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Conscription 1916: Who were the Maltese ‘children of Billy Hughes’?

  • Written byDr Barry York
  • DateFri, 28 Oct 2016

The Maltese ‘children of Billy Hughes’ were a group of 214 Maltese migrants who arrived during Australia’s conscription plebiscite campaign a century ago.

The children were deemed to be prohibited immigrants under section 3(a) of the Immigration (Restriction) Act after failing a dictation test in the Dutch language. They are remembered in Maltese communities as it-tfal ta Billy Hughes, ‘Billy Hughes’ children’.

To the opponents of William Morris Hughes, like Eddie Ward MP, Hughes thereafter became William ‘Maltese’ Hughes.

The 214 Maltese male labourers travelled on the French ship, ‘Gange’, and, unfortunately for them, the ship was due to arrive in Melbourne around 28th October 1916, the day of the plebiscite. Being Maltese, they were British subjects by birth and most had served at Lemnos, Mudros and Gallipoli.

During the First World War, Malta was ‘the nurse of the Mediterranean’. With its hospitals full, Maltese authorities converted many public buildings on the tiny island into hospitals. About 80,000 wounded were cared for by the Maltese, many of them Anzacs, and there was favourable feeling toward them on the part of returned servicemen. It should be noted that Malta’s population at that time was 212,000. (Malta is small. It can fit 300 times into Tasmania).

The gratitude of soldiers who recuperated at Malta was summed up by this telegram: ‘Wounded in foot, am in heaven in Malta’. But back then, as sometimes still happens today, the exclusion of people who would make fine settlers was accompanied by exaggerated and hysterical claims.

During the plebiscite campaign, the anti-conscription Labor parliamentarians and trade union leaders argued that the capitalists planned to replace Australian workers conscripted for overseas with cheap imported labour. The Maltese were called ‘coloured job jumpers’.

The fact that the Maltese in Australia numbered less than a thousand at that time did not deter talk of a Maltese invasion. The Australian Workers’ Union declared that the Maltese were a ‘black menace’ and a meeting at Inverell was panicked by the rumour that four thousand had just landed and were sneaking in via Coffs Harbour.

Many years later in his memoir, I Remember (1956), anti-conscriptionist Jack Lang stated that the arrival of the ‘Gange’ was just the evidence the ‘No’ case needed.

Prime Minister Hughes, an ardent advocate for a ‘yes’ vote, did not want the ‘Gange’ to disembark its passengers and relied on the ‘dictation test’ provision of the Immigration (Restriction) Act to keep them out. Section 3(a) meant that immigration officers could declare any new arrival a prohibited immigrant if they failed a dictation test of 50 words in any European language.

Originally meant to exclude Chinese and other ‘coloured’ people, Section 3(a) had occasional political application, such as the (in)famous case of Czech communist Egon Kisch in 1934 who was tested in Scottish Gaelic.

The Maltese were tested in the Dutch language, by a professor from Melbourne University. A Maltese priest, Father William Bonnet, was allowed onto the vessel when it reached Sydney and spoke with the prohibited men. Outraged by the injustice and the sheer dishonesty, he wrote to Governor-General Munro-Fergusson, about what had happened.

In researching my book, Empire and Race: the Maltese in Australia 1881 to 1949, I came across a document from the Colonial Office in London on which an officer had scrawled the words: ‘An act of treachery, worthy of the Germans!’

As the ‘Gange’ was a French ship, the excluded men ended up at its destination, Noumea. They languished there for more than three months, with their families back in Malta in acute poverty. However, public pressure from ex-servicemen and pro-Empire groups like the Millions Club secured their return to Sydney toward the end of February 1917.

But the ordeal was not over for Hughes ‘children’. On return to Sydney, they were detained on an old hulk, the ‘Anglian’, in Berry’s Bay, for a fortnight before being released gradually in groups. All were freed by 12 March 1917.

Maltese migrants have a reputation as hard workers and Billy Hughes’ ‘children’ went on to help construct the Burrinjuck dam and the rail extensions in northern New South Wales. Another lot were recruited to the Mt Lyell mines in Tasmania. As in the 1950s, Southern Europeans did much of the ‘dirty work’, the harsh manual jobs.

In 1989, I recorded an oral history interview with Emmanuel Attard, one of the last surviving passengers. In the following excerpt from the interview, he describes the voyage and a burial at sea.

Excerpt of interview with Emmanuel Attard


Dr Barry York was a historian at MoAD.