“For Nannie”? The controversial case of a Sinhalese “amah” in white Australia

The historical relationship that connects Australia and South Asia is one that we are just beginning to understand.[1] Our project brings a new dimension to that story by exploring the experiences of South Asian women who journeyed across the Indian Ocean and came to Australia as nursemaids to children. One such woman was Sinhalese amah, Mudalige Alice Nona Wanigasuriya, who came to Australia from Ceylon with her employer family in March 1949. She was known to the Australian public as ‘Alice Nona’. In this blog we explore the controversy that accompanied Alice Nona’s visit to Australia and how it tested the Commonwealth government’s diplomatic relationship with its Asian neighbours.

Thirty-five-year-old Alice Nona was employed as a ‘nanny’ by Edgar H. Temple, a prominent English businessman in Ceylon, and his Australian wife, Olive. In 1949, Olive Temple made arrangements to visit her family in Sydney for a period of one month. Alice Nona was to accompany Olive to assist in her caring for her eight-month-old baby and seven-year-old child. The trip to Australia was planned in accordance with the provisions of the Immigration Restriction Act (1901-1958) – the act that underpinned the infamous White Australia Policy. While the legislation prevented Asian immigration to Australia, officials routinely used their discretion to allow the entry of domestic servants on a temporary basis if they were travelling with representatives of foreign governments or employers of “good standing” for business or holidays.[2] The Temples submitted an application to this effect to the Australian High Commission in Colombo and Alice Nona was issued a permit to land in Australia.[3]

On February 27, 1949, Alice Nona set sail with her employer family aboard the P. & O. Maloja (see figure 1). The first Australian port that the P&O Maloja reached was Fremantle in Western Australia on 8 March 1949. Despite holding a permit, Alice Nona was refused permission to leave the ship. An immigration officer informed Olive Temple that “Asian servants” were only allowed to enter Australia if they were employed by “officials of foreign governments”.[4] When the ship docked in Melbourne, and then at the destination port of Sydney, immigration officials also insisted that Alice Nona could not disembark.

Figure 1. Aboard the Maloja, Mrs. Temple (left) with Alice Nona nursing eight-month-old Rosemary Temple (right).  Brisbane Telegraph, 24 March, 1949, included within National Archives of Australia, Department of Immigration File of Papers, A433, 1949/2/3192.

Alice Nona arrived at a time when Immigration Minister Arthur Calwell was tightening the rules that had allowed Asian domestic workers to travel to Australia. This was a response to the situation Australia found itself in at the end of the Second World War.

As discussed in a previous blog, hundreds of Chinese amahs had come to Australia during the war with evacuee families from Singapore and Hong Kong. When the war ended, the government sought to deport the women but many were reluctant to leave.[5] The fact that Alice Nona was referred to in the press and in immigration documents as an ‘amah’ rather than an ‘ayah’ (the common term of reference for a South Asian nursemaid) is suggestive of this broader political context.

When the P&O Maloja departed Sydney for Brisbane, Olive Temple remained onboard with Alice Nona. In a column of the Brisbane Telegraph titled “For Nannie”, Mrs. Temple explained her decision and the dilemma she faced: “I am responsible to Nannie’s parents and to the Ceylon government for returning her back to Ceylon. If they send Nannie back, I will have to go back with her.”[6] Meanwhile Edgar Temple wrote to Minister Calwell asking for the situation to be resolved for the sake of his wife. As he put it: “I am extremely anxious to know what effect all this has had on the health of my wife.”[7] Mrs B. Hills, Secretary of Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Queensland, also wrote to the Minister, to express her concern about the “hardship” that was “being inflicted on a mother by refusing landing of a Cingalese Nurse on whom the woman is dependent.”[8]

As the case drew the attention of the press, public sympathy became galvanised around Olive Temple, who was portrayed as a white Australian mother in distress. There was little interest in the welfare of Alice Nona. One of the few moments in which Alice Nona’s words were reported in the press came when she was asked about the impact of her predicament on her employer. She explained, “I don’t like this. Cause too much trouble for her. Very bad holiday.”[9] This tells us little about Alice Nona’s own struggles, confined to a ship, far from home.

In addition to concern for Olive Temple’s welfare, reporting of the case focused on the impact on Australia’s regional reputation. Liberal politician Dame Enid Lyons directly criticised Minister Calwell’s approach, claiming that: “The present administration of these matters is causing bad feeling right through the Eastern world.”[10]

Sun, a popular tabloid newspaper, published an editorial which argued that refusal to allow Alice Nona into the country would be viewed in Asia as “evidence of inhumanity in our people” and would “bea[r] very gravely on Australia’s good name and future.”[11]

Reports of the case in Singapore’s Straits Times indicated its potential negative impact on diplomatic relations in the region.”[12]

As the pressure on the government mounted, the Immigration Department found itself in a “difficult position”.[13] This was compounded by a series of awkward exchanges with Charles William Frost, the Australian High Commissioner in Ceylon, who had provided Alice Nona with the permit to enter Australia.[14] Ultimately the department capitulated and immigration officials were ordered to allow Alice Nona to disembark.  Alice Nona, Olive Temple and baby Rosemary spent a further two weeks at sea before finally arriving back in Sydney (see Figure 2). On March 28, Alice Nona was formerly issued Certificate of Exemption from the Immigration Act and was allowed to stay in Australia for a period of one month. The haste with which the certificate was issued is indicated by the misspelling of Alice’s name as ‘Alisa’ (see Figure 3).

Figure 2. Rosemary Temple in the arms of amah Alice Nona. The Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March, 1949, included within National Archives of Australia, Department of Immigration File of Papers, A433, 1949/2/3192
Figure 3. Certificate of Exemption granted for ‘Alisa’ Nona issued 28 March, 1949. National Archives of Australia, Department of Immigration File Papers, A433, 1949/2/3192.

The second and final moment in which we hear Alice Nona’s story from her own perspective came at the moment of her arrival in Sydney. Her relief was palatable, “Very happy now. All trouble over.”[15] But Alice Nona was not the first and would not be the last domestic worker to “trouble” immigration authorities. This little-known episode in Australia’s immigration history[16] offers just one example of the many cases we are uncovering in which travelling domestic workers tested the limits of the White Australia Policy.

Avantika Binani & Claire Lowrie 2021


[1] For ground-breaking work on this topic see Kama Mclean, British India, White Australia: Overseas Indians, Intercolonial Relations and the Empire, 1901-1947, NewSouth, 2020; Samia Khatun, Australianama: The South Asian Odyssey in Australia, Oxford University Press, 2019

[2] Letter from T. H. E. Heyes to the Secretary of Department of External Affairs, Canberra, 28 March, 1949, National Archives of Australia (hereafter NAA), Department of Immigration File of Papers, A433, 1949/2/3192 https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=3096601. See also B. W. Higman, ‘Testing the Boundaries of White Australia: Domestic Service and Immigration Policy, 1901-45’, Immigrants and Minorities, 22: 1, 2003, pp, 6, 14.

[3] Letter from Mr. E. H. Temple to Mr. Calwell, 2 April, 1949. NAA, A433, 1949/2/3192  https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=3096601

[4] ‘Calwell Ban on Ayah Landing: Permit Unrecognised’, Straits Times, 26 March, 1949, Singapore. https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19490326-1.2.22?ST=1&AT=search&k=Calwell%20Ban%20on%20Ayah%20Landing:%20Permit%20Unrecognised&QT=calwell,ban,on,ayah,landing,permit,unrecognised&oref=article 

[5] See: NAA, Immigration – Policy – Admission of Amahs and Servants of non-European race into Australia, A518, BZ822/1.

[6] ‘Refused Permit to land: Australia Bars Entry of Cingalese’, Brisbane Telegraph, 24 March, 1949. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/216475735?searchTerm=Aboard%20the%20Maloja

[7] Letter from Mr.  Temple to Mr. Calwell, 2 April, 1949. NAA, A433, 1949/2/3192. https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=3096601  

[8] Letter from Mrs. B. Hills, Secretary of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union of Queensland to Mr. Calwell, 25 March, 1949. NAA, A433, 1949/2/3192 https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=3096601

[9] ‘Refused Permit to land: Australia Bars Entry of Cingalese’, Brisbane Telegraph, 24 March, 1949. https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/216475735?searchTerm=Aboard%20the%20Maloja

[10] ‘Amah Ban called Tactless’, Herald, 25 June 1949, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/247729170?searchTerm=%27Amah%20ban%20called%20tactless%22

[11] ‘Slamming the Door on the Visitors’, Sun, 25 March 1949, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/231073866?searchTerm=%27Slamming%20the%20door%20on%20the%20visitors%22

[12] ‘Calwell ban on ayah: Landing permit unrecognised’, Straits Times, 26 March 1949 https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/Digitised/Article/straitstimes19490326-1.2.22?ST=1&AT=search&k=Calwell%20ban%20on%20ayah:%20Landing%20permit%20unrecognised&QT=calwell,ban,on,ayah,landing,permit,unrecognised&oref=article

[13] Memorandum from the Department of Immigration, 21 March, 1949. NAA, A433, 1949/2/3192 https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=3096601

[14] Memorandum from the Secretary of the Australian High Commission in Ceylon to the Secretary of Department of External Affairs, Canberra, 5 May, 1949. NAA, A433, 1949/2/3192 https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/ViewImage.aspx?B=3096601

[15] ‘Visitors from Ceylon’, Sydney Morning Herald, 19 March, 1949 https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/18107774?searchTerm=Visitors%20from%20Ceylon

[16] For a brief discussion of the case see: Earl Forbes, ‘The White Australia Policy, Ceylonese Burghers and Alice Nona’, eLanka, 10 July, 2015, https://www.elanka.com.au/the-white-australia-policy-ceylonese-burghers-and-alice-nona-by-earl-forbes/

3 thoughts on ““For Nannie”? The controversial case of a Sinhalese “amah” in white Australia

  1. This is such an important story.
    Thank you for sharing what happened to Mudalige Alice Nona Wanigasuriya. This impressively-researched case reveals such an important story of some of racism’s many impacts – and of officials’ dishonesty.
    Displaying the documents here was a really good idea. They made such a difference to my understanding – especially the Sydney Morning Herald one of Nona smiling at baby Rosemary.
    Nona’s quoted words “All trouble over” had a poignant impact on me. Was it Nona’s naive and polite hopefulness, one wonders? Or was it a quote invented by the reporter to create [precipitate and fake] narrative closure?

    Liked by 2 people

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