Sunday, 19 February 2017

The First Balts to Canberra

'First Balts to Canberra' was the title of a talk given by Ann Tundern-Smith to the Canberra and District Historical Society on 14 February 2017.  The talk focussed on the first large group of non-British European migrants to reach Canberra in 1947.  It represented a valuable contribution to scholarship on Australian migration and the results will hopefully be published sometime during this 70th anniversary year. 

Who were the 'Balts'?  Well, that was a colloquial title given to the Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian refugees in Australia immediately after the Second World War. The Minister for Immigration at the time, Arthur Calwell, had decided that the first shipment of post-war non British immigrants should be made up solely of young and single Baltic refugees as they were held in high regard by most countries selecting displaced persons for immigration. In fact, the warm reception given to the first shipload of Baltic refugees resulted in the term "Balt' being used for most non-British and non-Mediteranean European immigrants for many years, long after other nationalities had been included in Australia's intake (Egon F. Kunz, Displaced Persons; Calwell's New Australians, Australian National University Press, 1988, p42).

The first transport of Baltic displaced persons to Australia was carried by the USAT General Stuart Heintzelman, a former WW2 troop ship chartered by the International Refugee Organisation to help resettle the millions of displaced persons stranded in Europe after the end of the war.  The ship carried over 800 Baltic displaced persons (including 112 women), arriving at Fremantle on 28 November 1947.  Most passengers were then transported to the Bonegilla migrant centre in northern Victoria, and from there to various jobs to begin working off their 2 year labour commitment to the Australian government.

853 Balt Migrants Happy To Be Here (1947, December 25). Catholic Weekly (Sydney, NSW : 1942 - 1954), p. 1. Retrieved February 19, 2017, from
 [NB: Ann Tundern-Smith has advised that the newspaper headline was incorrect, the number was closer to 840, and that the young woman in the photo was Konstancija Brundzaitė (later Jurskis)] 

Ann Tundern-Smith is the daughter of one of the Estonian refugees who arrived aboard the first transport in 1947 and also the editor of Canberra History News  She has invested much effort in tracing the various stories of displaced people who came to Australia from 1947 to 1951 (see her website here ).  Ann's talk included a short historical introduction touching on how these Baltic people had become refugees, the history of migration policy in Australia in the 1940s, and then looked at 60 women who made up the first group of Balts to be sent to Canberra, in December 1947.

Canberra, in 1947, had a population of only a little over 15,000 but was growing fast with a new emphasis on nation building.  However the post-war labour shortage was felt as much here as in most parts of the country.  It was perhaps not surprising that given an additional source of employees the new Commonwealth Employment Service (established in 1946) should quickly select the best available for the national capital. The young Baltic women who had just arrived at Bonegilla were not given much time to acclimatise and half of them soon found themselves offered jobs as domestics, cleaners, waitresses, typists and trainee nurses in Canberra.
BALT MIGRANTS IN CANBERRA (1947, December 18). The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 - 1954), p. 20. Retrieved February 19, 2017, from

Ann Tundern-Smith's presentation analysed this first group of Baltic migrant workers (including by age, nationality, intended occupation prior to reaching Australia, occupation once they were employed in Canberra, and final place of residence after having worked in Canberra) as well as providing a few interesting biographical stories about the women involved. The discussion following Ann's talk brought out other aspects of the migration story, for example that by 1947 other western countries were also actively competing for Baltic refugees and that the target of 150 women set by the Aiustralian government for the first transport could not be met.  Nevertheless by 1952 Australia had resettled over 170,000 displaced persons, including 35,000 Balts.