Finsbury / Pennington

Finsbury, later known as Pennington, was the longest running of South Australia's hostels. In 1985 communal living facilities were closed, Nissen huts were dismantled, and the ‘new Pennington’ began the transition to independent family units. 

Location: Near Main Junction Road in Finsbury North (now Grand Junction Road in Pennington), adjacent to Glenroy Street.

Years operated: Finsbury 1949-1966, renamed Pennington 1966-mid 1990s

Administered by: Commonwealth Government

Place: 'Purpose built' to house migrants, Finsbury was made up of huts constructed on site out of galvanised iron and corrugated asbestos, Nissen huts and Romney huts from England, and Quonset huts from Manus Island. These military buildings were used due to the acute shortage of building materials.

The site was divided into five sections, each with a capacity of 400, which opened at different times depending on demand. People were allocated sections of the huts, divided to create something like flats. Rooms were simply furnished. There were communal buildings for toilets, showers, laundry and dining, and large Nissen huts were also used for recreational activities such as dances, sporting activities and film nights. 

The hostel was renamed Pennington in 1966 due to a change in postal boundaries. In 1980 it was referred to as the Pennington Migrant Centre. While Pennington hostel officially closed in 1985, and staffing structures and services changed at this time, the site continued to house newly arrived migrants into the 1990s. During this time, communal living facilities were closed and self-contained family units were built. The old accomodation huts were gradually closed as more units were built. 

In October 2013 the City of Charles Sturt officially re-opened the Pennington Gardens Reserve on the site of the former hostel. 


We had a bed/settee, for the wife and I, and the children had little single beds each, little steel beds they were. They had a wardrobe, a little narrow wardrobe in each of the rooms and the first thing we bought, as every migrant did I think, was a Sunbeam frypan and a fan, and then we got a kerosene heater …

Jim Rowe, Finsbury hostel 1958-1961, interviewed 2013


People: Finsbury, later Pennington, was home to people from a range of countries during its long life. Residents included Displaced Persons (DPs) from a variety of European countries, assisted migrants from Britain and Europe, European refugees (such as those fleeing Hungary in the late 1950s and Czechoslovakia in the late 1960s), South American refugees,  Indo-Chinese refugees (from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia), and refugees from the Middle East and East Timor. 

The hostel was also used at times to accommodate people other than migrants, such as evacuees after Cyclone Tracy in Darwin, Defence employees, apprentices working at local businesses, a visiting Aboriginal football team, and the South Australian Police Rifle Club. 

The vast majority of residents, however, were migrants. There was a busy social life at the hostel, including sporting events, youth clubs, dances, and films. Various community groups were active at Finsbury or Pennington, including the Good Neighbour Council, Country Women's Association, Young Men's Christian Association, Young Women's Christian Association, Girl Guides, Scouts, a variety of religious organisations including Toc H, and, in the 1970s, the South Australian Red Cross and Indo-China Refugee Association. 

Those administering the hostel faced numerous challenges. The first group accommodated were all men, Displaced Persons sent to South Australia from Bonegilla in Victoria. Almost immediately there were reports of the men asking for their wives and children to be sent to join them. In 1951 the Government attempted to move Displaced Persons out of Finsbury to make room for British migrants. The residents protested, sending representatives to Melbourne to plead their case. Later in 1951 British migrants complained about food and conditions, and many refused to pay extra charges. This led to rent strikes in 1952. The dispute dragged on into 1953 when the media reported several families returning to Britain. Tensions over other issues occasionally came to a head, with thefts, violence and property damage reported intermittently in the newspapers. In the 1970s hostel management also clashed with the Indo-China Refugee Association, evicting them from an onsite office. 

Despite these ongoing issues, Pennington was also a first home, a meeting place, and a hive of social activity. It was home to some famous South Australians, including former Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Lieutenant Governor of South Australia Mr Hieu Van Le.

The following is a starting point for material related to the Finsbury/Pennington hostel. Much of the information that appears on this webpage is based on archival research undertaken by Dr Karen Agutter and Daniella Pilla, and from interviews with Finsbury/Pennington hostel residents. The oral history interviews will be available at the State Library of South Australia once the Hostel Stories project is completed.The West Australian, 9 April 1949, 'Big building plans for migrants'The Advertiser, 20 December 1950, 'Finsbury hostel for UK migrants'The Advertiser, 6 April 1951, 'Nissen-type huts for Finsbury hostel'The Advertiser, 23 July 1953, 'Complaint by migrant denied'The Advertiser, 11 December 1954, 'Migrants to have bright Christmas'The Advertiser, 15 December 1954, 'Christmas parties for new Australians'


I was lucky. I came with my family,  (mum) Peggy Coburn, (dad) Richard (Dick), Verna, (sis), Mark (bro). and it was March, so we had a long time to acclimatise. I would not have liked to have been in one of those huts in high summer. Our parents are not with us, but siblings still here. I have never been back to UK. I am 68yrs now, I am an Adelaidean through and through. I have had a very eventful life here, and I thank my parents for having the foresight to make the move from a 'land fit for heroes'. We had complaints, but we changed our situation ourselves, which was easy to do thanks to 'The Good Neighbour Council', who couldn't have done enough for us. Homesickness is a state of mind, and I realise some sensitive people are unable to change to being tougher. This is not a critisism, I feel for them. I was given the opportunity of a lifetime, and took it, not knowingly I might add. In closing, if I could be someone else, I would be Italian:). Thanks to the hardworking guys at the Migration Museum, our stories are told. There is enough room in this country for all 'boat people'. I was a 'plane people' my wife was a 'boat people'. Lets look after them like the Aussies looked after me and my family. 'All you need is love'cheersRick
Thanks for your reflections Rick,and thanks for taking part in the project. It's been really great to have so many people fill out our registration form, including the questionnaire, so we can draw on those stories to compare and contrast all the different experiences. 
I was at Pennington hostel with my parents Mary and jack we came in April 1954 of the ss Stratheden with the Cruise, mearns and kelsall family we later moved to Mt Gambier we went to Findon primary school for a short time too 
Thanks Pauline, lovely to hear your reflections. Do you remember much about Pennington?
We came to Pennington Hostel in 1971 as 10 pound poms on the plane. we landed in October and it was about 42 degrees. we spent the summner in these sheds. I was 7, I remember my mum and dad sleeping on a bed settee in the lounge room and my sister and I in one room and my brother in another. As children it was an adventure playing around in the drains and meeting other kids. For my poor mum who was pregnant at the time and so sick it was a nightmare. My dad brought us out here for a better ife and we truly have had an amazing life.
Thanks for your reflections Eunice, fantastic to read them. Apologies for the slow reply, we've had some issues with our website notification, now resolved. If you haven't already responded to the research callout we'd love to hear more of your story through our survey form:
We came to Pennington in 1970 not sure of the month , I was 5 at the time ,you have just sent me back 40 years as I too used to play in the drains especially when it rained ,we used to throw our action men in them and chase them though the camp .We may have played together who knows. Still have great memories of Pennington .

In 1966 I was doing exactly the same thing, If it where there today no doubt the same would be occuring. Maybe a phone rather than an Action Man

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Yes, Dan, probably playing Pokemon Go together!

We came to Pennington in 1970 not sure of the month , I was 5 at the time ,you have just sent me back 40 years as I too used to play in the drains especially when it rained ,we used to throw our action men in them and chase them though the camp .We may have played together who knows. Still have great memories of Pennington .
That's wonderful, Mark, thanks for sharing your memories with us.  Have you filled out our online questionaire?  Details above in Catherine's reply.
Landed at the Finsbury Hostel in 1956 along with, Mum Sylvia, Dad Walter, Brothers; Jimmy, Johnny, Stanley and sister Vera.  The best years and the best memories of my life were from that place but unbeknown to us kids, not so for Mum and Dad. Dad worked at the W.R.E. in Salisbury and was sent to work at the Atomic Test Sites in the far North. He died a horrendous most heinous death 20 years later. Is there anybody out there who's Dads worked up there?   
Thanks for sharing that story Walter,Very sad to hear about your dad. We put out a newsletter for people who've registered with our research project. If you like we can put a call out in there for other people who had family members working at the Atomic Test Sites. If you don't already receive the newsletter and would like to you can register through the form here:
I spent the first 6 months of my life at Finsbury from July 1960.  I migrated with my parents Fred and Kathleen Grant and my brothers Alan and Glen.  I was 12 years old when we arrived and I am now 66 and I enjoyed those six months as a child in the hostel.  My father also worked at WRE and went to Woomera but he is still alive turning 95 this year.  Sadly mom passed on about 15 years ago.
Thanks for sharing that Ron, We'd love to know more of your story, if you're willing to share you can fill out our registration form here:
Hi, We departed Tibury onboard the ORONTES on the assisted passenger scheme.  Arrive Aug59 and the next 12 months we lived at Finsbury Hostel in the Nissen Huts.  I remember playing (4.5yrs old + 2 younger sisters) in the drains and filling Mam's yellow ceramic electric kettle and boiling it at the laundry before taking back to our room for her tea.  Dad got a job with department of Works at Woomera, we moved to Port Pirie in Nov1960 before a house became available in Woomera in Dec1963.  As Walter above, dad died and many of his friends didn't make it past 55/60 due to the atomic testing and going in with heavy machinery to clean up.
Hi, We departed Tibury onboard the ORONTES on the assisted passenger scheme.  Arrive Aug59 and the next 12 months we lived at Finsbury Hostel in the Nissen Huts.  I remember playing (4.5yrs old + 2 younger sisters) in the drains and filling Mam's yellow ceramic electric kettle and boiling it at the laundry before taking back to our room for her tea.  Dad got a job with department of Works at Woomera, we moved to Port Pirie in Nov1960 before a house became available in Woomera in Dec1963.  As Walter above, dad died and many of his friends didn't make it past 55/60 due to the atomic testing and going in with heavy machinery to clean up.
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Thanks for sharing your story, Norman.  Have you had a chance to come and see our Hostel Stories exhibition?Also, if you're interested in sharing more, you can fill out our online form, here:
Hi Norman,We have a few things in common.My family arrived at Finsbury, October 59. We travelled out however on TV Fairsky ( Sitmar Line ). My father also went to work at Woomera, looks like our fathers would have been there at the same time.We returned to the U.K in late 61. I loved my time in Adelaide as a boy, became a teenager shortly before we sailed home on S. S. Orontes!RegardsFrank
Thanks for leaving your story here,Have you already filled out one of the registration forms ? The team at the University of Adelaide are keen to hear from as many people as possible for their research, and as I'm sure you'll appreciate it's quite hard for us to speak to people who went back to the UK, and that's a really important part of the story! Would be very much appreciated if you're willing to put more of your thoughts down.Catherine
I am more than happy to share my memories of my time at Finsbury and life in Australia. I will complete the registration process. Since my parents and brother have passed on I am the only surviving family member of our Australian adventure! I have some photographs which I found in the family home of our time in Australia, also a menu for Christmas dinner at Finsbury, either 1959 or 1960, also documents associated with migrating to Australia. I am happy to scan and provide copies if so required,RegardsFrank
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Thanks for that, Frank, I look forward to hearing more - the team will contact you once you've registered.
I came to Adelaide in Feb 1976 and stayed at the Pennington hostel for 2 weeks. I found the transition here very difficult. I remember lots of Timorean refugees were coming in while we were there. Very sad.  I was only 10 when my parents  Don and Carole , and sisters Gillian, Wendy, Sarah arrived here from the UK. I remember it was so very hot and the water tasted horrible! Adelaide is definitely home though now! We have had amazing opportunities here and have had a good life. Forever grateful to my parents for being brave enough to come.  I do still miss parts of England and especially family. (I have been back twice.)  I consider myself Australian.
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Thanks for those memories Sandra, Adelaide water certainly does have a reputation!  Have you registered with the Hostel Stories team online? 

We arrived at Finsbury Migrant Hostel in May 1966 after a one month voyage from Tilbury Docks England aboard the SS Iberia.What a fantastic Holiday we had on our way to a new life in Australia.Then we arrived at Finsbury with feelings  of  disbelieve and distane. I remember my dad saying "WOW! I did not expect this, more like a prison camp than a hostel" Dad also spoke of his interview at Australia House where the Aussie interviewer jokingly ( so my Dad thought at the time) said "It's not you we want it's your kids"

Nonetheless, My mum and dad, my older brother Brendan aged 17, myself turning 12 on the ship and my sibling twins Eileen and Michael aged 10 were: "... bound for South Australia"

We were enrolled at the local schools and soon appreciated the great weather and the long days of sunshine. It was after school one sunny day that myself and brother Mick found a huge blue tongue lizard. I remember Mum scolding us when she found the docile lizard under her bed and my dad laughing so heartily about the whole thing.

I overheard Mum and dad many times wondering if they had made the right descision for us all,and dad saying its not good us here because of the negativity especially from the English migrants.

So Dad bought an old Holden and with two other dads, set of to Melbourne where he found work as a post man. He rented a three bedroom house and sent for us some two weeks later. 

Sadly my mum, dad and Brendan have all passed away, but their legacy lives on in there children, grandchldren and great grandchildren which number 9 grand children  and 4 great grandchildren all of whom are proud Australians.

I am eternally gratful to my parents for there forthsight, courage and determination and in paticular my dad in that he displayed the Australian trait of:" it a go"

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Thankyou for your recollections, it sounds like your parents had the same doubts many did but in the end it turned out well for them.  The blue tongue lizard probably was more scared of your mum than she was of it!

I arrived in Adelaide June 1971 from the U.K with my Mother {Pauline}  Father {Peter}  siblings Julie and Anthony.  This was after a long flight from Heathrow Airport aboard a boeing 707/11.  We had numerous stops Along the way Los Angeles, San Fransisco and Honolulu before arriving in Melbourne, then another flight to Adelaide.  We arrived at the Pennington Hostel where we stayed for 6 months, arriving on the Friday my father had a Job by the Monday.  I remember some of the recreation halls and meeting different people at the hostel, some of which we kept in contact with afterwards.  There was some negativity among other migrants, however my parents insisted they had made the right decision in leaving the U.K and the negativity their in Birmingham behind them.  Some of the conditions at the time seemed a bit rough, also being winter it was cold.  My parents rented a house in Payneham in Albert St, then after time they purchased a home in Port noarlunga South at that time it was country and dirt roads, change somewhat now.  The rest is history, 

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Thanks for your recollections, Richard, it must have been a very exciting (long) trip as a child. 

aI was recently back in Adelaide for a conference and decided to follow up our arrival on 20 May 1965, discovering the Incoming Passenger Cards for my parents and us four kids. We were supposed to disembar k in Melbourne but somehow got put on a plane to Adelaide, ending up at Finsbury Hostel after a very long British Airways Flight BA702. We spent 10-12 months at the hostel before travelling to Melbourne, but I have always wanted to learn more about that rather scary part of our young lives. Was anyone else at Finsbury from 20 May 1965 until early March/April 1966? I remeber being annoyed at the "14th of February 1966' changing 6 pence to 5 cents, since then I got only 5 lollies insted a of six. I had one friend called Gunter Barrio.

William Smith

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Thanks for those memories, William - i too would have felt cheated as a child to get fewer lollies!

my parents George and Agnes scriven and my brother peter and myself came to Australia in 1959 on the Fairsky. Mum Peter and I got off in Fremantle to see mums brother jimmy who owned a post office in WA. Dad continued onto to Melbourne and then travelled back to Finsbury Park Hostel where we joined him after a trip across the Nullarbor on the train. I was 7 and Peter was 4. Mum was horrified when she saw the Nissan huts and the dirt drains. There was a hut for a communal kitchen and huts for the toilets. We walked over a paddock to finsbury park school. Dad got work there but I cant remember where. Both of us kids got sick there and after 6 months there we moved to Queensland where mum had a sister who lived in Hendra in Brisbane. I don't think mum and dad thought much of the conditions at the hostel.  Out are now deceased.but my brother still lives in Brisbane and I live on the Sunshine Coast. I still think of myself as Scottish and have been back quite a few times.  But I still think Australia is a fantastic place and wouldn't live anywhere else. I am sure I have some photos from our finsbury park days. I will look them out sometime. 

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That's great, Denise, thankyou for sharing your memories :-)

I filled out an earlier comment. i should have added that our family of four Chapmans left Tibury in 1954 aboard the Strathaird and returned to England 1956 on the Orsova. At one point during our stay we all ended up in the hospital from different causes. I wish my parents were alive to read about this site as I am sure they would have been interested. Our neighbours were very kind and the Australians we met were also very kind to us.

This brings back a lot of memory, thank you all! Sokken

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you are most welcome :-)

Mum, Dad, my sister Diane and me arrived at Pennington Hostel in 1959. We never knew what hit us. Little tin huts that the furniture sunk into the floor when the weather got very hot, flies, bees, and you couldn't even boil a kettle in those huts for a cup of tea.The showers were communal and had concrete floors. We had to traverse open drains to get to the toilet or shower block and all around the place were dirt paddocks with a few struggling weeds and long dead grass. The locals did not like us because they said we were POMS. They told us to go home and we wished we could. I am now 63 but those days remain vivid in my memory. A few people gave up and went home but we stayed in Australia to make a new life. It wasn't easy, but I now admire my parents for having the guts to leave everything they knew in search of a new and better life for their children.

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Thankyou, Sally, for sharing those memories, it sounds like it was a hard time for all concerned, and some considerable culture shock!

My Mum, Dad, 4 siblings and I arrived at Finsbury Hostel at the end of January 1966. We boarded the Fairsea ship at Southampton after a lengthy train journey down from Manchester. We arrived in Freemantle before continuing our journey to Adelaide. I remember my parents telling me that their original plan was to go to New Zealand but they got knocked back because they had too many kids!!. I remember going to Australia House in Manchester with my parents. I was six years old. The man that interviewed us was blond with tanned skin and he had on a light coloured suit. I actually remember thinking he was a funny colour as I wouldn't have known what tanned was!  The man had a strange way of talking and called me honey and told us collectively we were just what Australia was looking for. On arrival at Finsbury Hostel we were shown our 'hut' Mum and Dad were a bit taken aback, apparently the blurb prior to travelling mentioned we would be fully accommodated, neither my  Mum or Dad expected to live in a shed! I remember my parents had a bed and my sisters cot in the main room and the rest of us slept on iron beds in the other room. It was still summer when we arrived and yes, a fan was a first purchase. We lived in the long shed type accommodation as opposed to the curved Nissan huts. I recalled we all got measles soon after we arrived and my baby sister suffered most. It seemed disease spread quickly through the hostel as we all lived, ate and washed in close proximity. I recall going into the cavernous (well it was to me at six years old) dining room. It was the noise I recall more than anything and the ladies serving the food,they wore uniforms with little hats. We used to have to order our sandwiches for school the night before and collect them in the morning after breakfast. My first taste of baked bean sandwiches!!!

My brother and I were enrolled at Pennington Primary School and  we used to walk along a pathway with a wire fence to the side to get to school. To our young eyes the school looked new and modern. My sister cried because she couldn't come to our school, she had to go in a bubs class as she couldn't start school until she was six, although she was already at school in England.

My father was an aircraft fitter during his National Service and his skill was on the migrant skills list (I believe it was on the list for years) Again, for this reason, he was led to believe jobs would be plentiful in his field. Alas, this was not the case as every time he went to the employment agency he was being pushed to take any work. Very soon he decided that he would find his own job and he went, initially,with two other blokes from the hostel,to Sydney and then on to Melbourne. I remember he was away quite some time. We amused ourselves at the music and baton twirling club and we also used to spend time at the children's park not far from our hut. We would be playing on the roundabout and we could hear all the magpies singing so it must have been early when we went there. People used to come onto the playground and sing! It amazes me now that we were just accepting of everything. They must have been a religious group as they had us singing 'church' songs as we called them. I remember going into Adelaide for my 7th  birthday and my parents bought me a sticky out underskirt! I was delighted as they must have been all the rage at the time.

Thinking back it must have been a worrying time for my parents, they knew that if they didn't find work life would become very difficult. They were not in the enviable position of giving in and going back to Britain as they couldn't afford to pay to go back and they were also aware that if they went back before two years they would also have to pay the cost of being brought out to Australia in the first place. 

Even though my Dad was allocated South Australia it became very clear that the job he had trained for was not going to materialise. He again went off to find a job in another State. He went to Victoria and went to see someone in Melbourne where he had heard there may be jobs. We just continued going to school and enjoying our lives in the hostel. When my Dad came back he told us we would be moving to Moe in Gippsland as he had managed to get a job at Hazelwood power station and even better the job came with a furnished house! I don't recall being upset about leaving, we just did what our parents told us.

My Dad bought a clapped out Holden  (it was so rusty you could see the road beneath our feet!) We left the hostel very early one morning (all seven of us rammed in this car!) and God bless him my Dad drove non stop all the way to Melbourne and afterase staying one night with his cousin we made our way to the start of our next chapter.

We left Australia in 1973 as my Dad had a heart attack, I think at that time he was working 7 days a week and shut down, my Mum was concerned for his health and thought that if anything happened to him she would need the support of her family 11000 thousand miles away. As it happened my Dad did get better but died when he was 70 of early onset alzhiemers. My mother's is still going strong at 78 as are all my siblings.

Corinne Ball's picture

thankyou for sharing that amazing story, It sounds like your parents, particularly your father, worked very hard for your new lives.

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