70 year-old toy koala; a symbol of the gift of immigration

Isobel Saxelby, aged 6, was given gifts including a stuffed koala when she arrived in Australia as the 100,000th post-war British immigrant in 1949.

Isobel Saxelby, aged 6, was given gifts including a stuffed koala when she arrived in Australia as the 100,000th post-war British immigrant in 1949.

Between 1945 and 1955, approximately one million migrants, mainly from Great Britain and Europe, arrived in Australia, championed by Australia's first minister for immigration, Arthur Calwell.

This post-Second World War wave of immigration played a significant role in the social, political and cultural life of Australia.

A very special museum object, a toy koala that was given to six-year-old Isobel Saxelby on her arrival in Australia, in 1949 tells that story.

In August, 1949, Isobel Saxelby was, as she described herself, "a young girl from Scotland with red hair, tight curls and freckles" embarking on a big adventure with her parents and her two brothers, Roger and Henry.

Towards the end of their four-week voyage from Glasgow, the Australian Immigration Department told Isobel she was Australia's 100,000th British migrant.

As excited as she was, the six-year-old did not understand what would be waiting for her when she docked in Australia.

When the Saxelbys reached Perth, Isobel and her family toured the city before commencing the final leg of their voyage to Melbourne.

After docking in Melbourne, the Caledonian Society piped the family off the ship down to a posse of reporters, ready to capture this significant moment.

Upon her disembarkment, Calwell gave Isobel a toy koala. Isobel said, "I was very excited and thrilled with the stuffed koala and Australia in Pictures book presented to me by Arthur Calwell. I treasured the koala."

She also received a doll (with a tartan ribbon, to remind her of home) and a posy of wattle to symbolise her new homeland.

Calwell kissed her on the forehead and, in front of the amassed media, welcomed her to Australia.

In 2017 Isobel donated the koala, whom she had nicknamed Kookie, to the Museum of Australian Democracy after connecting with Calwell's daughter, Mary Elizabeth Calwell.

It was donated to MoAD as a memento of Australia's migrant history and was first displayed as part of an exhibition that explored the gift of citizenship.

The mint condition toy koala, which lived with Isobel for almost 70 years, has since become one of MoAD's most treasured objects, as a symbol of the gifts that immigrants both give and receive when they arrive in Australia.

After the excitement of their arrival, the Saxelby's new home was a disappointment. Isobel's father, James, found work with the State Electricity Commission in Yallourn, and the family lived in what they described as a leaky and cold "converted cowshed" for several months.

Eventually, they moved to a housing commission home in Moe. At school, Isobel was surrounded by other migrant children from all over Europe and Britain. While at school, she learned shorthand and typing.

The gifts of immigration are tangible; Australians give freedom, prosperity, safety, while immigrants give us expertise, prosperity and diversity.

After some years, Isobel married another Scottish migrant, her former classmate Frank Smith, who had come to Australia as a nine-year-old. Shortly after their wedding, Frank and Isobel returned to Scotland for a working holiday, staying there for two years. Although Isobel and Frank enjoyed living in Scotland, they never intended to live there permanently.

"We always considered [Australia] our home, even when we were living in the country of our birth amid the accents of our forefathers," she said.

When Frank and Isobel moved back to Australia, they stayed in country Victoria, raising their two daughters and contributing to their communities in a variety of ways.

Isobel remained grateful for her immigration experience, saying "My Mum and Dad have long since passed, but we regularly think of them and thank them for bringing us to Australia.

"They would be very proud at how the family turned out with the new opportunities they were given here in Australia ... Australia is our home and we love it."

Isobel's story resonates with the experiences of thousands of immigrants to Australia.

Often people come to Australia in search of a better life, occasionally escaping from an intolerable one.

Australians greet immigrants with generosity or occasionally with a fear of the unknown or difference.

Whatever the balance of these attitudes is, immigration is always an exchange; Australians give and receive, as do our new fellow-citizens.

The gifts of immigration are tangible; Australians give freedom, prosperity, safety, while immigrants give us expertise, prosperity and diversity. But the gift is also symbolic.

Although small, Isobel's koala helps tell the story of immigration to Australia in a way that opens hearts and minds.

When the object was donated to MoAD, it gave the museum the opportunity to explore Australia's history from a different perspective - the perspective of a 6 year old Scottish girl.

Sadly, Isobel passed away the year after donating Kookie the Koala to MoAD.

Her story of travel to Australia, and her life afterwards, beautifully illustrates many of the themes, of giving and receiving, that are part of Australia's story of migration.

  • The Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House is open to visitors again. Visit moad.oph.gov.au for details.
This story A gift of a koala, and of immigration first appeared on The Canberra Times.