Tommy Watson immigrated to Australia from England with his family in 1961 at the age of fourteen. By the time he was twenty-two Tommy had witnessed the worst construction disaster in Australian history. From this experience, Tommy went on to become a leader of the union movement in Australia, rallying for improved worker safety in the construction industry.
Tommy was born in Newcastle, England to a working class family. His father was a boilermaker and his uncles worked in the mines. Tommy recalls living in a house right next to the shipyards where his father worked.
Where we lived in England was right next to the shipyard gate. So when the cranes used to swing around, my bedroom used to go black. The siren in the shipyard used to go for... starting work and finishing work and all that sort of thing. Open the door and you are on the front street.
Tommy remembers early life in England as a struggle. Everyone worked hard, and work was dangerous. Three of his uncles eventually died of asbestosis from the mines, as did his father at the age of fifty-eight. Tommy also lost an uncle to an accident in the mines.
I was with his wife, my mother’s sister. She got married at sixteen and a half. She was seventeen and a half, we’d been shopping in Edinburgh all day, we were standing in a milk bar getting milk to go home and three people in front of us talking about this accident in the pit. Three people had been killed. Mentioned the names and the last name is her husband. So she runs out, leaves me standing in the shop. I was seven or eight.
Tommy’s parents brought he and his little sister out to Australia in 1961 aboard the Fairsea[i], they said, ‘For me and my sister to get a better life, a better life than it was in Great Britain.’
The day my parents arrived they said they were never going back and they never did, which was very surprising. I mean, my father went back when his brothers died and things like that, but they never went back to live.
The Fairsea, one of the ships of the Sitmar Line, was renown for its austere conditions.
We had six weeks on a ship, just like cattle. My father and myself were in a men’s cabin of fourteen men, no shower, no toilet. That was at the end of the corridor. My mother and sister were five decks or four decks above us and they were in a cabin of ten women. So it was just like cattle coming over.
[i] The Fairsea brought many immigrants to Australia after World War II. Originally an American passenger and cargo ship (called the Rio de la Plata), the ship was converted during World War II for use in the Royal Navy (as HMS Charger) and then later in the US Navy as an aircraft carrier (as USS Charger). After the war the flight deck was removed and the ship was used to transport refugees and displaced persons from Europe to Australia (MS Fairsea). The ship was later used to transport those on paid passage, and then assisted immigrants, to Australia.