Retracing Our Steps

A Tale of Migration and Isolation from a World War to a Global Pandemic

On the 30th of October, 1920, just over one hundred years ago, my great-grandmother boarded the SS Orvieto in London, bound for Fremantle in Western Australia.

ORVIETO of the O.S.N Line at the Orient Line Wharf, Saturday 22 December 1923. Credit: ANMM Collection Photographer Frederick Garner Wilkinson

I never knew her. I’m not sure I’ve even seen a photo of her. But I have often wondered what this woman of twenty three years thought as she stepped aboard that ship, its twin stacks looming above. Since its launch in 1909, the steamer ran regularly between England and Australia, bringing mail and passengers from one end of the Empire to the other. Like my great-grandfather, the Orvieto served in WW1, before returning to civilian duties, one of which would be to carry a war bride to her sweetheart on the other side of the globe.

On the surface, this tale drips with the romanticism of the late British Empire, with its far reach and iron grip, its relentless drive to “civilise” nations and people who had no need or want for such a thing. It groans with adventure, that quintessential colonial sense of setting off into the great unknown, to new opportunities and a brighter, global future. It’s the stuff of Hollywood films, period dramas set in stately homes, and the upstairs/downstairs life.

What this story doesn’t reveal however, what the records and documents don’t tell us, is of the very real trauma and loss this very real woman might have felt on that fateful day in October. Apparently she rarely spoke of her life before immigration. No doubt the day was cold, possibly even blustery down on London’s Tilbury docks. There had been a frost a few nights before, though little rain and some sunshine since. I wonder if she looked over her shoulder and what she saw. Did she feel relief at leaving behind a hard and unforgiving life in post-war London? A life, out of respect for her living relatives I won’t detail further here. Did she mourn the mother and siblings she left behind? Or did she have hope in her heart, that bubbling joy one feels at the very outset of an adventure? After all, her future husband awaited at the end of that long voyage; one which, despite advances in technology, would still take two months.

Third Class Cabin on the Orient Line to Australia 1913” (Mary Evans / Grenville Collins Postcard Collection)

I wonder what she expected to find when she disembarked at Fremantle. It was a cool 23 degrees celsius in Perth the day the Orvieto made port, though it cracked 30 degrees four days later, when she married my great-grandfather. I often wonder if she would have gone back, had she the chance, to see her family in dreary London. As far as I know she didn’t manage to return to England before her mother died just over ten years later. There are scant records, and with a large family to raise in a colonial country not yet sure of its own identity, not many like her ever did.

Back in 1920 and for many decades later, this was the migrant story the world over ⏤ people fleeing harder, less fortunate, much more dangerous circumstances in their homeland for a chance at something better. In more recent years however, that choice to leave became a little easier for some. In the jet age, a time of cheaper flights and faster travel, moving to the other side of the world no longer meant goodbye forever. Rather, it meant goodbye for now, at least for those fortunate enough not to be escaping conflict or persecution.

When my English fiancé and I made the decision in 2019 to give our long distance relationship a proper go, that easy travel was still as normal and predictable as the tides. Planes flew with regularity and space-age swiftness between the world’s hemispheres, turning a journey that had once required months of arduous sailing into a 24-hour long haul with a fairly comfortable seat and much better food. I arrived in the UK for Christmas 2019 on a six month tourist visa, and there was no real reason at that time to believe things would change in that regard.

But by March of 2020, the world had changed irrevocably. I caught ‘probably Covid’ (I wasn’t able to get a test at the time), we home-schooled my fiancé’s children and got engaged. All the while millions died. Millions more buried or burned their lost loved ones. Governments scrambled to react while others doddered and wrung their hands, unable or perhaps unwilling to commit to the unpopular restrictions that were necessary to save lives. That June, I returned to Australia on one of the final reasonably priced tickets into Brisbane. I was lucky to receive my two weeks quarantine free of charge, lucky to be home safe when tens of thousands remained in limbo across the globe.

What we’d hoped would be a short stay in Australia became a seven and a half month stranding, watching countries close borders and nations lockdown to prevent the spread of the worst global health crisis since the Spanish Flu. Like my great-grandmother, I had farewelled my love, not knowing but still hoping it wouldn’t be long. While she presumably stood on a dockside and my fiancé held it together in an airport, the parallels were obvious. Had they known when my great-grandfather was returned to Australia by the AIF in April 1920, how long it would be until they saw each other again? Had they expected to spend seven and a half months apart, another eerie parallel to my recent experience?

As every transport hub between the antipodes and western Europe closed, I moved flights and begged for extra luggage allowances on near empty planes. I packed and repacked, trying to fit my entire life into two cases and a backpack. I savoured a final hug from my beautiful son before he returned to his father’s house. I sobbed as my parents walked away from me in a tiny regional airport. I couldn’t let them see that I was sad. I couldn’t let any of them see how deeply unsettled I was at the prospect of leaving.

Of course, it wasn’t the leaving. Not really.

It was the prospect of never coming back.

When I made the choice ⏤ and it was the only choice to be had for true happiness ⏤ to move to the UK, I’d known the time between visits would be long and sometimes sad. I’d understood that I was joining the millions who live outside their birth countries, who live distant from their children and other family, but I also understood that I was allowed and entitled to travel home as and when needed. What I hadn’t anticipated when my heart chose a man on the other side of the world, was that I would face that same moment as my great-grandmother a hundred years before.

I looked over my shoulder in Rockhampton and Brisbane and Sydney. I caught final glimpses of familiar sights and tried to etch them in my memory. I told people with false hope that I would be back in January, knowing all the while I had no idea when I would be returning. How was it possible, in 2021, that I couldn’t know? How was it possible that I was retracing her steps, taking her journey in reverse, and instead of knowing exactly when I would see my far-flung family, I was just as adrift and unsure?

I’m safe and loved here, though. Like her, I have a house full of kids. They aren’t my own, but they are an absolute joy. I imagine she too had to adjust to new weather and terminology and ways of being and doing. However unlike her, I have the benefits of modern communication technology to keep in contact. It will always be thin gruel compared to real visits and the ability to return to Australia in the event of a family celebration or emergency. There will not be a single member of my family at my wedding in June. It’s a reality I’ve had time to process, and even so it still hurts.

While my situation is unpleasant and not what I had planned or wished, it’s by no means the worst of the tales I have heard, both personally and in the news. These border closures have kept Australia safe, no argument. They were certainly more reasonable before arrival caps were imposed and quarantine became the financial responsibility of people caught unawares by unpredictable changes and harsh rules.

With no roadmap out of this state of affairs beyond aggressive vaccination programs, thousands will remain in limbo facing unknown futures, living in caravans in friend’s yards, unable to work or access healthcare because they have run out of money or have no allowance on their visa conditions. Families have be separated through no fault or choice of their own. Children have been abandoned overseas, visiting relatives when the pandemic hit. But make no mistake; those with the funds, be they company representatives or celebrities, are swanning merrily in and out of Australia as we speak. When asked what is being done and how, a year after the border closure, so many are still adrift beyond the safety of home, the Australian government shrugs and says, “We told you to come home”, while allowing a certain few to continue on as before.

As always, these things are never so simple, and anyone ⏤ be they government minister or private citizen ⏤ who says otherwise is either a naive fool or an insensitive monster, happy to punish people for their links to and their lives in the world beyond our sandy shores.

The isolation my great-grandmother undoubtedly suffered when she and many millions like her left their homeland should not be anyone’s experience in this day and age. No one should have to make that final glance over their shoulder and wonder if they would ever come back, never knowing when. In times like this, when things are as uncertain as they are, one thing should be more than sure ⏤ your immutable right as a citizen to return to your home country in the event of a disaster or emergency, and to be given consular assistance to do so without financial ruin and emotional collapse.

Our caring nature, our generosity, our openness and our courage in adversity ⏤ these are things we’ve held up as the hallmarks of our national Australian identity since we thought to call ourselves a nation at all. That we have turned so far from that ideal is a shame and a disgrace.

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