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Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience




Images of the Australian presence in Britain have long been dominated by the self-justifying narratives of the Expatriates. But literary intellectuals are less representative of the general experience than the thousands of working holiday-makers who arrived during the 1960s and 70s. These young, usually female, teachers, nurses and office-workers were sometimes sojourners, returning to Australia after a year or two, but others stayed on and merged with the British mainstream. Their letters and diaries constitute a valuable unexploited source on the Australian diaspora. This chapter examines the letters of two Australian women, one a sojourner, and the other an ‘invisible immigrant’.

Looming in the path of the student of the Australian diaspora is the large and now familiar figure, the Expatriate. For half a century, we have been amused and occasionally outraged by the gang of self-conscious, articulate writers, artists, entertainers and academics whose self-justifying narratives largely define what it means to be an Australian in England.1 It is hardly surprising that historians have been drawn so strongly to figures like Clive James, Barry Humphries, Germaine Greer, Rolf Harris and Peter Conrad, who have made careers simultaneously performing and ridiculing a standard repertoire of Australian characters for an English public happy to have their stereotypes of Australia confirmed. The expatriates, however, have been at most a sub-section of a much larger population of Australians in Britain. For most of the twentieth century, the Australian diaspora has been more female than male, and has found employment in a wide range of occupations, professional and manual, including teaching and nursing, office work, and domestic labour as well as the ‘cultural industries’ such as academia, broadcasting and entertainment. While the largest single concentration of Australians in London, from the 1920s onwards, was in the boarding houses and bed-sits of Kensington and Earl’s Court, many others consciously avoided Kangaroo Valley and merged with the English mainstream, where their Australianness nevertheless remained an important part of their experience and identity.

Expatriatism was a stance characteristic of the generation of Australians who came to England during the 1950s and 1960s, often in self-conscious revolt against the strictures of suburban Australia, and who encountered an England still struggling with the legacy an imperial past. Their ambivalent relationships with both countries derived from the conflicts inherent in the transformation of each. Before the Second World War, only a minority of Australians, mostly members of an Anglophile upper middle class, could afford to make the voyage to England. By the 1960s rising affluence in Australia, and a fall in the relative cost of passages, as Italian and Greek cruise liners joined the P&O steamers on the Australian route, began to broaden the social mix of travellers making their way from Australia to England. Living in London, often as a base for a backpacking or Kombi-van tour of the Continent, was becoming a popular, if not yet obligatory, rite of passage for young Australians. The lines of camper-vans parked along the Strand, as one cohort of young Australians sold their temporary homes on to the next, was perhaps the most conspicuous advertisement of the Australian presence in London during these years. As the flow of Australians enlarged, so, we might hypothesise, did the tensions of expatriatism begin to abate. By the 1970s, with the advent of air travel and the beginning of the steep drop in telephone costs, the communication gap between England and Australia had begun to close.

Living in England, especially in London, has become firmly inscribed in Australian consciousness as a rite of passage, and a gateway to personal liberation. In her perceptive book To seek her fortune in London, Angela Woollacott has examined the personal testimony of the generations of middle-class Australian women who made the epic voyage to London between the 1870s and the Second World War. ‘Women’s travelling’, she writes, ‘was an assertion of independence, a bid for self-discovery, and escape from domestic gender constraints’. London was a symbol of success. ‘Going to London’, she continues, ‘was 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 renowned publishing houses – or simply get a job’.2 Some Australian women, she observes in passing, found employment in music halls or choruses, the food service industry, teaching, nursing, and other less glamorous areas. For such women, she suggests, the romance, the distance, and the promise of adventure of the metropolis were what mattered. Woollacott’s study draws heavily on the memoirs and other published writings of the social and literary elite, sources arguably more heavily influenced by the wisdom of hindsight and the self-justifying narratives of expatriatism than the family letters of their humbler sisters, the nurses, teachers and office-workers who, from the 1960s onward, constituted the majority of the Australian diaspora.

This chapter offers a commentary on the ways in which Woollacott’s narrative of female liberation was played out in the lives of two young women who made the great voyage to London in the 1960s and early 1970s. In the age before cheap telephone calls and the internet, the process of writing letters and diaries was an integral part of the travel experience: a means, not only of communicating the events and scenes of the trip to the writer’s family and friends, but of defining its significance for the writer herself. Often, no doubt, they were subject to a degree of self-censorship: not everything that the young travellers were experiencing was considered fit for the eyes of parents, siblings or the wider circle of readers among whom they were often passed around, but they are often as revealing in their silences and understatements as in their more self-conscious reflections. It is likely that many thousands of such European travel diaries and blue airmail letters now reside, neatly bundled and numbered, in cupboards and garages across Australia. A researcher appealing to readers of the Australian Women’s Weekly to contribute such documents would probably have to cope with an avalanche of blue paper. The following narratives are the product of a first unsystematic dip into this deep well of youthful experience, disclosed through the private correspondence of two such travellers. It makes no claim to representativeness – Alison Griffiths and Helen Davison were not self-conscious feminists – but their personal testimony does suggest how some of Angela Woollacott’s themes played out in the lives of women for whom the quest for personal ambition and self-discovery were pursued on more limited terms. Both were schoolteachers, one secondary, one primary; one from Sydney, one from Melbourne; one a sojourner, returning to Australia after about eighteen months of working holidays, the other, as it turned out, a long-term resident of the United Kingdom who has never, however, surrendered her Australian passport or identity.3


Alison Griffiths was nearly 24 when she set out in January 1964 in company with her cousin Elizabeth G. and her friend Sue J. on the maiden voyage of the Marconi, an Italian migrant ship that doubled as cruise liner for young Australians heading for Europe on the return journey. Elizabeth, who came from Melbourne, was also a teacher, while Sue, a nurse, came from Sydney. Alison had grown up in Gordon, on Sydney’s North Shore, and was educated at the Presbyterian Ladies’ College before completing an Arts degree at Sydney University. She had taught, not altogether happily, at Ravenswood School for Girls before deciding to join her friends on an overseas trip to Europe. Her father, a former missionary in the Solomon Islands, was now the Sydney-based secretary of the interdenominational mission, and Alison’s horizons were broadened, geographically if not socially, by the almost constant flow of returning missionaries and Solomon Islanders passing through the family’s house at Gordon. Her mother Margaret, a lively well-read Sydney Science graduate, had herself travelled to England in the 1920s, to study at a missionary training college, and Alison’s home letters were written primarily for her, often describing places that her mother had visited over 30 years earlier. In the dying days of empire, England, for all three girls, remained a kind of spiritual Home where bonds of family and emotional attachment were still strong. Each had British aunts, cousins, second-cousins or family friends to whom they could look for hospitality during their visit.

When the Marconi docked in Genoa, at the end of its voyage, three travellers took the train across the snow-clad Alps, only to arrive at Calais in the midst of a wild storm.


There [Alison related] we lugged our baggage on to ‘Cote d’Azur’, a French ferry, & soon saw the coast of France disappear into the haze on the horizon. Then we forgot all emotional association with past, present and future, & just endured the next hour and half. It was a rotten crossing, the first time in 12,000 miles I’ve really felt at sea. I lost track of the others (but Libbie felt pretty crook, I believe). I just staggered around the deck ... wiping the saltwater off my glasses ... Then – the white cliffs of Dover! through the sea mist. Soon we were on shore again, with a comfortable English bobby on the wharf, & people speaking English, & £.s.d. etc.! Gee we all felt pro-English! Customs was no problem at all – we must have looked painfully honest, – then we were in the train, with two other NZ boys, Ian and Murray there too – ‘and the sun shone and the water had abated’ (?) and the birds sang.

Like Noah’s passage through the flood, the three young Australians’ stormy channel crossing had brought them safely Home.

A few days later they were excitedly walking the streets of 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 – we each fixed up finance and mailing addresses with our respective banks. Gee, it was strange to be in Piccadilly Circus, & Victoria Station, and Berkely [sic] Square’. The sensation of ‘being in a book’, of experiencing a world previously only known indirectly through print, pictures, family recollections or the gramophone records of Flanders and Swann, would gradually dim, though never quite disappear, as the day-to-day realities of life in London sank in. A few days later Alison reported: ‘This afternoon we all went to the Tate Gallery, it was absolutely marvellous to see the real paintings, to walk up close and see the brushstrokes in a Van Gogh, a Turner, a Monet, then step back and explore the whole painting, the original!’ When expatriates dismissed Australians as ‘second-hand Europeans’, they drew in part upon precisely this sense of being detached by distance from the original sources of their civilisation: a European trip was a deeper draught from wells they had already tapped at home.

The cultural splendour of London could sometimes overawe the young Australians, though never repress their glee. ‘We went into the West End again today, & wandered round ... it was fun – we must have looked patently new to London, brown faces, broad smiles as we looked eagerly all around us, “beaut” and other idioms besprinkling our conversation. We blew around London like three hayseeds’. The winter landscape, so different from Sydney’s, was a special delight. After an expedition to Kew Gardens Alison wrote, lyrically, to her mother:


I see what you mean, Mum, about the trees, leaflessly stark and beaut: like the great veins branching into the finest twisting arteries, etched against the sky so clearly and finely ... In the Gardens themselves, we saw crocuses – deep blue & yellow – bursting open amongst the grass, and beautiful snowdrops too. And we saw ducks and swans and moorhens on the lakes, & the gleaming Thames, and great droopy trees on the wide grassy patches. All very peaceful. And you can imagine how we felt on entering the great greenhouses: it was the smell, the moist, warm tang of the bush, unmistakeable, which first impinged on our senses, & then we saw crimson bottlebrush & golden wattle, & gum trees – bless them! – and lovely-scented brown boronia.

This picture of a winter English landscape, shared through memory with her mother, yet mixed with her own present memories of an Australian landscape suddenly evoked by the nostalgic aroma of eucalyptus in an English greenhouse, is expressive of the kind of double-vision characteristic of an Anglo-Australian sensibility.

Two of the three friends, Alison and Elizabeth, took up residence in a tiny third-floor flat with a low sloping roof in Roehampton, arranged on their behalf by Sue’s parents, who were renting an apartment nearby. (Sue’s father, a teacher at a Sydney private school, was on a year’s leave, teaching in London). The flatmates’ day-to-day experience of London was defined, physically, by the unfamiliar exigencies of the coin-in-slot gas-meter, the communal bathroom, heavy overcoats and boots, the hot-water bottle and the Laundromat. By travelling and flatting together, sharing cooking and cleaning, Alison and Elizabeth had entered an arrangement similar to those made by many other young Australian women living in London. By pooling their finances they were also able to smooth out some of the economic ups and downs of short-term employment. In the eyes of their parents, no doubt, the arrangement also offered a degree of protection, or mutual chaperonage, not available to those travelling alone.

London was a magnet, but it was just as important as a base from which the Australians could reach the even more magnetic cities of Paris, Rome, Athens and Florence. Both Alison and Elizabeth spoke serviceable French and had taken Italian lessons on the Marconi. Their university studies had given them some familiarity with European art and history and they had already acquired an interest in French and Italian cooking. About five of the eighteen months they spent abroad was spent on the Continent, most of it in southern Europe. In order to save the funds for these expeditions, they were obliged to live frugally in London, making only occasional visits to theatre and opera, looking out for free concerts, exhibitions and museums.

In search of homeland company or flatmates, many Australians gravitated to the traditional centre of the expatriate Australian community in Kensington and Earl’s Court. Alison and Elizabeth were wary of its reputation.


Uncle David is quite right: Earl’s Court still is full of Australians, too full. They call it Kangaroo Valley; Aussies are renowned – or notorious – for their wild parties. We had resolved that Earl’s Court was the one place in London where we definitely did not want to flat. Also, it’s not an awfully nice area, very cosmopolitan.

After returning from their second trip to the Continent, they spent several anxious days as winter approached searching for a new home, before finding a pleasant flat on a monthly tenancy near Gloucester Road.


The flat we now have is better than either of the others. a) we won’t be tied for 6-9 months b) we won’t be tossed out after 2 months and it is at Gloucester Road near the Tube, which is on three lines, the Circle Line, the Piccadilly Line & the District Line (direct to Surrey for supply teaching) – & yet within walking distance of Harrods and other Knightsbridge shops, the Albert Hall (concerts), the Victoria and Albert Museum & Kensington Gardens. We are also only about 10 minutes walk from the Presbyterian Church we attended last Sunday and liked.

Like other young Australians, Alison and her friends had come in search of new experiences – of lands, peoples, cultures and experiences different from their own – although, as her letters make plain, the itinerary they followed was shaped in accordance with their own tastes and standards.

Within England, their circle of acquaintance extended upward, from their own solid middle class, via their English cousins, into the lower rungs of the English gentry and downwards into the working class whose children they encountered, day by day, as supply teachers in government and Catholic parish schools. Back home they had taught only in private schools; now they were suddenly plunged into London’s blackboard jungle. ‘The children are rather tough, but we are glad of the experience’, Elizabeth admitted after a few weeks at the Gainsborough School for Girls. Alison approached her temporary job at St Edward the Confessor School, a Catholic secondary school in Richmond, with a ‘what-the heck feeling’, a combination of economic pragmatism and almost anthropological curiosity. ‘Sue and Libbie are desperately trying to prevent my landslide crash into a London semi-cockney accent, into which I lapse unconsciously at the slightest provocation. “Goo’ness”, says Libbie, “that Customs man has no consonants at all. We must get Alison out of here quick.”’

During weekends and school holidays they sometimes stayed as house-guests of their English friends and relations. Aware of the reputation of Australians for ‘botting’ on their English relatives, they usually waited politely to be asked. Some of their hosts had themselves been born in Australia, or had lived there, and were eager to return the hospitality they had enjoyed in Sydney or Melbourne. Yet there was always an element of uncertainty in these encounters: the nuances of upper-class manners and English under-statement, the subtle gradations of class and status, often left the young Australians uncertain of exactly where they stood. It was a fascinating, but often perplexing, experience.

Alison describes these visits in loving detail, recording every detail of the furnishings of their hosts’ houses, the food they ate, and the landscape through which they rambled and cycled. For young women of their class and background, life in the English country house was a kind of finishing school, an opportunity to observe and emulate a way of life they found fascinating. ‘We had deliciously English roast beef – hot on Sat, cold on Sunday: a most delicate delicious flavour’, Alison reported after a weekend visit to Reigate to stay with her sister-in-law’s aunt and uncle, the Storrs, whose butcher, she explained, maintained that Australian beef ‘has to walk too far!’ In the spring, just before they departed for France and Italy, all three stayed for several weeks with Sue’s parents at their house in Pewsey Vale, where they heard their first cuckoo, hunted for old books and prints in nearby Marlborough, and cycled across the Wiltshire countryside.

Perhaps the most memorable of these encounters, however, was a visit to the home of Elizabeth’s mother’s distant cousin, Bertine (‘Babs) Hay. ‘Mrs Hay is awfully nice, she really is a pet’, Alison enthused. Back in the 1920s Bertine Hay had swum in London’s literary world, becoming one of the city’s first independent woman publishers. Now, a widow still young at heart, she was the very model of an unconventional English gentlewoman while her home, Stoke Hill Farm, a seventeenth century farm house, left all three girls almost speechless in admiration.


Mrs Hay’s house is just perfect, there’s no other word for it: everything is unobtrusively and exactly right [Alison wrote]. There’s a wonderful view, as the house is set on the side of a hill, & half a cyclorama of lovely valley extends to the horizon, with trees and daffodils in the foreground ... There’s a most wonderfully thatched barn, and a grove of young beeches, & we picked our first primroses there! ... Inside there are little beautiful antique pieces such as paperweights, & china & a beautiful old hearth, & terracotta tiles, & one room was once a barn, & has the hayloft still there, with clean whitened boards. But it’s indescribable really, I just sat there almost open-mouthed, it was all so beautifully right.

The ideal of femininity represented by Bertine Hay and Stoke Hill Farm was a subtle blend of the modern and the antique, of personal independence lived, however, within a traditional rural way of life. To the young Australians it may have suggested some of the possibilities of personal fulfilment and aesthetic expression to be found within a conservative social and moral order. Personal emancipation and modernism, in its aesthetic forms, were perhaps only accidental allies. Many young Australians arrived in England not to discover the new, but to revere the antique.

Cultural historians look back on the 1960s as the period of notable innovation when ‘swinging London’ became synonymous with bold experiments in drama, film, political satire and popular music. It was the era of the Rolling Stones, Private Eye, the plays of John Osborne, Harold Pinter, Peter Shaffer and Joe Orton. However, it was Olivier’s Othello and the comic songs of Flanders and Swann, not the plays of Britain’s Angry Young Men, that drew Alison and her friends to the West End. Even the mild satire of ‘Beyond the Fringe’ Alison found ‘hammy’ and unconvincing.

Yet it would be wrong to conclude that London had left the visitors unchanged. The three friends would eventually return to Australia, but, along with their Kodachrome memories of a wider world, would come subtle changes in taste and outlook, a new measure of personal independence, wider social and cultural sympathies and the satisfaction of having contemplated life-choices different from those they ultimately settled for.

By November, with the two trips to the Continent behind them, and another winter coming on, Alison’s thoughts were tending homeward. Less than a year after their departure she felt ‘more than a year older in experience’, although, oddly, much ‘younger than Miss Griffiths of Ravenswood’. Over the year, she noticed, her attitude to the idea of returning had fluctuated:


It’s funny, Mum, but in the past few weeks I seem to have gone further: right at the start of travelling I was sort of homesick. Then for a long time I had a kind of anti-homesickness, a claustrophobic trapped feeling that, in a way, I couldn’t go home because a fledgling can’t fly away then go back to the old nest, as it were. I felt I’d ‘burnt my boats’. Now I seem to have got beyond that again, and am content with the idea of going home.

Yet while she was now happy to come home, ‘I don’t quite see myself fitting into the same old niche anymore’. She would not go back to teaching at Ravenswood and gave notice that things would have to change at home too. In London, she explained, she had been able ‘to be completely myself & do this unencumbered by conflicting loyalties, & with no-one around to keep my conscience for me. There are some things [she confessed] I’ve felt pretty strongly about for a long time which have crystallised while I have been away. In particular I have for many years felt troubled by the “double life” I’ve had at home regarding what I feel perfectly happy for me to do (eg go to theatres) and what visiting missionaries etc disagree with’. If she now decided to stay at home, she would have to be free to come and go and to invite her own friends. ‘I’ve never been very emphatically certain about the rights and wrongs, the “black & white” of issues. It seems though that what could be wrong for one could be right for another, & we are not to judge’.

Alison acted on her decision to go back to living with her parents in Sydney, where she researched and wrote a book about the story of the mission she had viewed earlier with such ambivalence. After her mother’s death she moved to Melbourne, where her love of teaching and writing fostered a satisfying career, and where her father joined her for the last 13 years of his life. London, perhaps, had brought no sharp break in the outward pattern of her life, but it had given her the time and space to consider its direction as well as the courage to renegotiate the relationship with her family. Some of this might have occurred, perhaps, if she had been living somewhere else in Australia, but England had also furnished models of a different kind of life, the possibility of becoming what she modestly called ‘a normal, cultivated, educated person’.


Helen Davison was nearly 28 when she arrived in London, along with her friend Helen J (‘Flo’ as she was usually called by her friends), in the winter of 1971. Since graduation from the Melbourne Teachers’ College, she had spent several years as an infant teacher in Victorian schools, mainly in the country, before moving back to Melbourne where she taught in working-class Broadmeadows. Helen and Flo had grown up in the bosom of the North Essendon Methodist Church, and most of their social life occurred within its fellowship. Helen was a warm-hearted, sociable young woman, close to her family but with a lively interest in other cultures that had led her, again under Methodist auspices, to spend her summer holidays as a volunteer on the Aboriginal mission at Yirrkala and to visit the Methodist community at Vatakoula in Fiji. (Long afterwards, Helen continued to sign off her letters home with the Fijian salutation ‘Loloma’). Helen’s father had been born in England and emigrated to Australia as an infant; she had introductions to one or two of his relatives in the Midlands, but the links were now slender, and she could not draw upon the close network of hospitality enjoyed by Alison and her friends.

In London, the two friends gravitated, through their Essendon friends John and Sue S, to the Methodist Church in Finchley. Through a local agent, they found accommodation nearby, ‘a bedsitting room with a kitchen in the corner ... very clean and quite reasonable £ 7-7-0’. They visited Australia House to register their names and address and the nearby London branch of the State Savings Bank to establish a bank account. Afterwards, they wandered down Fleet Street towards St Paul’s, visited Samuel Johnson’s house and explored churches in search of brasses for the brass-rubbing expeditions that would become one of their favourite activities in the coming months. It was still midwinter, the trees in Hyde Park looked ‘rather dainty’ without their leaves and there was the occasional sprinkle of snow. They had applied for jobs soon after their arrival, Helen as a supply teacher, Flo as a typist. In the meantime they occupied their days as tourists, beginning in London but venturing further into the countryside, to St Albans and then to York and Scotland, as spring approached. ‘I have picked my first wild primroses and forget-me-nots, heard the first cuckoo, eaten roast beef and yorkshire pudding, played darts in a little pub, seen deer running wild across the moors and done other Englishy things that are not as noteworthy as these’ she reported in April. ‘Englishy’ was code for the idealised landscape of thatched cottages, country gardens, cream teas and long summer evenings that Helen and her mother had shared since childhood, when Beatrix Potter and A.A. Milne had been among their favourite bedtime reading. ‘I would love you all to be here to see how “Englishy” England is’, she enthused after another expedition.

Not everything English was ‘Englishy’, of course, and Helen was soon noting other less advertised differences from her homeland:


[Countryside] It’s not like our country of course. You can always see buildings and are never more than a few miles from houses and shops.

[Dress] We don’t find English girls as neatly dressed as girls at home. They dress for comfort ... with boots, heavy coats, often hats.

[Refrigerators]: They don’t seem to worry about them here.

[Pubs] People go to pubs here to drink, eat, talk and be entertained ... not loud, boozy, unrefined hotels like they are at home.

[Dogs] London people are very ‘dog’. They take them into shops, trains, homes – everywhere.

[Beaches] The people on the beach were not dressed like beach-lovers at home. Lots of people don’t go onto the beach but sit on deckchairs or on the lawns and paths ... They all seem a bit quiet and with no energy but I suppose they are enjoying themselves.

By April Helen had found a job teaching at a primary school nearby, and, momentously, a new boyfriend. Barry Hobbs, a secondary teacher from Bristol, was also working in London and attending the Finchley Methodist Church. Over the following weeks, their outings to the theatre and cinema and car trips into the countryside – to the New Forest, Barry’s old university town, Southampton, to Lymington, and eventually to Bristol to stay with his parents – began to dominate Helen’s weekly narratives, inspiring growing speculation among her family at home. By July, as the summer break approached, and she planned a five week camping trip to Spain and Morocco, the implications of the continued friendship began to occupy her thoughts. She pondered whether the time was approaching to break off the friendship, but by October, when she returned from the trip, it was still going strong.

It was only as Helen and Barry began to contemplate marriage that the working tourist began the long, and sometimes difficult, transformation into an expatriate. Barry’s parents, for whom London, let alone Melbourne, was a world away, reacted to the news of their engagement with shocked disbelief. Eventually the decision was made: after their marriage in England, they would come out to Australia for two years, so that Barry could get to know Australia and Helen’s family, before returning to live permanently in England. They married in 1972 and spent two happy years working and saving in Melbourne before flying back to England, as promised, in April 1974.

The England to which they returned was a gloomier country than the one they had left. Reeling under the combined effects of inflation, unemployment, petrol shortages, strikes and civil strife in Ireland, the government of Edward Heath, returned without a clear majority in the March elections, was vainly trying to stitch together a coalition with the Ulster Unionists. At Heathrow they met their Australian friends, John and Sue, now longer-term residents in England, before driving west to Bristol. It was a chilly morning at the beginning of spring and Helen scanned the countryside, alert for reassuring signs of growth and regeneration. ‘The daffodils and narcissi are all out – also tulips, hyacinths and other bulbs. The trees are beginning to shoot & the blossoms are out. I expect too [that] the little country lanes with tall hedges along each side have little thatched cottages along the way. But it’s very cold 10 [degrees] last night when we arrived and fog along the motorway. The sun came out this afternoon and everything looked cheerful’. Determined not to add to the heartache of separation, Helen’s letters adopted a tone of defiant cheerfulness. Being back in England felt somehow strange and familiar, not unlike the feeling she had when she first left home to teach in the country.


I think I must think I’m in Bendigo for the week and will see you all again soon because we have settled in quite well really. We still miss you but there has been so much to do and think about that we have been kept busy. I suppose it will all hit us when we have somewhere to live by ourselves and can’t just ‘pop in’ to see you. Everything and everyone is [sic] just the same as when we left and in many ways it seems as though we’ve never left. That’s how it will be when we’re with you again.

‘When we’re with you again’ – in 1974, with oil prices rising and an English pound at only A$1.50, the prospect of reunion must have seemed a long way off. In the meantime there were the challenges of finding jobs and a home. After a trip to London to visit their Australian friends John and Sue, they returned a little disappointed. ‘We would love to be near them but housing is so expensive we feel we may never get out of London as when they get teachers they don’t want to loose [sic] them. Also the countryside is so pretty’. The prettiness of the countryside was one of the consolations for a life that sometimes seemed more confined than the one she had left. They concentrated their search further west, in Wiltshire, closer, but not too close, to Barry’s hometown of Bristol. Aware of the pecking order among English schools, Barry was hoping for a post in a good grammar or direct grant school where he could teach A-level Physics. For several anxious weeks they lived in a miserable bed and breakfast near Andover, as Barry taught supply in a local grammar school and attended interviews for a permanent job in the new school year. ‘We are still without anywhere to live or a job for September’, Helen reported early in June. ‘We get a bit depressed about it but don’t stay that way for too long’. Two weeks later Barry was offered a job, teaching A-levels, at a good secondary modern in Salisbury. Without local qualifications and scant experience in English schools, Helen found the search even more difficult. ‘I don’t think they like Australians’, she mused after two unsuccessful interviews, ‘or rather they don’t think that I’ve had enough experience in English schools. It’s a bit disappointing as I really need to work if we’re to buy a house and I don’t think we can rent’. Supply teaching, a boon to the working holiday-maker, living for the day, seemed less attractive to a young couple wanting to settle down.

In the face of English indifference, Helen retained a proud, almost defiant, sense of the superiority of everything Australian. She was amused when colleagues at Barry’s school invited them to what she considered a ‘funny’ barbecue. The evening was cold, even for an English summer, and chicken was the only meat on the griddle. ‘I kept rubbishing it and comparing it to an Australian barbecue’ she reported. A few weeks later they invited Barry’s family to a barbecue of their own. ‘They came about 5 and we had a big table with lots of salad, bread, etc and B[arry] and his Dad barbecued about 5 lb of sausages. I think everyone enjoyed it. We used our little barbecue from Australia. Some of the people [she exclaimed] had never been to a barbecue before’. The ‘funny’ barbecue was not the only sign she noticed of English backwardness.

It was hard to feel at home when they had still to find a place to live. Houses in Salisbury were almost as expensive as London, and with petrol prices rising almost daily, it was costly to commute. Eventually they made an offer on a new house in Warminster, a pleasant market town on the edge of Salisbury Plain. ‘We want to give our house an Australian name’, Helen decided. ‘I wonder what Merrimbula means. What about other Australian names? We will have plenty of room for visitors if we get this house!!!’ Already she was anticipating the moment when she would welcome her Australian family, especially her parents who had never visited England. ‘There will be lots of little jobs that you would excel at Dad!’ In October they moved in. With Barry away for most the day and no job of her own as yet, Helen was left to while away the days alone, ‘the real little housewife’, as she glumly described herself. ‘I hope you are all well’, she wrote a few weeks later. ‘We think and talk of you often and feel quite close. We have hung our Australian painting in the lounge ... Must choose a name soon. Lyn and Bruce suggested Gunnedah’. Responding to the hint, Helen’s mother sent a book of Aboriginal place names and their meanings. ‘We have had a bit of a look at the aboriginal book’, Helen wrote a month or so later. ‘We are rather keen on ‘Karingal’ [‘Happy Home’] at the moment but will have another look before we decide’. Karingal, in fact, it would be. Soon they had planted an Australian snow gum in the garden. Later in the winter their first Australian guests, Helen’s cousin and her new husband, arrived. ‘We never expected Jo and Paul to come. I wonder who’ll stay with us next? Perhaps we should have called the house “Australia House”’.

Over the following months and years, as she settled into the routines of everyday life, Helen’s sense of dislocation eased. Soon she would find a regular teaching job, and later she would become mother to two girls. In the mid-1970s her parents would make a single memorable visit, long enough for her father to do some odd jobs and see the young couple in their new home. In the mid-1980s the twin horrors of Chernobyl and Mrs Thatcher prompted them to try settling in Australia, but, after a few months living on the outskirts of a Victorian country town, they decided to return to England. They live now on the Surrey-Hampshire border only a few minutes’ drive from the village from which Helen’s mother’s English forebears had migrated to Australian in the 1840s. In the eyes of her Australian family Helen has gradually become more English, her accent, even some of her attitudes, subtly changing with the years. Life at its best is now ‘brilliant’ or ‘smashing’ rather than ‘beaut’. Yet in her own eyes Australia remains Home and she has transmitted her love of the land of her birth to her English daughters, who have now travelled the Australian Outback more extensively than their Australian-born cousins. Cheap airfares have enabled the Hobbs family to visit Australia regularly, and over the years the house in Ash has indeed become ‘Australia House’ for dozens of Helen’s relatives visiting the United Kingdom. The emails now flow back and forth so quickly that one might almost imagine that the old barriers of time and distance had dissolved. Yet these changes have possibly only accentuated the ambiguous status of being an Australian in England.


In a celebrated passage of his seminal book Australia (1930), Keith Hancock, speaking for his own generation of ‘independent Australian Britons’, protested that it was ‘not impossible for Australians, nourished by a glorious literature, and haunted by old memories, to be in love with two soils’.4 The literature, by implication, was English literature, although the land could be Australian bush as well as English countryside.

Well into the twentieth century, there would be many Australians, like Alison Griffiths, with close family and personal links with Britain, who would have felt similarly. As tourists in London, ‘being in a book’, they could dwell imaginatively, and for a season, on two soils. By the end of the century, however, as Britain entered the European Community, and a multi-cultural Australia sought new friends in the United States and Asia, this sentimental bond was gradually weakening. It was much easier, now, for expatriate Australians to travel back and forth between England and Australia, even to live, alternately, on two soils, but it was becoming harder, as the cultural foundations of Anglo-Australia crumbled, to imagine both lands as one’s own. For those, like Helen Hobbs, who chose to live permanently as Australians in Britain, the issues of personal and group identity were often complex and hard to resolve. Though she has lived in Britain for 30 years, she is still regarded by her friends, and indeed regards herself, as Australian. In their recent study of postwar English emigrants to Australia, Ten Pound Poms, Jim Hammerton and Al Thomson chart the dimensions of personal and group identity among immigrants who, because they spoke English and seemed to share many Australian traits, were often ‘invisible’ as immigrants to other Australians.5 Some long-term Australian residents of Britain, they acknowledge, experienced a similar dilemma. In the twilight of empire, they had still enjoyed (if that is the word) the definite, if subordinate, status of ‘colonials’. But in the shadow of its passing many Australians simply felt displaced and unrecognised: neither colonials nor expatriates, they had become invisible immigrants.


1     Alomes, 1999; Britain, 1997.

2     Woollacott, 2001.

3     These letters belong to members of the author’s immediate or extended family. I am grateful to Alison Griffiths and Helen Hobbs for their permission to read and quote from them. They remain, however, in private hands and closed to other researchers.

4     Hancock, 1930.

5     Hammerton and Thomson 2005, 10–11.


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

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

Hancock, W.K. 1930. Australia. London: Ernest Benn.

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

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


Cite this chapter as: Davison, Graeme. 2009. ‘Tourists, expats and invisible immigrants: Being Australian in England in the 1960s and 70s’. Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience, edited by Bridge, Carl; Crawford, Robert; Dunstan, David. Melbourne: Monash University ePress. pp. 14.1 to 14.12.


Australians in Britain: The Twentieth-Century Experience

   by Carl Bridge