Young, pretty and the image of the migrants Australia wanted to attract, Barbara Porritt was someone special when she arrived in Melbourne on November 8, 1955. She had been named Australia’s one-millionth post-World War II migrant, yet nearly 50 years after her symbolic welcome by the Minister for Immigration, she protests: "I’m not a number ... It’s the million migrants in total that are important."
Married to Dennis Porritt just before her departure from England, Barbara reflected the ideals of Arthur Calwell, Australia’s first Minister for Immigration, who had wanted nine out of every 10 immigrants to be English.
The Department of Immigration was particularly interested in her arrival because it had been using milestones as a focus in its strategy to promote Australia as a destination for migrants. The symbolic figure of the millionth migrant was a major opportunity to sell Australia as a desirable place to emigrate, as well as to convince Australians of the value of the mass migration policy.
Minister for Immigration Harold Holt sent a telegram to Barbara Porritt’s wedding in England:
"On behalf of nine million prospective good neighbours who assure you of a warm welcome to Australia, I send congratulations and good wishes on your marriage. You, Mrs Porritt, have been chosen to carry the title of Australia’s millionth migrant because we see you as a fitting representative of the first million settlers of this period, who have helped build our nation with us and because, with your husband, you typify the kind of migrant we hope will follow you in even greater numbers. May the success and contentment which are yours for the asking in Australia continue enduringly for you the happiness of your wedding day."
Earlier that year, migration appeared for the first time on the agenda of Australia’s Stamp Advisory Committee. This committee had been established to advise the Postmaster-General on stamp subjects, design and artists.
A stamp commemorating migration seemed the perfect accompaniment to the arrival of the millionth migrant, and Melbourne artist Ralph Warner prepared a design depicting two workers supporting a giant "wheel of industry" with the motto Migration: Aid to Progress. Although it had been adopted by the Stamp Advisory Committee, the Postmaster-General, HL Anthony, rejected Warner’s design. Harold Holt rejected the committee’s next recommendation, and the stamp’s release was rescheduled for 1956.
In late September 1955, the Department of Immigration suggested that a public competition be held to obtain designs for a suitable stamp about migration. The competition was announced in December 1955. Designs also were sought from a further 10 artists and designers. About 300 entries were received.
Despite the great response to the competition and much discussion, a stamp addressing migration was never issued. Instead, the Department of Immigration used many of the entries in its touring immigration and citizenship promotional displays.
Now, Australia Post’s Post Master Gallery has brought together many of the original migration stamp designs and other material from the National Philatelic Collection in an exhibition at the Immigration Museum. The exhibition also includes historical photos and letters from artists who submitted stamp designs.
Exhibition curator Elizabeth Gertzakis says the complexity of the theme for the stamp proved too conceptually challenging for the visual and graphic consensus of the day.
"The fact that the stamp remained unissued is partly an indication of its ideological complexity as much as it was due to the problem of delays, the intervention of the Department of Immigration and the rapidly approaching and ultimately dominating theme of the Melbourne Olympic Games."
Meanwhile, the Porritts set about making their new life in Australia. They were received almost as diplomatic ambassadors. A multicultural Pageant of Nations representing 22 countries was held at the Myer Mural Hall and the display windows of Coles, Myer and the State Electricity Commission celebrated their arrival in biographical photo collages. They were given a tour of the Melbourne Cricket Ground, planted trees and placed handprints in cement as guests of the cities of Geelong and Warragul. Pictures of their pre-fabricated house and the Yallourn power stations where Dennis Porritt would be working were featured on Movietone news.
Barbara and Dennis Porritt remained in Newborough, Yallourn, until 1960. Barbara’s experience as the millionth migrant was that of a 21-year-old newlywed in a new and strange place. Regardless of the fanfare, her resettlement experiences were at times as challenging and isolating as those encountered by thousands of other post-war migrants.
In summing up the publicity gained from the arrival of the millionth migrant, Elizabeth Gertzakis says. "It became quickly apparent that the Australian Government could not rely on British emigration and so they turned their attention to Europe. It was European emigration that would eventually fill up the demand for population numbers."
The Millionth Migrant exhibition is at the Immigration Museum until 28 January.
The Millionth Migrant, Picture of a Citizen, Pictures of a Nation. Exhibtion catalogue by Elizabeth Gertzakis, National Philatelic Centre, Australia Post, 1998.
By Helen McDonald
(Reproduced courtesy of the Museum magazine. Museum magazine is the quarterly magazine for Museum Victoria members. For more information about becoming a Museum Victoria member call 03 8341 7755 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.