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Research Guides

More People Imperative: Immigration to Australia, 1901–39

1. Immigration 1901–39: An Overview

Immigration has been a vital feature of Australia's history and identity. The nation today is composed not only of its own indigenous peoples but a wide variety of ethnic and cultural groups. Although Australia has always been multicultural, for at least a century and a half after European settlement, the British predominated. This was especially so in the period from Federation until World War II, the period covered by this Guide.

Federation in 1901 was closely followed by the passing of two restrictive immigration Acts which prohibited non-European immigration to Australia for more than sixty years and had a profound influence on the shape of the nation. These acts were the Immigration Restriction Act and the Pacific Island Labourers Act. A Contract Immigrants Act was passed in 1905. At the same time, the encouragement of immigration was particularly selective, driven by economic and political imperatives and based on a firmly established racial hierarchy.

With Federation, immigration restriction came under the jurisdiction of the Federal government, while the practical responsibility for immigration and its encouragement passed from the colonies to the state governments and remained under state control until the Joint Commonwealth and States Scheme of 1921. The role of the Commonwealth government in immigration up to that time was to use its constitutional powers to control prohibited immigration, monitor illegal immigrants, and advertise overseas the nation's resources in general terms. A dictation test could be given to prohibit entry to undesirable immigrants, not only to non-Europeans but also to those who had contagious diseases or criminal records, were believed to be morally weak or unable to support themselves. The test could also be applied to contract labourers who were thought to be taking jobs from Australians. It consisted of writing out fifty words in a European language, (after 1905, any prescribed language) dictated by an immigration officer. The choice of the language used was at the discretion of the officer and the aim of the test was to fail those to whom it was administered. If by chance the undesired immigrant passed the test, it could be repeated using different languages until the object of failure was achieved.

In their promotion of immigration before 1921, the states had no common policy and often acted in direct competition with one another. Throughout the nineteenth century, the various Australian colonies had imposed their own prohibitive legislation, specifically against the Chinese, and had also offered incentives to favoured immigrants in various forms: passage assistance, land grants and free travel to inspect farming blocks. While such schemes were suspended for the most part during the 1890s depression and in the early years of the twentieth century, they were reintroduced and extended during the pre-World War I period and in the 1920s. The revival of immigration in the early years of the century was closely linked with the desire to increase the population. Fears of a decline in the birth rate and a sense of vulnerability after the Russo-Japanese War of 1905 led to a renewed emphasis on immigration. Some 150 000 state assisted settlers were introduced between 1906 and the outbreak of World War I. The aims of policy-makers were to people the country's 'empty spaces' for reasons of defence and to boost the population for the purpose of national growth and development. Immigration in this period was inextricably linked with more intensive settlement of the land.

A short-lived immigration boom occurred in Australia from 1910 to 1913, interrupted by the outbreak of World War I 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 Imperial ties and led to plans to redistribute the population of the Empire through a variety of immigration and development projects after the war.

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 took over the role of recruitment of immigrants receiving requisitions from state governments, private employers and community organisations. It also took responsibility for the medical examination of immigrants, a change initiated in 1912 and continued after the war. The Joint Commonwealth and States Scheme of 1921 and the Empire Settlement Act 1922 were landmarks in the history of Australian immigration. The £34 million agreement of 1925, and the setting up of the Development and Migration Commission the following year, were also particularly significant. Approximately 221 000 new settlers received passage assistance to Australia between 1921 and 1929, the majority going to New South Wales and Victoria, and a considerable number to Western Australia. Another 100 000 arrived under their own auspices.

While on the one hand, there was a burgeoning of schemes to further the aims of British Empire migration and land settlement, on the other there was an extension of Australia's restrictive legislation to include certain European nationalities. The proportion of British to European arrivals in the 1920s was approximately four to one. The Enemy Aliens Act 1920 prohibited the entry of Australia's former enemies during World War I (Germans, Austrians, Hungarians, Bulgarians and Turks) for the next five years. At the same time, restrictions on Southern and Eastern European immigration to the United States in 1921 and 1924 led to fears that large numbers would arrive in Australia and numerical limits were imposed. In 1924 and 1925, restrictions such as visas and landing-money requirements were also applied to Europeans; these became more rigid over the following years. Thus the inter-war period witnessed a hardening of attitudes towards non-British (especially Italian) immigrants in Australia rather than a relaxation of racial immigration laws over time.

These developments were partly due to a downturn in the economy from 1928 onwards in Australia. Immigration declined as a result of government action in the post-1924 measures described above, and also because of the winding down in the latter half of the 1920s of over-ambitious land settlement schemes which had been of limited success. Government assistance to immigrants was discontinued in 1930 except for special cases (such as children for the Fairbridge Farm School in Western Australia), and further disincentives were applied to Europeans. Immigration to Australia then virtually came to an end for more than half a decade. The depression itself deterred many from venturing to new horizons far from family support and local informal welfare networks in Great Britain and Europe. As in the early years of the twentieth century, the depression of the early 1930s resulted in more people leaving Australia than arriving; many who had been assisted to come in the 1920s returned home in the thirties.

By the mid-1930s, there was a slight improvement in economic conditions but a real revival of immigration was not seen until 1938. At this time there was a re-evaluation of policy. Assistance schemes were resumed on a much smaller scale than previously and without the requirement to settle or work on the land. It was gradually and somewhat reluctantly acknowledged that Australia could not support the tens of millions of people the 'boosters' of the 1920s had claimed it could. At the same time, however, there was a widespread concern about the slow rate of growth of the Australian population which had increased from three and three-quarter million in 1901 to only seven million in 1939. Although the British seemed unwilling to come to Australia in large numbers, government immigration policies in the late thirties remained conservative and British-oriented.

Ironically, some 100 000 Europeans settled in Australia between the two World Wars and, throughout the 1930s, the balance between British and non-British immigrants was slowly becoming more equal, foreshadowing changes which occurred after World War II in the late 1940s and 1950s. Initially, this was not the result of any deliberate government initiative. Immigration encouragement policies did not change radically in the thirties until an international crisis and community pressure forced some modification of existing practice. As a result, a decision was made in 1938 to admit 15 000 Jewish refugees from Europe over the following three years. Little more than half of these arrived before the outbreak of World War II in September 1939, together with some 3 500 assisted British settlers in 1938–39. As with World War I , however, almost all immigration ceased until well after the end of hostilities in 1945.

Throughout the period from 1901–39, Australian immigration policy was governed by fixed notions of the preferred ethnic origins of prospective immigrants, the dictates of the labour market, and the perceived need to settle people in rural areas rather than in the cities. To some, Australia could never have enough immigrants; to others, immigration was the principal cause of unemployment and social unrest.

It is important to note that a large proportion of potential immigrants to Australia did not fit into either category of restricted immigrants or those who were actively encouraged. Many thousands were allowed to come to Australia under the legislation but were not assisted in doing so in any way by governments or private organisations. They were generally ordinary working-class people who were migrating to better their lives and provide greater opportunities for their children. Both British and European, they usually ended up in the cities working in factories or the service industry, in mines or on northern plantations. Several opened and managed their own business enterprises. It is these unassisted immigrants, who paid their own passages to Australia, who are least visible in the public records. Because they were not sponsored, there is little official documentation about them or their migration and settlement experiences. They were not favoured by governments or trade unions, often because they were city dwellers, competitors on the labour market, or simply poor.

Pattern of immigration

Image 1: The pattern of immigration to Australia 1901–39.

Image 1: The pattern of immigration to Australia 1901–39.
NAA: A571, 1930/1584
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The pattern of Australian immigration from 1901 to 1939 was characterised by a series of peaks and troughs, in accordance with the 'boa-constrictor' image. Like the boa constrictor, 'we were in the habit of bolting our immigrants and then resting until we had digested them' (Wickens, 1930: 54). The peak periods were in the three or four years before World War I and in the mid-1920s, which corresponded with years of relative prosperity in Australia. In terms of the sheer volume of immigration, the largest five-year period between Federation and World War II was 1921 to 1925, although the largest single year was 1912 which had a net immigration of some 90 000. The troughs occurred during the early years of the century in the aftermath of the 1890s depression, during World War I, and during the 1930s depression. The adjacent graph shows the proportion of assisted to total and net arrivals in the period 1902–39.

Economic conditions are a major influence on the size of the immigrant intake at any one time but it is important to recognise an additional factor in Australia's immigration history. Owing to the distance and cost of migration from traditional source countries such as Great Britain and Europe, the activities of governments in encouraging immigration over the years have been particularly significant. The influence of Australian and British government policy is clearly evident not only in the fluctuations in the volume of immigration but also in the type and class of immigrant arriving in this period. Through advertising, and more importantly in the provision of assisted passages, governments, both state and Federal, were able to exert considerable control over immigration. While the existence and level of assistance were closely related to other factors, such as the state of the economy and the degree of public acceptance, the role of governments was crucial. The collection of the National Archives is especially valuable in documenting this activity.

Records held by the National Archives and their creators

Image 2: Overview of the administrative history of the migration function. Parliamentary Papers 1967, Vol 4 – Parliamentary Committees

Image 2: Overview of the administrative history of the migration function. Parliamentary Papers 1967, Vol 4 – Parliamentary Committees
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The records in the National Archives contain important information at the level of policy development and government decision-making. To some extent, the public response can also be ascertained, either directly through deputations and correspondence addressed to various Ministers, or indirectly through the changes in policies and reactions from official quarters which any criticism inevitably influenced.

Official records reflect the two broad areas of policy in this period: immigration restriction and immigration encouragement. The departments which created the records were generally involved in one of these two areas. Records concerning restricted immigration refer to prohibited immigrants under the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 and its subsequent amendments. They include registers of prosecutions under the Immigration Restriction Act, entry and re-entry permits, information on deportation, internments and repatriation, lists of deserters from ships' crews, 'alien' registration documents maintained under the War Precautions Regulations (1916–20), registers of visas and passports issued, applications for naturalisation, book butts of Certificates of Domicile and Exemption from the Dictation Test as well as some Certificates themselves, applications for admission of friends and relatives to Australia, hand and thumb prints of Asians arriving in Australia, and book butts of landing permits. Naturalisation procedures are divided into two categories: those of the colonies prior to 1903, and those administered by the Commonwealth thereafter. The National Archives holds the records for the colonies of Victoria, South Australia and of the Commonwealth; those of the other colonies are held by the relevant state archival institution (see Appendix 9 for details).

The records of the National Archives are immensely rich in providing the political context of immigration, and illuminating the processes of government decision-making and administrative practice. They consist mainly of general policy and correspondence files and refer to the everyday implementation of Commonwealth immigration policy. The experiences of the migrants themselves are much less accessible. Immigrant voices are occasionally heard through complaints about their treatment on the journey or after arrival in Australia. In order to gain insights into the more positive individual experiences, other sources, such as private papers, letters, and oral testimonies need to be utilised in addition to official records created by government departments.

Between 1901 and 1939 immigration records were created and kept by the following Commonwealth government departments:

  • Department of External Affairs [I], Melbourne, 1901–16 (CA 7)
  • Department of Home and Territories, Central Office, 1916–28 (CA 15)
  • Department of Home Affairs [II], Central Office, 1928–32 (CA 24)
  • Department of the Interior [I], Central Administration, from 1932–39 (CA 27)

In 1945, the newly created Department of Immigration, Central Office (CA 51), took over the control of all immigration matters, although records were also kept in the Department of the Interior [II], Central Office (CA 31), 1939–72. The table above gives an overview of the administrative history of the migration function.

Other agencies of relevance are:

  • Governor-General's Office, 1901– (CA 1)
  • Attorney General's Department, 1929– (CA 5)
  • Department of Trade and Customs, Central Office 1901–56 (CA 10)
  • Department of the Treasury, 1901–76 (CA 11)
  • Prime Minister's Department, 1911–71 (CA 12)
  • Department of Health (CA 17) which contains information about immigrant health requirements and quarantine arrangements. Related to this are the Quarantine Station records, Victoria, 1921–47 (CA 3168).
  • Department of External Affairs [II], 1921–70 (CA 18)
  • Department of Markets and Migration, Central Administration, 1925–28 (CA 20)
  • High Commissioner's Office, London (CA 241)
  • Development and Migration Commission, 1926–30 (CA 243)
  • Department of Markets [I], Central Office, 1928 (CA 21)
  • Special Intelligence Bureau, Melbourne, 1916 (CA 746). This passed to Investigation Branch, Central in 1919 (CA 747) and to Commonwealth Investigation Service, Canberra (CA 650) in 1944.
  • Collector of Customs, State Offices (for example, CA 802 – Adelaide, CA 785 – Sydney, CA 789 – Melbourne, CA 792 – Brisbane, CA 808 – Perth, CA 816 – Hobart) and Sub-Collector of Customs, Townsville (CA 801)
  • Development Branch, Prime Minister's Department, 1930–37 (CA 837)
  • Commonwealth Investigation Branch, NSW (CA 904)
  • Immigration and Passports Office (Section), Victoria, 1938–45 (CA 972)
  • 1930 Cabinet papers, National Archives, Canberra
  • Aliens Committee, 1918 (CA 2082)
  • Commonwealth Immigration Office, Melbourne, 1920–25 (CA 2583)

Cabinet throughout the period also played a key role in the formulation of policy in all areas. Individual departmental files frequently contain a trail of memoranda and background papers going to and from Cabinet on which members could base their decisions. In addition, departmental records contain important correspondence with non-government organisations involved in related work, for example, philanthropic organisations and church groups sponsoring juvenile or vocational migration, or people of particular religions. Also useful are records kept by the various State Departments, such as the Special Intelligence Bureau in New South Wales (CA 909) and Victoria (CA 746), the Premiers' Departments, the Department of Labour and Industry, NSW, and the Department of Land and Surveys, Perth.

One other major strength of the National Archives collection in the field of immigration lies in the area of family history. Shipping records include extensive nineteenth century material in some of the Archives state offices as well as more recent material. Ships' passenger lists (inwards and outwards), passenger cards, registers of arrivals and departures of ships and crew lists contain information such as each immigrant's name, age, nationality, port and date of embarkation and disembarkation and mode of transport. A separate guide, entitled Finding Families: The Guide to the National Archives of Australia for Genealogists, has been published by the Archives, and for this reason detailed genealogical information is not included in this Guide in any detail.