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The changing face of modern Australia – 1900s to 1940s

Italian workers at a knitting factory. Image courtesy of the Migration Museum, History Trust of South Australia.

The hundreds of thousands of people who arrived in Australia after the First World War greatly influenced Australia becoming a modern society. They brought with them skills, commitment to family, education and their own cultural values. Their experiences in Australian created new ways of eating in cafés and milk bars, new public buildings, new approaches to leisure, new concepts of design and architecture and new sounds—jazz music.

The years between the First and Second World Wars saw the emergence of cultural diversity in Australian society that was characterised by a expanded migration of people, especially men from southern Europe, the Adriatic and the Mediterranean. Restrictive entry conditions remained, such as the exclusion of women and children from non-British backgrounds. The exception was Japanese, Malay and Filipino pearl divers who continued to work under the exemptions of the The Immigration Restriction Act 1901.

The 1920s and 1930s were hard times with a Depression that saw massive unemployment, poverty and hardship. This led to migrants becoming classic targets of xenophobia, where there was an intense fear or dislike of their customs and culture.

Australia's involvement in the Allied forces in Europe in the war against Nazi Germany created a compassion for displaced persons in Europe. At war's end, Australians could accept with confidence the arrival of large numbers of immigrants as part of a vision of a new Australian identity based on diversity and interactive cultures.

Women's involvement in war-time activities saw an unprecedented engagement of women in jobs that were previously the preserve of men.

The Empire and Australia's Imperial Force—a nation of soldiers

Herbert F Baldwin, Unidentified men of the 5th Division resting. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial.

At the time of Federation, Australian soldiers were fighting in a war for the British Empire, the Boer War in South Africa in which five hundred men lost their lives between 1899 and 1902.

From 1914 to 1918, Australians were involved in the Great War, (now known as the First World War). As a member of the British Empire, Australia sent the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) to the battlefields of Gallipoli in Turkey, Egypt and Palestine in the Middle East, France and Belgium in Europe.

The majority of volunteers were Australian born. Among British Australians, Scots enlisted proportionally in greater numbers as well as being significant in officer ranks. Recruits with Danish, Polish, French, Jewish and other European backgrounds also joined the AIF. Australian Jews were in all ranks but the best known was John Monash, a civil engineer from Melbourne who became Commander-in-Chief of the Australia Corps in France in 1918.

Other battles involving non-citizens 1914–1918

Axel Poignant (1906-1986), Sam Sue, pearl buyer, Broome, Western Australia, 1947. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Although Aboriginal Australians were not counted as citizens; approximately 400 enlisted for service in the First World War. A number died in battle. Similarly, Chinese Australians, who also fought racism, enlisted for duty. Despite being Australian citizens, they were initially rejected because they were non-European, but after China entered the war on the Allies' side in 1916 they were accepted into the AIF. Melbourne brothers Hedley and Samuel Tong Way enlisted, and served in the signal corps in France.

Australian residents who were citizens of Italy, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria and Turkey were declared enemy aliens. They ran the risk of being interned, police surveillance, job restrictions or sacking. Approximately 33,000 German 'aliens' were declared at the beginning of the war. The majority were in the Barossa Valley and Adelaide Hills in South Australia, as well as Victoria and Queensland. About 7,000 'enemy aliens' were interned. Others suffered suspicion and aggression.

At war's end, Empire Day celebrations were joined by the observance of a national day of Australia's own – Anzac Day. On 25 April 1916 this became an annual event. Australians began to see their country as a nation in its own right.

Hard times in the 1920s and 1930s

After the war, Australia sought new settlers from Britain as a means of cementing their friendship. Both governments contributed to subsidised passage and offered loans to cover other costs.

Irish migrants recruited as domestic servants. Image courtesy of the Migration Museum, History Trust of South Australia.

Immigrants from Britain came from all walks of life. Women, especially, were enticed to Australia. Domestic servants were in high demand. Turnover was high; frequently, young women who arrived to work as servants married or took jobs in clothing, footwear or food processing factories. Widows and children of British men lost at the Front formed another group of female arrivals looking for a new life.

The White Australia Policy remained in force, and the non-European population declined as there was no support for passages and a restriction on wives and children entering Australia.

Immigrants who had arrived in the 1920s, attracted by Australia's promise of guaranteed employment, good wages and plenty of opportunities, faced economic distress, unemployment and poverty in the 1930s. They were grim times for the vast majority of all Australians and community attitudes hardened against immigrants.
Kate Walsh, The Changing Face of Australia: a Century of Immigration 1901-2000, p. 73

Mrs Hopewell, Afghan child migrants, Maree, 1912. Image courtesy of the Migration Museum, History Trust of South Australia.

Farm boys and child migrants

Young British men continued to be encouraged to migrate to work as 'farm boys'. In addition, 'orphans' from poor and neglected backgrounds were re-settled in Australia from the United Kingdom. About 3000 'orphans' arrived in the 1920s and 30s, under the care of Dr Bernardo's Homes and Fairbridge Farms. For some of these 'orphans', the institutional upbringing was lonely and traumatic; for others it was a fresh start.

Southern Europeans

Stonemason Arturo Comelli arrived from Italy in 1927. Image courtesy of the Migration Museum, History Trust of South Australia.

Men from southern Europe took up unskilled labouring jobs in isolated rural areas as part of forging a new life in Australia. This hard labour continued throughout the Depression and contributed to the development of Australia's rural industries and transport systems, building roads and railways including across the Nullabor.

Skilled Italian stonemasons, mosaic and terrazzo workers contributed significantly to the construction of Australian cities and their public buildings and also residential homes.

Cafés owned by Greek settlers became very common in hundreds of country towns and cities across Australia. This contributed significantly to the diversity of social life in Australia—bringing an experience of European modernism to Australia.

'Asian and Adriatic' fishing industries

Japanese, Malay and Filipino pearl divers continued to work under the exemptions of the Act. Maltese fishermen expanded the fishing industry in South Australia, establishing expanded markets for their catch in Adelaide and Melbourne.

The Depression and hardened attitudes

The Depression hardened community attitudes against immigrants. Racism surfaced under the guise of protecting Australian jobs and businesses. Anti-foreigner riots occurred on the Kalgoorlie goldfields in 1934. These were followed by strikes demanding preferential employment for Australian-born workers. Immigrants in the 1920s and 30s maintained contact, where possible, with families and homelands. This was especially important when many were made to feel unwelcome.

New land, new ways

Winners of the Pelaco Cup, 1952. Image courtesy of the Migration Museum, History Trust of South Australia.

Within migrant groups there was also, by necessity, social diversity, change, interaction and adaptation in cultural practices. Greeks in Melbourne, for example, became highly involved in Australian Rules football—Mick Kanis donated the cup for best and fairest player to the Richmond AFL Club at the end of each season. British settlers brought soccer with them.

Southern Europeans brought with them a love of music. In their leisure time and for celebrations, folk tunes were played on traditional instruments. This greatly influenced the development of a unique sound in Australian folk music when their children started mixing rhythms and sounds.

Scottish dancing and pipe bands were popular in Scottish celebrations throughout Australia in the 1930s. There was great take-up of dancing and pipe bands by other Australians. With the significant size of Australia's Scottish community in the early decades of the 1900s, represented by several Scottish battalions in the Militia, the presence of a lone piper became established during the 1920s. A lone piper signals the day's end to troops and, as such, also bids farewell to the dead at funerals and memorial services. The bagpipes have been carried into battle with Scottish soldiers from the days of William Wallace.

Jazz bands from not only America, but also Shanghai, China, arrived in Australia in the 1920s. When jazz first reached Australia in the 1920s it became popular as dance music, although it was not until the end of World War II that jazz became truly popular in Australia. Black Americans had been in Australia since the early days of the colony. Black Americans also worked in Queensland's sugar and mining industries.

Outdoor picture theatre, Broome, WA, 1920. Image courtesy of the Battye Library of Western Australia.

Religion was important in continuing the traditions of settler society. Many priests and nuns came from Ireland at this time to minister to Australia's Irish Catholics, reinforcing ties with Irish Catholicism. One of the greatest cultural divisions in Australia was that between Catholics and Protestants. The effect of this was seen in the influence of Archbishop Mannix and the split in the Labor Party of the 1950s which led to the Democratic Labor Party.

European churches such as the Lutheran Greek Orthodox churches became established. However, bans on the use of German language during 1914-18 meant that English became the vernacular of the Lutheran church.

Racial and class divisions that existed in Australian society in the 1920s and 30s were illustrated by attendance at the cinema or picture shows. A diversity of people made up the audience, but they were deliberately separated.

In Broome,

The comfortable cane seats in the best location in the cinema were reserved for the lugger owners and other white Australian residents. The Japanese divers, the Asian boat crews and resident Chinese sat to one side and to the front on wooden benches. The Aboriginal audience found whatever spot they could at the back.
Kate Walsh, The Changing Face of Australia: a Century of Immigration 1901-2000, p. 109

The Second World War

Hungarian refugee and political scientist Andreas Dezsery. Image courtesy of the Migration Museum, History Trust of South Australia.

Refugees 1939–

The end of the 1930s marked the beginning of the arrival of Jewish refugees from Europe, mostly settling in Melbourne and Sydney. They fled countries when Hitler made his intentions clear in Germany and the other occupied countries of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. The new arrivals, dubbed 'reffos' were encouraged by the Anglo-Jewish community to fit in as quickly as possible to avoid stirring up anti-semitic sentiment in Australia.

Many of the Jewish refugees were well educated and talented, making significant contributions to Australian cultural life.

Domestic internment

With the outbreak of the Second World War, internment camps for 'enemy aliens' were established across Australia. The first interned were Germans. Following Italy's entry into the war against the allies in June 1940, nearly 5000 Italian nationals and others were interned.

Australian authorities did not separate Nazi sympathisers from those who opposed fascism. Tension between fascists and non-fascists boiled over in the camps. Many internees felt bewildered, angry and frustrated by their internment. By the war's end, many Italian internees were released to work on the land to alleviate the labour shortage. Others worked in factories.

Prisoners of war

Seventeen thousand Italian soldiers captured in the war were held in prisoner of war camps in Australia. This brief interaction with the landscape and people changed their lives forever. Many returned to Australia as immigrants.

Hungarian refugees disembark at Port Melbourne, 1957. Image courtesy of the Migration Museum, History Trust of South Australia.

One of the biggest POW camps was at Cooma, New South Wales, which held Italians, Germans and Japanese soldiers captured in north Africa and the Pacific.

Post-war refugees

At the end of the war there were millions of people on the move in Europe, including those who had fled Nazi Germany and Eastern Europeans unable or unwilling to return to their homelands now occupied by Soviet Russia.

Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Poles and Ukrainians, along with Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Bulgarians and Yugoslavians crowded into Displaced Persons camps hastily established by the Allied victors in Germany, Austria, Italy and France. There they awaited resettlement.
Kate Walsh, The Changing Face of Australia: a Century of Immigration 1901-2000, p. 125

Approximately 170,000 of the one million displaced persons were accepted into Australia to begin a new life.

Australians were encouraged by the government and the media to accept with confidence the arrival of large numbers of migrants. This was part of a vision of a new Australian identity based on immigration, multiple communities, diversity and interactive cultures. It heralded Australia's consciousness in the global world.

Sun Moon Lee and his troupe of oriental stars, 1920, ephemera. Courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.

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Print references

Kate Walsh, The Changing Face of Australia: a Century of Immigration 1901-2000, Allen & Unwin, 2001.

Last updated: 18th February 2009

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