1952 Riots in Bonegilla migrant camp

Food queue at Bonegilla migrant camp. Image: State Library of Victoria

Post-WWII migrants were temporarily housed in camps, such as a former army camp at Bonegilla. They protested about the living conditions, the strange and poor quality food and their long wait for work. Riots occurred at Bonegilla in 1952 and again in 1961. Sydney chef  Steve Manfredi  remembers “cubes of pastel-coloured vegetables floating in water.” Other writers talk of the over-reliance on mutton and rabbit.

The Commonwealth Immigration Centre, Bonegilla (later renamed the Bonegilla Migrant Reception and Training Centre) was located 10km east of Wodonga in northern Victoria. It was the first and largest of Australia’s migrant camps in the years after World War II. From 1947 to 1971, around 310,000 immigrants spent time at Bonegilla.  There was separate accommodation for men and women and children, with communal dining and washing facilities.

Food was based on army rations, with a repetitious weekly menu. Residents were forbidden from cooking in their quarters and were dependent on what was served from the camp’s kitchens. People had to queue for their food and eat in the communal dining rooms. It seems the Italian immigrants, in particular, found the food objectionable. They complained about the emphasis on mutton, the square white bread “like cardboard”, and coffee from bottled coffee essence.

According to one account, some immigrants used gas burners, hidden between rows of washing, to cook their own food. Others used electric irons turned upside down and propped up between bricks for cooking. Some of the men caught wild rabbits to supplement the institutional diet.

The 1952 riot at Bonegilla was mainly caused by the lack of work for immigrants, but the rioters also protested about the quality of the food. It was called the “spaghetti riot” because Italians emptied plates of (presumably tinned) spaghetti at the door of the camp director’s quarters. After the 1952 riot, Italian cooks were appointed to the Italian sections of the camp, with special supplies of fish, macaroni, spaghetti, salt, tomato puree, olive oil, garlic, and coffee. This caused a certain amount of outrage among “old Australians” and letters to the newspapers showed little sympathy for the plight of the new arrivals.

In the early years at Bonegilla, there was a scandal over the number of infants who died from malnutrition. In 1949, 13 children died and by early the following year, the number had risen to 21. The Federal Government was quick to deny any responsibility for the deaths, blaming shipping agents, parents, and conditions in Europe. Journalists, who had previously been encouraged to write about the new arrivals, were suddenly banned from the camp.

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