Just like home, but warmer, Roger Hall

Long Journey for Sevenpence. Assisted Immigration to New Zealand from the United Kingdom, 1947-1975
Megan Hutching
Victoria University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 0 86473 360 7

In 1960, after having spent two years in New Zealand, I went to work in Australia for a year. On my first day I got talking to a couple of Australian businessmen in a restaurant. They said the difference between the British migrants and the Italians and Greeks was that “the Italians and the Greeks first of all work hard to get a business – and then they know everything else will follow: the Brits work hard for a house – and then they stop working.”

Long Journey for Sevenpence is the oral history of assisted immigration to New Zealand from the United Kingdom 1947-1975. “Assisted immigration” meant, in fact, that the New Zealand Government covered the travel expenses of migrants from halfway across the world. For some years, immigrants had to pay ten pounds, but even this contribution was waived if you were an ex-serviceman or (as in my case) going out to be a public servant.

How extraordinary this must seem now. Yet clearly this did not happen for altruistic reasons: there was a significant labour shortage especially in certain occupations. The main reasons for the shortage (some 70,000 vacancies!) were the falling birth rate, the raising of the school leaving age to 15 in 1944, and post-war expansion of industry. While immigration seemed an obvious answer to the labour shortage, the acute housing shortage provided something of a paradox for the Government: migrants would simultaneously help solve the shortage (if they were builders) but also exacerbate it.

Here are some figures for employment vacancies in 1947, the very early days of this scheme:

sawmilling and afforestation 303
housing and construction 1624
railways 789
engineering 748.

woollen mills 561
clothing 3412
footwear manufacture 543.

Clearly this was before Roger Douglas, in an era when we still made things.

To have a policy that called for migrants was one thing, but to have a policy that called for them to come from one country only was quite something else. This was not only social engineering, it was racial engineering, but it was almost universally accepted. There was suspicion and antipathy to most Europeans and their ways. As Bruce Mason wrote many years ago in a very funny song: “We don’t want your sort here” – “your sort” often meaning anyone or anything cultural or European, the words sometimes being synonymous.

Historically, the pro-British anti-foreign attitude went back for the best part of a century: the fears were of cheap labour flooding in, and of a threat to bourgeois respectability (especially in sexual behaviour); there was also the probably accurate assumption that the British would most easily assimilate into the country. There seems to be no trace anywhere – presumably because it never arose – of a clamour for migrants from anywhere else but Britain. Thank goodness for the health of our cultural life that at least some Jews fleeing Nazi Germany had come to New Zealand, but that’s another subject.

As migration movements go, the 76,000 assisted migrants (spread over nearly 25 years) must be the least romantic, the least dramatic ever. The book outlines typical reasons for coming and many of these seem mundane: a mild dissatisfaction with life in post-war Britain; “generally depressing conditions”; the “grey life”; “rationing was still in force”. Individuals were “unsettled”, “felt they weren’t getting anywhere”. There was also, for some, what felt like the very real threat of nuclear war.

What did migrants hope to gain? For most, “better wages”, “better opportunities for our children” or “better weather”. And one, pretty drastically, wanted to escape a boyfriend. My own case was nothing to be proud of: I simply wanted to avoid two years of National Service, which was due to end shortly in the United Kingdom.

It is clear that there was no desperate urge to come to New Zealand or even for leaving Britain: no potato famine, no religious persecution, no gold fever. So it wasn’t a case of:

Bring me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Well, there was no Statue of Liberty standing in Wellington Harbour, but there was perhaps a Golden Door. Not in the sense of streets paved with gold, but for most an instant – and relatively easily obtained – rise in the standard of living. There was also what seemed hugely desirable: the chance to own a house. In the UK, owning your own house was the exception; in New Zealand it was the rule.

And why did people choose New Zealand and not, say, Canada or Australia, which were running similar schemes? Again the answer is more pragmatic than romantic: in many cases it was that best form of advertising – word of mouth.

Many had heard from relatives or friends how good life was in New Zealand (and to hear from them meant that in going to the new country you knew at least one person there). A less predictable reason was that “Australia and Canada were too big; New Zealand was small and comfortable”. Another inducement (which turned out to be totally inaccurate) was one perpetuated by the immigration officers in London: that “New Zealand was more English than the English”. So going to New Zealand might have been something of an adventure – but not too big an adventure. With any luck, New Zealand would be just like home, but warmer.

Megan Hutching’s Long Journey for Sevenpence meticulously charts all of this (and much more), covering the various governments’ policies on immigration over the years. It then tracks the immigrants’ lives from the journey to first arrival, documenting cultural differences and summing up how they feel after many years in the country. It is a valuable study of a not insignificant part of our history that hasn’t had much attention until now.

It begins with the personal accounts of seven immigrants. I can vouch for the veracity of these accounts in the sense that each person’s story is so similar to my own. Many of the interviews read like scenes out of my own play Prisoners of Mother England. Two incidents in particular, involving the language barrier, always brought the house down: that inevitable misunderstanding caused by the phrase “Ladies a plate”; and an English immigrant picking up the phone when it rings and saying, “Of course I’m here!”.

Megan Hutching quotes what seems curious advice but again I can say it is almost certainly true. On board ship a man was advised to shave off his moustache as “people with moustaches were looked on with suspicion in New Zealand”. On my voyage, a man with a beard was ordered to shave it off and told that “if he’d had a beard at his interview he wouldn’t have been on the ship in the first place”.

Long Journey for Sevenpence is handsomely produced, with a good selection of photographs that not only show the inevitable bright-eyed, smiling immigrants, but also what New Zealand was like in that era. For example, a wonderful shot of a virtually empty Wellington during the weekend, and the photos of immigration camps, inside and out, illustrate what a bleak welcome was waiting for many. But there are two topics that could have been covered better. Megan Hutching concludes that nearly all assisted migrants have settled in comfortably and have few regrets. But her conclusion is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are no interviews with people who returned to the UK and remained there (presumably because these people would be hard to trace). She should have provided some figures on the number of people who did return, either within the two-year period or some time after.

The second is that her summing up of the impact British migrants have made seems somewhat glib:

While some have achieved prominence, such as the author Philip Temple or those who have become involved in trade union organisation or sports administration, most have merged into New Zealand life and are distinguishable only by their accents.

After having a teeny sulk at not getting mentioned, I managed with my own minimal research to produce the following names of other assisted migrants who have achieved prominence: poet and actor Peter Bland (and co-founder of Downstage Theatre); broadcaster Geoff Robinson; Ken Richardson, Parliamentary Private Secretary to David Lange and Official Secretary to Kath Tizard when she was Governor-General; and Deputy-Speaker Geoff Braybrooke. I am sure there are more.

But it must be admitted that even if one were to dredge up more names, Hutching’s conclusion is probably true enough: the vast majority of us do indeed seem to have melted into the background, doubtless buying houses and settling down happily. Those Australian businessmen back in 1960 had it right.

Roger Hall arrived in New Zealand as an assisted migrant in 1958. His own account of his first years as an immigrant can be found in his recent autobiography bums on seats (reviewed in our March issue). Part of this review was used in his speech to launch Long Journey for Sevenpence in Wellington.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, Sociology
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