Comments made by Nigel Farage about non-English-speaking medical staff — despite the fact that registered doctors must pass a test under the International English Language Testing System — remind me of the test employed in Australia before the second world war.

The Alien Immigration Restriction Act had been introduced at the beginning of the 20th century to keep out Asians and was regularly used in the goldmines in Kalgoorlie. In Queensland, where there was much prostitution, with girls being recruited to work among the mainly Italian labourers in the canefields, it was also used as a weapon to exclude procurers.

Designed to eliminate aliens who had not learned English in a three-year period, the bill had been amended so that any European language could be used to test the hapless immigrant. There was resistance by the judiciary.

As early as 1905 Mr Justice Burnside overturned the conviction of a Chinese immigrant, holding the test must be ‘imposed in a reasonable way’. The test should have been explained to the migrant in Chinese and he ought to have been given an opportunity of writing the answers in any European language. ‘An education test, one would think, was intended to be put in an intelligible way and not in a manner in which very few European persons would be able to pass it,’ said his lordship.

Over the years, the test came to be conducted in any language the examiner wished. When the courts could, they intervened. In 1912 a Mauritian who spoke both French and English perfectly was given the test in German and unsurprisingly failed.

As early as 1919 there was the (no doubt apocryphal) story of one unfortunate foreigner who, after boasting he could pass the test, was given the following dictation:

‘As Hugh Hughes was hewing a Yule log from a yew tree a man dressed in clothes of dark hue came up to Hugh and said, “Have you seen my ewes?” “If you wait until I hew this yew, I will go anywhere in Europe to look for your ewes,” said Hugh.’

As the years went by it became a badge of failure for the examiner if the immigrant actually passed the test. As a former New South Wales customs officer Wally Moore recalled: ‘I could legally require a German to come in and give him Ethiopian’ [sic].

James Morton is a writer and former criminal defence solicitor