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Research Guides

Good British Stock: Child and Youth Migration to Australia

1. Australian Immigration Policy

Child and youth migration was always a small but key component of general immigration to Australia – vital because it was seen, among other considerations, as preserving the British identity of the Australian community. However, since juvenile immigration was a minority component within a larger movement, it may be helpful to describe the main outlines of Australian immigration policy over the years since the arrival of the first convict settlers.

When transportation of convicts to the Australian colonies ended, the colonies had to attract free settlers. Gold provided a lure in the 1850s to bring vigorous free immigrants to New South Wales and Victoria, but overall the colonies had tocompete for migrants despite the tide of emigration from the British Isles and Western Europe during the nineteenth century. North America was closer for intending emigrants; the United States a rich and flourishing republic, while Canada preserved strong British links for those more attached to the imperial connection.

In this competitive world of migration the Australian colonies required the incentive of free passages and land grants. There were so many potential immigrants with insufficient income to support themselves and their families, much less afford the passage money to the dominions. This was recognised by the 1820s even while transportation was at its height and before the lure of gold discoveries in easily-accessible places. In 1831, Lord Goderich, Minister for the Colonies, acting on ideas which had been percolating for some time through official circles, introduced the principle that colonial land be sold by auction, and that up to one-half of the land fund created was to be used to pay the passages of intending British emigrants.

The monies were managed by the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners from 1840 until 1876. The British Government gave evidence of a new interest in the former year by reducing the charge of an assisted passage to Australia from £30 to £18, and by advancing £10,000 on the security of future land sales to assist emigration. Alongside this policy of assisted immigration, the Government encouraged the so-called 'bounty system' by which free settlers already established in the colonies paid for the passages of relatives and friends to come to Australia. Chain migration and assisted passage became fundamentals of Australian immigration policy.

With the granting of internal self-government in the 1850s, each colony administered its own immigration policies, and while Federation in 1901 gave the Commonwealth ultimate responsibility, each state jealously guarded its de facto control of this area of government for many years. In fact, there was little assisted immigration into Australia between the Depression of the 1890s and the return of relative prosperity fifteen years later. Passage assistance was resumed in 1906, and at the Premiers Conference in that year it was agreed that the Commonwealth should sponsor appropriate advertising in the British Isles.

In the event, over the 40 years 1901–40, almost 600 000 immigrants arrived in Australia and no fewer than 471 400 were assisted. In 1912, the Premiers Conference agreed on uniform maximum assistance – £6 for an adult, half the minimum fare. One year later, the Federal Government commenced the advertising campaign in Britain which had been recommended seven years previously to attract migrants. It worked through cinema, press, lectures and posters. A new film unit prepared the material. Migration boomed: 92 000 migrants arrived in 1912, and many more in the two subsequent years before the outbreak of war. It was in this euphoria that the Dreadnought Scheme was initiated in 1911 to bring young British teenagers to New South Wales to work on the land and Kingsley Fairbridge established his first farm school near Pinjarra in Western Australia in 1913.

This was the era of the 'white Australia' policy. The immigrants accepted were all of European origin, overwhelmingly from the British Isles. Federation in 1901 was soon followed by the passage of two Acts, theImmigration Restriction Act 1901 and the Pacific Islands Labourers Act 1901, which prohibited non-white immigration to Australia for more than 60 years. The Contract Immigrants Act was passed in 1905. The encouragement of immigration was selective, driven by economic and political considerations, and based on a firmly established racial hierarchy.

The short-lived immigration boom for the years 1910–13 was interrupted by the outbreak of war in August 1914. This virtually suspended all immigration until shipping once again became available in 1919. The war period, however, served to reinforce previously-held views on the size, composition and distribution of Australia's future population: that it should be predominantly British, that non-Europeans should be denied entry, and that immigrants should be directed to rural rather than urban areas. The war also strengthened British and imperial ties and led to plans to redistribute the population of the Empire through a variety of immigration and development projects after the war.1

During the 1920s, there were new immigration agreements between State and Commonwealth governments within Australia, between the British and Australian governments and between government and non-government organisations. The Commonwealth assumed the selection, medical examination and transport of prospective immigrants; the states requisitioned the numbers and categories they wanted, and arranged settlement and after-care. The Joint Commonwealth and States Scheme of 1921 formalised these arrangements and the Empire Settlement Act 1922 was a landmark in the history of Australian immigration, especially for its encouragement of child and youth migration. The key clauses read as follows:

Be it enacted by the King's most Excellent Majesty
  1. It shall be lawful for the Secretary of State in association with the government of any part of His Majesty's Dominions or with public authorities or public or private organisations either in the United Kingdom or in any part of such Dominions to formulate and co-operate in carrying out agreed schemes for affording joint assistance to suitable persons in the United Kingdom who intend to settle in any part of His Majesty's Overseas Dominions.
  2. An agreed scheme under this Act may be either:
    1. a development or a land settlement scheme; or
    2. a scheme for facilitating settlement in, or migration to, any part of His Majesty's Overseas Dominions by assistance with passages, initial allowances, training or otherwise.

Under the Empire Settlement Act an annual expenditure ceiling was set at £1.5 million in 1922 and £3 million for each of the fourteen years thereafter. Treasury was to approve all schemes and the maximum British contribution in any instance was half. In 1925, the £34 million agreement provided British loan funds for Australian development and the following year the Development and Migration Commission was established. Approximately 221 000 new settlers received passage assistance to Australia between 1921 and 1929, the majority going to New South Wales and Victoria. Many also went to Western Australia. Another 100 000 immigrants arrived under their own auspices.

While on the one hand, schemes were developed to encourage British migration within the empire and land settlement, on the other, there was an extension of Australia's restrictive legislation – originally directed at Asians and Pacific Islanders – to include certain European nationalities. The proportion of British to other European arrivals in the 1920s was approximately four to one. In 1920, the Enemy Aliens Act prohibited the entry of Australia's former enemies for five years, and there were restrictions on southern and eastern Europeans entering Australia in large numbers.

With the economic downturn of the late 1920s, migration slowed and many former British migrants returned to the United Kingdom. As depression deepened and unemployment grew, Government assistance to immigrants ended in 1930, except for a few special cases. Child migrants continued to arrive for the Fairbridge Farm School at Pinjarra, Western Australia and for the Barnardo's Mowbray Park establishment at Picton, south of Sydney. Immigration to Australia virtually came to an end for the next seven years; more people left the continent than arrived.

Over the mid-1930s there was a slight improvement in economic conditions, and assisted immigration was revived in 1938. However, there had been a re-evaluation of policy after the heady optimism of the 1920s. Assistance schemes were resumed on a much smaller scale than previously. There was no requirement to work on the land. On the other hand, some were concerned at the slow growth of the Australian population which was only seven million in 1939. Birth rates during the Depression decade remained low. Although the British seemed unwilling to come to Australia in large numbers, Government immigration policies remained conservative and British-oriented.

This was the situation when war broke out in September 1939 and as in 1914, immigration largely ceased for the duration. The war galvanised Australian leaders into a new immigration policy which would greatly strengthen Australia's capacity to defend itself. The first phase of the war, from the German invasion of Poland until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 – a period of well over two years – generated some patriotic sentiment as Australian troops soldiered in Egypt, North Africa and the Middle East. However, at home it was still war at a distance: business, politics and social life continued much as usual. Australian insularity and complacency were abruptly shattered, however, by Japan's entry into the war, and still more by the fall of Singapore in mid-February 1942.

Few Australians, either in government or among private citizens, were prepared for such a disaster. The Japanese advance was swift and devastating – the bombing of Darwin and northern Australian towns, the war in Papua New Guinea, and the threat of invasion – all created a sense of crisis, even panic. There were other factors involved, but essentially out of the crisis of 1942, the new immigration policy was born. 'Populate or perish' was the slogan; mass immigration was the plan. This policy had essentially bipartisan support in Parliament, and wide community acceptance.

However, the mass immigration policy was developed for over twenty years within the ambit of 'white Australia' which was considered sacrosanct. British migrants were still preferred but it was realised that sufficient newcomers would not be available from the British Isles so other Europeans would have to be sought. The result was that while in the first 40 years of Federation Australia's population increased from three-and-a-half million to seven million people; in the 50 years after 1947, the population reached 18 million, much of this by immigration rather than natural increase.


Chapter notes | All notes

1 In this chapter the author has gratefully drawn upon the work of Dr Michele Langfield, More People Imperative: Immigration to Australia, 1901–39, National Archives of Australia, Research Guide No. 7, February 1999.