’s Adelaide University vs. Cambridge[?]’. Despite recognising their own colonial lack of confidence, Marsden admitted to herself that it would be nice to be accorded some intellectual respect, rather than ‘being given no status whatsoever for the B.A., Adelaide’. Her feminist analysis of the interactions between the Cambridge undergraduate men and her group of Australian women prompted her wry note that: ‘We are their lighter side’.27

Without wanting to indulge too much in autobiography, the topic of networks and shared housing touches closely on my own experience. During my own ‘gap year’ of sojourning in London and travelling on the continent in 1981–82, I too benefited from a network of Australian women friends in London. I had actually forgotten the density of this network until, in cleaning out my parents’ house in 2005, I discovered letters I wrote home in October 1981. In them, I describe the shared houses in which I found accommodation in London. First, there was the house in Brixton – actually two adjoined terrace houses – in which the eight permanent residents were mostly Antipodean. The household was so willing to accommodate transient Antipodeans (friends of residents) that it had a spare bedroom for this purpose, and a detailed system such that a visitor paid a fixed amount into the weekly kitty and was immediately slotted into the cooking, shopping and cleaning roster. I could have stayed in that house as long as I wished, but the woman friend with whom I was travelling and I moved on to another house shared by Australians, this one in Herne Hill. In my letters, I commented that it was wonderful finding such a rich network of Australians, but at times one wished one could meet more real English people. The networks flourished, I told my parents, because all new arrivals have Australian friends whom they look up and immediately they meet others. One of the things that struck me and on which I reported was that the networks into which I fell were dominated by women, many of whom were professionals or were doing creative work. Among them were two doctors, a friend learning to teach English as a second language, another who had just landed a job setting up a community radio station on a public housing estate, and a radiographer working in Sussex.28 Yet in terms of the historical record, these were anonymous Australians – the kind who complicate the notion of ‘ordinary women.’ This phenomenon of congregating with other Australians was partly due to the practical incentives of sharing rent and basic expenses; partly to established personal contacts; and perhaps partly to the difficulty of assimilating – factors that were fairly constant across the century.


But some things did change, most importantly from 1962 onwards the rights of Australians to stay and work in the UK. At the turn of the twentieth century a sojourn in London represented ‘going home’. Today only some of that imperial attachment remains. Instead we have evidence that a trip to Britain can be more like visiting a foreign country, with the meanings of colonial attachment challenged in multiple ways. The recent experiences of Julie Hope highlight the ways in which Britain is no longer ‘home’. In early August 2005, fifty-year-old Hope, from Melbourne, was refused entry to Britain by immigration officials at Stansted airport after visiting the continent. Hope had a current six-month UK visa. Nevertheless, the officials detained and interrogated her for five hours, impounded her possessions, read her diary, refused to allow her to phone a lawyer, and finally deported her back to France. Hope, a divorced former garden decorator, who had rented out her Melbourne house and planned to have a ‘late gap year’ in Britain, had arrived earlier in the year. She stayed with friends, whom she helped around the house and garden and for whom she did some unpaid babysitting, and went to Normandy with a group of schoolchildren including the daughter of one set of hosts. She had recorded all this in her diary. Seemingly, the immigration officials believed that she was working illegally in the UK in return for accommodation, board and cash. According to Valerie Lawson, who wrote an account of Hope’s deportation for the Sydney Morning Herald, of the 819,000 Australians who travelled to Britain in 2003, 315 were refused entry.29

While that is a small percentage, both the statistic and Hope’s story are a reminder of the attenuation of legal ties and cultural identification between metropole and colony.

Another noteworthy change has to do with ‘race’ or ethnicity. For the period 1870 to 1940, I could find no evidence of any Indigenous Australian woman in England. This absence contrasts both with the small number of Aboriginal men who went to England in that period, and also with the small number of Canadian Aboriginal or First Nations women who travelled to England in the same years, and whom historian Cecilia Morgan is currently studying.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, a few Aboriginal women did make the trip – something that was facilitated by the Whitlam Government’s removal of legislative restrictions. Early in 1972, before that legislative change, activist and writer Roberta Sykes went to England at the invitation of a group of Australian expatriates who wanted to draw attention to Aborigines’ subordination. For Sykes, the trip was a mixed experience: she knew none of the organisers, had no money, and found that they expected her to go around the country by herself to events they had arranged. Moreover, when she arrived back in London after speaking to some Labour Party delegates at their annual Blackpool conference, she found that police had been looking for her at the request of the Australian government. She was accused of having, a year earlier, assisted an Aboriginal escapee in Western Australia, but the charge was false and soon dropped.30 In recent years, there has been more of an Aboriginal presence in London. Notable events have included the November 2002 visit by Doris Pilkington Garimara, author of Follow the Rabbit-Proof Fence (Pilkington, 1996), the book on which the film was based.31 And in 2005 the first ‘Sorry Day’ event to be held outside Australia occurred at Lincoln’s Inn Fields on 25 May.

Australian women visiting London have become more aware of its ethnic diversity, although comments on this were registered as early as the 1920s. In 1963 Barbara Hanrahan found the ethnic diversity something she had to get used to, noting of her trips around London that she was ‘surrounded by a new lot of curious people with so many different colours of skin, so many ways of living. Black men who smelt of carnation powder, mad old women offering you sweeties wrapped in cellophane, drunken Irishmen clutching bottles of milk.’32 She also noted virulent racism, both in one of her Australian women flatmates, and in an English electrician she met.33 Most Australian women in Britain in the twentieth century were of British descent, but this is definitely not true of all. For instance, I am currently working on Rose Quong, the Chinese-Australian actor and writer who made a career in London from 1924 to 1939, specialising in the professional performance of Chineseness. In the earlier part of the century a few were of continental European descent, but usually they did not emphasise this. More recently, in 2001 a Maltese-Australian woman Simone Ancilleri posted a submission on the Australian website ‘WogLife’ headed ‘A wog in London’. She complains of the difficulties she experienced there as a hybrid or hyphenated Australian. Growing up in Western Sydney, she was ‘just a wog’ and her Australian friends accepted that she looked Maltese but had a broad Australian accent, and she had friends ‘from all different backgrounds’. When she went to London she had hoped that she would meet ‘people of all different nationalities with perhaps an Aussie here or there and not the other way around.’ Instead she found that her ‘backpacker’s house’ was ‘little Australia’, and that her housemates introduced her to their friends thus: ‘This is Simone and she is from Malta.’ Her indignant reaction was: ‘What! I was born in Australia and lived there for twenty three years of my life [so] I felt that I deserved to be called an “Australian”.’ While going to London on a working holiday for a couple of years was ‘the ultimate Australian cliché’, Ancilleri’s time there only confused her in terms of ethnic and national identities. She complained: ‘I can’t go to the Australian pub and drink VB or XXXX and holler “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!” without feeling like a complete fool.’34 Thus while Australian women in London were not wholly of British descent even early in the century, the question of ethnicity versus Australianness is now perhaps more open for discussion.

One last topic that I wish to touch on is how women have reacted to English condescension toward them as colonials. This has changed over the course of the twentieth century but perhaps only subtly. Certainly, complaints by Australian women about being treated as colonials recurred across the century; even before 1900 it was a theme in the accounts of visitors and longer-term residents. Australians have resisted and resented their categorisation as colonials, and refuted particular insults they have perceived have been levelled at them. Both the insults and the resentment, it seems, have been a continuing thread. When historian Ann Moyal left Sydney for London in 1949, it was partly because she had been ‘reared at [her] mother’s knee on plans for England’.35 The specific context of her departure was her first-class honours degree in History from the University of Sydney and a scholarship to the Institute of Historical Research, University of London. She would go on to the singular and glamorous career of being Lord Beaverbrook’s personal research assistant. Moyal and her Australian friends were ‘amused and baffled’ to find their new English associates consumed with the cultural dimensions of class. A current preoccupation was Nancy Mitford’s distinction between those who were ‘U’ (upper-class) and ‘Non-U’. Moyal was informed by an English friend that she need not worry about this subject, because all Australians were by definition ‘Non-U’.36 While she recounts the insults she received with humour as well as resentment, other reports of British condescension are more heated.

I would suggest, though, that Australians have become more irreverent in their response. This irreverence is perhaps best epitomised by Kathy Lette, the writer and comedian, in her novel Foetal Attraction (Lette, 1993). Lette’s character, Maddy, is a six-foot tall, witty, Jill-of-all-trades who left school early and has had jobs ranging from first mate on a prawn fishing boat off Darwin, to a trapeze artist for Circus Oz, to a scuba-diving instructor in the Whitsunday Islands. In Sydney she falls in love with an English TV celebrity and follows him to London, where she has to mix with those she mockingly calls the ‘glitterati.’ At first, Maddy is stunned by the condescension she receives from the supposedly politically progressive cultural elite, but she comes to accept it as a fact of life for an Australian in London. At the first high-powered cocktail party she endures, the comments of the writers, agents and activists to whom she is introduced include: ‘Oh, you’re Australian. I’ve always found Australians to be so insensitive.’ ‘An Australian in London. Now there’s an original concept.’ And ‘Australia ...? ... That’s where we stash our upper-class English murderers, isn’t it?’ The most damning line is one that she overhears in a conversation between two women: ‘Oh, yes. I do all my own housework. I can’t possibly ask a working-class woman to scrub my lavatory bowl. Occasionally when I get really desperate I ring an agency ... but I always get them to send me an Australian.’37 What Lette’s novel illustrates is a greater preparedness by Australians to name and to satirise such English attitudes. Australians have always noticed and resented them, but the attenuation of the imperial relationship has made it more acceptable to lambast them. Australians have moved beyond both cultural cringe and colonial cringe.

In the historiographical debates surrounding British national identity since the collapse of empire, the formation of a multi-ethnic Britain, and whether or not the empire has shaped Britain itself, the temporary and permanent immigration of subjects from the white-settler dominions has been almost completely overlooked. The thousands and thousands of Australian women who were drawn to Britain across the twentieth century came for diverse reasons including travel, adventure, personal growth, getting away from home and gendered constraints, and seeking education, training and careers. London has exercised a consistent pull for them, despite the growing significance of alternative destinations such as New York. Some factors have stayed the same in this particular component of modern, global mobility, and yet we can also identify factors of change – factors that speak to the attenuation of imperial ties and colonial rights, even as the legacies of colonialism are the fundamental reason for the continuation of an Australian community in London today.


1     Ellison, 1986, 155–156.

2     Hassam, 2003, 310–311.

3     British Australasian, 6 October 1910, 19; British Australian and New Zealander, 21 September 1933, 11.

4     New Idea, 1 September 1902, 115.

5     Alice Grant Rosman, ‘Girls who are going to London town’, Everylady’s Journal, 6 October 1913, 604.

6     Inglis, 1992, 105–06. By 1930 Gilbert Mant could explain that the reason ‘Australians Are Unpopular in London’ was that ‘Something like 20,000 trippers are allowed to leave Australia each year’. The British Australian and New Zealander, 23 October 1930, 18.

7     Inglis, 1992, 105–06. Inglis’ figures support the ‘rumour’ cited by Alice Grant Rosman and add important evidence that more than half of these thousands of Australians were female.

8     Isabel Edgar, ‘Is It Fair?’ British Australian and New Zealander, 30 October 1930, 8. Some 4,410 visitors signed in to Australia House in the spring and summer months alone. British Australasian, 5 October 1922, 12.

9     Bouwman, 1993, 80.

10    Alomes, 1999.

11    For example, British Australian and New Zealander, 11 September 1930, 12.

12    ‘Our song-birds in London’, Lone Hand, vol.1., May 1907, 105.

13    Peggy, ‘In the looking-glass’, British Australasian, 21 April 1910, 20.

14    Hassam, 2003, 311.

15    Waters, Thorold, ‘Cruel hints to youthful artists: The place of mother in the musical career’, Australian Musical News, 1 January 1930, 3.

16    Nelson, 1995, 5–6.

17    See, for example, Brown, 2004 and Wheatley, 2001.

18    Waters, Thorold, ‘Australian Singers and English Agents’, British Australasian, 30 June 1910, 29.

19    Gardiner, 1979, 564.

20    Mills, 1988, 7.

21    Mack, 1902.

22    Cracknell, 1997, 88.

23    Brown, 2005, 97.

24    Gemmell, 2001.

25    Hanrahan, 1992, 23–26.

26    Rosie Whittam, ‘Best – and worst – of British’, ‘Travel’. Sydney Morning Herald, 25–26 February 2006, 3.

27    Susan Marsden’s diary of her trip to England and Europe 1972–73.

28    Woollacott, Angela, My letters home from London, 11 October and 21 October 1981.

29    Lawson, Valerie, ‘Banished by Britain’, Sydney Morning Herald, 3–4 September 2005, 28.

30    Sykes, 1989, 157–159.

31    Pilkington, 1996.

32    Hanrahan, 1992, 35.

33    Hanrahan, 1992, 61–62.

34    Ancilleri, Simone. 2001. ‘A wog in London’. [Internet].

35    Moyal, 1995, 38.

36    Moyal, 1995, 47.

37    Lette, 1993, 39–41.


Ancilleri, Simone. 2001. ‘A wog in London’. [Internet]. Posted online 17 April, 2001. Available from: ‘WogLife’ website

Australian Musical News, 1930.

British Australian and New Zealander, 1930.

British Australasian, 1910.

Everylady’s Journal, 1913.

Lone Hand, 1907.

Woollacott, Angela, My letters home from London, 11 October and 21 October 1981.

New Idea, 1902.

Marsden, Susan, 1972–73, Diary of her trip to England and Europe, by kind loan and permission of the author.

Sydney Morning Herald, 2005.


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Cite this chapter as: Woollacott, Angela. 2009. ‘Australian women in London: Surveying the twentieth century’. Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience, edited by Bridge, Carl; Crawford, Robert; Dunstan, David. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 3.1 to 3.12.


Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience

   by Carl Bridge