The John Oxley Library recently received an interesting collection created by English emigrant, Dilys Mary Birbeck, who travelled from England to Sydney, with her husband and two small daughters, by flying boat in 1948.
The flying boat service between England and Australia began in 1938 when large luxury flying boats began to operate a thrice weekly service between Rose Bay, Sydney, and Southampton, England. The trip took 10 days, instead of 40 days by sea, and involved nine overnight stops in luxury hotels or specially built accomodation. In addition there were 20 stops for refuelling. Most stops were coastal stopovers near cities and towns such as Singapore, Rangoon and Athens. Travel on these Empire Flying Boats was the height of luxury and the cost of a one way ticket was £200, which was an average year’s wage at the time. These were the first planes to offer reclining seats and to include an in-flight service of food and drinks.
The service was interrupted by World War II when more than half the Qantas fleet was commissioned for war service by the Australian Government. In May 1946 the United Kingdom/Australia route was re-established and consolidated the position of the “Kangaroo” service as a world trunk air route. In 1949 the flying boat service ceased operation when the route was taken over by the speedier Lockheed Constellations. These modern airliners could fly from Sydney, via Singapore, to London in just four days.
The Birbeck family from Burnley in Lancashire, England, emigrated to Australia for the climate and the chance of a better quality of life. The route, as outlined by Dilys Birbeck in her hand-written itinerary, started at Southhampton and then proceeded to Port Augusta in Sicily, Egypt, Iran, Saudi Arabia, India, Burma, Singapore, Sourabaya in Indonesia, Darwin, Bowen in Queensland, and then on to the final destination of Sydney. The collection includes maps of the route.
Joyce Birbeck, who was six at the time, remembers that the passengers consisted of “our family, including nine month old baby Susan, and seventeen businessmen. We were joined by four Greek women who had all their possessions tied in a red scarf bundle and an Italian girl of nineteen. She was going to Western Australia as a ‘proxy’ bride and had yet to meet her husband-to-be. My father calmed her when she was nervous as he had learnt to speak Italian in his war service years”.
The sea plane eventually reached Australia and landed in Bowen, Queensland, at midnight to refuel. Joy writes in her reminiscences,which are included in the collection, that “At this point my mother broke down in tears, she cried and cried. Coming from England with little towns and villages scattered about, the flight across hundreds of miles with no human habitation, just miles of bushland, was quite overwhelming”. After arriving in Sydney the family were photographed by the local press and five days later took a train to Brisbane. Within four weeks they had purchased a small run-down poultry farm at Deagon on the northern outskirts of the town. The children attended Sandgate State School and the family thrived. In 1952, after the birth of their son John, they moved to a 4 acre farm on the edge of Zillmere and built up the land as a poultry and small crops farm.
The collection includes a fascinating array of material, including a coloured postcard of the sea plane, photographs of the pyramids and Cairo in Egypt, the provisional route map of the trip from England to Australia, flight information, night stop arrangement booklets, passenger arrangements, the itinerary and a certificate for crossing the equator which was presented to passengers, just as if they had made the passage by ship. Also included are snapshots of the Birbeck family in Australia and a detailed account of the trip and their life in Australia by Joyce Birbeck.
The Dilys Mary Birbeck Collection is available at the John Oxley Library, Accession No. 19653, Box 18286 O/S grey album.
Lynn Meyers, Original Materials Librarian