Who went there

At a time of high unemployment in Western Australia and an acute post-war housing shortage, Wittenoom was an attractive prospect for people looking for work, both Australian-born and recent migrants.

In the 1950s Wittenoom was the largest Western Australian town north of the Tropic of Capricorn and was promoted as a new model mining town with modern amenities. Located in a landscape of spectacular beauty, Wittenoom seemed like a great opportunity, even paradise for many of its new inhabitants. Researcher Sylvia Lovenfosse explains the attraction of such a remote location for a desperate workforce.


Up to 200 families at any one time lived in Wittenoom and a total of 12,000 people lived there over time. In all, 7000 people worked for Australian Blue Asbestos at the mine and mill. The workforce  was predominantly young, single, male and New Australians. Many were migrants from Continental Europe, in particular Italy. In the early years many Displaced Persons worked there. Historian Lenore Layman talks about the company’s recruiting process.
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After the war, Australia was a popular destination for Italian workers escaping high unemployment back home. In 1951 Celestina Delpero’s husband Spero signed a two-year contract to work in Western Australia at what he thought was a hydro-electric water power plant. It wasn’t until he and his fellow villagers arrived at Darwin that they found out their destination was the Wittenoom asbestos mine. The men were angry at the way in which they had been misled.
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For many newly arrived migrants, Wittenoom was an improvement on the camps they had left behind in European countries still suffering the traumas of the Second World War. Here researcher Sylvia Lovenfosse talks about the appeal of Wittenoom for these new Australians.
Almost all Wittenoom workers were on contract – six month contracts from Perth and two year contracts from Europe. However most workers, horrified by conditions of work and residence, stayed for only a short time. Over 40 per cent remained for less than three months, and 60 per cent left in six months or less.

Photo courtesy of the Asbestos Diseases Society of Australia