The Pursuit of Poverty – Labouring Poor of the British Isles:
In 1828, a man of Minster in Kent, told a House of Commons committee formed to investigate the continuing conditions of poverty and destitution that:
The convicts on board the hulks are a great deal better off than our labouring poor, let the convict be ever so bad a man. The convicts come on shore to work; they they do not work so hard nor so many hours as the common labourers, and they live better.
In the nearby parish of Ash, there was a regular meeting every Thursday, where the paupers were put up for auction and their labour sold for a week. It often happened that there was no bidder, however. The penury endured in every part of the British Isles stifled almost every human characteristic except one: the ability to have children. Both Ireland and the Highlands of Scotland were overpopulated. England, perhaps, was not: but, to many of those living in the cities, growing industrial towns and London suburbs, it seemed to be. The expatriate Briton in Australia had free convict labour. In India, he enjoyed the services of ‘coolies’. If he lived in the southern United States, he employed slaves. Back in the old country, however, there was a home-grown product. Too many people earning too little money provided an endless source of recruitment. The so-called lower orders had never had it worse: the middle and upper classes had seldom had it better. To the starving and dispossessed of the Isles, especially the Irish, America beckoned. Seizing this slender straw of comfort, many set out on what was surely going to be the worst journey of their lives.
Poverty and destitution in Ireland and Scotland were even worse due to the potato crop failures of successive decades. When the potato crop was sufficient, the Irish peasant existed. When it failed, as it did, from time to time, he starved. In 1828, for example, Cork had a population of 117,000, of which no fewer than sixty thousand were paupers, and of this number a third did not possess so much as a straw bed. In 1822, during a potato famine, matters became so bad that aid had to be brought in from England – even though, according to a writer in the Dublin Evening Post,
… the alarming fever of 1822, and the famine which succeeded it, did not arise from want of means to buy that food, for we were in possession of a vast quantity … The English subscriptions saved a million people, I have little doubt, by enabling them to purchase it.
The authorities fumbled for a solution. In the late eighteenth century, the Agricultural Revolution had already reduced the farm labourer’s staple diet to bread and cheese, washed down with tea or beer. He seldom saw meat, but some were able to grow potatoes in their cottage gardens. Thomas Mathus (born 1766), a mathematically-minded parson, realised what was becoming uncomfortably evident: there were just too many people in the British Isles. In itself, he argued, this was bad enough, but its implications might have been less serious if the output of the farms had been keeping pace with the birth explosion. According to Malthus, this was not happening. As he put it: Population increases in a geometrical and subsistence only in arithmetical ratio.
In other words, people multiply at a much greater rate than food is produced. The outcome, unless former was controlled, would be starvation and misery. Part of Malthus’ solution was to discourage marriage and any other relationship which might result in childbirth. He also deemed it wise to encourage individuals and families to emigrate. He regarded the colonies as a receptacle for excess inhabitants, and had a formula to back up his ideas. There were also a number of schemes which were capable of translating his notions into practical terms. The collection of reliable statistical information was only begun with the first decennial census in 1801, but this was a barely reliable source for contemporaries and historians alike until 1841. There were no reliable government figures relating to unemployment until 1921.
In addition, historians still argue about the validity of making qualitative judgements on the basis of quantitative evidence and vice versa. Modern students of history are often surprised by the the length of time it took nineteenth-century government to act in response to general problems in the population, or by the the limted nature of the intervention made. Modern citizens of liberal-democratic welfare states automatically expect governments to legislate in response to such problems, and even to be pro-active in identifying them, but in the early nineteenth century, the role of government was simply to rule. For His Majesty’s government this meant managing the affairs of the monarchy, seeing to the defence of the realm, conducting foreign affairs, creating revenue by collecting taxes and enabling local officials to keep the peace. In other words, it was to provide the necessary stability for society to function as it always had done. This was underpinned by the all-pervading ‘laissez-faire’ philosophy of the Georgian period. The antipathy of successive governments and parliaments to state intervention is all too evident in contemporary sources, as are the roles of crusading individuals and extra-parliamentary campaigning groups in promoting the economic and social reforms of 1830 to 1870.
Gradually, however, the enormity of the problems caused by Britain’s rapid industrialisation were recognised and state intervention increased to meet these needs. It is important to remember the contemporary context in which these interventions were made. To intervene in order to maintain social stability was quite in keeping with traditional government responsibility, but there was still a hotly contested debate about collectivism versus individualism throughout the period. By 1830, the symptoms of industrialisation were too pressing to be ignored. Following the Great Reform Act of 1832, the British government was persuaded to implement the recommendations of the Poor Law Commission Report in 1834. This was a response to the complaints of those whose responsibity to deal with poverty was centuries old, a response which cost the Exchequer little and for which it has been monumentally criticised for what it did not do. It was finally jolted into action by the rising costs of the local poor rates, but the conclusions it drew were to the detriment of the poor:
It may be assumed that in the administration of relief, the public is warranted in imposing such conditions on the individual releved, as are conducive to the benefit either of the individual himself, or of the country at large, at whose expense he is to be relieved.
The first and most essential of all conditions, a principle which we find universally admitted, even by those whose practice is at variance with it; is that his situation on the whole shall be made really or apparently so eligible as the situation of the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class. Throughout the evidence it is shown, that in proportion as the condition of any pauper is elevated above the condition of independent labourers, the condition of the independent class is depressed; their industry is impaired, their employment becomes unsteady, and its remuneration in wages is diminished. Such persons, therefore, are under the strongest inducements to quit the less eligible class of labourers and enter the more eligible class of paupers. The converse is the effect when the pauper class is placed in its proper position, below the condition of the independent labourer. Every penny bestowed, that tends to render the condition of the paupers more eligible than that of the independent labourer, is a bounty of indolence and vice. …
… We recommend, therefore, the appointment of a Central Board to control the administration of the Poor Laws; … To effect these purposes we recommend that the Central Board be empowered to cause any number of parishes which they may think convenient to be incorporated for the purpose of workhouse management, and for providing new workhouses where necessary …
The passing an ‘Amendment’ to the Elizabethan Poor Law therefore ended ‘outdoor’ relief in individual parishes and transferred responsibility to ‘workhouses’ under the control of unions of parishes. These became dreaded and detestable institutions, run along the lines of prisons. Either a man accepted the puny wages offered by the self-righteous and well-fed farmers, or he committed himself to an establishment which, though it may have inspired some of the best of Dickens, had nothing else to commend it. The theory of ‘less eligibility’ which it was based on was that, if you made charity sufficiently unpleasant, nobody would want it. In Ireland, they did their very capable best to ensure that work workhouse conditions were even worse than those of the peasants’ hovels. One particularly vile aspect of the system was the splitting up of families. Writing in 1838, William Howlitt, author of Rural Life in England, wrote that:
… till the sound feeling of the nation shall have again disarmed them of this fearful authority, every poor man’s family is liable, on the occurrence of some stroke of destitution, to have their misfortune, bitter enough in itself, added the tenfold aggravation of being torn asunder and immured in the separate wards of a poverty prison.
The Report of the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws, and the Act which followed hard on its heels, contained weaknesses which severely limited their usefulness in dealing with poverty, or even with pauperism, in the second half of the nineteenth century. In the first place, the Royal Commission had concentrated too much of its attention upon a single problem, that of the able-bodied unemployed, particularly in rural areas, who it feared were being demoralised by ill-conceived grants of outdoor relief, as had happened in the Berkshire village of Speenhamland. It paid too little regard to the problems of those who were pauperised because of physical or mental ill-health, old age or loss of parents, although these probably constituted by far the largest proportion of those on relief. The important and complex problem of migration and settlement received only cursory treatment in the Report and was only modified in a few minor details by the Act, and the vital question of rating and the finance of of poor relief was dealt with in an entirely cavalier fashion.
Secondly, the reformers of 1834 focused their attention upon the problem of rural poverty, and produced the machinery to deal with it. The problem of the future was to be the far more difficult one of mass industrial unemployment and urban poverty. The poor law proved to be ill-adapted for dealing with poverty, and thus was increasingly ignored as a device for social reform. The oversimplified early nineteenth-century view of poverty was broken down into an investigation of its causes, and by changing attitudes towards it, a process which led to the introduction of new methods of treating poverty. The Old Poor Law, with its use of outdoor relief to assist the underpaid was, in essence, a device for dealing with the problem of surplus labour in the lagging rural sector of a rapidly expanding but still underdeveloped economy.
In their ‘methodology’, The Poor Law Commissioners of 1834 deliberately selected the facts so as to ‘impeach’ the existing administration. Not only did they fail in any way to take account of the special problem of structural unemployment in the countryside, but what evidence they did present consisted of little more than anecdotes. No attempt was made to take a census of the poor or to collate the information returned returned by the parishes. Instead, the Report contained an endless recital of ills from the mouths of squires, magistrates, overseers and clergymen. In this light, it was difficult for their reforming contemporaries to see the implementation of the new Poor Law as a blow for humanity, and they were cetainly ineffective in treating the roots of the problem and its mitigation. As the Georgian period came to an end and Britain entered the high-water mark of Victorian industrial production, migration, both internal and external, seemed to offer the solution to the problem of the surplus population.
Exodus? The Experience of Internal & External Migration:
Between 1821 and 1911, the total population of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland grew from 20.9 million to 45.2 million. At the same time, the population of what have been described as ‘English-speaking neo-Europes’ also grew rapidly. These phenomena are connected: a significant proportion of the growing population of Great Britain emigrated, and these emigrants accounted over the century for a substantial part of the population growth of a number of states overseas. Emigration from the United Kingdom must not be detached from internal migration. Many Irish fled the famine in the 1840s to settle in the industrial west of Scotland, especially Clydeside, many Scots moved south into England, and many English people moved into the coalfield areas of South Wales. Whether they were migrating internally or emigrating, they were moving from a predominantly land-based ‘subsistence’ economy into an Atlantic and increasingly imperial economy based on industry, trade and commerce. Some emigrants sought to escape poverty, especially the rural Irish. But many more, especially the urban-dwelling English hoped for new and improved economic opportunities. Preferred destinations were the ‘Europeanised’ territories in North America, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, where linguistic and cultural differences would be minimal and economic prospects attractive.
Despite considerable emigration from all four countries of the British Isles, Wales was the only one of these home ‘nations’ to retain the whole of its natural increase as well as attracting major influxes from England in particular. As steam-ships replaced sailing ships and the railway revolution accelerated around the world, the coal from the valleys powered the growth of Britain’s global empire. The population of Scotland also grew, but less quickly than in England and Wales, from 2.1 to 4.8 million. Meanwhile, the population of Ireland rose 6.8 million in 1821 to peak of 8.2 million in 1841. Thereafter, it fell in every subsequent decade to 4.4 million in 1911, an overall decline of 35 per cent. This cannot be explained just by the dreadful mortality of the Great Famine, which caused a collapse in the Irish population in the 1840s; the different rates of emigration from the home countries was also a factor.
The overseas exodus was excessive as a proportion of the Irish-born population and substantial from Scotland, but also still significant from England. Only Wales increased its net in-migration rate. For some migrants, external migration was an alternative to, or an extension of internal movement. Official figures for emigration in the first half of the nineteenth century were not very reliable. Cabin-class passengers were rarely counted before 1863, and until 1853 no distinction was drawn between UK subjects and other nationals, and many European citizens travelled through Europe and across Britain en route to their overseas destinations. Nevertheless, a total tally of nearly seventeen million British and Irish emigrants is real enough.
For people to move their homes overseas was a costly adventure. It was a fact of life that those most agreeable to emigrating would be those least able to afford the price. To suggest, for example, that a poverty-stricken Irishman could purchase a passage to America and still have enough in his pocket to pay for expenses at the other end, would be nonsensical. If people were to be encouraged to emigrate, the state would have to finance them. One plan, which struggled to find favour with Parliament in the early nineteenth century, suggested that funds for this purpose should be borrowed from the poor rate. In Scotland and Ireland, the landlords who wanted to clear their lands would be invited to contribute.
After four years the emigrant would be expected to repay the loan. Nobody was to be compelled to go, though Malthus insisted that anyone who refused should be denied poor relief. Others suggested that it would be better to use poor relief payments as an incentive to migration, however. In 1828, an MP named Wilmot Horton introduced a Bill to enable parishes to mortgage their poor rates for the purpose of providing for their able-bodied paupers, by colonization in the British colonies. The idea went further than merely providing passage money. Horton argued that they should be supplied with the capital goods to settle in the new lands: that, rather than become a burden on someone else’s purse, they should be able to create new and potentially affluent lives for themselves.
Horton’s bill was thrown out twice, before in 1832, the Minister for the Colonies, Viscount Goderich told the House of Lords that…
… he did not think that a necessity would rise for the Government going out of its way to afford pecuniary assistance to those persons disposed to emigrate, as the number of voluntary emigrants to the Canadas had considerably increased in the past year.
A Passage to The USA – Cobbett’s ‘Emigrant’s Guide’:
Emigration to the Empire certainly did continue throughout the 1830s, mainly as a means of escape from poverty, disappointment and frustration. Throughout these early years, the United States had come to be regarded as a sort of ‘Never, Never Land’ in this respect, where every street was paved with gold and where dreams came true. This was, of course, a good deal of rubbish, but the notion persisted well into the twentieth century. One of the people who furthered it was the controversial writer, William Cobbett. Despite his radical credentials, he was not thinking so much of the poor and destitute, as of the farmer and tradesmen, and his Emigrant’s Guide, which was published in 1829, was addressed to “The taxpayers of England”. Though he suggested that America was the best place for them, he also admitted that:
There is, in the transfer of our duty to a foreign land, something violently hostile to all our notions of fidelity: a man is so identified with his country, that he cannot, do what he will, wholly alienate himself from it.
It is hard to imagine that the starving labourer would have agreed with this, but in Cobbet’s opinion, the situation in England was sufficiently unbearable to bolster anyone’s will to violate “fidelity”. He wrote of the ‘deserving poor’ that hunger and rags, and filth, are now becometheir uniform and inevitable lot. For them, there was no hope. On the other hand,
… for the man who has some little money left; let him take a calm and impartial look at the state of things and let him say whether he sees any, even at the smallest, chance of escaping ruin, if he remain here.
He made a very compelling argument for moving home to the United States, dismissing Canada, because:
… the whole is wretchedly poor: heaps of rocks covered chiefly with fir trees. These countries are the ‘offal’ of North America; they are the head, the shins, the shanks and the hoofs of that part of the world; while the United States are the air-loins, the well-covered and well-lined ribs, and the suet. People who know of the matter frequently observe that the United States will ‘take’ our American colonies one of these days. This would be to act the wise part of a thief, who should come and steal a stone for the pleasure of carrying it about.
Although he had spent some time in New York and Long Island, Cobbett’s advice on how to get there was based on what seemed to him to be correct rather than the actual reality. Theoretically, there was everything to be said for travelling ‘steerage’, in the part of the ship above the rudder, where passengers travelled at the cheapest rate and by so doing, saved money for their expenses in America. While cabin class passengers paid between thirty-five and forty pounds, steerage passengers paid only eight pounds. On the other hand, he doesn’t seem to have realised just how bad conditions were in this section. For the mass of the people who were compelled to travel in this way, the voyage was a nightmare more frequently than not. For many, it meant death by disease.
Cobbett himself never suffered from seasickness and he had original and unscientific ideas. Women were more prone to the ailment than men and that servants, paying the penalty for belonging to an inferior class, were worst of all. He wrote that:
They will be more seasick than your wife and children… they will be a plague to you throughout the whole voyage.
Cobbett argued that American ships were most likely to produce a quick and safe passage: largely on account of their more vigilant captains. In his opinion, which was not shared by the majority of emigrant passengers, they were rarely ill-tempered. Nevertheless he warned prospective passengers against ‘badgering’ him with silly questions, and to only speak to his crew in extreme necessity, since it interrupted their duties and they could rarely provide any useful information. The Emigrant’s Guide was merely one voice in a mounting pile of such literature. Though much of this was genuinely independent and sincere, some of the pamphlets put out by emigration agents were full of fake or fictional information, as were their advertisements. It was not uncommon for the hopeful traveller to be promised a passage in a ship ‘of the largest class’ , a ‘punctual departure’ and “every precaution … to promote the health and comfort of the passengers during the voyage.” When he arrived at the port of embarkation, however, he would find that he had bought his passage in a decrepit old vessel about half the size stated in the advertisement with filthy and inadequate steerage quarters and with a departure date often delayed by several days.
‘Confidence tricksters’ also got involved in fraudulant land settlement schemes in the new country. Farmers in Britain were sold what were said to be large and fertile tracts in California, but when they arrived they discovered that they had invested their life’s savings in a piece of desert. One trickster went so far as to invent towns in Texas, which he called Manchester, Brighton and Glasgow. Of course, none of them existed. The London Standard reported:
The emigrants who have already been induced to go out … declare they were deceived and that the country is unfitted for English settlers of the better class.
The Scots and Irish flight to British North America:
During the Napoleonic Wars, the local press in the Highlands took the view that people should be dissuaded from emigrating on the grounds that Highlanders would do better to fight in the wars rather than setting out on an opportunistic venture. In Ireland, some of the priests opposed it for fear that it would decimate their ‘flocks’ (though in many areas starvation was already doing that) and so did the shopkeepers, though few customers had much many to spend. Both the Scottish ‘crofters’ and the southern Irish peasants impressed the justices in the New World with their levels of motivation for hard work through owning their own farms. In this way, people were told who should go, and who should be left behind, where to go and how to get there.Those who advised them spoke from experience. They had been overseers and knew what it was arrive at a patch of virgin territory with nothing but an axe, a spade and a few days’ food. The grim voyage was a recent reality for them, and they understood how to overcome the dangers, discomforts and difficulties.
Canada was selected as the most promising destination for emigrants to British colonies, since it was the nearest one, and the passage was therefore cheaper. Unfortunately, however, Canada lacked the glamour of its neighbour. The United States was seen as an El Dorado: Canada, as Cobbett had suggested, was a place where you chopped trees and tried to come to terms with the generally unfriendly soil that was exposed by clearing. Nor had it the ready-made facilities of the USA where a coal miner, a cotton spinner or a factory hand could reasonably hope to find work. Up in Canada, it was literally a case of starting from the grass roots, and was therefore not a destination for those who lacked a pioneering spirit of endeavour and endurance. It was therefore difficult to persuade most ordinary people to go there. To most, south of the frontier was far more enticing.
In 1815, an attempt had been made to re-direct to Canada a number of Scotsmen who were known to be planning to travel to the States. Each had been offered free travel, a parcel of land amounting to a hundred acres, and free food while he was preparing his farm. Since it was obviously possible that a number would accept the passage, and then travel south to the States, there had to be some safeguard that they would settle. Applicant had to satisfy the authorities about their characters, and each had to deposit twenty-six pounds (plus an additional two pounds for those who took their wives). If they remained in Canada for two years, the money was returned to them. Seven hundred and fifty took part in their first emigration. By the end of 1816, the number had reached 1,400, and then the scheme expired from lack of money and enthusiasm. After that, there were no more hand-outs except to a dribble of discharged soldiers.
Ireland had been described as “the wound in Britain’s side”. If anyone wanted something to worry about, he could always turn his mind to this ill-fed and unhappy community. Indeed, it seems strange that the country had to fight so hard and so long for Home Rule. Considering its record in the nineteenth century, one might have imagined that Britain would have only been too grateful to be rid of it. In 1823, poverty and over-population, as always, the twin nightmares in Ireland. To relieve both of them, an emigration scheme was devised for active and industrious men on a system which will best ensure their immediate comfort, their future prosperity. Peter Robinson, the brother of the Chief Justice of Upper Canada, was put in charge of it. The first party sailed from Cork for Quebec in the ship Hebe on 8 July of that year. When they arrived, every male emigrant between the ages of eighteen and forty-six was given a ‘location ticket’ for seventy acres of land, plus an assortment of essential farming implements and the guarantee of a free supply of food. If they worked well for ten years, each had the option to purchase a further thirty acres for the moderate sum of ten pounds. At first, opposition came from the Catholic priests, but a number of them then welcomed the scheme and encouraged their parishioners to take part in it.
The Hebe was followed by the transport ship Stokesby. All told, 568 went, of whom 182 were men, 143 women, 57 boys aged fourteen to eighteen, and 186 children under the age of fourteen. After they had been settled, at a total cost (including the crossing) of twelve and a half thousand pounds, Peter Robinson returned to Britain to work out a further scheme of this kind. With him, he took a number of letters from the settlers, including one from Michael Cronin to his mother:
We sailed from the cove of Cork on the 8th July and arrived in Quebec on the 1st September. We had a favourable voyage and as pleasant as ever was performed to this country and as good usage as any person could expect. Then from Quebec to Montreal we came in a steamboat, that is, as I am informed, 180 miles. From Montreal, we came nine miles in wagons to a barracks called La Chingonly, and from thence to Prescott in boats, which is 130 miles. From Prescott we came to a place where we all encamped this month back. … It was on Thursday last that I made out my own farm, and as my own judgement I take it to be as good a farm as any the country. … Mr Robinson, our superintendent, is uncommonly humane and good to us all. He at first served us out bedding and blankets and all kinds of carpenters tools and farming utensils … Mr Robinson promises us a cow to the head of each family next spring … Since we came on shore, each man is served out in the day with 1lb. bread or flour and 1lb. beef or pork and each woman, boy and girl get the same.
Not every voyage from Ireland was as pleasant an experience as Michael Cronin’s. In 1834, the Montreal Advertiser reported:
We have frequently heard the character of emigrant ships from Ireland declared to be worse than that of those concerned in the slave trade of Africa.
However, one cannot help feeling that the expedition might have done better to have set off earlier in the year. With the Canadian winter approaching, the settlers obviously felt the cold. As one wrote to a friend who intended to follow him:
I press upon you the necessity of bringing with you plenty of clothes both for bed and body, for that is our greatest want in this country.
One of Robinson’s party also warned of the dangers of ‘drink’, suggesting that his brother should not to come to the country if he would not resolve to work better than he did at home. … If he would keep from the drink, he might do well. Rum was very cheap and a great many of our settlers like it too well, which may prove their ruin, for a drunkard will not do well here. One day, when the Irishmen had been enjoying too much rum, one of their number picked a quarrel with a party of older Scottish settlers, resulting in shots being fired and four men being convicted for riotous behaviour. They were each sentenced to two months’ imprisonment and fines of ten pounds. But accounts of the affair became hopelessly exaggerated. There was talk of a complete breakdown of law and order within the Irish settlement. It was reported that their neighbours had organised a petition against any further schemes. Robinson’s response was forthright:
… the disturbance was … by no means calculated to injure the character of the emigrants as settlers … no man can answer that quarrels may not occur – and that there may not be sundry broken heads. No doubt, their children, growing up in the habits of the country, will be more laborious.
All in all, the sheme was considered to be a success, and another was planned for 1825. Within a week of the new project’s announcement, over fifty applications had been received from heads of families, each of whom insisted that he could be ready to sail at an hour’s notice. To the authorities in Ireland, it brought renewed hope. As Wilmot Horton said, Employment is a certain cure for the disposition to riot so generally prevalent among the people of the South. Meanwhile, in Canada, the battle against nature continued. In 1824, the Canada Company had been founded, one of its objects was to create settlements on a large tract of country owned by the Crown. The Colonial Office, which moves throughout this period with a conspicuous lack of distinction, refused to release any funds for the the purpose. By 1827, after a great deal of argument, the company had been allowed to take over 1,100,000 acres on the shore of Lake Huron plus a further 829,430 acres of Crown lands. The territory was to be paid for over a period of sixteen years. Since the land bordering on the lake was entirely uncultivated, the company was allowed to spend one-third of the purchase money on such public works as bridges, roads, churches, schools, etc.
As the Canada Company found, the system of granting land in Canada was never simple. According to an Act of 1791, one-seventh of all the territory disposed of had to be reserved for the support of Protestant clergy. To make things more complicated, a further seventh was reserved for the Crown. Thus, before anything could be accomplished, two-sevenths of the acreage had to be put aside for the Establishment. It was just the kind of situation that many emigrants had fled England to escape. The land lay idle until 1854, when the clergy reserves were taken over by the municipal authorities. When the British Government was unable to deal with poverty on its own doorstep, it was, perhaps, not surprising that it showed such tardiness in dealing with land issues thousands of miles away on the other side the ocean.
The Victorian Age and the Coming of Steam Power:
Initially, almost every port in Britain, especially those on the west coast, dispatched emigrants, sometimes in dangerously fragile vessels with insanitary conditions onboard. By mid-century, however, the development of steamships and government regulation speeded up the journey times, reduced costs, increased safety margins and led to the conentration of the emigration trade in certain large ports. Such improvements alone encouraged more traffic. Moreover, because of the greater size and capital expenditure required to operate modern vessels, the emigrant trade came to be regarded as the province of large companies like Cunard, White Star, Anchor and P&O, operating out of ports like Glasgow, Liverpool, Southampton and London. The Cunard Steam Ship Line was founded in 1840, with four steamers, each of 1,150 tons, and American competition in the shape of the Collins Line followed shortly afterwards. Steam, which had transformed factories and railways on land, was now making its mark on the ocean. Captains no longer had to wait for a favourable breeze: regular sailings became possible, and the time for the tranatlantic crossing was cut to between ten and fourteen days. But due the vast difference in cost, it took another three decades or more for this revolutionary form of power seriously impacted the emigrant trade, three decades in which the North Atlantic nightmare continued.
The reign of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) was one of the most extraordinary periods of transformation in British history. At the beginning of the era, Britain was the sole mechanised industrial society of the world, embarking on a period of free trade that would help for a time to sustain its position. The British financial services sector had emerged, greatly helped by the globalising tendencies of new technology, by the scale of British overseas investment, and by the strength of shipping and commerce. In 1837, the British railway industry was still in its infancy, but by 1850 over 10,500 kilometres of railway had been constructed, completing an extensive network which sped up the internal transport links to the ports, making emigration easier from all parts of Britain.
As the Victorian ‘Age’ began, the British Empire not only continued to grow, develop and diversify, mainly through emigration, but it also evolved politically, at least in some territories. This was ‘sparked’ by a rebellion in Canada in 1837, where discontent arose both in the area consisting of the old French Province of Quebec and the settlement of the United Empire Loyalists in Upper Canada (see the sketch-maps below). This discontent arose because the provinces’ assemblies were overruled by the Governors and their officials, who were always Englishmen appointed by the Colonial Office in London. The national, ethnic and class differences between the Parliament of Lower Canada and the British officials increased the friction, while in Upper Canada a group of privileged families, termed the ‘Family Compact’ monopolised power. A further cause of discontent was the privileged position of the Anglican Church, with land set aside in each province for the clergy. This was resented in Lower Canada in particular, where the population consisted mainly of French Catholics. The rebellion in each province was easily suppressed, but the Whig Government determined to investigate the causes. Lord Durham was appointed as commissioner and, with the help of his secretaries, Gibbon Wakefield and Charles Buller, produced a report, published in 1839. This recommended the union of the two provinces and the introduction of representative self-government. This was the origin of ‘dominion status’, under which domestic affairs were left to local elected governments, while foreign relations remained the concern of Britain.
The Durham Report also looked forward to the unification of all the provinces of British North America and, as a stimulus to economic development and integration, it urged the construction of a transcontinental railway. The Canada Reunion Act of 1840 carried into effect the first provision of the Durham Report and united the two provinces under one Governor-general and one assembly, composed of equal representation from each province. The other recommendation was applied by Lord Elgin, Lord Durham’s son-in-law, who, as Governor-general, adopted the practice of choosing ministers from the party which had a majority in the Assembly. The maritme provinces also gained responsible self-government in the 1840s.
Meanwhile, the generally rising trend of the previous decades was lifted by a surge in emigration, especially from Ireland, in the 1840s, where the potato famine of the 1840s caused the death of more than a million people and further stimulated the mass emigration of Irish people across the Atlantic and elsewhere. Already by this time, those born in Britain and Ireland could be found in virtually all parts of the world. Overwhelmingly, emigrants were attracted to temperate regions, but some settled in the more environmentally challenging tropical territories of Asia and Africa. What is striking is that there was a gradual shift in destinations. Initially, most of those setting off voluntarily were bound for British North America (later Canada) or the USA, but as the century neared its end and the Empire grew, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand offered viable alternatives. Convention suggests that it was poverty that motivated early nineteenth-century migrants to move. In rural areas, population growth, fierce competition for land, low wages industrialisation and urbanisation did indeed push many to migrate. Other factors included the decision of some landowners, in the Gaelic-speaking Highlands and Islands, to clear their lands of crofters to make room for sheep. Disease, most notably the potato blight, which affected much of Ireland and parts of Scotland in the 1840s, was another important ‘push factor’, together with the resulting famine.
The middle years of the nineteenth century saw a big increase in the number of people leaving Britain to seek their fortunes overseas. This was no easy undertaking. The journey across the Atlantic was dangerous, extremely uncomfortable and very long. Compared with modern ocean going ships, the wooden sailing ships, in which most emigrants still travelled, were light and small. The majority of passengers travelled in the space between decks known as the ‘steerage’. When Charles Dickens made his tour of North America in 1842, he returned to England in a sailing ship. One hundred people were crowded together in what he called the “little world of poverty” of the steerage accommodation. Nearly all were returning from luckless attempts to conquer America, or at least to come to terms with it. Some has spent only three months there.
A number were going back defeated, in the very same ship that had taken them over there. Nearly all were in the terminal stages of poverty. Since their fares on this ship did not include food, a pitiful few were forced to live off the charity of the other steerage passengers. Dickens wrote of these ‘scavengers’:
If any class deserve to be protected by the Government, it is that class who are banished from their native land in search of the bare means of subsistence.
But these were the minority, perhaps the submerged tenth of unemployables. The majority of those who travelled to the United States in the first half of the nineteenth century found the country very much to their liking. They particularly liked the outlook which insisted that one should be “courteous, but never servile.” After traditionally touching their forelock so many times to a self-important English squire, it made a pleasant change. The USA’s advantage over Canada was that it catered for the emigrant town-dweller. One happy little success story is told in a letter written by an emigrant in New York State to his father in Kent, and quoted in Cobbett’s The Emigrant’s Guide:
Philip is apprentice to a tin-worker in the city; Henry is apprentice to a hatter, about thirty miles from New York; Joseph is gone with James to Albany; Josiah has got a place as hostler about seven miles from the city; I live … not more than five or six rods from Mr Selmes; they are great friends to us; we borrow anything that we want to use of them.
The witer was learning the trade of carpentry and appeared to be doing well for himself:
The labouring people live by the best of provisions; there is no such thing as a poor industrious man in New York; we live more on the best of everything here, because we have it so very cheap.
Another wrote to his children that …
… people are a great deal more friendly than they are, or can be, in England: because they have it not in their power as they have here; for we are all as one, and much more friendly.
The United States of America had been established, though the drive to the West had not yet begun: in the east, the trees had already been cleared away – there were industries, harvests and fine buildings. The cost of everything was far less than in England and for those who were not up to the the task of immigration, there were workhouses where a man could exist during winter before being shipped back to Britain in the spring, like those who accompanied Dickens on his return from the USA. Land was certainly not to be had for nothing, but a man could get a job, work for a few years and then purchase his plot outright, or rent it. Cobbett quoted an emigrant from Sussex, writing to his parents that he had a good house and garden, ninety rods of ground, and some fruit trees, for twenty-five dollars a year. Another of Cobbett’s ‘witnesses’, of a more devout turn of mind and phrase, observed:
We are in a land of plenty, and, above all, where we can hear the sound of the Gospel. The gentleman that we were working for has preaching in his own parlours, till he can build a chapel; it is begun not a quarter of a mile from where we live – and may poor sinners be brought to Christ; for here is many that is drinking in of sin, like the ox the water.
In New York, there was plenty of ‘drinking in of sin’, much of which was designed to rob the immigrant of his senses, followed by his savings. What seems to be certain, however, is that in the United States, an industrious, thrifty and sober immigrant could maintain his family in better style from three days’ work a week than he could by working six days a week in Britain. As everybody agreed, the two most important things were not to hang about in New York, and to get a job as quickly as possible. Some immigrants turned out to be woefully lacking in initiative. On one occasion, Cobbett was irritated by two passengers who had travelled in the same ship as him. One was a tailor: the other a collar-maker. A month after landing, both men called to see him at his lodgings on Long Island:
Perceiving them to be still as meanly dressed as they were upon going from the ship, I asked them what they had been doing. They said they had been doing nothing: I was surprised, and asked them whether people had left off wearing coats, and horses, harness. They said … they could not get as high wages as others got … I advised them to go by all means, and accept the terms offered by the masters; and told them that, at any rate, I had nothing to bestow upon men, who could, if they would … save 25s. 6d. a week.
By the mid-1840s, Britain may have been more prosperous than ever before, but Ireland, always poverty-stricken, was devastated by the ravages of the potato blight in 1845 and 1846. The disease, which crossed the Atlantic from the USA in 1845, reducing the staple food of the Irish to a black, rotting mush. Ireland was used to disasters of this kind, but this was unquestionably the worst. During the next two years, nearly seven hundred thousand people died, either from starvation or from disease brought on by the famine. Following this disaster many of those who survived were prompted to leave their country for good. About two million people left Ireland between 1845 and 1855. Some emigrated with state assistance. In 1846, 43,439 Irish men, women and children set off for Canada, and this figure increased to 109,680 in the following year. Many of them never arrived. According to one estimate, no fewer than 17,445 died on passage from fever following malnutrtion. The Home Secretary, Sir George Grey, had to tell Parliament that the Government had received accounts of the most deplorable sufferings endured by the emigrants. This was not due to callousness: it was simply that nobody had ever envisaged an exodus on so enormous a scale.
The Famine and the ‘Fever’ Ships of the 1840s:
The system broke down. Something like seven hundred vessels a year were leaving the English and Irish ports in a westerly direction. They were all crammed beyond capacity with starving emigrants, and it became impossible to find enough surgeons to go round. Many ships had to go without, and the already inadequate regulations had to be relaxed still more. The hygeine in steerage, never of a high standard, became atrocious. According to one eyewitness, …
No cleanliness was enforced, and the beds were never aired. The master during the whole voyage never entered the steerage, and would listen to no complaints; the dietary contracted for was, with some exceptions, normally supplied, though at irregular periods. … The case of this ship was not one of peculiar misconduct; on the contrary, I have received from very many emigrants well known to me, that this ship was better regulated and more comfortable than many that reached Canada.
The Irish made up the bulk of the people leaving the British Isles during these years and the greater part of them decided to settle in the USA. Rather than leaving from Cork, as they had done in the 1820s and ’30s, by the 1840s, the first stage of the emigration journey of most Irish emigrants was the eastward journey across the Irish Sea to connect with the big steamers leaving Liverpool to cross the Atlantic to New York or Quebec.
Men, women and children were herded indiscriminately together in very cramped conditions. Most berths were less than two metres square and were intended for four people. Lieutenant Hodder, an emigration officer, explained the sleeping arrangements to a House of Commons Select Committee:
Q: The single men and women all sleep alongside of one another … ?
Hodder: Yes, there is no privacy whatever.
Q: But supposing an emigrant comes and finds that there is no room onboard the vessel, except in a berth holding four, one half of which is already occupied?
Hodder: He would have to go into that; his contract is, that he shall have eighteen inches space.
Q: And if that is occupied by a married couple, the emigrant, whether a single man or a single woman, would be put into that berth alongside the married couple?
Hodder: I do not see anything to prevent it.
Bad weather made conditions in the steerage far worse. In 1849 an ex-sailor called Herman Melville wrote a novel, Redburn, His First Voyage, in which an emigrant ship met stormy conditions in the Irish Sea:
That irresistable wrestler, seasickness, had overthrown the stoutest of their number, and the women and children were embracing and sobbing in all the agonies of the poor emigrants’ first storm at sea … How then, with the friendless emigrants, stowed away like bales of cotton, and packed like slaves in a slave ship; confined in a place that, during storm time, must be closed against both light and air; who can do no cooking, nor warm as much as a cup of water; for the drenching seas would instantly flood their fire in their exposed galley on deck? We had not been at sea one week, when to hold your head down the fore hatchway was like holding it down a suddenly-opened cesspool.
Seasickness was at the milder end of the sectrum of sickness and disease encountered onboard by emigrants. In 1847, the Brutus put out from Liverpool with 330 emigrants on board. On the ninth day of the voyage, a man in his early thirties, who had seemed to be perfectly fit, went down with cholera. He was given rough and ready treatment and, strangely enough, recovered. But, by this time, an elderly woman of sixty had become infected. She died ten hours after her first symptoms. More cases broke out and more deaths followed. On one day alone, there were twenty-four casualties, but the captain showed no intention of putting back to port. He held on until, at last, the crew became infected. This was too much: he went about and returned to the Mersey. By the time the ship dropped anchor in the river, there had been 117 cases: eighty-one had died and thirty-six were still on the danger list. In another vessel, when typhus broke out, a young Scotsman saw fifty-three corpses, including those of his mother and sister, thrown unceremoniously into the sea. He wrote afterwards:
One got used to it. It was nothing but splash, splash, splash, all day long – first one, then another. There was one Martin on board, I remember, with a wife and nine children … Well, first his wife died, and they threw her into the sea, and then he died, … and then the children, one after another, till only two were left alive. The eldest, a girl of about thirteen who had nursed them all, one after another, and seen them die – well, she died, and then there was only the little fellow left.
Contagious diseases spread like wildfire among the steerage passengers. The most common was ship fever, or typhus, from the Greek for ‘mist’ which describes the vague mental state of the patient. It was a disease transmitted by lice. In 1847, when more emigrants died at sea than in any other year during the nineteenth century, seven thousand passengers died of the fever before reaching America and many more died soon after disembarking. Terry Coleman, in Passage to America, gives a description of the disease:
Typhus is a disease of the blood vessels, the brain, and the skin.The onset is sudden. The symptoms are shivering, headache, congested face, bloodshot eyes, muscular twitchings, and a stupid stare, as if the sufferer were drunk. … The skin becomes dark, and sometimes the illness was called black fever. About the fifth day a rash comes out, and the delirium becomes a stupor. It is a disease greatly encouraged by starvation, dirt, and overcrowding.
The ‘fever ships’ as they became known, arrived one by one in the St Lawrence, queuing to be allowed to complete their journey to Quebec. With the coming of the thousands of sick and famished Irishmen, the quarantine facilities on the small island of Grosse, originally created in 1832 to cope with an outbreak of cholera, were stretched beyond their limit. The ice on the St Lawrence had lasted until April in 1847, and it was not until 4 May that the quarantine station was opened for business. Its staff amounted to one steward, one orderly and one nurse. In the hospital, there was room for two hundred patients. The first fatality occurred on 15 May, when a little girl aged four died of typhus. By 28 May, there were 856 fever and dysentery cases on the island and a further 470 still onboard the ships. In addition, there were twenty-six more vessels and thirteen thousand passenger waiting in the river to be inspected. The Army provided eight marquees and 266 bell tents; but, owing to the risk of infection, no soldiers were allowed to erect them. In those tents that could be erected, the patients were dying by the dozens. They included some of the captains of the waiting ships. According to one witness, in one night, there were eleven deaths, while sixty more cases were admitted and three hundred others waiting to be admitted. There were 2,500 cases at the time with hundreds of others on the waiting ships.
Most of the casualties died of typhus, brought on board the ships by lice. If Grosse Isle was an inadequate reception status, the facilities for dispatching them from the the British and Irish ports were non-existent. If they had been washed and disinfected, it might have been a very different story. The situation among ‘the Irish poor’ on departure was summed up in a petition to the House of Lords, delivered with eighty-six signatures on the document, which read:
In times past the poor of this country had large gardens of potatoes, and as much conacre as supported them for nearly the whole year, and when they had no employment from the farmers they were working for themselves, and when they had no employment they had their own provisions; but now there are thousands and tens of thousands that have not a cabbage plant in the ground; so we hope that ye will be so charitable as to send us to America, and give us land according to our families and anything else ye will give us (and we we will do with the coarsest kind). We will repay the same, with the interest thereof, as the Government will direct.
But what they found was another form of hell. When the epidemic was over, a monument was erected on the site of Grosse Isle’s main cemetary. One side had the following word engraved on it:
In this secluded spot lie the mortal remains of the 5,424 persons who flying from Pestilence and Famine in Ireland in the year 1847 found in America but a Grave.
The Transformation of Britain & The British Abroad:
The British Isles contained a fat core of industrial prosperity and a periphery of poverty. The plight of the Irish was terrible, but that of the Highlanders was scarcely better. The blight which had stricken the Irish potato crop moved onto the Scottish Lowlands, where it inflicted damage estimated at fifty thousand pounds. By early September, it had reached the Orkneys. Since about half of Scotland lived on potatoes for nine months of the year, it was obvious that conditions were going to become very bad indeed. When Westminster was asked for help, the reaction was “let them eat oats”. But the Rosshire farmers had been making a handsome profit out of selling grain to the English and they were determined to go on doing so. They even asked for military protection to ensure that their convoys to England were not pillaged by starving peasants. The authorities, seemingly insensitive to the plight of the majority, provided it. By 1849, three thousand people in Western Ross were on relief, together with five thousand on Skye. Many families were living on hand-outs from emigrant relatives. The situation was not helped by the despatch of Irish reinforcements to quell the growing number of food riots.
The sad fact of the matter was that nobody wanted the Highland crofters any longer. The big landowners realised that sheep farmers paid two or three times as much rent as crofters, and they paid punctually. When there was a war, the Highlander was a fine warrior, and he was much in demand, but in peace-time, he cluttered up good grazing land, and was better off elsewhere. Already, during the first three years of the nineteenth century, ten thousand of them had left for Nova Scotia and Upper Canada, turned out of their homes by harsh ‘lairds’ keen to make a profit from sheep-farming. William Huskisson, Governer-General of British North America, had witnessed the arrival of the brig Jane, in 1826, with the observation:
I really do believe that there are not many instances of slave-traders from Africa to America exhibiting so disgusting a picture.
The vessels had grown larger than then; but, as the Irish emigration had also shown, there had been little or no improvement in the quality of accommodation onboard. Some of the Highlanders went to Ireland to obtain passages overseas, but many embarked at the small port of Ullapool in Western Ross, the highway to which became known as “Destitution Road.” When a Highlander agreed to sail, he deposited half his passage money. If he was unable to do this, he sold his property to the agent at the latter’s evaluation. He then went back home and waited until the passenger list was filled up and the broker was able to charter a vessel. This usually took several months during which time the agent took care of everything. He gave advice about how much food to take for the journey; he was even prepared to sell the necessary supplies. In selling a stone of potatoes, he could add significantly to his already substantial profits. Like most other emigrants in the early and mid-nineteenth century, the Highlander was steadily fleeced from the moment of his first encounter with the agent, until the time he reached his destination. It was all tremendously sad, since the Highlanders had known nothing else but their homes and the countryside around it. Many of them could not speak any English. Since the crews seldom spoke any Gaelic, communications were difficult. Less surprising, perhaps, in view of the near-starvation level of life at home, was the fact that many of the children had never seen a plate before, and few knew how to use knives, forks and spoons. As John Prebble wrote in The Highland Clearances, …
The Highlanders were like children, uninhibited in their feelings and wildly demonstrative in their grief. Men and Women wept without restraint. They flung themselves on the earth when they were leaving, clinging to it so fiercely that sailors had to prise them free and carry them bodily to the boats.
As the business of stripping humanity from the Highlands continued only the old, the sick and the unwanted were left behind. Death could be relied upon to solve this problem of the remnant of overpopulation, and to clear the way for the sheep. The rest were wrenched from their holdings and turned loose upon the colonies. During one season alone, emigration went through the Hebrides like a scythe and removed two thousand people.
Theoretically, the emigrants’ boat tickets entitled them to more than their passage across the Atlantic. By law, they were entitled to ‘water and provisions’ from the ship’s master, together with ‘fires and suitable places for cooking’. The provisions included weekly measures of bread and ‘Navy biscuit’; wheaten flour, oatmeal, rice, sugar, molasses and tea. In practice, however, many captains did not fulfil their obligations and many emigrants complained about the quantity and the quality of the food they received. In 1850 William Mure, the British consul at New Orleans, reported that passengers from Liverpool were being issued with condemned bread. Three years later an article in The New York Times told of steerage passengers being given coffee made with water from the Atlantic. Nor was that all, as it was reported in a letter from William More in 1850, that the captain of the Bache McEver …
… conducted himself harshly and in a most improper manner to some of the female passengers. … having held out the inducement of better rations to two who were almost starving in the hope that they accede to his infamous designs.
On top of everything else, the journey was long. From Liverpool to New York, the crossing of over five thousand kilometres took six weeks. The regular ‘packets’ sailed weekly and the average time for the westward voyage was thirty-eight days; the return trip, taking advantage of the prevailing winds, was only twenty-five days. The departure times of the emigrant ships depended on the whims of the captains, the weather and the number of passages booked. They were much slower than the packets, and between forty and fifty days was by no means uncommon. One vessel, from Belfast with 139 passengers, took sixty-six days. The passengers exhausted their own stocks of food and had to buy supplies from the captain. He only had potatoes to supply, and by the time the ship docked, these too had run out, so that there was no food on board at all. But the record for the longest crossing in time probably belonged to a brig named The Lady Hood which set sail from Stornaway in 1841 with fourteen families (seventy-eight people). The weather conditions were so bad that she took seventy-eight hours to make the crossing. Again, the passengers were in a sorry state from malnutrition which was popularly considered to be one of the reasons why so many emigrants went down with disease. They did not get enough to eat and the condition was aggravated by seasickness. On some ships there were said to have been women who, literally, starved to death.
Very few emigrants had any choice about the vessel in which they sailed: they seldom had the opportunity to inspect the hell-ship which was to be their home for several weeks. The old sailing ships struggled on across the Atlantic. In 1847, over a hundred thousand emigrants sailed to either Canada or the USA, and 17,445 of them died of disease in transit. At the height of the Irish potato famine in 1847, one observer remarked that it would have been better, in his opinion, have been more humane to have deprived them at once of life. Scottish emigrants from the Highlands and Islands had no more choice in the matter of transportation than either the abducted Africans before them. Many of the departures from the Hebrides were extremely distasteful, but none worse than the sailing of the vessel Admiral in 1851. The villain of the piece was the laird, Colonel Gordon of Cluny, an avaricious landlord whose instructions were simple: the maximum number of people were to be removed from his domain in the shortest possible time. To speed matters up, the colonel had asked the ship to be sent to Loch Boisdale in South Uist. The inhabitants of the island were assembled on the beach, and some of them were were put on board by physical force. According to a contemporary report:
One stout Highlander, Angus Johnstone, resisted with such pith that they had to handcuff him before he could be mastered. One morning during the transporting season we were suddenly awakened by the screams of a young female who had been recaptured in an adjoining house, she having escaped after her first capture. We all rushed to the door, and saw the broken-hearted creature, with dishevelled hair and swollen face, dragged away by two constables and a ground-officer.
Elsewhere, convicts were exported. In the Highlands, living and breathing was crime enough for human beings to be removed by force. Nor had it gone unnoticed that there was far less illness among the shiploads of German emigrants than among those from Britain. The Germans kept their vessels clean and when their passengers came ashore, they looked clean and healthy, and the children were ‘well-scrubbed’. Although ‘Britannia’ might very well have ruled the waves, in the emigrant trade, she presided over a sewer. The authorities took long enogh about it, but in 1848 they published a list of twenty-two regulations for preserving order and cleanliness. Three or four “trusties” were appointed to enforce these as well as to represent the passengers in any complaints they may wish to make to the captain.
Push and Pull Factors in Migration:
In spite of pressure on wages and poor living conditions, the compulsion of rural poverty became less critical as a ‘push’ factor by the second half of the century. Nevertheless, a significant drift from the rural areas of the British Isles continued, whether to growing industrial areas such as south Wales, the North East and North-West of England, Belfast, Clydeside and central Scotland, or to the overseas colonies and dominions. Some of the internal migrants became involved in what has become known by demographic historians as ‘step’ migration, from rural areas to temporary residence in towns and ports and then on to distant places overseas. The men were mainly quarrymen, agricultural workers and farmers; the women were usually farm workers or domestic servants. In the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand they cleared land for farming, opened up the mines (including the gold mines), helped build the railways, created towns and, of course, produced children. They played a lesser role in southern Africa, where native black labour was exploited instead. Most of these later nineteenth century migrants, certainly those from England and Wales, were born in towns and were general labourers, but others, including many women, had industrial or ‘service-sector’ skills, as artisans, builders, mechanics, engineers, textile workers and, increasingly, shopkeepers, clerks and professional people. They may have felt anxious about their economic and social prospects in the British Isles, they were also positively attracted by the greater opportunities that were emerging in the ‘neo-Europes’.
Most emigrants were young, male and single, but there was also a steady flow of single female emigrants for whom employment and indeed marriage prospects appeared better than at home. Many single Irish women had emigrated to the USA from the 1820s, but the proportion of women migrants in general increased as overseas settlements became more established. When married couples emigrated, the husband sometimes went ahead to ‘set up’ with his wife and children following later, sometimes a considerable time later. Migrants usually followed a process of ‘chain’ migration, responding to information about opportunities relayed to them in letters by family or friends already overseas, or in conversation with those who had been there and returned. For many, such sources determined not only whether to go, but also where and when. In the latter half of the century, they no longer settled on rural frontiers in large numbers, but increasingly in towns such as Pittsburgh, Toronto, Cape Town, Sydney and Wellington. Especially after the American Civil War and the resulting Lancashire ‘cotton famine’, booming economic conditions across the Atlantic prompted further surges in emigration. These surges foreshadowed the the more rapid industrialisation and urbanisation of the USA, Canada and the other British dominions around the turn of the century, prompting increased flows in those directions.
In Canada, and particularly in the province of Quebec (or ‘Lower Canada’), the rush of immigrants in the 1850s made the English-speaking settlers more numerous than the French-speakers. Ethnic conflict therefore recommenced, and the immediate solution to this was seen to be in the separation of the two provinces for local matters. The Governor-general realised that this crisis also afforded the opportunity to form a union among the provinces of British North America. His proposals led to the passing of the British North American Act of 1867. The terms of the Act were:
(1) The creation of the Dominion of Canada, consisting of the four provinces: Quebec, Ontario, New Brunswick and Nova Scotia;
(2) Each province retained its separate Parliament to deal with local affairs;
(3) One Union Parliament was created for the whole Dominion, with more power than the local parliaments.
(4) Provision for the expansion of the union. British Columbia joined in 1871 on condition that a transcontinental railway was constructed (this was the Canadian Pacific Railway, completed in 1885, leading to the forming of the ‘prairie’ provinces in the region from Ontario to the Rockies).
The increasing ease and relative affordability of transport also allowed many more emigrants to return to Great Britain. Some of those who came back had failed to make good, but for others return had always been part of their prospect. They had responded at particular moments to perceived economic and social opportunities overseas by emigration, and returned when they had achieved their objectives or when the balance of advantage swang back towards home. They were part of an early international workforce. The net balance between immigration and emigration was strongly outward throughout the period, but the inward movements of returnees underlines the rational calculations which underpinned migration decision-making.
In 1851, on the first of May, the Great Exhibition opened in London. This was a display of every possible kind from all over the world. It was housed in the Crystal Palace, a massive structure of iron and glass designed for the occasion by Joseph Paxton and built in Hyde Park in a mere seventeen weeks. The Exhibition was a spectacular success. Over six million people visted it during the six months it remained open. Queen Victoria, whose ‘consort’ Prince Albert had worked unceasingly on the project during the months of preparation, wrote: I never remember anything before that everyone was so pleased with, as is the case with the Exhibition. The exhibits provided a dazzling display of human skill and ingenuity. They also highlighted Britain’s position in the world as the leading industrial nation. No other country could match the range of goods and machines displayed by British exhibitors. Together with the exhibitors from the colonies, they occupied half the exhibition area. For home visitors this was all very reassuring and if the USA’s display did not fill the space allotted to it they could afford to smile, along with Punch magazine, which published the following ‘jibe’:
By packing up the American articles a little closer, by displaying Colt’s revolvers over the soap and piling up the Cincinnati pickles on top of the Virginian honey, we shall concentrate all the treasures of American art and manufacture into a very few square feet, and beds may be made up to accommodate several hundreds in the space claimed for, but not one quarter filled by, the products of United States industry.
This ‘hubris’ reflects the general mood optimism which pervaded the mid-century. Yet, even if reluctantly, the exhibition-goers were being made aware of the plight of the people of the Hebrides. Shortly after the Great Exhibition opened, a letter appeared in The Times from “the Widow of a Highlander.” She suggested that…
… a table and chair be placed in the Crystal Palace near the refreshment rooms, occupied by some lady, with a money box, to ask for the superfluous pence which thousands of who daily visit … would gladly give. … there are few who would not cast their mite to arrest the messenger of death, now busy among the families of Highlanders.
Exhibitions continued to be held, almost on an annual basis, throughout the country. Britain’s future seemed bright, as the Illustrated London News put it in reporting the opening of the Exhibition: … we may reasonably anticipate, if no war arise … to destroy the auspicious work that has begun, that the next twenty years will afford us triumphs still more substantial and more brilliant than those we already enjoy. Developments in foreign trade during the next twenty years certainly justified these hopes. During this period Britain exported cotton and woolen goods, iron and steel, machinery, hardware and coal at a greater rate than ever before. The world demand for these goods was increasing and Britain, due to the industrial revolution, was able to supply them. She had taken advantage of of her contacts with a large number of foreign markets, so that her share of world trade was far greater than that of any other country.
In September 1851, the Skye Emigration Society had been founded by the Sheriff-substitute of Skye. Presently, the name was changed to the Highlands and Islands Emigration Society. The object was to procure help for those who wished to emigrate, but had no means of doing so by affording information, encouragement and assistance to all to whom emigration would be a relief from want and misery. Applicants for help were told that everything would be done to help them: but that first, they should convert all their possessions into cash. In deserving cases, the society paid the deposit on the passage and provided a suitable outfit of clothes. Eventually, it became the Society for Assisting Emigration from the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, with its offices in St. Martin’s Lane in London. The Prince Consort became its Patron, and the Governor of the Bank of England and several nobles were among its Committee of Management. A deserving case was described as one where the applicant would be a burden to the British community in the mother country but a support to it when transferred to the colonies. Peculiarly, therefore, some applicants were nearly refused aid because they looked too robust and insufficiently destitute to be deserving. However, the Society’s secretary was reminded that ‘the mother country’ had pledged herself to send healthy people abroad, and not to offload her ‘debris of weaklings’.
‘Fleecing’ the Migrants – The Ports of Departure & Arrival:
Once granted assistance with the passage, the emigrating family still had to contend with the perils, not just of the ocean crossing, but with the brutal disregard for humanity and the roughest standards of honesty in the ports on either side of it. New York was as bad as the warnings the emigrants were given by the Emigration Society of the nation to which they belonged, but Liverpool, the chief port of departure from Britain to North America was little better. By the mid-nineteenth centtury, Liverpool had overtaken Bristol as England’s second largest city and one of the most prosperous. Southampton had yet to come into its own as a transatlantic port: most of the westbound ships sailed from the Mersey. Although emigrant ships sailed from the home ports, many Irishmen preferred to use Liverpool as the point of departure. They believed that the passages were cheaper, and they were certainly more frequently. They had arrived in the Mersey half-starved and more often than not after a rough crossing over the Irish Sea. They were poorly-dressed, often ill, and in trepidation about the journey ahead.
The centre of the port city was graced with some fine neo-classical architecture, but behind it were acres of slums: mean and dirty streets where rats swarmed. One building which, appropriately, had once been the headquarters of the slave trade, was now taken over by opportunists intent on making the utmost profit out of the urge to emigrate, especially by Irishmen. It was a warren of mean little offices, peopled by shipbrokers, merchants, agents and other sophisticated sharks. Waterloo Road, a grey scar running past the perimeter of the docks, was another of their strongholds, full of pubs, eating houses and provision merchants for passengers in transit. There were also crumbling boarding houses, mean little shops, and the hang-outs of criminal characters – the whole squalid set-up conceived with only one thing in mind – to rob men and women who were already poverty-stricken. This dock-side robbery was made easier by the brokers’ lists of sailing dates, which was usually pure fantasy, used as a means of keeping the emigrants hanging around in Liverpool waiting for days if not weeks for their ship to sail. Embarkation in the emigrant ships at Liverpool, pictured below, there was no real hurry, since they seldom sailed at the times scheduled.
The passage itself was, however, cheap enough, but there was a world of difference between the standard of the of the cabin accommodation, in the region of forty pounds and that of a steerage berth, at a tenth of the cost. As we have already noted, the brokers made their money by cramming the steerage space to capacity and beyond, reducing humanity to the status of a factory commodity, packing the emigrants on board.
Those who were determined to ‘fleece’ the emigrants ranged from wealthy shipowners and their agents at the top to the ‘shysters’ at the bottom, the most vicious of whom were ‘the runners’. Both New York and Liverpool were infested with them. The ‘runners’ were at the bottom of the social scale. If the brokers and the boarding housekeepers were the whoremasters, the runners were the pimps. They were essentially thugs, but with sufficient intelligence to pose as a cross between a porter and an information officer. He would carry the emigrants’ luggage, recommend accommodation in which to pass the days before the ship sailed and even suggest shops where they might buy provisions for the voyage. Provided they took his advice and paid meekly for his services, they had nothing to fear. If they refused his advances, they would probably be beaten up. The pestering escort would also take his cut from the lodging house-keeper, the shops, and sometimes from the broker himself.
Of course, the runner overcharged for his service as a baggage attendant. The boarding houses he vigorously recommended were little more than overcrowded slums. One place, originally licensed for nineteen guests, but at the height of the emigration boom, it was not uncommon to find ninety-two sleeping there. In another instance, thirty-two people were crammed together on the stone floor of a cellar without any bedding. The sexes were not separated, one man being crammed into a cubbyhole for several nights with four women. At most boarding houses, the rate was fourpence a night, and this only included sleeping accommodation. The rate at the Union Hotel, on the other hand, was one shilling, but all meals were provided. Another enterprise had been started in a converted warehouse on the initiative of two Roman Catholic priests. Bedding, blankets and a fire for cooking were available, and the itinerant visitors could even take baths. Naturally, the runners frowned upon these new, more enlightened places and threatened their proprietors with assault. Many of the runners ran protection rates throughout the city. There were attempts by right-minded persons to protect the emigrants against these villains, but they were ineffective and it was not always easy to discern which organisation was on the right side of righteousness. For instance, the Liverpool Emigrants’ and Householders Protective Society sounds wholesome and worthy, but it was, in fact, a front for a concealed parcel of rogues.
If, by some oversight of the Liverpool runner, the wretched emigrant still had some money on him when he first became an immigrant, the New York runners did their best to deprive him of it. The moment an emigrant ship had undergone its medical inspection by the quarantine officials, they swarmed aboard, powerful, foul-mouthed, desperate men against whom only armed force would prevail. Often eight or nine boatloads were rowed out to a vessel in the ‘roads’. In many cases, the ships’ captains were on their payroll, and instances were reported in which these gentlemen received anything up to three hundred dollars for giving a particular gang the exclusive concession to rob their passengers. In 1829, William Cobbett wrote that the boarding houses in New York were kept without an exception, by persons of unquestionably good character. By the mid-century, however, many of these establishments had come down in the world, morally as well as materially. The runners, of course, took a cut from the proprietors, and at the lowest end of quality of accommodation, there was a lice-infested workhouse on Long Island in which one of the leading shareholders was a Liverpool racketeer.
Few emigrants remained in New York itself, and the journeys into the hinterland provided untold possibilities for profit-making, the source of which was the sale of tickets for the inland canal journey. On the boat, conditions were as bad as they had been on the emigrant ships. In his Passage to America, Terry Coleman quoted the evidence of a witness given before a committee appointed by the New York in 1847. According to this man, they were crowded like beasts into the canal boat, and are frequently compelled to pay their passage over again, or be thrown overboard by the captain. There must have been times when the unhappy emigrant wondered whether the hell into which he was entering was not worse than the one from which he had fled.
Triumph over Adversity – Survival, Security & Integration:
Every year brought a sorrowful crop of disasters. Between 1847 and 1851, forty-four of the 7,129 ships which sailed from the UK to North America were wrecked, and 1,043 were drowned. In at least one case, the crew abandoned ship and left the passengers to their fate. The fact that the master was charged with manslaughter was poor compensation for the 196 men, women and children who were drowned. Two hundred and forty-eight people perished in 1847 when the Exmouth was driven ashore on the coast of Islay in Scotland; and 176 died within sight of land when the White Diamond Line’s Ocean Monarch caught fire and sank in the Mersey estuary, only a few hours after leaving Liverpool. An eye-witness described the terrifying scene:
The flames were bursting with immense fury from the stern and centre of the vessel. So great was the heat in these parts that the passengers, men, women and children, crowded to the forepart of the vessel. In their maddened despair women jumped overboard; a few minutes more and the mainmast shared the same fate. There yet remained the foremast. As the fire was making its way to the forepart of the vessel, the passengers and crew, of course, crowded still further forward. To the jib-boom they clung in clusters as thick as they could pack – even one lying over another. At length the foremast went overboard, snapping the fastenings of the jib-boom, which, with its load of human beings, dropped into the water amidst the most heartrending screams both of those onboard and those who were falling into the water.
In 1852, the UK Parliament finally passed a Passenger Act which began to regulate the conditions for passengers onboard the ships, ordering that all single men were to be berthed in a separate part of the steerage from families and single women. Three years later, the Americans attempted to improve the conditions of immigrants afloat. The new legislation passed by Congress in 1855 stipulated that only one passenger could be carried for every two tons of ship, that every passenger must have at least sixteen feet of space, and that the decks must be separated by at least six feet. A hospital had to be provided: the berths had to be sufficiently wide, and not more than two people were allowed to occupy each. There were also regulations about such matters as adequate ventilation, the provision of sufficient food and an efficient cooking range. Captains who did not comply with these rules were liable to fines of up to a thousand dollars and could be sent to prison for a year. A fine of ten dollars was also levied for every death that occurred on a voyage. In the same year, there was also a new Passenger Act in Britain, which was even more demanding than the American regulations in terms of space and maximum numbers. Two years later, the fruits of this legislation were apparent. Out of those who sailed to Boston, numbering 16,467, only twenty-two died; and of the 4,939 who departed for Philadelphia, there were only eight deaths.
For the time being, it was the British who continued to ‘rule the waves’ and to be ‘the Carryers of the World’, and the carrying trade was one area where Britain remained supreme in 1870 and thereafter. Even in 1890 there was more shipping registered in Britain than in the rest of the world put together. The bulk of these ships were steam-driven but the switch from sailing ships to steamships had been a gradual process. One reason for this was that sailing ships became much faster with the development of the ‘clipper’ ships like The Cutty Sark, launched in 1869. These were first built in the 1840s by the Americans who, for a short while, until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, had succeeded in taking over from the British the bulk of the Anglo-American carrying trade. The progress of the steamship was also delayed by the fact that, until the development of more efficient engines from the 1860s, the ships used vast amounts of coal. Once this problem was solved, the days of the sailing ship were numbered.
If Malthus had seen emigration as a solution to the problem of overpopulation, and Wakefield conceived of it as the keystone of Empire-building, various British governments seem to have regarded it as a desperate remedy for use in periods of crisis. When thousands were starving, state-aided passages to the colonies were produced as a panacea. At other times, the emigrants had to pay for their own fares. In any case, the remedy was insufficient – and, it nearly always came too late. The tardiness was understandable. If it had been possible to foresee an emergency, the resources could have been mobilised ahead of it. Once it struck, a well-ordered fleet of ships would have been ready to dispatch the sufferers and, at the end of the voyage, people would have been well-primed and prepared to receive them. Unfortunately, natural disasters, such as potato blight, seldom gave sufficient warning of their advent.
British Governmental interest in emigration, such as it was, was mostly concerned with the colonies. The United States, however, was still the favourite target of the emigrants. Even during the American Civil War, when a sizeable number of US citizens migrated to Canada, this trend continued. In 1853, for instance, a total of 329,937 British subjects departed for overseas. Of this figure, 230,885 went to the US, while 34,522 sailed to Canada. Between 1861 and 1870, seventy-two per cent of all British and Irish emigrants went there. After the war, the American railroad companies began their huge task of driving a steel highway to the west. Where the permanent way pointed, the settlers followed, and in their acquisition of great swathes of the United State, the railways always had land to spare. They not only needed people as potential customers, but were also prepared to dabble in real estate. The North Pacific alone sent eight hundred agents to Britain, and the Santa Fé set up the Anglo-American Agricultural Company with its headquarters in London. In 1869, an outfit masquerading as the American Emigrant Aid Society of London, went to the extent of organising a lottery, with a first prize of a free passage to San Francisco. The more general inducements were much higher wages than in Britain, and the fact that, unlike most of the colonies, the United States provided opportunities for town-dwellers. According to the superintendent of the American census in 1874, …
… in respect of their industrial occupation, the foreigners among us may be divided as those who are where they are because they are because they are doing what they are doing; and those who are doing what they are doing because they are where they are. In the former case, occupation has determined location; in the latter, location has determined occupations.
For some, the destination was perfectly clear. If you were a miner, and fed up with the conditions at home, you would head for Carbondale in Pennsylvania. This, as its name implied, was a centre for coal and anthracite. Indeed, when the first immigrants arrived there in 1827, they were expected to bring British expertise to work on creating something like a methodical system. Welshmen in particular made a success in settling there, and Welsh women established a local reputation for creating their neat and comfortable homes. The Welsh miners imported their own brand of industrial relations to Scranton in 1871, when two hundred of them went on strike. Since so few of the Irish emigrants possessed industrial backgrounds and skills, they were usually relegated to the work of labourers. They envied the Welsh and the English, who had trades, and were therefore, quite naturally, helping themselves to the better-paid skilled work.
At Scranton, thirty Irishmen decided to ignore the stoppage. Going to work as ‘blacklegs’ one day, escorted byby a militia, they were attacked by a phalanx of angry Welsh pickets and their wives. Shots were fired by soldiers, and two Welshmen were killed. Later, the Welsh retaliated and three Irishmen were killed. A meeting of Irish mineworkers afterwards condemned this premeditated assassination of Irishmen, resolving that there would be no more unity and fraternity with Welshmen in the future. Thereafter, the Pennsylvanian coalfields resounded to the melodious thunder of Welsh choirs. There were also National Women’s Welsh-American Clubs.
One of the results of the Civil War (1861-65) was a ‘cotton famine’ in Lancashire. Acting on the assumption that if the raw material could not be exported there must be a thriving industry in the country where it was grown, a number of mill workers decided to cut their losses and look for opportunities at Fall River, Massachusetts. It was the easiest mill town to reach from New York, and the boat which sailed nightly between the two became renowned for its background music of Lancashire accents and dialects. In this way, emigrants from the British Isles tended to form clusters, re-establishing their national and regional traditions in the ‘New World’. Since the United States was almost a classless society, they had to adjust their outlooks to mix with people they would never have associated with in Britain. As one of the upper-class Lancastrians admitted:
They were no longer the same men. (In Lancashire), their employers seldom or never spoke to them, and the workmen were rather glad, as they feared the communication would lead to a reduction in wages … In Lancashire it never entered their heads to introduce me to their employers. But when I met them in America, they instantly proposed to introduce me to the mayor of the city … These men were still workmen, and they did introduce me to the mayor as “a friend of theirs” in an easy, confident manner, as one gentleman would speak to another.
By and large, the emigrants were received with kindness when they reached their destinations, though much depended on the state of the local labour market. Labourers were nearly always welcomed. Skilled men who could fulfil a need were no less gratefully received.
When, on the other hand, they presented a threat to local talent, and when it seemed like they might force local craftsmen out of work by accepting lower wages, they became unpopular. In the United States, the belief that North America rightfully belonged to the North Americans of first and second-generation settlers, led to sporadic outbursts of opposition to newcomers.
(to be continued…)