The Australian $20 bill

Modern Australian culture


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.



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