Wodonga Council

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Donation prompts search for mystery craftsman

4 Aug, 2022

A generous donation of an early artefact from the Bonegilla Migrant Camp has prompted a search for a craftsman who lived or worked at the site soon after World War II.

The item – a beautiful hand-made timber suitcase – was made for Bill Degnan’s mother, Betty, for her wedding in September 1947, at a cost of £2.

Betty Degnan, nee Keir, treasured the case for decades and asked her son Bill to donate it to the Bonegilla Migrant Experience after her death.

But mystery surrounds the identity of the person who made the case.

It is known that Bill’s grandfather, William Keir of Wangaratta, was working at the camp soon after the war and befriended the case maker at the site.

Family history tells that the craftsman was a migrant but as the case was made before the migrant camp opened, the craftsman cannot have been among the camp’s first post-war arrivals.

He could, however, have been an Italian prisoner of war held at Bonegilla or nearby Bandiana.

BME co-ordinator Hollie Barclay hopes the mystery can be solved to add another small layer of knowledge to Bonegilla’s multicultural history.

“We typically think of European post-war immigration at Bonegilla but we did have Italian prisoners of war here, or it could have been an Australian-born craftsman who made the suitcase,” she said.

“If it wasn’t a migrant it still shows the skills of the time - and suitcases are symbolic of Bonegilla and are probably the most recognisable symbol of what it means to be a migrant.”

Bill Degnan, who’s a member of Rotary International, also sees important symbolism in the suitcase – especially in light of current world events.

“I’ve used the story going around different Rotary clubs as an example of the invasion of Ukraine because I saw similarities around people being displaced by the Russians (during World War II),” he said.

“It’s nice to preserve history and it was good to have an opportunity to visit the migrant camp.”

Whether or not the original maker is ever found, Bill hopes the case will serve as a window into past events that shaped modern Australia.

Anyone with clues about who might have created Mrs Degnan’s wedding suitcase is invited to share their insights with the BME team at bonegilla@wodonga.vic.gov.au

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