ACT News


Post-war workers celebrate 60 years

Klaus Scharrer and Alfons Stuetz have the easy manner of men who have been friends for a remarkable 60 years. They were both Jennings Germans, 150 tradesmen from Germany who were enticed to Australia to fulfil a building contract in Canberra for AV Jennings Construction in the 1950s.

The company had been awarded a contract by the Australian government to build 1850 homes in Canberra within two years, but a labour shortage forced it to look overseas.

The carpenters and bricklayers arrived on five different ships between late 1951 and early 1952. Construction started in January 1952, with homes built in Yarralumla, Ainslie, O'Connor, Harman and Narrabundah. And the contract was met.

Some of the modest, solidly-built homes still exist, an enduring link to a remarkable time in Canberra's history, not least because the Germans arrived in Australia as people were still reeling from World War Two.

Even the deputy head of mission at the Germany Embassy in Canberra, Matthias Sonn, speaking at an anniversary gathering, has acknowledged that, at the end of the war, "Germany's reputation was obviously at an all-time low", which made the Jennings Germans experiment an exceptional one.

"It is truly remarkable that an Australian company offered the German craftsmen an opportunity to prove their qualities," he says.


"But even back then, the Germans were still renowned for their work ethic and their outstanding technical skills and education – all qualities that Australian companies and the government of Canberra looked for."

Sonn says it was not long before the Jennings Germans' reputation for quality and hard work "quickly spread throughout the country".

"The Jennings Germans thus helped to rehabilitate, just a few years after the end of World War Two, the traditionally positive image of German-Australians," he says.

"Furthermore, by preserving their cultural origins, they made an important contribution to German life in their new-found home."

Alfons Stuetz, 85, of Hawker, says the idea of sourcing German carpenters came from a Melbourne reporter of German origin Walter Schauble, who had links to Jennings and also to Alan Jack, the head teacher of building trades at the Canberra Technical College.

Both Schauble and Jack went to Germany to recruit the workers, with ads placed in trade journals "offering unmarried carpenters aged between 21 and 40 twice the pay they would receive at home".

The selected 150 men sailed to Australia in five groups between October 1951 and February 1952, and stayed in local hostels.

Stuetz says work started in January 1952.

"We were introduced to the Jennings management," he says. "The manager, Alan McBain, spoke to us, through an interpreter, 'All of those who speak English, please stand up'. Only 15 stood up, so he said to the supervisor, 'Well, there are your leading hands'," Stuetz says.

Stuetz says there was only an initial suspicion about the Germans from their Australian workmates. "The Jennings foremen were all ex-servicemen and they looked at us a bit strange at first, but they warmed up after because they realised we were quite diligent, good workers. After, we became good friends," he says.

Stuetz brought his German "sweetheart", Irmgard, out to Australia and they created a happy life in Canberra, his late wife passing away only six years ago.

He and three other Jennings Germans started their own joinery business in a rented building in Lonsdale Street, Braddon, which would eventually become CFM Kitchens and Canberra Roof Trusses, employing more than 60 people.

"We left our mark in Canberra," Stuetz said. "I feel proud about that. I feel at home now in Canberra. I'm an Australian citizen. I've got four children, 14 grandchildren and four great-grandchildren."

The Jennings Germans still meeting regularly. Their association's immediate past president Klaus Scharrer, 84, of Queanbeyan, went on to start his own business, K and R Joinery. He and his wife Rosa have lived in the same home in Queanbeyan for more than 50 years.

From those days on the work sites, Scharrer remembers they had to cut each piece of timber by hand and drove "thousands of nails into the Australian hardwood".

"We had to learn fast, back to inches and feet, to understand the new way of doing things and to 'drink fast' after work in the pubs because they closed at 6pm," he says.

Joe Reicheneder, 82, of Lyons, arrived in Canberra in early 1952, remembering "there were thousands of flies to greet us". He and fellow Jennings German Ludwig Hunklinger, 86, of Hackett, say a job in Australia sounded like an adventure. "There was an ad in the trade paper that an Australian company was looking for carpenters and I thought, 'Sounds like a good opportunity'," Reicheneder says. "When I signed up and looked at the map where Australia was, I nearly fainted."

The women who became their wives followed them out from Germany. They initially thought Canberra was "very small" and "empty" but grew to love it. The Hunklingers even returned to Germany for a year but decided their hearts and futures remained in Canberra.

"We love it here," Kriemhild Reicheneder, 73, says.

Her husband says: "It's not a bad place and we saw it grow. We have our fingerprint on a number of places."

Hunklinger, who later worked on the Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme, says with a laugh: "We had a two-year contract with Jennings. And the two years are still not up".