The lucky migrant

‘Orsova’, [ca. 1909-ca. 1936], Allan C Green, 1878-1954, photographer, courtesy of State Library of Victoria pictures collection

There’s often a lot more to an ancestor’s migration story than just the dates of the journey and the name of the ship (or flight number of the plane) they arrived on.

Robina was the youngest sibling of my great-grandfather. Family stories recalled by my grandfather, told how ‘Aunt Beenie’ had migrated from Glasgow, Scotland to South Australia, where she was a nurse who did her rounds on horseback. Although this story was often told around the dinner table when I was a teenager, I had never written down the details. So, years later, when I was interested to find out more about Aunt Beenie, I had just the barest of details to work from.

Starting from the known details of her birth and early life in Scotland (as documented in records on ScotlandsPeople website) I was quickly able to find her application for assisted passage record in 1914 indexed in the State Records of South Australia (and also that of her sister and brother-in-law three years earlier in 1911). I purchased digitised copies of both files. Combined with the passenger departure and arrival lists (from the National Archives (UK) and State Records of South Australia), these documents provided a wealth of detail about the migration process for both parties.

Migrants often describe themselves as ‘lucky’, but Aunt Beenie proved to be a particularly fortunate migrant. Her sister and brother-in-law sponsored her passage to South Australia and she was approved for migration in 1914. However, before Robina was able to travel, World War I broke out, and her brother-in-law, Matthew, was informed by letter in August 1914 that the Government had suspended immigration operations, except for ‘arranging for assisted passages for wives and families of nominators and other specially urgent cases’. He was told that passage would not be arranged for Robina, ‘unless there are special circumstances under which your nominee can be introduced without in any way affecting the labor [sic] market’.

Matthew replied immediately, emphasising that Robina was a trained hospital nurse who would be valuable in the community, ‘as there are no nurses or doctors within 14 & 16 miles and there is a good deal of sickness in the place at present’.

He received a reply within days that Robina’s passage was approved. This correspondence is all contained within Robina’s Application for Assisted Passage file.

Robina completed the forms and medical checks required and was aboard the SS Orsova when it departed from the Port of London on 15 January 1915.

As the Orsova sailed through the Suez Canal in January 1915 the passengers had a vivid reminder of their good fortune to be heading towards a life in Australia. Newspaper articles of the time describe how, after stopping at Port Said where the pilot was sandbagged into the bridge, the ship entered the Suez to find large numbers of troops on either side of the canal. ‘Passengers were warned to keep to the side of the vessel farthest from the Turks’, and they reported hearing ‘the sounds of firing of skirmishes in the distance’(see references to newspaper articles below). The Great War was unfolding around them.

Robina’s timing in getting onto that ship was fortuitous. Assisted migration to South Australia ceased shortly after for the duration of the War.

Tracing her initial migration to South Australia was just the first step in recording Robina’s story.

Sources referred to in this post include:

  • Applications for Assisted Passage, 1911-1917 (GRG7/2), State Records of South Australia.
  • National Records of Scotland, (Scotland’s People website) – censuses, statutory registers for births, deaths and marriages, Old Parish Registers
  • Passenger arrival lists, GRG41/34/0/102-1915, 1915, State Records of South Australia
  • UK and Ireland, Outward Passenger Lists, 1890–1960, The National Archives UK via Ancestry website
  • Newspapers via Trove website: Express and Telegraph, 22 Feb 1915, p1, Daily Herald, 19 Feb 1915, p5, Daily News, 18 Feb 1915, p7
  • Australian Development and Migration Commission, Annual Report, Government Printer, Melbourne, 1927