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Tuesday, 26 Aug 2014

Bonegilla's reef knots of recall bind fabric of multi-national New Australia

(L-R) Lisa, Milena, Bob, Lynn and Liz at Bonegilla.
(L-R) Lisa, Milena, Bob,
Lynn and Liz at Bonegilla.


Bonegilla was the first Australian home for about 310,000 refugees and assisted migrants from more than 50 countries. Over time Bonegilla became Victoria’s ‘Little Europe’.

Many migrants chose to stay in the area.

In 1947 the population of Albury Wodonga was 18,000. When the Bonegilla Migrant Reception Centre closed in 1971 the population of Albury Wodonga was 41,000. By 2002 Albury Wodonga’s population was 90,000.

Albury City population forecast, last updated in 2010, for 2031 is 68,570. City of Wodonga forecasts a population of 54,728 by 2031. So a projected total Albury Wodonga population of 123,298 by 2031.

In 2011 6 percent of the people in Albury City and the City of Wodonga came from countries where English was not their first language.

That is a huge slab of Australia’s history so a visit to Bonegilla has always been a ‘Gunna’ for your correspondent.

But somehow it remained a drive-by on regular trips between Melbourne and Canberra until Milena Farmer decided we were going. That happened when questions about Bonegilla were raised at a Saturday night barbecue in her Wodonga home.

Milena’s family history includes the Bonegilla experience.

‘Millie’ and husband Bob have a proven ability to assist the hesitant. So that was that!

Fortified by a late start and excellent coffee we set-off road touring on Sunday morning!

Bob Farmer retired at the 41st annual general meeting of the Victorian Caravan Parks Association in Shepparton in 2006 with his job well done. Bob ‘Polly’ Farmer was vice president for seven years and president from 2003 to 2006. Lynn and Liz Oaten came too. Lynn is a former Executive Officer of the Victorian Caravan Park Association.

It was showery and cool as we met Australia’s biggest and longest operating migrant centre.

The weather added reality to the experience of the remnant huts and buildings of Block 19.

Bonegilla must have been daunting for many new arrivals remote on the southern bank of Lake Hume 8km from Wodonga, 12km from Albury, about 300km from Melbourne and 600km from Sydney.


Bonegilla home.
Bonegilla home.


The Bonegilla buildings are bare of insulation. They took your correspondent back to his school days. They are identical to the Rehabilitation Blocks used then as classrooms in ‘Siberia’ at the back of Mildura High School. Spartan corrugated iron roof and walls, but this ‘Rehab’ centre touches the core of current day Australia. Bonegilla speaks of courage. People game to have a go way outside their comfort zones.

There is happiness at Bonegilla, it is found among the posted memories of the immigrants. Grateful comments from migrant families in wall posted messages in the heritage huts.

It is in the wonderful lovingly crafted models by Tasos Kolokotronis of a past life in the Greek section. These are the rock solid reef-knots of recall which hold the fabric of New Australia fast for all of us.

We started, as you do, at the beginning. The Whispering Wall and the commemorative Tribute Wall introduce people who came to Australia in search of a fresh start. In the Information Centre a pleasant, well-schooled guide briefed us for self-guided exploration and we headed of, with brollies at the high-port, raised against the showers.

Bonegilla started as an Army camp during the Second World War. It became the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre in 1947. It was Australia’s biggest and longest operating migrant centre until 1971.

The ablution, laundry and shower block is a billy tea and a cut lunch away from the accommodation huts. But this inconvenience made the laundry the community social centre for the women.

Many migrants got their first job in Australia at the Staff Club and Employment Office. There were between 200 to 300 employees at Bonegilla at any one time. They worked as employment officers, health workers, cooks, patrolmen, welfare officers, and child care attendants.

At first women and children were housed separately from the men until huts were partitioned into cubicles for families.


Guided  introduction.
Guided introduction.


Later huts were modified to accommodate family groups. Each block at Bonegilla had its own kitchen and dining area. The Department of Immigration followed dietary guidelines similar to the Army. Migrants queued for food but ate at small table settings.

Tudor Hall is a quirky experience. The recreational hub of Block 19 gets its name from the rather overblown pictures of Tudor monarchs which line the walls to help migrants identify with Australia’s then heavily British heritage.

Chaplains and church associations helped cater for the needs of co-religions. They offered solace and an opportunity to forge new social networks.

Bonegilla was a staging camp providing temporary accommodation and support for new migrants who had exchanged free or assisted passage to Australia for two years of labour. After this two year agreement migrants were free to make their own way.

The Army moved into the Bonegilla military camp and hospital in September 1940. Altogether, about 5,000 service men and women were based at the site at any one time. It was enlarged to 848 buildings in 1942 to provide training for small arms instructors, transport workers, bomb disposal and gas warfare personnel. The hospital took in Australian and American soldiers recovering from bouts of malaria and tuberculosis.

Migrants arrived by train to Bonegilla railway siding where they were met, in the early days, by Army personnel who provided transport, security and catering services. Because the migrant centre was initially run by the Army, the military character of the buildings and routines remained long after the army left in 1949.

The first migrants to arrive at the migrant centre were displaced persons who had lived in refugee camps in Europe. About half of the 170,000 displaced people coming to Australia between 1947 and 1951 lived at Bonegilla, many of them in Block 19. Most of them stayed for about a month while they learnt to speak English and the way of life here. Then they were moved to work in areas where there was a labour shortage.


Suitcases of stories.
Suitcases of stories.


From 1951 to 1971, Bonegilla started to receive assisted migrants rather than displaced people. They came from a variety of countries including Germany, the Netherlands, Britain, Austria, Italy, Greece, Hungary and Germany, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Spain, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. They came to Australia looking for secure employment and hoping for a better life.

During times of reduced employment in the country, some migrants at Bonegilla became dissatisfied with their prolonged wait for work. They felt they had been duped and had been kept too long in inadequate accommodation with nothing to do. This resulted in separate riots at the site in 1952 and 1961.

To complete the Border Road Touring Day we continued a popular local touring route and headed for Yackandandah and lunch.

Centrally located in North East Victoria, Yackandandah is just off the Hume Freeway between Beechworth and Wodonga. It is about 3.5 hours’ drive from Melbourne, exiting off the Hume to the B500 Great Alpine Road - then onto the C315 to Beechworth through to Yackandandah. (Melb to Beechworth 280 kms, to Yackandandah 23 kms).

From Albury on the Hume take the Bandiana link (Tallangatta exit) and follow signage out through Baranduda (C531) turning off to the right on the C527 to Yackandandah.

From Wodonga take the C531 signed to the Snow Fields out through Baranduda, turning off to the right onto the C527 to Yackandandah.

Yackandandah, also known as ‘Yack’ or ‘The Dandah’ among locals, was a goldfields town and now mines tourism in place of alluvial gold with a period streetscape, antique shops places to eat and a bakery which serves a fine example of the pasty, satisfying coffee and tasty coffee scrolls. The commercial centre of the town is classified by the National Trust and has buildings which date from the mid and late 1800.

Yackandandah bakery brought inner warmth to a drizzle driven arrival after an extended tour of the nearby Bonegilla Migrant Experience.

The Yackandandah line was one of Victoria’s earliest rail lines which opened in September 1876 and closed in December 1976.


Just the basics.
Just the basics.


Editor’s Note: GoSeeAustralia acknowledges The Bonegilla Migrant Experience and Albury and Wodonga Councils as sources of information in the compilation of this Information Article.

In 1971, the Bonegilla Migrant Centre was closed and the site was given back to the Army. Between 1978 and 1982, nearly the entire centre was demolished in a major Army redevelopment. Block 19, the last surviving block, was given heritage listing in 2002 and is managed now by Parklands Albury-Wodonga.

The migrant centre had a significant impact on the local area with the population of Albury Wodonga almost doubling between 1947 and 1971, and the number of overseas-born in the immediate area increasing eight-fold. Bonegilla played a big part in expanding the local economy and enriching the social fabric of the district.

Many migrants chose to stay in the area.

The City of Wodonga, Parklands Albury Wodonga and Albury City are working in partnership with the Bonegilla Migrant Experience Advisory Committee to preserve and promote the Bonegilla Migrant Experience Heritage Park.

For more information
contact: Garth Morrison
Editor Go See Australia and Go See New Zealand Directory
Email: garth@contact.com.au


Tribute to Tasos Kolokotronis.
Tribute to Tasos Kolokotronis.


Tasos Kolokotronis birthplace.
Tasos Kolokotronis birthplace.


Traditional Macedonian house.
Traditional Macedonian house.


Greek Village 1
Greek Village 1


Greek Village 2.
Greek Village 2.


Meeting  of Nations.
Meeting of Nations.


Comment Cards trace family history.
Comment Cards trace family history.


Bonegilla Migrant Experience.
Bonegilla Migrant Experience.


AIF memorabilia
AIF memorabilia


Her soldier.
Her soldier.


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