Short stories

A day to remember

We all thought we knew what to expect when the Johnston family met for a reunion in Adelaide in 2013. After all, we had attended six previous Johnston reunions.

On the 2 June 1953, the Johnston family of eight (four boys and two girls) left Lisbellaw, County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland. The family were immigrating to Australia. Their first destination was England’s Tilbury docks where they boarded the P & O Ship, the SS Mooltan.

June 2 was a memorable day for Charles and Violet Johnston and their children. It was also a memorable day for Great Britain, and all the nations of the Commonwealth. It was the day of Queen Elizabeth II coronation at Westminster Abbey, London. It was a history making event and also the first service broadcast to a televised audience. It was watched by millions of people across the world.

While the Johnston’s leaving Lisbellaw was an unremarkable event for the township, it was significant for the family. Due to the Queen’s coronation the town was decorated with buntings, banners, and flags. In 1952 my husband Bill was 14 years old. It was a day to remember and years later, in 1996 Bill wrote a poem about the day, titled Lisbellaw.

Unfurl the flag Sir William

It’s time to celebrate

We’re leaving for Australia

Now mind you, don’t be late

The village is all decked out

‘tis for June 2 of ‘53

It’s really for Elizabeth

And not for you and me

The ‘Mooltan’ she is waiting

Now berthed at Tilbury Docks

Bye-bye to 17 Cloughcor Crescent

‘aye ready’ in your starting blocks

Farewell to upper and lower Lough Erne

The fishing we extolled

Lough Eyes and its sluice gate

The many times we trolled

Lines and minnows rested

Pike now left to roam

We’re bound for land down under

It’s now to be our home

While the village was not decked out for the family, it was a memorable sight for them. The celebrations added to their anticipation of the adventure ahead. And what an adventure the Johnston youngsters had on the ship, swimming and playing. Each night they sat at the Captain’s table. The boys ate all three courses!

As part of the 2013 family reunion the Johnston siblings and their partners met near the sea at Semaphore, a suburb of Adelaide. Bill’s brother Des and his wife Sandra lived in Adelaide and arranged the event. Sandra knew that the SS Mooltan had berthed in Adelaide before docking in Melbourne and chose Semaphore as our first gathering point.

At the Semaphore beachfront the siblings and partners shared stories and photos. Jane, Bill’s eldest sister, read from her diary. She had written detailed notes about the ceremony held by the ship’s crew when it crossed the International Date Line, saying ‘It was all such marvellous fun.’ On reading further she told us that the family landed in Adelaide at 11am on July 8, 1953. At that moment John, Bill’s older brother, exclaimed it is now 11am! Up until hearing Jane read from her diary, no one had recalled the time the family arrived in Adelaide. The coincidence was overwhelming. The Johnston siblings and partners were at Semaphore, not only 60 years later, but at the exact time of day they arrived all those years earlier. Yes, a day to remember.

After the gathering near the beach we all took a short drive down to the Gulf Point Marina for coffee and cake. Then on to Outer Harbour Railway Station, across from the Port Adelaide Ship Terminal. It looked new and very sleek, vastly different from the era when the Irish migrant family arrived at a tin shed.

In 1953 after the SS Mooltan berthed in Adelaide, the family left the terminal and made the short journey to Outer Harbour Station. They then caught the train to Adelaide city centre. Bill’s memory of that day, as a young Irish boy and unfamiliar with the city, was walking into a glass door in Myers, Adelaide. Neither had any damage! Later in the day the family reboarded the ship for Melbourne, where they disembarked, to start a new life in Australia.

A day to remember.

Now 60 years later, our final destination for the day was the 1880s Largs Pier Hotel on The Esplanade with views to the Gulf St Vincent. The hotel, a 15 minute walk to Semaphore Beach, could be seen from the SS Mooltan as she moved out to sea. As the Johnston siblings shared common memories we enjoyed lunch, drinks, laughter, and some good old Irish blarney. After we reminisced we said our goodbye’s carrying away our memories of the day – a day to remember.

Note: This story was first published in The Australian ‘Follow the reader’ under the travel section, 19 October 2013. The story above is a reworked and longer version of this publication.  

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