The distinctive rows of Nissen huts at Gepps Cross provided the image that springs to mind for many South Australians at the mention of migrant hostels. Gepps Cross featured frequently in the press and government promotional material, and is still remembered by many today.
At the time it operated, Gepps Cross hostel was called a 'miniature suburb'. It was ‘purpose built’ using Nissen huts, with some Quonsett huts and other buildings. The hostel was built in two stages, with a third planned stage never built. Each Nissen hut was divided into two self-contained four room flats. Staff had separate accommodation. There were communal toilets, showers, laundry and dining facilities. The kitchens were designed to feed large numbers and built with the latest appliances, including steam-heated soup cookers, pressure cookers, electric mixers, gas ovens and a heated servery. There were crèche facilities, kindergartens, a grocery shop, post office and banking facilities. There was a large recreation hall and on site hospital wards. Gepps Cross was held up as a model hostel with modern facilities and was described in The Advertiser as a 'luxury camp'. Despite this, there were complaints, and Gepps Cross residents joined Finsbury migrants in the rent strikes of 1952. Following this, and the transfer of administration to the state government, there were meetings to discuss installing kitchenettes in the Nissen huts. Residents voted overwhelmingly for the kitchenettes and installation soon began, with the first opening in 1953. Disputes over extra charges, however, continued until 1954. Nothing from the Gepps Cross hostel remains on the site.
There was a very good community spirit, I do remember that. There was a hall there where they would have dances and they’d have talent competitions. It was probably the dining hall, when I think about it. They’d have pictures, I remember the early cartoons and that sort of stuff, Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse. I do remember that it was a very good social life. James Lamb, Gepps Cross 1951, interviewed 2012
Gepps Cross residents were predominantly British, although former residents report people from a diverse range of cultures living at the hostel. In the first year a number of British migrants were transferred from Rosewater, Finsbury and Smithfield, many in response to complaints about accommodation at those sites. By the end of 1951 Gepps Cross was recorded as having a capacity of 1,200 people.
Gepps Cross residents were part of an active, social community. As well as dances and films there were jumble sales, excursions, sporting events with hostel teams competing regularly in local competitions, and celebrations for special occasions such as Christmas and Guy Fawkes night. Residents formed a social committee which published newsletters for hostel residents, keeping them up to date with activities and changes in staff. There were many famous visitors during the life of the hostel, including Prime Minister Menzies and Governor Norrie. Many former residents remember the day Queen Elizabeth passed by the hostel. When plans began in 1963 to close the hostel it was estimated that 2,000 families had passed through Gepps Cross. A group of former residents recorded their stories in the 2006 book Tin Huts and Memories.
Agutter, Dr Karen, research notes, Hostel Stories project, the University of Adelaide
The Advertiser, 22 June 1951, 'New hostel ready soon', p. 5
The Advertiser, 6 February 1953, 'Migrants' Move On Evictions', p. 5
The Advertiser, 23 July 1953, 'Complaint by migrant denied', p. 2
The Advocate, 14 August 1951, 'Migrant Camp '' Wonderful''', p. 2
The Advocate, 9 December 1952, 'Migrant quiz bias denied by minister', p. 3
Lamb, James, 'Interview with Jim Lamb, Sound Recording', Interviewer Catherine Manning, State Library of South Australia, OH 948/16.
Migration Museum, research files, Gepps Cross, Hostel Stories
State Library of South Australia, OH 948, Hostel Stories Oral History Project, JD Somerville Oral History Collection, 2010 - 2017
Turner, Victor Thomas et al. Tin huts and memories: we got our ten pounds worth: the story of Gepps Cross Hostel, (Norwood, South Australia: Peacock Publications, 2006)