In 1967 Glenelg was awarded Commonwealth Government ‘Hostel of the Year’. This was a far cry from the position in 1951, when an inspection revealed unsatisfactory conditions including a dirty kitchen and bathrooms, broken glass throughout the site and an area that gave ‘the impression of abandon'.
Officially referred to as Glenelg North, the hostel off Warren Avenue had the advantage of being close to existing suburbs and shops. Residents were able to access public transport and visit the beach or the local cinema. Many children from the hostel attended the St Leonards Primary School.
Buildings from the old Royal Australian Air Force station at Port Pirie were recycled to establish the hostel, and the site was in operation from late 1949. In early 1950 the manager was still sleeping in a partitioned area off the dining room and staff were housed in dormitories while they waited for quarters to be built.
By March 1950 a second stage of building was approved, and some existing structures were altered to bring them into line with newly-established standards for Commonwealth hostels around Australia. Nissen huts were still being built well into 1951 when The Advertiser reported on progress, recording that migrants would move into new buildings ‘almost as soon as the paint is dry’. The completed hostel was to have the capacity to house 800 people, though numbers may never have reached that level.
If it was nice weather, especially in the summer, we’d go down to Glenelg North, to the beach. Mum was working, so then there would be other young girls in the hostel, who we used to meet, and there was a communal place, where we used to play. They used to have dances or play table tennis; I played table tennis every night. There would be movies, the old black and white, real old movies, open air. It was nice. And then we used to get together and just sit there and sing our German pop songs. Barbara Reis, Glenelg hostel 1955, interviewed 2013
In March 1953 Dutch migrants protested against conditions at the hostel, and later the same year police were called to the hostel when ‘European’ migrants threatened to pull down the recreation room after they were refused permission to hold a meeting there protesting against hostel rent levels. Glenelg hostel residents received the support of the Federal British Migrants Welfare Association, and the British Migrants Association, as British migrants joined the protests and rent strikes continued across Australian hostels.
Improvements continued throughout the 1950s, and Glenelg was eventually compared favourably to other migrant hostels by many residents. By the mid 1960s there had been a number of upgrades to buildings and infrastructure, and gardens had been planted. Glenelg also had a shop on site, which became a gathering place for a number of the single men.
In 1971 any residents who were not able to find private accommodation were transferred to Pennington hostel. Today one last Nissen hut remains on the site.
The first residents at the Glenelg hostel were predominantly Displaced Persons from Europe, with a number of people moved to Glenelg after Pennington was designated a British migrant hostel. Those housed at Glenelg expanded to include people from a range of European countries, including British migrants.
Families were living at Glenelg by 1953. Children attending St Leonard’s Primary School were a new challenge for teachers, who made special efforts to work with children learning English for the first time. A small number of children also attended St Mary’s Catholic School.
The Good Neighbour Council formed a Glenelg branch in 1950, and organised English lessons, socials, film evenings, concerts and special events for hostel residents. Christmas celebrations included presents from Father Christmas for children at the hostel.
A youth club formed at the hostel and organisations including the YWCA were active on site. Religious services were conducted by a number of different churches.
Throughout its lifetime it appears that the main appeal of the Glenelg hostel was that it was less isolated than many of the other migrant hostels, and this meant that residents had an earlier introduction to the wider community and could be more independent in exploring their new surroundings. People remember the social life of the hostel fondly, and there are several stories of lifelong friendships formed in the hostel.