In January 1966 my family arrived in Australia. I was just eight years old. This YouTube video of Castel Felice, the ship that brought us here reminds me of what an important event in my life that was.
I will always think of England as the land of my birth but I know that I’m an Aussie now because when I was asked a few years ago whether I would be barracking for England or Australia to win the Ashes (cricket) Test series I said “Australia” without even stopping to think about it.
That month sailing to Australia from England gave me a lifelong interest in travel and if we hadn’t come nothing in my life would be the same. So thanks Australia and thanks Mum.
December 23rd 1965. I am eight years old, my sister is six. Mum wakes us so early it seems like the middle of the night. Sleepily we get dressed while she makes us breakfast but for my sister and I this is not an ordinary day. Today is the day we have talked about for more than a year. Today is the day we go to Australia.
Soon it is time to go. I wear my red winter coat; my sister looks pale in her dark blue one that used to be mine. Uncle Johnny comes to take us to London in his car and we set off in the dark and the fog. We rarely travel by car; he has to stop on the way so that I can be sick.
By the time we get to Waterloo Station I feel better though. I like stations and I want to see the train we are going on. I catch a glimpse of one enormous steam engine but mum and dad are not really in the mood to stand around looking at trains. They have adult things like luggage and tickets to worry about.
The train we are to travel on is the boat train to Southampton. It’s full of other people going to Australia as well. It’s daylight now but grey and miserable outside as we speed through unfamiliar towns and countryside. On the train I discover that the special bar of Galaxy chocolate that I was saving to take with me has been forgotten. I’m disappointed as I’d saved it on purpose. I’d never had Galaxy chocolate before and had been looking forward to trying it.
As we approach the docks mum and dad start talking about the ships they can see. One of them says “There’s the Queen Elizabeth.” I want to see it too because “The Queen Elizabeth Family” is one of my favourite books but I can’t make it out in the jumble of cranes and funnels in the distance.
At the terminal dad kisses us all goodbye. He won’t be making the journey with us. I’m not that upset. Dad goes somewhere to watch the ship’s departure and cries as his family sail away from him but I don’t know this. The adventure is beckoning.
The ship’s name is Castel Felice. We go up the gang-plank the way mum said we would and down to our cabin. It’s on D Deck, it’s tiny and it doesn’t have a porthole. I’m really disappointed about that. I feel cheated that there is no porthole to look out of and then I wonder if we are under the water and that’s why we don’t have one. There are four bunks and a wash basin in the cabin and a kind of closet for our clothes. A young woman comes in, she is to share the cabin with us, she seems very glamorous to me, her name is Pamela. I have one top bunk, Pamela has the other. Mum and my sister have the two lower ones. We meet our cabin steward, an olive-skinned young man with black hair and brown eyes. Like most of the ship’s crew he is Italian. He doesn’t speak a lot of English but he smiles and is friendly.
Later that afternoon the ship sails. Everyone stands on deck to wave to the people on shore. Streamers are thrown but the paper ribbons can’t keep us tied to England. We move off and mum takes us inside to explore the ship. First though there is lifeboat drill and we all stand about wearing cumbersome orange jackets for what seems an age.
Dinner time comes and I’m upset to find out that we are expected to go to the “Children’s Dinner” with all the other children. I don’t like being with a lot of strangers and I don’t like the food much either. Mum puts on a nice dress and wears lipstick to go to the adults’ dinner. She leaves us in our cabin with books and toys and tells us not to worry, she won’t be too long.
When she comes back she puts us to bed in our bunks. By this time the sea is getting rougher and the ship is rocking. Mum says we must be in the Bay of Biscay. I am seasick, my sister is seasick. Pamela comes in and she is seasick too. For the next day and a half mum is kept busy looking after us while feeling seasick herself. The only drink she can get the steward to bring to the cabin is grapefruit juice. It tastes nasty and I rename it “sickfruit juice”.
By Christmas Day we all feel a bit better and mum makes us get up, wash and go on deck to get some fresh air. There is a church service, people are singing Christmas carols; the man with the microphone tells us about some people on a previous voyage who were really good singers . They went to live in a place called Elizabeth. That’s the place we are going to, my grandmother, aunt, uncle and cousins are there and they travelled in this very same ship. My aunty is a good singer so I wonder if she is one of the people the man is talking about. Later there are presents for all the children. My sister gets a pretty doll with long brown hair, a blue pinafore dress and a white blouse with thin red stripes. I get a sewing set. I’m not happy, I got three sewing sets for Christmas from relatives before we left home and I don’t even like sewing.
So that is Christmas 1965. A month later we arrive in Australia to start a new life.