Isobel and the koala
Our new exhibition, The Gift, looks at immigration and the gifts that new migrants both give and receive when they arrive in Australia. The Gift features a very special museum object, a toy koala that was given to six-year-old Isobel Saxelby when she was selected as the 100,000th British migrant by Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell on her arrival in Australia in 1949.
Isobel’s story of travel to Australia, and her life afterwards, beautifully illustrates many of the themes, of giving and receiving, that are part of The Gift. In 1949 Isobel was, as she describes herself, ‘a young girl from Scotland with red hair and tight curls and freckles’ embarking on a big adventure with her parents and her brothers, Roger and Henry. It was towards the end of their four-week voyage from Glasgow that Isobel was told she had been selected as the 100,000th British migrant by the Australian Immigration Department. Isobel was excited, although not really understanding what would be involved.
When the Saxelbys reached Perth Isobel and her family were met and taken on a tour of the city. Then in Melbourne, where they ended their voyage, they were piped off the ship by the Caledonian Society and met by Arthur Calwell and a posse of reporters. Isobel says ‘I was very excited and thrilled with the stuffed koala and Australia in Pictures book presented to me by Arthur Calwell. I treasured the koala [nicknamed ‘Kookie’]…’ She also received a doll (with tartan ribbon, to remind her of home) and a spray of wattle, a symbol of her new homeland. Calwell kissed her on the cheek and, in front of the amassed media, welcomed her to Australia.
After the excitement of their arrival the Saxelby’s new home was a disappointment. Isobel’s father, James, found work with the State Electricity Commission in Yallourn, and the family lived in what they described as a leaky and cold ‘converted cowshed’, for several months. Eventually they moved to a housing commission home in Moe, Isobel attended school and eventually learned shorthand and typing. After some years she married another Scottish migrant, Frank Smith, who had come to Australia as a nine-year-old. Frank and Isobel returned to Scotland for a working holiday after their wedding, staying there for two years. They never intended to stay – Isobel said ‘we always considered [Australia] our home, even when we were living in the country of our birth amid the accents of our forefathers.’
Frank and Isobel stayed in country Victoria, raising their two daughters and contributing to their communities in a variety of ways. Isobel has remained grateful for her immigration experience, saying ‘My Mum and Dad have long since passed, but we regularly think of them and thank them for bringing us to Australia. They would be very proud at how the family turned out with the new opportunities they were given here in Australia … Australia is our home and we love it.’
The Gift, which incorporates artwork relating to Holocaust survivors, as well as Isobel’s koala, will be on display until mid 2018.