Getting here – Ko Athenic te waka

By Jennifer Little

[caption id="attachment_3489" align="alignright" width="436"] Cicely and Jennifer on ship[/caption]

I don’t think of myself as a migrant, but the truth is – I am. Six decades ago, my parents, Bill and Cicely, set off on the SS Athenic with 14-month-old me, from our home in London to Auckland via Curaçao, the Panama Canal and, weirdly, Pitcairn Island.

We departed England on 1 March 1962 and arrived four weeks later on April 2, disembarked and boarded a train to New Plymouth. In pitch darkness at midnight, we were greeted by a grumpy manager at the Inverness Hotel - now a central city backpacker lodge – with lord knows how many suitcases in tow. Mum was five months pregnant with my brother. Dad was due to start his job the next day - teaching science at New Plymouth Girls’ High School.

By Jennifer Little

Reading time: 11 minutes

Cicely and Jennifer on ship

I don’t think of myself as a migrant, but the truth is – I am. Six decades ago, my parents, Bill and Cicely, set off on the SS Athenic with 14-month-old me, from our home in London to Auckland via Curaçao, the Panama Canal and, weirdly, Pitcairn Island.

We departed England on 1 March 1962 and arrived four weeks later on April 2, disembarked and boarded a train to New Plymouth. In pitch darkness at midnight, we were greeted by a grumpy manager at the Inverness Hotel – now a central city backpacker lodge – with lord knows how many suitcases in tow. Mum was five months pregnant with my brother. Dad was due to start his job the next day – teaching science at New Plymouth Girls’ High School.

The culture shock must have been mind-blowing. Mum often re-told the story about the irate hotel manager who greeted us in the wee hours, sleep-disrupted and possibly unaware of the epic journey these weary nocturnal travellers on his doorstep had just made. The arrival story was further embellished by small details that capture how traumatised my mother must have felt – waking in an unknown town the next morning, to dad spilling his tea all over the bed, and no teaspoons to eat their breakfast boiled eggs before Dad fronted for his first day in a classroom of teenage girls. He had a Masters degree in Natural Science from Cambridge University but barely any experience as a teacher. He must have felt a pang of relief to discover many of the teaching staff were – like him – recent imports from the “old country”.

I haven’t been able to clarify if our journey was part of the New Zealand government’s assisted passage scheme, but 3,473 British migrants came to Aotearoa in 1962 on this scheme, as did 84 migrants from the Netherlands, 14 from Austria, 10 from Switzerland and two from other nations.

Between 1947 and 1975, a total of 77,000 women, children and men arrived from Great Britain under the scheme. Smaller numbers came from the Netherlands and some other European countries, according to the official New Zealand History website.

All at sea

Neurologically unformed, I can’t recall a thing about our early years here. I feel exasperated not to be able to remember that ocean voyage halfway across the world. It is galling to think I was there, physically present on that ship, on an adventure and a journey of a lifetime, but with an infant consciousness incapable of registering it.

Curaçao in the Caribbean! The Panama Canal! Pitcairn! A souvenir carved wooden flying fish with tiny, razor-sharp teeth remains a family treasure – proof we did call by the remote and inaccessible South Pacific island settled by mutineers of the Bounty in 1790. Locals row out to passing ships – in this case, the SS Athenic – to sell their handmade crafts. My mother was impressed by the large size of the Pitcairn Islanders’ feet as she traded with them over the side of the ship.

 

Documents she kept reveal another era of travel that make me feel incredibly old! Illustrated dinner menus, a pale blue, first-class ticket (there were no other ‘classes’ on the ship – were we being prepped for egalitarian Kiwi life?). A passenger information booklet boasts the elegantly furnished spaces and cabins of the ship, with its dining saloons, smoking rooms, library, hair salon, playroom and suite rooms equipped with electric log fire radiators. The 15,187 ton oil burning turbine twin screw vessel was one of Shaw Savill’s ‘Magnificent Seven’, a fleet of four ships that included the Corinthic, Gothic and Ceramic, as well as three cargo-only ships.

We were among the 88 passengers, including 79-year-old HRH Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone. According to a newspaper clipping my mother kept, headlined “GLAD TO BE AWAY FROM SNOW”, Princess Alice was due to pause in Auckland for an informal two-day visit on her way to Australia to visit her daughter, the wife of Sir Henry Abel Smith, Governor of Queensland. Princess Alice is a granddaughter of Queen Victoria and great aunt of Queen Elizabeth. Mum says I danced on the ship’s deck with her, but sadly Mum is no longer around to verify or get more details of this story.

New life, New Plymouth

Being the children of British migrants, we fitted in, albeit with an awareness of not being truly Kiwi, thanks to our parents’ strange accents, dietary and dress habits. Hot roast dinners in the middle of a sweltering summer’s day. Brown bread. Shoes and socks – never bare feet.

Psychological undercurrents are harder to discern but the effect is real. Growing up with no aunts, uncles, cousins and grandparents is all part of the migrant experience. My parents embraced the great outdoors – summer weekends we spent at surf beaches on the Taranaki coast. My father loved to take his biology classes on field trips up Mount Taranaki and became an expert on native plants. Mum just wanted to pick the wild blackberries that grew around the country roads that flank the mountain to make pies and bramble jelly, like her mother did.

My mother had left her homeland, her parents and only sister, on the basis we were coming to New Zealand for a couple of years. We never did go back. Our family expanded and by 1965, we were seven. Mum miraculously cared for five under-fives, including a 10-month-old baby and newborn twins, making it much more logistically and financially difficult to contemplate leaving.

Her homesickness, fuelled by exhaustion and stress, was understandable in retrospect considering she had so many children close together and no extended family to help out. A godsend was that we lived in a new suburb in Marfell where wooden three-bedroom homes sprung up from barren ground as fast as mushrooms, stuffed with young families. Open spaces and safe streets gave us a sense of community. We didn’t have daycare. We roamed the cul-de-sacs, back yards, empty sections, the creeks and bush with the neighbourhood kids as accomplices in made-up games.

But still, I can only marvel at my mother’s resilience as she carved out a new life in a quiet town, literally at the other end of the Earth far from the buzz of central London.

She’d worked during the post-war years as a medical secretary for some of London’s top specialists in Harley and Wimpole Streets. There, she met an array of well-known and wealthy patients. Arab oil magnates bearing gifts of mangoes and perfume, and British royalty – the likes of Wallis Simpson, the American socialite and divorcee who married King Edward VIII, forcing him to abdicate. I still have a ghoulish souvenir from my mother’s working days – a labelled white envelope containing Lord Mountbatten’s stitches from carpal tunnel surgery.

Mum joined the British navy under the Red Cross-trained Navy VAD (Voluntary Aid Detachment) during the war, while my father was a major in the army and later had a significant role to play in the dramas of Middle East oil politics in the 1950s. His involvement in the Buraimi Oasis oilfield dispute, and Britain’s role in its resolution and the creation of the United Arab Emirates, preoccupied him all his life. He wrote his own fascinating account of events and was paid handsomely not to publish because of the sensitive information it contains.

Despite being surrounded by a rowdy bunch of offspring he kept to himself; a private, quiet and mysterious man. Was he preoccupied with the life, the lives he’d left behind, his four daughters from two previous marriages, not to mention his intense experiences in the Middle East? He died in 2002, aged 84, and it took a few more years before the repercussions of these severances would become evident.

Home near and far

I’ve been reminded of my actual migrant status whenever I’ve left Aotearoa, my beloved spiritual and physical home, for overseas trips or periods to live elsewhere. The United States, England, France, Bangladesh. I’ve yet to apply for citizenship, a long overdue technicality but one with deep, symbolic significance. After 60 years of living here, it is time.

Who can say how life would have turned out if we’d never boarded the Athenic? Or if we’d returned to England? And though I think my mother suffered immensely by being separated from her family and familiar surroundings, she ultimately adapted, thrived and lived a good life until her passing at the age of 96 in 2019. I feel lucky, and unequivocally grateful to my parents for making that life-changing journey.

And if it’s true about the boogie on the deck with Princess Alice, I owe and thank her for initiating my lifelong love of dancing. Alice, I’ve never stopped.

SS Athenic

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