Vandersteen Family History

Written by Johanna Wagenaar (nee, van der Steen). Johanna (Hannie) tells of the family’s sea journey from The Netherlands to Fremantle Western Australia on board the ‘Groote Beer’ in 1951, their reception by members of the Free Reformed Church, their adventures settling into a new country, and a journey not to be forgotten from Armadale to Albany on the State’s southern coast.


  • Name: Johanna (Hannie) Wagenaar
  • Date of birth: 4  July 1937, Zaandam, The Netherlands
  • Date of arrival (Fremantle, Western Australia): 2 October 1951
  • Naturalised: April 1959
  • Husband: William Wagenaar, born Friesland, 9 November 1941
  • Children:
    Mark, born 2 October 1964
    Paul, born 10 June 1966
    Stephen, born 28 August 1967
    Sharon, born 10 July 1970
    Jonathon, born 9 August 1972
  • Previous occupation: Teacher of Business Information Technology at John Calvin Christian College, Armadale, Western Australia.
  • Retired: December, 2005


Hannie’s story: On Wednesday afternoon of 2 October 1951, the “Groote Beer” sailed into Fremantle harbour with approximately 35 passengers on board. It had been a long and tiring journey. We had left Amsterdam on 17 August 1951 and, due to the unrest in the Suez Canal region, our route had taken us through the Panama Canal instead.

The ship had previously served as a troop-transport ship and was decked out to carry roughly 800 soldiers. It was a tired old vessel where quick paint jobs had been carried out to try to cover the rust. It was definitely NOT a passenger ship, with the paint still wet from the quick touch-ups. Five hundred bunk-beds in the hull – four on top each other, had to cater for the 450 young men that were on their way to Wellington, in New Zealand, plus any male passenger over the age of eight. On Wednesday afternoon of 2 October 1951, the “Groote Beer” sailed into Fremantle harbour with approximately 35 passengers on board. It had been a long and tiring journey. We had left Amsterdam on 17 August 1951 and, due to the unrest in the Suez Canal region, our route had taken us through the Panama Canal instead.

Women and children were allotted tiny cabins below deck that contained eight bunk beds each. All I can remember is approximately twelve showers and wash basins that were to serve all of our ablutions. There must have been some more down in the hull, but I never ventured that far. Two small writing rooms were the only ‘lounges’, and as there was not much room to play for the children, some space was made available (but no toys) ‘down below the decks’, next to the area where all the dirty linen was sorted.  It was certainly not the most hygienic spot for children.

In 1951 the Dutch government had not yet started to assist migrants by paying for their fares. My father had sold his home and business, and had to use most of these proceeds to pay the fares of our family of seven – Dad, Mum, two girls and three boys.

This certainly took a bite out of their funds with which to begin a new life in a new country.  So, as we embarked on our journey in a ship that was not really a passenger ship at all, my parents must have often wondered what they had let themselves in for.

Hannie's family aboard the 'Groote Beer' August 1951
Hannie’s family aboard the ‘Groote Beer’ August 1951

The journey itself was an experience such as no other. Great storms hit us between Panama and Wellington, so that the tables could not even be set, and only solid food was served.  Many passengers were terribly seasick and would not sleep down in the hull of the ship where there was total lack of sufficient fresh air or ventilation.  So one can only imagine the situation on the limited deck space.

My Mum, being one of the lucky ones who did not get seasick, bravely tended to many of the sick. Even then she was a strong, tough and determined lady. Real migration material!  With hardly anywhere to play, or anything to amuse themselves with, my three young brothers, had great fun running amuck and found all sorts of hiding places in the men’s sleeping quarters where admittance by females was forbidden. It was ever so necessary (for six and a half weeks) for my parents to keep a watchful eye on these three lively youngsters, often scaring us in thinking they had gone overboard.

A special chaperoning duty was carried out upon my 16 year old sister and myself (14 years old) as the many hot blooded young men – on their way to New Zealand, were very interested in the limited number of unattached females. Once these young men disembarked at Wellington I am sure my parents heaved great sighs of relief.

Photo taken from the 'Groote Beer' as it sailed past the Sydney Harbour Bridge,September 1951.
Photo taken from the ‘Groote Beer’ as it sailed past the Sydney Harbour Bridge,September 1951.

More passengers disembarked at Sydney and Melbourne, so that soon there were only 35 passengers left who were heading for Fremantle. These last few days were actually quite enjoyable, and my parents could finally relax a little.

Some of the young men, with whom my sister and I had made friends, travelled as far as Sydney and Melbourne. When we arrived in Sydney these young men decided to go into town and visit some nightclubs (nightclubs? – what were they?).  We both asked our parents if we could go too, as we ever so keen to see the sights by night.  Dad said, “Yes, you can go, but I am coming too”. Oh dear, I do not think that this was the young men’s idea, but they were pretty polite and Dad trotted along behind us. At 8.30 pm Dad said that it was time to return to the ship, and I am sure that the young men were pretty relieved when they heard that. We did not see them for the rest of the night. I am sure that they had a good time once the “old man” was on their heels no longer.

For these six and a half weeks we had tried – somehow – to keep ourselves clean and keep our clothes laundered, but the result was pretty poor and we longed for a hot shower, or clean clothes – dried in the fresh air. It must have been a great disappointment for my parents to find that the great amount of money they had paid for our passage really gave not much in return. By the time we landed in Fremantle our new shoes, raincoats and other garments, were covered in paint and rust, and were soon discarded.

Now, here we were. Finally! Our new country! Members of the Free Reformed Church welcoming committee were waving and calling our names. We had arrived! As soon as we were allowed to disembark, we found ourselves surrounded by excited church members who bundled us in an old truck and drove us to our “new home” in Byford. For the first few days we were billeted out while we waited for our container to arrive.  I must say that we were very well looked after by the various members during the next few days.

The family disembarked for a day at Sydney.Hannie,her father and two brothers Arend (left) and Henk (right) near the Sydney Harbour Bridge.
The family disembarked for a day at Sydney.Hannie,her father and two brothers Arend (left) and Henk (right) near the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Soon it was time to settle in our own (rented) home.  Summer was just beginning, but the single walled, corrugated iron house was already beginning to get pretty hot.  The water tank out the back was our only source of drinking water. Three rings of water were all that was left, so Mum carried the tap in her pocket, preventing us from drinking our fill whenever we were thirsty. The other water source came from a well – brown water like the gravel in the back yard. In this murky water we would have our bath, or wash the clothes. The clothes really did not look much cleaner after the washing. To quench our thirst a little, Mum allowed us to walk to the shop twice a day to buy a ‘penny’ iceblock – large, fruity one – in a square cone. Really cool!

Two of my brothers started Primary school just around the corner. Having to cope with a strange language, in a strange land, my brother Bill (10 years old) refused to speak at school for the next two months. He spoke Dutch at home, but the teacher never got one word out of him. He just was not going to talk until he knew that what he said would be correct.

Much credit goes to my Mum and Dad. They were real migration material. They never complained. They were never homesick, but were just determined to make a go of it. They had migrated to give their children a better chance in life. They laughed and sang (and prayed) through all the ups and downs. Unfortunately it was not so with several other families.  Some of the mothers just could not cope with the heat, the very basic accommodation, the flies, and blow flies that covered our food, because no one had a fridge. We did have a little meat safe, made with flywire and chaff bags. We would this hang outside in the wind; filled the bottom with water and so hoped that the meat would remain relatively fresh and safe from the fly larvae.

Some of the families eventually did return to their home country. The immigration committee had found employment for my Dad, as well as my sister and I.  We two girls suddenly found ourselves as home helpers with ‘well-to-do’ families the very next day after we arrived. With only very limited knowledge of the new language, and never having been a home help before, I was pretty bewildered for a while.  I had to walk 30 minutes each day to get to the job. Magpie season did not make it easier for a brand new migrant. They swooped and swooped, so that Mum made me carry a big stick to which she had tied a white nappy. For 30 minutes each morning, until my arms would drop off, I would wave this weapon over my head.

Once on the job I did simple house keeping tasks.  Making beds, doing dishes etc. The worst task that I have ever had to do was washing a bucket full of soaking handkerchiefs that were covered in lots of slippery ‘you know what’. I really had to close my eyes and try not to dry-retch during the hand washing of these items. How could someone give such a job to a poor innocent, inexperienced city girl of fourteen? I still do not know if the lady of house liked my singing so much or did not trust me, but she made me sing songs where ever I was working around the house.

I had to sing so much, so that I ran of ideas of what else to sing. In the evenings my Mum and I would make a list of all sorts of songs that I knew, so that I would not have to sing the same songs too often. This list was carried around in my apron pocket so that I could consult it now and them.

The only thing I did like while working there, was that they allowed me to join them for lunch. Lunch included bread with homemade strawberry jam AND CLOTTED CREAM. I had never had that before. It was very difficult not to make a pig of myself.  Luckily my mother had instilled very good manners in me, and I never took more than was polite, although my mouth would be watering.

photo-2-105kbAbove: The Vandersteen family in the front yard of their first home in Byford. a Perth suburb of Western Australia. Byford is now a far more densely built area and the road behind is now the very busy South-West Highway. From left: Hannie, Paulus (father), Mennie (sister), Wim and Henk (brothers).

As my Dad was a painter and signwriter by trade, they had found him a position in the city of Perth. It was wonderful for him to have immediate employment, but living in Byford and working in the city meant use of public transport that was pretty slow as well as unreliable, and of course, hot.  It took Dad hours to travel the many miles each day. After two months of this he decided that he would investigate what prospects there might be for starting a business of his own. He had heard of another Free Reformed Church in Albany. He forwarded a telegram to the Plug family in Albany stating that he would be arriving by the night train on Saturday morning. Dad had slept the 450 km away, right through the night, and when he awoke next morning it felt as thought it had been a mere hop, skip and a jump.

The Plug family was not there to greet him and, after having somehow found someone to drive him to the Plug families’ ‘tent’ abode – way outside of the town, there he heard that they had yet to receive his telegram. So much for the postal service of 1952!  Three days later the telegram arrived! With his last few Pounds Dad was able to buy a block of land just outside of the town centre. On it stood an old dilapidated shed, with holes in the iron roof and without a proper floor. But, as Dad told us on his return, “it has scheme water!” Wow, we would live in an old shed, but we would have ‘water’. We couldn’t wait to move down south as soon as possible.

photo-4-102kbAbove: At Byford,before leaving for Albany on the south coast of Western Australia.The family was enjoying iceblocks bought from the General Store which can be seen at the rear of the picture.

A removal truck was organised for Australia Day – 26 January 1952. It was a hot day, 41 degree day  in fact. The day was so hot that the drivers had removed the truck cabin doors to benefit from the breeze. (No air-conditioning in cars at that time!)  Our meagre belongings were soon stowed on board, and just as the driver was starting up the truck . . . Dad shouted, “Wait, we are coming with you”.  “What do you mean?” asked the driver. “We are coming with you to Albany”, said my Dad. “How do you plan to do that?” wondered the driver. The truck driver shook his head. He must have said something like, “Man, you must have rocks in your head; do you know how far it is?” Dad wasn’t fazed.  He could not understand most of what the man said, anyway. “Come on kids, hop on; climb onto the furniture, we may as well save us the cost of a trip”. Dad had travelled to Albany a couple of weeks previous, and had not really found it a very long journey at all. Mum and us kids did not know any better and clambered onto the furniture, making ourselves comfortable between the chairs and the bedding. Our old neighbour must have realised that Dad was dinkum, and came running with half a dozen hats for us to wear. “Here, put these on – for the sun”. We realised much later what a god-send these hats had been. In this old shaky truck we travelled for hours and hours.

We were totally unprepared for such a long journey and after a few hours longed for something to eat or drink. Each time we came to a town the drivers (there were three of them) stopped at the Pub and spent quite some time swilling drinks, while were sat in the sun.  We must have been a sight and a half, perched there, on top of the furniture, hanging out for a drink as well.

Dad finally took us into one of the Pubs, but as soon as we walked in we were shouted back out again.  “Get out, man, don’t you know kids are not allowed to enter the pub?” (I think is what they yelled.) Oh dear, how embarrassing! We sure had a lot to learn about this new country. Dad bought a couple of glass bottles of lemonade, which we emptied greedily once we got outside.

Finally, at almost midnight, we rolled onto our new ‘block’. The promised electricity had not been connected after all, so – while groping in the dark, we unloaded the truck, and spread out the mattresses on the sandy floor inside the shed. We were exhausted, but we had made it! Laying on our bedding and looking up at the ceiling (hey! no ceiling?) we could just about count the stars through the holes in the rusty roof. But who cared? We were in our own home!

Next morning we awoke to a cool, sunny day. Wasn’t it lovely to have some respite from the Perth heat? During the night we had had company.  The rats had left their footprints all around our mattresses. We had not noticed a thing.  We had been too tired from that long, hot journey. Guess what? There was a tap outside, and we could enjoy the fresh running water as much as we liked.

photo-3-108kbAbove: Hannie (3rd from left) & her elder sister Mennie (2nd from left)who had quickly found friends their age from the Bosveld & Groenewold families.

During the next few months Mum and Dad worked hard to make our shed a home, fixing the roof, lining the iron walls, digging up a second hand stove for cooking and baking, and . . . “a bath!” It was old and rusty, so my Dad painted it white. However, soon the layers of paint came off and would float in among the bath water. There was no room anywhere to place this necessary implement, so we found a place for it right next to the front door. Oh, we had lots of fun at bath time.  Especially on Saturday evenings – bath night – when one of us might lay soaking in the hot water (heated in the copper outside) when a knock on the front door – announcing visitors – would see us running – sopping wet – into the sleeping area so that the visitors could enter.

Visitors were always welcome, and together we would sing around the organ – the only item of value that Mum had insisted on bringing with us, and an ideal instrument for passing a pleasurable evening.

Now my Dad had to see if he could earn a living. He was a stranger in the town. No one knew him or had seen his work.  Always dressed in his shirt and tie, with sparkling white overalls over the top, he would approach many businesses in his broken English. He obtained a little signwriting job here and there, and sometimes would even have work for a couple of days. Unbeknown to us children, Mum and Dad struggled to make ends meet.   There was no assistance; no dole, no social security, no Medicare. If one did not work, one would suffer the hardship.

Somehow there was always food on the table. I just do not know how they managed that. I think that our vegetable garden was a great help. My Mum was a great help to my Dad, too. She thought of all sorts of ways to earn that little extra. Mum would sew pretty lawn handkerchiefs with a lace edges, and in the evenings Dad (being the artist that he was) would paint pretty wildflowers in the corners. The next day Mum would go to town and beg shop owners to buy some of these souvenir items.

As Mum came from a family of four generations of Pastry cooks (Banket bakkers) she also approached the local baker and offered to bake his pies and pastries. This was a lot of hard work. They tasted wonderful. He ordered more and more. No wonder! He was raking in all the profits and paid Mum only a pittance. Mum finally finished sewing for the well-off people. She was a very neat seamstress and people loved her almost invisible mending.   The wife of one of the local doctors became a regular customer.


Paulus van der Steen at work

In the mean time Dad became a little better known around town, and was being offered several signwriting jobs. He really made a name for himself when he was commissioned to paint a sign for Yalumba Wines. After that more jobs were coming his way.  This was good, but . . . he did not have a motor vehicle (not even a hand cart like we had in Holland) by which he could transport his tools of trade. Of necessity he transported all of his equipment per bicycle. Paint pots on the handle bars; ladder across the saddle, with Dad walking next to it.  If a task required a certain amount of scaffolding, it would take Dad most of a morning walking to and fro to transport and set up his equipment before he could actually start working. This meant that he simply had to have a Utility. With his limited funds and on Hire Purchase (I think) he bought an old Ford Ute; painted it bright read; wrote his advertising signs on the side doors in the most beautiful writing. It made the transporting much easier, that is, if the Ute worked. I am sure that in the next 18 months most of his earnings went to ‘Smith and Reed’, the local mechanics.  I have seen Mum and Dad in despair each time the Ute would again let Dad down, as this meant another repair bill.

In Albany, I too, soon found a job. We two girls simply had to work to supplement the family income. My sister became a housekeeper for the local doctor, while I became a Nanny, looking after a 4-year-old little girl, called Judy, whose parents were career people. This gave me One-pound and ten-shillings per week, of which my Mum let me keep two shillings. For four months I put this money carefully away, and by the end of April – although too late for the swimming season, I could finally afford to buy a pair of bathers. I was as proud as punch. Yellow bathers, with a frill on either side; I had never had anything like it. Now I had to wait for next summer until I could show them off.

I could go on and on. So many great – and sometimes sad – memories have been flooding back since I have begun to write this story.

I am sure I could fill a book.

Maybe I will . . .