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British migrants on the deck of a ship to Australia

The true story of the 'Ten Pound Poms'

Image: British migrants on their way to Australia in 1949 (colourised) | Public Domain

Would you pay a tenner for a whole new life in a sun-soaked setting? This was the incredible offer that lured a legion of Brits to the other side of the world in the decades after World War II. But, while some relished the chance at a fresh start, others came to regret leaving Blighty.

The ‘bargain of the century’

In 1945, Australia faced a population problem. Simply put, there were just not enough people to work in the booming industries and accelerate growth in the post-war period. Realising they had to ‘populate or perish’ (an actual slogan of the time), the Australian government launched the Assisted Passage Migration Scheme to attract migrants from other countries, most notably the United Kingdom.

Although the scheme ran all the way to 1982, the initial media blitz appeared especially tantaliasing against the backdrop of a grey, war-ravaged Britain still in the grip of rationing. The deal was that the boat fare would be subsidised by the Aussie government, so Brits could set sail for just £10 a head (roughly £350 in today’s money). To sweeten the offer further, kids were allowed to travel free of charge, and migrants were promised help with finding jobs and places to live.

In the words of Nick Messinger, an officer on board one of the ships transporting the plucky Brits to their new lives, it was ‘the bargain of the century’. And, with the floodgates opened, things could get certainly rowdy on board those ships.

‘Some folk came on board with a few quid in their pockets, drank themselves into a stupor, and then started fighting each other,’ Messinger later recalled. But many of the ‘ten pound poms’ were just ordinary couples and families eager to transform their lives.

The whinging poms

On arriving after a six-week voyage, many of the Brits found that the reality didn’t quite match up to the advertisements back home.

Speaking to the Guardian in 2023, former ten pound pom Tom Riley recalled how he and his family were unceremoniously crammed into a migrant hostel in Adelaide – a marked contrast to the pristine homes and sprawling gardens implied by adverts. They were then moved onto a Nissen hut – a type of corrugated iron shelter often used for military barracks. Riley’s mother ‘hated’ it and missed Britain ‘even right up to the end’.

It wasn’t just the quality of the accommodation and searing heat that took many migrants by surprise – many also came up against hostility from the locals. Kathleen Upton, who moved Down Under with her husband and daughter, later recounted to the BBC that Australians ‘resented us very, very much. This shipload of people coming out of Europe would be taking their jobs.’

Simply returning to the UK wasn’t a viable option for most of the new arrivals. That’s because the £10 deal came with a catch: migrants had to stay in Australia for at least two years or they’d have to refund the price and buy non-subsidised tickets home. As this was prohibitively expensive, they were effectively stranded in Australia, with no option but to make the best of it.

The disaffection of the migrants became something of a cultural meme of the time, with the grumpy newcomers being dubbed ‘whinging poms’. In all, around 250,000 ten pound poms went back to the UK, though – interestingly – half of this lot later changed their minds and returned to Australia, becoming known as ‘boomerang poms’.

Famous ten pound poms

Of course, many of the Brits stayed optimistic and eagerly made the most of the opportunities provided by the move. Newlyweds John and Sylvia Cannon, whose story was profiled by the BBC in 2008, refused to be disheartened by the shoddy state of the accommodation. They also resisted the temptation to get too pally with other Brits who’d arrived with them, to avoid falling into the ‘whinging pom’ mindset.

Instead, they moved to Melbourne in search of work, and within nine months they were able to afford their own block of land. ‘That was a tremendous thing to East End of London kids, because you never had that possibility at home,’ Sylvia recounted. While they did return for a bit to the UK, the couple soon boomeranged back to Australia, where they had children and came to regard themselves as more Australian than British.

Another ten pound pom who came to fully embrace her new Australian identity was a girl from Barry, Wales, named Julia Gillard. She had been hospitalised with severe bronchopneumonia as a young child, and her parents were advised that a warm climate would help her recover. So, in 1966 the family moved to Adelaide – a voyage that was rather traumatic for Julia, who dropped her teddy bear over the side of the ship and was inconsolable for months after. Still, she more than overcame that setback and became the prime minister of Australia in 2010.

Brothers Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb, who made up the iconic Bee Gees, originally hailed from the Isle of Man, but the family emigrated to Australia in 1958. Meanwhile, Hollywood star Hugh Jackman owes his Australian upbringing to the ten pound pom scheme, with his British parents arriving in Australia in 1967 – just before he was born.

And there was young Welsh girl Carol Jones, who set sail for a new life in Australia with her parents in 1955. She married a Melbourne accountant named Ron Minogue, and give birth to two daughters, Kylie and Dannii.