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Good British Stock: Child and Youth Migration to Australia

The Dreadnought Scheme

In 1903, the new Commonwealth of Australia agreed to pay £200,000 per year towards the expenses of the Imperial Squadron in the Pacific, but had no special naval vessels of its own. When in 1909 Germany's aggressive naval building program threatened Britain's naval supremacy, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Sir Allen Taylor, convened a meeting in the Sydney Town Hall to establish a fund to purchase a Dreadnought (battleship) for presentation to Great Britain.

The gathering was held in a mood of wild enthusiasm, and after a series of rousing speeches by leading politicians, the following resolutions were 'carried unanimously':

  1. That in the opinion of this meeting of citizens glorying in the traditions of the British race, of which they are a part, the time has arrived for the Commonwealth to take an active share in the naval defence of the Empire;
  2. That in view of the expressed determination of Britain's rivals to challenge her naval supremacy, Australia should present a Dreadnought to the British Navy as an immediate expression of her invincible resolve to stand by the Mother country and take her place in the Empire's firing line;
  3. … a fund be now opened to be called the Lord Mayor's Fund to which contributions towards the cost of a Dreadnought can be paid.

Over the ensuing year some £90,000 was subscribed from towns, shires, organisations and individuals throughout New South Wales. Over half the fund was subscribed by five large donors. However, by the middle of the year, the Deakin Government had decided to establish an Australian navy and the proposal to present Britain with a battleship seemed unnecessary. However, imperial enthusiasm remained strong.

The question arose what to do with the subscriptions, and some were returned to identified donors who wished for their money back. Most did not, and the Dreadnought Trust was established to dispose of the remainder, some £80,000. After discussion, it was agreed with widespread public support to donate around half to the Government towards the establishment of a naval college at Jervis Bay to train young Australians for the new navy; and the other half was placed in a fund to bring young men from British cities to be trained as rural workers on New South Wales farms.

A suitable venue for the boys' training was found near Pitt Town (Windsor) in the Hawkesbury River area, about twenty miles from Sydney, a 2 500 acre farm established by the New South Wales Government in 1893 to train city boys to be useful farmers – not with conspicuous success, since relatively few offered to be trained. The farm was called 'Scheyville' after the Director of Labour in NSW, W F Schey.

During the latter months of 1910, the Trustees of the Dreadnought Fund entered into an agreement with the NSW Government to bring out British boys between the ages of 16 and 19 'of good character and physique at a rate of about twenty every fortnight and to pay the Government £5 for each of the lads sent to the training farm'. The first 'Dreadnought boys' – twelve in number – arrived on 21 April 1911 and were followed by 27 others on 15 June. Overall, by February 1915, 2 557 boys had arrived, and when the last group arrived in September 1939, the total number of Dreadnought boys brought to the state had reached 5 595.

Three years after World War I, the Dreadnought Trust recommenced its activities. Young men were again selected by Commonwealth Immigration officers in London from among those offering, recommended by county colonization societies and unemployment bureaux. Australia also advertised vigorously for young migrants. The young men were granted assisted passages to Australia. On arrival they were to receive a small amount of pocket money – not wages – while they trained, either at Scheyville for two to three months, or, for a select few, a twelve months course at one of the state agricultural colleges. At these, general farming was pursued in addition to some particular branch of agriculture suited to the locality: at Glen Innes in the New England tablelands, pastoral pursuits; at Wollongbar in the Richmond River district, dairy farming; at Grafton near the Clarence River, sub-tropical fruit culture; and at Cowra in the mid-west, sheep breeding and plant cultivation.

At Scheyville the training was severely practical and the regimen sparse. It was intended to approximate the standard of living the young men might expect to enjoy during their first years of employment. On completing the course to the satisfaction of the manager they were drafted to their first job and granted a £2 good conduct bonus. Wages in their first situation were 15/- to £2 per week with board and lodging. Thereafter, their welfare was supervised by the New Settlers League – from 1921 to 1930; and afterwards, by the British Settlers Welfare Committee. The latter body is considered to have been more effective than the former. Each employed travelling welfare officers to visit the boys on the farms and check their progress, treatment, prospects and conduct.

In 1923, the New South Wales Government introduced the Juvenile Migrants Apprenticeship Act for the care and control of juvenile migrants, but its provisions were draconian and it lasted only two years. Neither employers nor the young men were satisfied. Many absconded from their employment. The Act was repealed in 1926 and replaced by another which gave the Minister control of the training and of supervision during employment, but only until the age of eighteen. Employers were expected to notify the department before sacking a young man, and the young men were expected to inform the Minister after they changed their employment.

On paper all these arrangements seemed reasonable and many Dreadnought boys found satisfaction in their new lives, but there were serious problems for the majority. They were city boys being trained as farm labourers, and existing as strangers in a strange land. They were young and immature, scattered over vast distances, exploitable and exploited. They suffered loneliness, homesickness, 'Pommy bashing' and culture shock. Many returned – over the years – to Great Britain, especially during the Depression when some faced unemployment without the support networks taken for granted by long-standing residents. There were some widely-publicised suicides among the boys and deaths from illness and accidents. It was a tough apprenticeship.

The training received at Scheyville was basic, conditions were primitive and staff were semi-literate, usually veterans of World War I who could not obtain better positions anywhere else. Over the years – for those Dreadnought boys who stayed – conditions improved and they could profit from the buoyant years of the 1950s and 1960s.

When one considers the numbers of young men who came to Australia under the Dreadnought Scheme – over 5 000 – the number and coverage of the files is limited. However, it is possible to gain a clear understanding of the genesis of the scheme, its implementation and its problems. There are numerous lists, some newspaper cuttings, some photos and overall, material of interest to genealogists in this section.

Series: A2
Quantity: 30.06 metres
Recorded by: 1904–11: Prime Minister's Office (CA 588)
'Dreadnought', 1909 A2, 1914/4051
Series: A6661
Quantity: 10.26 metres
Recorded by: Governor-General (CA 1)
Naval assistance (Dreadnought battleship). Proposed gift by Australia to the United Kingdom, 1909 [30 pages]
Public meetings in New South Wales and Victoria, orchestrated by the parliamentary opposition, initiated the idea of Australia donating a battleship to the British navy. The main event was a gathering at Sydney Town Hall on 25 April 1909, which was reported in the Sydney Morning Herald three days later and by the Governor of NSW to Lord Crewe, Secretary of State for the Colonies:

meeting largely attended… utmost enthusiasm prevailed… the following resolutions were passed unanimously: That in the opinion of this meeting of citizens glorifying in the traditions of the British Race of which they are a part, the time has arrived for the Commonwealth to take an active share in the Naval Defence of the Empire to show its invincible resolve to stand by the Mother Country and take her place in the Empire's firing line… a Dreadnought for the Royal Navy.

In the end, the Australian Government led by Alfred Deakin decided the time was appropriate to establish an Australian navy and the proposal lapsed.

A6661, 950
Series: A659
Quantity: 101.25 metres
Recorded by: 1939: Department of the Interior [I] (CA 27); 1939–45: Department of the Interior [II] (CA 31)
Josephs, M. Dreadnought ex 'Arama' 2/39, 1940–42 [30 pages]
This file records the exceptional, but fruitless effort, in the context of wartime conditions, to locate, Montague Josephs, a Dreadnought boy, at the request of his mother who was distressed at not having had correspondence for six months – when the search began. 'Montagu', perhaps understandably, had changed his name and was last heard of in the AIF in its Middle East campaign.
A659, 1942/1/3206
Dreadnought Boys, 1929–43 [c.200 pages]
The first item is a memorandum regarding 'Additional Accommodation for Dreadnought boys at the Grafton Experimental Farm'. Meanwhile, the British Government representative for migration (in Australia), Bankes-Amery writes to the Development and Migration Commission, Melbourne, 23 January 1929:

As you are aware… the Secretary of State has an agreement with the Trustees of the Dreadnought Fund under which we help them in their work by meeting half their expenses.

The agreement was due for renewal. At this time, with depression looming, an extract from the 'Monthly Report of the Migration and Settlement Office', London, January 1929, is pessimistic:

The recruiting of boys will become increasingly difficult during the next year or two… Canada is now very actively seeking boys and is able to offer a good deal more than we are at the moment. Free passages and certain special facilities for lending capital are the main factors… the rural basic wage in NSW has ensured the dismissal of many of these lads on attaining 21 years… letter-writing… adverse publicity [in Britain] which, if continued, will practically kill the Dreadnought movement.

Meanwhile, despite its endowment the Dreadnought Trustees were always hampered by lack of ready cash. This is plain in a departmental memo concerning the Trust, dated 1 February 1929. There is a major outline, dated 6 March 'Extracts from Reports on Dreadnought Lads showing their progress'. What follows are 81 'thumbnail sketches' of the boys' success. The statement was sent to the Under-Secretary, Development and Migration Commission, Melbourne. There is a copy of the Dreadnought Trust agreement with the Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs under the ESA, and the report of a visit to the Scheyville Training farm by British representative, E G Crutchley, dated 3 April 1929. With the drift towards depression, the correspondence stresses the problems associated with the scheme: the competition with Canada for the best young men; the bad publicity in Britain 'of strikes, labour troubles, unemployment, droughts, injuries, occasional suicides and rural wages awards' in Australia. On 29 August, the Secretary of the Development Commission wrote to his counterpart at the Australian Women's National League a detailed account of the Trust's achievements to date which makes this a useful summary for the researcher. Fewer young men were arriving from Britain; but the winding-up of the New Settlers League in 1930 created a crisis over after-care just when it was most required. The Trust took over this work directly with support from the British Government under the ESA. Important correspondence on this development. However, there are no entries for the years 1932–1937 inclusive, and the first item after the hiatus is dated 17 June 1938, a report of a meeting of the British Settlers Welfare Committee and the Dreadnought Trust, which with Government prodding is planning to recommence its migration activities. However the first boys arrived only in March 1939 and only 76 arrived before the outbreak of war. Sydney Morning Herald, 10 September 1939, 'Farm Migrants Arrive'. Lists of boys arriving are in the file. Already it was clear that it was going to be harder to obtain suitable young men for the scheme, and the problems were summarised by R H Wheeler at the Immigration Department, 27 February 1939, as a declining birth rate in Britain; better employment opportunities for the boys in the UK; the extension of social services whereby youths receive unemployment benefit at an earlier age; the grave international situation; and the disinclination of parents to grant permission to their sons to emigrate. The armed services were attracting suitable young men. The Trust maintained its after-care activities during the early war years, but did not recommence its activities after the war.

A659, 1943/1/1892
Series: A461
Quantity: 143.82 metres
Recorded by: 1934–50: Prime Minister's Department (CA 12)
Immigration encouragement, New South Wales. Dreadnought Boys, 1921–45 [c.250 pages]
This commences with renewal of assisted immigration after the Great War and the commencement of British Government financial support for migration. Prime Minister's Department advises the High Commission, London that the Dreadnought Trust is to resume its migration work, 7 September 1921:

NSW is prepared to accept lads between 15 and 19 years of age for free farm training and maintenance at either Scheyville or one of the apprentice farm schools under the Agricultural Department. Boys for the apprentice farms should be superior class and receive up to twelve months subject to good behaviour and at the option of the boy.

Copy of pamphlet 'Australia's Offer to the British Boy'. As the first postwar boys arrived there were teething problems. Age (Melbourne) article, 14 February 1922 'Deluded Immigrants' caused a stir; conditions at Scheyville were spartan; staff were rough-and-ready and often under-qualified. There are echoes of the controversy ignited by the Age and a British investigator at Scheyville was told in no uncertain terms that the boys felt they had been misled in the UK about conditions in Australia. See: Sun (Melbourne), 10 May 1922. The bad publicity hampered recruiting for the scheme. High Commission cable to Prime Minister's Office, 22 May 1923:

Recent adverse statements press and parliament relative treatment of the lads is making recruitment very difficult… will not obtain full quota of Dreadnoughts.

There is a report on 'Boy Migration' from the Premiers Conference, May–June 1923. It stresses the poverty of most of the boys applying for the scheme. Copy of 'The Boy Settler', 22 November 1925; its editor was Dr Mary Booth (Empire Service Club), who explained its role to Prime Minister Stanley Bruce, 12 December 1925:

The Boy Settler is devoted to the interests of Dreadnoughts… the Empire Service Club is an activity of the Anzac Fellowship of Women… it had been at work for five years for these boys.

When the Big Brother Movement commenced there was confusion between this and the older Dreadnought Trust. In an interesting development, the Prime Minister's Department suggested that 'all future Dreadnought boys may be enrolled as 'Little Brothers', (15 December 1925). Copy of Agreement between the British Government and the Dreadnought Trust for the former to provide funds for after-care cost under the ESA. An uneasy relationship between the ANZAC Fellowship of Women, Sydney and the New Settlers League, both of which concerned themselves with the reception and welfare of Dreadnought boys, is revealed in a 1928 letter from Mary Booth.

A461, G349/1/7
British Settlers Welfare Committee – NSW, 1921–36 A461, D349/1/11
Series: CP211/2
Quantity: 23.94 metres
Recorded by: 1926–30: Development and Migration Commission (CA 243)
Migration – State requisitions – NSW – Dreadnought Boys, 1927 [6 pages]
The first item, undated, gives (another) 'Summary of the Dreadnought Scheme, NSW' but from a different perspective. It has

assisted to migrate… boys… by assistance towards their passage money and training costs. The Government Training Farm, Scheyville, was established in 1911 when the first group of lads arrived. The farm is situated 37 miles from Sydney in undulating country near the Hawkesbury valley (Windsor). Its area is 2700 acres, 500 cultivated; 40 acres of orchard… Three months training is normal. The lads are accommodated in large dormitories in charge of a specially-selected steward (ex-AIF sergeants). The domestic arrangements are maintained to conform with those the lads will experience subsequently in employment.

There were 80 lads in training at any one time. Since 1911 when twelve boys arrived, the numbers were 1912, 300 boys; 1913, 216; 1914, 712; 1915, 463; 1916, 30; 1917, 17; 1918, one; and 1919–1921, none arrived. During the 1920s, 338 arrived in 1922; 607 in 1923; 422 in 1924; 753 in 1925; 684 in 1926 and 985 in 1927 after which numbers fell off. Apart from the 'Summary', the other correspondence stresses seeking younger rather than older boys for the scheme and the accommodation difficulties at Scheyville.

CP211/2, 54/1
Settlement – Land – Dreadnought boys, 1927 [3 pages]
The concern here is the possibility of Dreadnought boys taking up land on their own account. The New Settlers League had asked the Land Settlement Committee, NSW to investigate the matter since under the 1923 agreement certain 'Dreadnoughts' were eligible for grants. The reply states the difficulties plainly: 'the boys' lack of capital is the critical issue. There are, indeed, twenty blocks in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area soon to be available and four Dreadnought lads have applied, but only one possesses the £300 capital qualification, even before character references are considered'. The reply of the Secretary, New Settlers Committee, to this observation, 12 August 1927, is tart: 'The £300 minimum capital is too low; the settler must have something to live on while trees grow and crops mature – and to make improvements. The boys cannot make a success on the capital stated. In view of these statements and the great uncertainty of the boy being successful, my executive has decided that it is inadvisable to encourage the boys to take up blocks upon the conditions offered… share-farming opportunities are best'.
CP211/2, 73/3


Chapter 3
Guide to the Records