Benalla and the Victorian Heritage Register: Expanding the Boundaries of Migrant Heritage

Throughout the 1950s and into the 1960s, the Department of Immigration and the Department of Labour and National Service administered a system of Reception Centres and Holding Centres to temporarily accommodate newly-arrived European refugees and assisted migrants. The employment allocation, accommodation and movement of theses migrants were controlled under the terms of a two-year work contract with the Australian Commonwealth. Ex-residents have variously described their accommodation as ‘camps’ (reminiscent of the refugee camp, or even labour camps, in which many post-war refugees were imprisoned), hostels, ‘holding’ centres, accommodation huts, or reception sites.

In recent decades, these sites of temporary accommodation have garnered heritage recognition—Bonegilla in north-eastern Victoria being the most prominent among them. In this case, they operate as part of an authorised heritage discourse in which the successes of the post-war immigration scheme and the social mobility of post-war European migrants are lauded as a result of harmonious multiculturalism and government foresight. In increasingly vocal subaltern discourses, this narrative is challenged by alternative migration stories and settlement stories. The camp, centre or hostel is remembered as a place of containment and government control, of shame and deprivation, but also, in an ironic twist, a place that offered sanctuary and community, especially for children, away from the assimilationist pressures of mainstream Anglo-Australian society.

Most centres were in remote locations and made use of former military training camps. Holding Centres, primarily for a male breadwinner’s dependents (women and children) were often out of sight and out of mind. This was the case for Benalla Holding Centre, which was unique in housing primarily single or widowed women with children. So-called ‘unsupported women’ were required to work under the conditions of their two-year work contract with the Commonwealth government; this was a condition of their assisted passage to Australia. Benalla was seen as a solution to their structural inability to afford housing and child care, and find work outside of the centre system. Described by government officials and centre staff as ‘problem cases’, single mothers were shunted to Benalla to find work in the two nearby factories—Renold Chains and La Toof and Calil Clothing. The only long-term structural solution to their predicament, argued social workers, was marriage.

In the context of a severe house-shortage, the camps were intended to operate as ‘temporary’ settlement for new arrivals—a stepping stone to a more permanent ‘family’ home, which was the stance of Department officials and social workers. However, they too became homes for many—especially the Holding Centres that housed ‘dependents’ and unsupported women, who stayed beyond their contracted two years. A number of families stayed for up to fifteen years, during which they continued to pay a tariff for their accommodation. They became family spaces of settlement for those who had shared experiences of war, displacement and exile.

From 1949 to 1967, over 60 000 passed through Benalla centre; a substantial long-term population lived in the camp for years. Many women were never able to save enough money to escape the hostel system, and chose to remain and raise their children within Benalla.

Benalla’s public history has now been revived through the efforts of former child migrants, who have campaigned to have the remaining huts marked as part of an authorised heritage discourse and listed on the Victorian Heritage Register. They are motivated by a desire to publicly remember the trials of their mothers, single working migrant women. Accordingly, many are also motivated by a sense of exclusion and injustice. However, not all the stories they voice are negative, although they do have the potential to challenge existing notions of post-war migrant ‘welcome’. Their stories about Benalla also challenge the image of migrant centres as transient places. These were places of settlement for many—in which they spent their childhoods and teenage years. The heritage that ex-residents now hope to create out of the remaining huts is a tricky task: they must sift through the site’s associated (and conflicting) meanings of settlement, assimilation, sanctuary and community living, mainstream rejection, structural discrimination, and control and containment.

In July 2015, the Executive Director of Heritage Victoria (the body which administers the list) recommended against including Benalla on the VHR. In the report in which he made this recommendation, there was little attention given to the current context of migrant heritage (the lack of heritage places associated with migration that appear on the VHR) and those invested in it, the particular significance and function of Benalla, or the gendered dimensions of the post-war migrant experience. Also, no representative of Heritage Victoria visited the site or surrounding area, nor did they speak with the community or those associated with the onsite exhibition, most of whom are former residents.

On the 10th and 11th of February 2016, former residents presented evidence at a hearing for the site’s inclusion on the Victorian Heritage Register (VHR). The hearing was held onsite, at Benalla, and was attended by over 100 former residents and their families. They explicitly opposed the Executive Director’s previous recommendations. In response, in late 2016, the Heritage Victoria Committee determined that the remaining remnants of Benalla ‘is of cultural significance and should be included in the Heritage Register’. The Executive Director had previously argued that ‘other more intact sites, namely Block 19 at the former Bonegilla Migrant Camp and the former Maribyrnong Migrant Hostel, more clearly demonstrate the associations with post-war migration than the Place and are already included in the VHR’. All former residents offering testimony explicitly disagreed with this assessment of Benalla’s significance, many choosing to relate their family histories and honour their mother’s stories to elucidate the unique function of Benalla in receiving and housing working mothers and their children, who had been marginalised from mainstream society.

They argued that Benalla’s role in accommodating unsupported women and children is not currently represented in the VHR. In response, and in acknowledgement of their attempts to offer alternative narratives to the existing discussions around post-war migrant heritage, the report conceded: ‘The Committee accepts the arguments put by Dr Pennay and other objecting submitters that the Place served a purpose which significantly differed from that of either Bonegilla or Maribyrnong’. However, comments on Benalla’s ‘special role in the accommodation of unsupported women and their children’ appear only as a ‘qualifier’, rather than the central reason for which the site was listed. Benalla’s ability to fulfil criterion A clinched its listing, namely its association to a phase ‘of great significance to the course and pattern of Victoria’s history’, which is ‘evident in the physical fabric of the Place and through the oral histories and documentary resources’. The Statement of Significance also underplays the prominence of women’s stories to this history. Benalla appears as significant because of its function within a system, ‘an example of one of only a small number of surviving centres which had been part of a network of camps that were established and used to accommodate migrants throughout Victoria and Australia’. The stories of the amorphously labelled  ‘vulnerable groups’ that Benalla housed are not mentioned.

Nonetheless, in pushing against the boundaries of established heritage discourses while attempting to work within their wider frameworks, former residents’ inevitable challenge to the obvious limits of Victorian heritage assessments, particularly the exclusion of migrant heritage and women’s history,  did appear in some form in the final report.

Benalla is an illuminating case study for tracing the interplay between mutual or conflicting definitions of official and unofficial heritage–one of the aims of the ‘Making Migrant Heritage’ project. In honouring their mothers’ struggles, as working migrant women, they are challenging and subverting accepted narratives about post-war migration and post-war migrants. As ‘problem cases’, their mothers were considered unlikely to make a contribution to the workforce or society, and were rendered wholly invisible when shunted to Benalla. Their children’s current insistence that this place contains important family histories and even epic stories of survival, works to undo that long-standing silence surrounding Benalla.

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Small snippets of this blog will appear in an article entitled ‘”It was just you and your child’: single migrant mothers, generational storytelling, and Australia’s migrant heritage'” for Memory Studies Journal (October 2022 15.4 issue, and online in early 2018).

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