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Sunday, February 3, 2008$10 Life
After World War II many Britons were sold the dream of a new life in Australia, seduced by a fare of just £10. Over one-and-half million went, but what became of the Ten Pound Poms?
For young newlyweds John and Sylvia Cannon "it seemed like an amazing adventure for the price".
John, now 68, worked as a sales clerk for a car company in London's East End and like most working class Britons, they could never have afforded the real cost of the voyage. At £120 it was nearly half of John's yearly wage.
Like many others they were seduced by government propaganda films in glorious technicolour, which sold the dream of a modern British way of life in the sun.
The couple leaving
It was a chance to escape post-war rationing and a housing shortage. Australia was sold as a land of boundless opportunity. In the first year alone 400,000 Britons applied to migrate.
Australia desperately wanted white British stock to populate its shores and build its burgeoning post-war economy.
The racist law, known as The White Australia Policy, meant blacks or Asians need not apply. Britain was more than happy to oblige, helping to populate the Commonwealth with Britons.
Beginning in 1947, it was one of the largest planned mass migrations of the 20th Century. Some were transported in refitted troop ships.
But John and Sylvia, who left for Australia in 1961, were among the lucky ones and found themselves on one of the P&O liners equipped with swimming pools, luxury cabins and more food than they could possibly eat.
Kathleen Upton from Hastings, who left for her new life in 1954, also sailed on one. She had never seen anything like it.
"The food, I couldn't believe it," she says. "We were on rations in London and there was so much and such tropical fruits."
The "catch" of the Ten Pound contract meant that migrants had to stay for at least two years or pay back the full fare. In truth, many had little idea of what they were in for.
When the ship made its first port of call in western Australia, the honeymoon was soon over for Sylvia Cannon, now 68.
"I remember going into Perth and walking through the main street. I stopped and asked someone where the centre was and I couldn't believe I'd come right through it. It was just such a backwater."
Many migrants without savings were housed in Nissen huts - former Army barracks - and were appalled by the conditions, feeling they had been misled.
Some refused to get jobs, instead deciding to sit out the two years till they could return home. They were quickly labelled whinging Poms by the Australian media.
"I remember John and I saying look, we can't get involved in this because it's going to pull us down, it's going to depress us," says Sylvia.
"We made a conscious decision that we wouldn't become overly friendly with the other migrants in the hostel and we'd get out as soon as we could."
They moved to Melbourne to find work. There was plenty of opportunity, for women as well as men, and they both got jobs, with Sylvia bringing home the bigger wage. They saved hard and bought their first block of land for £700 just nine months after arriving.
"That was a tremendous thing to East End of London kids, because you never had that possibility at home," says Sylvia.
But others were not so happy and the home sickness had serious consequences. Maisie McDonald's mother had a nervous breakdown because she missed Britain so much and spent time in a hospital, but the family could not afford to return.
That was sort of the beginning of when I grew up and I think then I started to dislike Australia because of what had happened to my mum. She was not happy and if mum was not happy, I was not happy."
Her family all remained in Australia and Maisie and her sibling ended up marrying and having families. But to this day she says she never really "feels Australian".
Kathleen, now in her late 80s, and her husband had moved to Australia partly because of their young daughter's asthma, but they too were soon having second thoughts.
"Our first impression was they weren't very welcoming," she says. "I think they resented us very, very much. This shipload of people coming out from Europe would be taking their jobs."
Like many British immigrants - 20% according to one survey - they tried their hand at life in the bush. They took up sheep farming but a drought ended up killing many of their flock. They lasted just over two years but still had to find the £300 fare home.
"It was an experience that we wouldn't have missed," says Kathleen. "I think it teaches you so much about life and what your own resources are. I think it made me grow up with a bang. But I don't miss the insects."
Even John and Sylvia were having second thoughts, and after five years in Australia they too decided to return to Britain. In all 250,000 migrants ended up heading home.
Yet almost half of those who returned, soon decided they had made a mistake and ended up going back to Australia. They became known as the Boomerang Poms.