What happened to the 5,000 young men who left the UK for New South Wales a century ago? Stephen Kelly writes about the odd encounter that led him to discover the fate of the Dreadnought Boys

It's three o'clock on a dreary Manchester afternoon and I'm slouched in front of the computer at the top of the house when the doorbell rings. I race down three flights of stairs, annoyed at being disturbed. A neatly dressed, elderly man is standing on the doorstep clutching a briefcase under his arm. Behind him a woman of similar age. Jehovah's Witnesses, I assume.

"Excuse me for disturbing you,"' says the man in a quiet voice. "My name is David Parker and this is my wife." He nods towards the woman. I'm about to say, "No thank you, I'm a militant atheist," when he produces a piece of paper with a photograph on it. "I have reason to believe," he says, "that my father lived in this house."

I look at the paper and indeed it is my house. "This photo was taken in the early 1920s," he explains when my father lived here. He left later that year and came to Australia where I was born. He was one of the Dreadnought Boys."

"The what?"

I'd never heard of the so-called "Dreadnought Boys". It seems that in response to a growing German naval presence in the Pacific in 1909, the government of New South Wales decided to help fund the construction of a dreadnought battleship for the Royal Navy. A public fund was established and by the end of the year £90,000 had been raised. But with fears increasing the government decided to construct a ship of its own, so that financing a second battleship seemed of little value.

Money was offered back to donors but more than £80,000 remained in the kitty. Unsure what to do with it, the government decided to use half to build a naval college while the remainder would be used to fund a scheme to bring young boys over from Britain and train them to become agricultural workers. And so was born the Dreadnought Scheme.

The scheme would bring out British boys between the ages of 16 and 19 "of good character and physique" at a rate of about 20 every fortnight. Originally, the scheme was aimed at those more than 17 years of age and one ad talked of wanting "strapping young fellows". After the First World War the minimum age was reduced to 15, although there is evidence to show that lads as young as 14 made the journey. The aim, according to one booklet, was "to fill Australia's empty spaces with young people of white, essentially Anglo-Saxon stock". Put bluntly, it was a form of white colonisation.

The first Dreadnought Boys – 12 in number – landed in Australia exactly 100 years ago. By February 1915, 2,557 boys had arrived, and when the last group came in September 1939, the total had reached 5,595.

One young man, Henry Field who arrived in 1925 recalled how he had signed up. "They were advertising in the paper for boys to go to Australia. Would you like to go to Australia? 'Would I?' I said, 'Oh yes'. Open country and if I don't like it I can always come back, I thought. But I didn't realise the distance I was going. I thought it was just like going camping somewhere and if I didn't like it I could just hop back home again."

On paper, the deal seemed reasonable; a new life, a job, and escape from the grim reality of industrial Britain. The passage was cheap, just £22 instead of £87. And there was the promise of a job on a farm at the end of the training with a minimum wage of up to £1 a week. It sounded like a fortune.

But while many Dreadnought Boys settled easily and enjoyed their new lives, some found it difficult. Most were city boys, often coming from London and the industrial north. They were vulnerable as well as impressionable. They were young and immature, being trained as farm labourers and living as strangers in a sparsely populated country.

The initial training at the camp was basic; conditions were primitive and some of the staff were said to be semi-literate, though others were dedicated and more likeable. Alcohol was strictly forbidden and lights went out at 9.30pm. The boys learned how to milk cows, pummelling away at crudely built machines, and even how to cut and skin a sheep. After three months training they were then assigned to farms around Australia.

And this was when the problems really began. At the training camp they had been with other Dreadnought Boys but now they were on their own, scattered over vast distances, and open to exploitation. The boys suffered loneliness, homesickness, "Pommy bashing" and culture shock.

One lad, Thomas Dreha, told of an unstinting work schedule. "Each day in summer during the week we work 4am to 7pm, or even later, if there is work to be done in the barn."

Some returned home, if they could afford it, only to face the deepening economic depression. Many left their jobs simply because they were never paid or conditions were poor but were able to move on to other farms where conditions were better.

It was a tough apprenticeship. They were told to write home every month, but that was easier said than done. The outback was hardly littered with post offices. Many soon lost contact with England and their families.

David Parker's father, Gilbert, was just 16 years old when he left Chorlton in Manchester and set sail from London on 28 March 1923, for Australia. He had finished school just months beforehand and, having spotted an advert in the local newspaper, duly signed up. The journey to Sydney aboard the Euripedes took almost two months.

On arrival he went straight to the Scheyville training camp. He was soon sent to work in a small town about 100km north of Sydney. A few months later he moved to a town 200km south-west of Brisbane, Queensland, where he was lucky to find an English family of recent immigrants living close by. They befriended him, becoming almost foster parents, and were able to help him settle.

He later fought in the Second World War in the Pacific with Australian troops, married and raised a family. He died in 1975. He never saw his parents or sister again, never went back to England and had little further contact with them.

"It was not an easy life," says David Parker, "but I think Dad was very satisfied with his experience. Like so many others he went on to make a valuable contribution to his adopted country – as an orchardist, soldier and church member and as part of the local community."

But not all the boys were quite as comfortable. It has been estimated that only 16 per cent of those who went to Australia remained on the land while the rest headed back to the cities. In May 1930, The Sydney Morning Herald carried a story criticising the scheme. Dozens of unemployed British lads were said to be roaming the streets of Sydney in a state of destitution, too poor to return home, but unable to find work in Australia. "They wander like lost sheep in our city," it reported.

Only a handful of the original Dreadnought Boys are still alive but their stories are becoming valued by people such as David Parker. There is even a Dreadnought Association, which regularly holds meetings, mainly attended by the families of the boys. Oral histories and official records have been published, including the book They Passed This Way.

"There is still much to do," says David Parker "but thanks to the Dreadnought Association and some academics who are researching the records of the scheme, we have a much better idea of the stories of the Dreadnought Boys and so we can appreciate their sacrifices in making Australia what it is today."