Smithfield, when the migrant hostel opened, was an isolated rural area. It took about an hour by train to get to Adelaide city centre. Apart from the migrant hostel there were some railway cottages and farm buildings, and not much else.
Smithfield migrant hostel was located in the former army ordnance depot near the Smithfield Railway Station, army buildings of wood and corrugated iron were converted to sleeping huts. Six of the buildings with verandahs over a metre off the ground posed safety concerns for families with children living at Smithfield. The verandahs were supported on brick piers with wooden steps at each end. In 1950 some improvements were made, including replacing tar paper lining in huts and installing better doors. There were at least 11 sleeping huts by 1956. Families were allocated huts or sections with up to three bedrooms and a sitting room. Separate 'ablution huts' provided communal showers and toilets. Dining and laundry facilities were also communal. Staff had separate quarters. Other buildings on site were used for administration and storage.
After we’d been there a while Mum and Dad dug one or two little flower beds, they must have been quite narrow, and I remember they planted carnations. I guess carnations were about the only plant they thought would be hardy enough to survive there … it would have been poor soil. And then when it came to a community dance, I think [it was] arranged through the school … I was able to take in a couple of large bunches of carnations and that really surprised the staff. Helene Mole (formerly Trejtnar) Smithfield hostel, early 1950s
In early 1949 Smithfield housed between 40 and 50 Displaced Persons from Europe. It appears that initially the residents were all men, working at places including Holden's Woodville Plant and the Perry Engineering Works. The Advertiser described Smithfield as a 'Camp for Balts' and reported improvements underway to expand the capacity so that the hostel would hold 800 people. It is not clear from the records whether numbers ever reached this level, but by late 1949 there were between 300 and 480 people living at the site. Rent was £2/12/6 a week. By this time residents included women and married couples.
By 1951 there were reports of British migrants living at Smithfield. During this time there was an active association with the Gawler Caledonian society. Also in 1951 the Gawler Girl Guides started a company at Smithfield hostel. Smithfield residents joined the rent strikes in June 1951. At the end of 1952 about 200 British migrants were moved to Gepps Cross, Rosewater and Finsbury. In 1953 the site was returned to the Department of the Army, however in 1955 British migrants were again housed at Smithfield. Children attended the Smithfield primary school. A social committee of British migrants was formed at Smithfield in July 1955. The Salisbury Good Neighbour Council and Christian Women's Association welcomed migrants, visited and arranged social activities. These and other groups, including the religious organisation Toc H, were active at Smithfield until the early 1970s when numbers dropped. The hostel officially closed in 1971.
By Dr Karen Agutter, the University of Adelaide, & Catherine Manning, Migration Museum
This entry was first published in the Hostel Stories: Migrant Lives exhibition at the Migration Museum (2013-2014), and appears here lightly edited and reformatted. It is based on research undertaken by the University of Adelaide supported by a Linkage Grant from the Australian Research Council (LP120100553) in partnership with the Migration Museum and a range of community partners.
Dr Karen Agutter, the University of Adelaide, & Catherine Manning, Migration Museum, ‘Smithfield Migrant Hostel’, SA History Hub, History Trust of South Australia, https://sahistoryhub.history.sa.gov.au/places/smithfield-migrant-hostel, accessed 5 December 2023.