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Covering the Goulburn and Murray valleys

Migrant camp stories sought

The story of the many European families that passed through Benalla's migrant camp will be recorded before it is lost.

November 30, 2012 12:00am

Benalla Migrant Camp social evening circa 1950s.Contributed by Norma Grubb.


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More than 60,000 European immigrants passed through Benalla Migrant Camp in about 20 years of operation in the 1950s and 1960s. However, very little is recorded about life at the camp and no lists of residents’ names have been kept through official records such as those of the Immigration Department.

‘‘I have been thinking for a while that if we don’t act soon, eye-witness accounts of this important chapter of local history will be lost forever,’’ long-time Benalla resident Sabine Smyth said.

‘‘This is why I am now beginning a project to collect and preserve the personal stories about the migrant camp. I am really excited that Benalla Rural City has made available a portion of BARC Hut 11 for an exhibition in January and February 2013.

‘‘This local history project, which will be launched at an afternoon tea on Australia Day, January 26, is aiming to showcase old photos and some of the stories of the migrant families I am able to trace.

‘‘Ideally this is the beginning of a growing collection. I would also love to see a plaque commemorating camp residents’ names as part of my project.

‘‘I am looking for the names and contact details of anyone who lived in the camp. But I am also keen to talk to people who worked at the camp as teachers, nurses, childcare workers or people who ran programs there,’’ Mrs Smyth said.

‘‘I have already found out that the Benalla Rovers Soccer Club started with migrants from the camp, and so did the Girl Guides, so their records will be of great historical interest to me.’’

Mrs Smyth said she felt that historical photos of the Victorian Railways could also be a ‘‘treasure trove’’, as many migrants arrived here from Melbourne by train via Seymour, where they had a meal break.

‘‘Although both our local history groups and Jenny Campbell of U3A are contributing information from their own research work, there is not much information around so far.

‘‘I am looking for anyone in the Benalla and District community — as well as in Mansfield and Wangaratta, or further afield — who might still have old photos and memorabilia from that time,’’ Mrs Smyth said.

‘‘Old maps of the site, newspaper clippings, original suitcases and letters — it is all pure gold to me.’’

Mrs Smyth said her work was fuelled by her admiration for the migrants who came out to Australia after the war.

There are many stories of war and hardship on top of what she believes is ‘‘the incredible adjustment that has to happen when you leave behind your country and culture, your entire past and language’’.

‘‘These people are all heroes, groundbreakers as far as I am concerned. They chose Australia for a better life, but it was no bed of roses when they first arrived, it was hard work,’’ she said.

‘‘They did not ask for, nor get, special treatment.’’

Mrs Smyth said we needed to acknowledge this was an important time for Benalla, and that the diversity we have in our community today largely came from the Benalla Migrant Camp. She said we need an authentic, honest place to remember their stories forever — and it would be wonderful if one day it could be at the BARC huts in its own permanent display.

Contact Sabine Smyth on 0439 001 918 or 5762 6678 after hours or by email on sabine.smyth@gmail.com or write to 7 Mitchell St, Benalla.

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