Norah Elliott (b.1903): Migration, Immigration & Emigration – Writing Lives

Norah Elliott (b.1903): Migration, Immigration & Emigration

“In 1938 feeling that life was getting too complicated I went to the League and started to arrange an exchange to Victoria for the end of the 1938 summer term”

Even though Norah lived in Australia for four years of her life, she doesn’t talk about it in her memoir. She includes her life leading up to Australia and the journey there, but not her actual experience of migration. However, I feel it necessary to discuss as she often comments on the fast-approaching Second World War as she sails away from her own country. Also, thanks to Norah’s comments on her emigration, we have a first-hand experience of an English migrant ahead of World War Two.

“It was about this time that war with Germany seemed imminent… I applied to go on exchange to N.S.W [New South Wales] instead of Victoria.”

After attempting and failing to organise an exchange to Victoria (due to national disagreements) it is the fast approach of the Second World War that encourages Norah to emigrate. Before leaving for New South Wales, Norah and her friend ‘went to A.R.P classes (Air raid precautions) these were to train wardens.’ She remembers how ‘trenches were dug and air raid shelters erected’ and even recalls thinking: ‘”I’m damned if I’m going to let Hitler stop me from going to Australia even if I get torpedoed on the way”‘. And Norah is not alone in her migration to Australia. Another working-class woman Winifred Till also made the move from ‘suffocating’ Britain to the ‘wide open spaces’ of Australia. (Graham, 2016).

Norah was headed for Parramatta, and boarded the Esperance Bay, at a cost of less than £100, in Southampton on July 31st 1939, two months before the declaration of World War 2. Norah remarks that ‘there was a large number of German speaking refugees on board, some from Germany, others from Czechoslavakia. Hungary; mostly Jews’. Clearly, many of these people were escaping the terrors of Hitler’s ideology and regime.

“I didn’t really grasp what it meant; the portholes were blacked out, canvas doors were erected from the rooms opening on to the decks and smoking on deck at night was forbidden.”

Upon getting close enough to Australia to pick up the radio broadcasts, Norah heard the report that announced England’s declaration of war on Germany. She remembers how ‘there was a wide staircase leading down to the lower deck when [she] was: the staircase, the lower deck and the upper deck were all crowded with people, no sound from anyone as the announcement was made and the hush continued as the people dispersed.’ Her comments on war are few and far in between but we get a sense of worry from Norah, even though she has escaped the horrors of World War 2 England.

Jonathan Bolton notes that ‘the mid-term autobigraphies of the Second World War differ vastly from the nostalgic accounts of public school often found in generational or autodiegetic narratives’ (Bolton, 2006, 166). Norah’s memoir is typical of this ‘autodiegetic narrative’, meaning the narrator is the protagonist. This is the very reason why Norah doesn’t completely focus on the war, unlike autobiographers such as Percy Vere and Jack Lanigan whose memoirs are particularly focused on the war.

Norah’s experiences of migration and war are knitted together in her memoir. Whilst she doesn’t give a great deal of detail about her experience, we know that she was affected by war, and responded to it by emigrating to Australia. Sadly, her memoir ends as she reaches Australia and concluding her narrative, she confesses: ‘I could not understand the logic of my assignment’.

Works Cited

Bolton, Jonathan. ‘Mid-term Autobiography and the Second World War’. Journal of Modern Literature. Vol 30.1. (Autumn 2006) 155-172.

Elliott, Norah. ‘Untitled’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography. Ed. John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall. Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989 (3 Vols) Nb. 2:242. Available at

Graham, Victoria. ‘Winifred Till: Migration, Immigration, Emigration’. January 16th 2016. Web. Accessed 19th April 2017. 

‘Norah Elliott’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 2:242

Till, Winifred. ‘The Early Years of a Victorian Grandmother’. The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography. Ed. John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall. Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989 (3 Vols) Nb. 2:763.

Images Cited

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