With National Heritage listing, Block 19 Bonegilla has become part of the narrative of nation; a must-visit place on any grand tour of historic Australia. A two-metre plinth on site declares the place to be ‘a symbol of post-war migration which transformed Australia’s economy, society and culture’.
Twelve kilometres from Wodonga on Lake Hume, Block 19 was one of 24 similar blocks built in the Bonegilla complex as an army camp during World War 2. It became the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training centre in 1947, and housed migrants until 1971. The original camp covered a 130 hectare area. Its style of accommodation was basic with timber framed, corrugated iron army hut buildings providing staff and migrants with housing, offices and communal kitchen, dining and toilet facilities.
Block 19 is of national significance as a place associated with a defining change in Australia’s immigration policy. Most of the over 300,000 migrants and refugees who passed through Bonegilla were drawn from non-English speaking European countries.
On arrival, migrants were provided temporary accommodation while the government helped them find work. While this assistance was welcomed, people remember Bonegilla differently. They had diverse arrival and settlement experiences. Many migrants recall arriving lonely and confused, thousands of kilometres from home, unsure of where they were going, what they would be doing and where they would be re-settled. The strange sparse countryside people found themselves in when stepping off the train, the anxiety they felt when directed to shared sleeping quarters and showers, and the Australian food being served in the kitchen, all combined to create an often surreal experience. Others saw Bonegilla as a place of hope, symbolic of a new start.
Bonegilla was big. At one time, the reception and training centre could cope with up to 7,700 people and an additional 1,000 in tents, if need be. Generally, there were between 2,000 and 5,000 residents. About 320 people lived in Block 19. Bonegilla had its own churches, banks, sporting fields, cinema, hospital, police station and railway platform. For several years, there were more people in Bonegilla than Wodonga.
For the migrants who spent time at the centre and their descendants, the site and its records are resources for personal, family and group histories. For Wodonga and the region, they provide a backdrop for the rich multicultural fabric of the area. For the broader Australian community, they help represent the role of Australia as the ‘host’ nation. Both the site and its records have powerful connections for many people.