Loveday Internment Camp in the Riverland District of South Australia was one of many internment camps set up by the federal government in World War Two to detain so-called ‘enemy aliens’.
An ‘enemy alien’ was a person of German, Italian, or Japanese origin who was living in Australia. Most were migrants, some were born here.
In the case of the Italians of Far North Queensland (FNQ), many were sugar cane farmers who’d left dirt-poor provinces such as Sicily or Calabria for a better life. They’d lived here for decades and renounced their old country to become naturalised British subjects. (All Australians were called ‘British subjects’ at the time.)
The Italians of FNQ joined cane-cutting gangs and toiled hard under a punishing sun to raise enough capital to buy land of their own. As well, they sent regular sums of money to Italy to support the wives and parents they’d left behind.
Theirs was a meagre existence. Home was a tiny space in a cane cutters’ barracks, or a tin hut in the jungle, or a shared room in a boarding house. The land they bought was virgin rainforest. Before the first stick of cane could be planted, they had to clear the natural vegetation – giant rainforest trees, stinging vines, an impenetrable understorey – using axes, machetes, cross-cut saws, and horse-drawn implements. No tractors or chainsaws in those early days.
When the war came, the Italian farmers were systematically rounded up by the police, imprisoned without a trial, and transported from one end of this vast continent to the other, to remote camps run by the military.
At Loveday they were treated well. They had decent food, and the iron-roofed huts kept them warm and dry. They were offered employment about the camp for payment of one shilling (ten cents) per day, and were encouraged to provide their own entertainment. There was a canteen where they could buy small luxuries such as writing paper or fruit, and a hobbies workshop where they could learn woodworking and metalworking skills.
In all, 2200 Italians, 2000 Japanese, 500 Germans, and 600 men of other nationalities spent the war years in the six compounds that made up Loveday Internment Camp.
Today, all that remains of the camp are the hall at Group Headquarters (now a disused barn) and a few concrete footings amongst the vines.
On Thiele Road, lonely signs mark the site of each compound. In the nearby towns of Loveday, Barmera, Cobdogla, a handful of passionate locals volunteer their time and energy to keeping this little-known aspect of Australian history alive.
The hall at GHQ was converted into a barn sometime after the internment camp was closed. Today it stands close to Thiele Road, Loveday and is surrounded by vineyards. Unfortunately many of the ruins are on privately-owned property. If you stop at the old GHQ building and walk around the back, you will see a cell block and a few other footings close by.
Read more about Loveday and the men who were interned there on my internment blog, Italians@loveday.