FIRST WAVE: British Subjects

FIRST WAVE: Emigrant Ships to Port Phillip 1839-1845

Chapter Three: British Subjects

As he had done the previous year, the Chairman of the New South Wales Committee on Immigration signed his 1842 Report with an ecclesiastical flourish --"W.G. Australia". The Anglican Bishop of Australia's signature was not the only item of replication. The argument of his concluding paragraphs in the 1841 Report was also repeated in the latest document. It was, after all, a theme close to his sectarian heart.

William Grant Broughton was the leading Protestant clergyman in the Colony and he had strong views on Catholic immigration. He was confident in his convictions and forthright in stating them when presenting his second report to the Governor-in-Council. "He must say for himself", it was minuted, "he dreaded the genius, the policy, and the ascendancy of the Church of Rome". 

His Grace therefore had no difficulty in admitting that it was he who was the real author of the expressions that the Attorney-General had found objectionable in both reports. The exhortation to the emigration authorities in London that "a more desirable class than Irishmen might be found" (in the 1841 Report), and that continued Irish immigration "is likely to occasion future inconvenience and disadvantage to this colony" (in the 1842 Report), were statements he was reluctant to retract.(1)

The Bishop had a unique explanation for the perceived 'imbalance' of Irish to English and Scottish arrivals under the bounty scheme. He argued that it was the limited number of ports being selected by the British consignors to load their ships that produced this 'bias'. His solution to this unsatisfactory result was also deceptively simple.

Broughton had argued in the earlier report that, "the Bounty ships from England have been confined to London, Plymouth, and Liverpool; and from Scotland, to Leith [Edinburgh] and Greenock [Glasgow]; while one third of the Government ships have sailed from Irish ports [actually only one port, Cork]...With a view, therefore, to correct the existing inequality...Your Committee beg to suggest, that Portsmouth, Milford Haven, Lynn, and Hull included among the ports from which ships for the conveyance of Emigrants take their departure".(2)

He finished the 1842 Report in similar vein, essentially repeating his claim that "vessels with Emigrants sail from a very limited number of Ports". In his view, "while such as have ready access to these Ports enjoy an undue preference, the greater portion both of England and Scotland is almost precluded the opportunity". In future, he recommended, "the station of vessels should be so distributed among the ports of the United Kingdom, as to afford just facilities to the inhabitants of every quarter".(3) His Grace's 'reasoning', however, was seriously flawed.

British Ports

In the period 1839 to 1844, a total of 70 ships carried 13,092 bounty emigrants to Port Phillip. From four ports in England (London, Plymouth, Bristol and Liverpool) came 37 ships with 7,637 emigrants; From two ports in Scotland (Greenock and Leith) came 18 ships with 2,395 emigrants; and from one port in Ireland (Cork) came 15 ships with 3,060 emigrants. Map 1 demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of ships (55) and emigrants (10,032) departed from English and Scottish ports.

Map 1: BRITISH PORTS. Showing ports of embarkation for Bounty Emigrants to Port Phillip, 1839-1845. Note: These are last ports of call for emigrant ships. For example, 17 Plymouth and 14 Cork vessels originally departed from London.

There were three factors that Bishop Broughton overlooked in his argument. The first was pointed out to him by one of the civil servants on the Executive Council. "It was desirable", conceded the Commander of the Forces (himself an Irishman), "that there should be at least an equal proportion of English and Scotch introduced into this colony, but if they would not come, if they preferred remaining where they were, and the Irish alone, desirous of escaping from poverty and oppression in their native land, made this their country of adoption, surely the Irish were not to be stigmatised, to be reproached, to have it set on record against them, that their presence was an evil, a disadvantage, an inconvenience to the country..."(4)

Subtract the heat and the Commander makes an incontrovertible point -- the bounty scheme was established to encourage the emigration of free settlers. There was no element of compulsion in its regulations. Those who came ultimately chose to do so.

A second factor overlooked by the Bishop was that the experienced consignors had developed a system of commercial infrastructure in certain ports to facilitate the practical process of emigration. It was more efficient to favour one or two ports and then transport successful applicants from other regions into those centralised dispatching areas. To have such a system did not necessarily mean that shipowners were ignoring other districts for recruitment. For example, the colonial press reported, "The Forth ship...from Plymouth...with 232 immigrants...arrived at Port Phillip on the 20th inst. There were 800 persons in Marshall's Depot at Plymouth when the Forth sailed, and numbers were arriving daily by the Steamers from Ireland, awaiting passage to New South Wales".(5)

A third factor that the Bishop failed to take into account was the incidence of internal (as opposed to external) migration within Great Britain itself. According to the 1841 British Census, there were 419,256 Irish-born residents on the main island, of whom 284,128 lived in England and 126,321 in Scotland.(6) Cities with significant Irish-born populations included Liverpool, Manchester and Glasgow. These people had already uprooted themselves and migrated across the Irish Sea. The phenomenon of internal migration was also a feature of northern Scotland, with those evicted in the Highland Clearances choosing between external migration to North America, or moving south to Glasgow and England's growing industrial cities. The simple fact of residence did not always determine the ethnic origin of emigrants to Port Phillip. Neither did an emigrant ship's first or last port of call.

The arrival of so many Irish Catholics in New South Wales was not the consequence of the number or location of British ports of consignment. Nevertheless, Bishop Broughton was right in one respect -- when he relied on the local Immigration Boards' statistics to show a preponderance of Irish emigrants being shipped to the Colony. 

Of the 13,092 British emigrants who disembarked at Port Phillip, 3,484 were English (including 126 from Wales), 1,895 were Scottish, and 7,713 were Irish. In other words, the Irish made up nearly 60% of total emigrants received at Melbourne under the bounty scheme, the English a more modest 25%, and the Scots only 15%. The following three maps of emigrant origins are based on summing the data recorded under "Native Place" in the "List of Immigrants" from each ship.

Irish Origins

In this survey of bounty emigrants who offloaded at Port Phillip between 1839 and 1845, it is important to note that the Irish component was from a pre-Famine population. Although Ireland was then already over-populated, potato dependent, and very poor, her people had not yet suffered the appalling tragedy of the Great Hunger.

In Pre-Famine Ireland, periodic failures of the potato crop from "taint" (fungal rot) or "curl" (leaf virus) occurred regularly, causing hunger and distress at a local or regional level. Outbreaks of cholera and typhoid struck the malnourished poor, also at frequent intervals. But the appearance of a new potato disease called "blight" or "murrain" in September 1845 caused national starvation, pandemics of disease, and panicked migration, with the combined effect of reducing Ireland's population by 2.5 million in the next six years. The Great Hunger (Gaelic, an Gorta Mor) was an unprecedented disaster, a massive scale event, introducing a new order of suffering, a near-universal experience of death and devastation.

However, life in Pre-Famine Ireland was tough enough. In 1830-1831 the potato harvest failed in the west from Donegal to Galway. The Census of Ireland Commissioners in 1841 reported region-wide failures in 1832, 1833, 1834, 1835, 1836, 1837 and 1839 -- a series of smaller "hungers" in eight of the ten years leading up to the emigration of 7,713 Irish-born to Port Phillip.(7)

The pressure of rural poverty appears to have been particularly keen in the southern counties of Munster, where the most recent civil disturbances had broken out. The violent emergence of the Rockies in the 1820s (Limerick, Cork, Tipperary) and the Terries in the 1830s (Clare, Galway) demonstrate that the southwest of Ireland "was a crowded country-side -- a recurring motif was murder in broad daylight witnessed by many passers-by, who said nothing -- a violent province...a hungry land..."(8)  Map 2 indicates most of the emigrants to Port Phillip originated in this turbulent part of Ireland.

Map 2: IRISH ORIGINS. Showing the "Native Place" of Irish emigrants to Port Phillip according to their nominated, 'traditional', counties of birth. Note: The counties for 383 of the 7,713 Irish emigrants (4.9%) could not be identified from the ships' "List of Immigrants" and have not been included above.

This map of traditional Irish counties shows a 'hotspot' of emigration from the southwest. Tipperary (1,353), Cork (764), Galway (504), and Limerick (346), supplied nearly half of the total of Irish emigration to Port Phillip. However, there was also a sizeable contribution from Ulster in the north, with the counties of Tyrone, Antrim, and Armagh, supplying another 1,099 emigrants to the bounty scheme. In general, all counties sent someone, suggesting that to some extent the whole of Ireland was an effective recruiting ground. This was not the case across the Irish Sea in England.

English Origins

In providing only 25% of all bounty emigrants, England proved less responsive to recruitment than the colonists expected. The English reluctance to accept the offer of free passage was recognised by the Port Phillip Patriot in its issue of 27 July 1841. 
"It is quite clear we will have a very extensive Irish emigration continually pouring into the province; for it has been ascertained by the parties interested in emigration at home, that the cost of obtaining English emigrants is fully two pounds a-head more than in obtaining Irish emigrants. The Irish are also more ready to leave their home for want of employment, while the English labourer is now better paid than in former years, owing to the formation of railroads".(9)
There is evidence that  emigration agents based in England were genuine in their recruitment efforts, particularly in the southern rural shires, but with limited success.

Map 3: ENGLISH ORIGINS. "Native Place" of English emigrants according to their nominated 'traditional' shires. Note: 185 of the 3,484 emigrants from England and Wales, or 5.3%, were unattributable (generic "England", "born at sea", etc.) and are not included above.

The most prominent areas on Map 3 are Lancashire in the northwest, with 340 emigrants, and Middlesex in the southeast, with 312 emigrants. Lancashire includes the growing industrial cities of Liverpool and Manchester. Middlesex is dominated by the national capital and trading metropolis of London.

The next most prominent region is an arc of southern rural shires stretching from Buckingham in the central east to Cornwall in the far southwest. Here there were noticeable contributions of emigrants from Gloucestershire (238), Somerset (227), and Devon (265), in particular. This supports the interpretation that emigration agents' efforts were focused towards the express colonial preference for people from agricultural backgrounds.

However, disappointment in the low actual numbers of English emigrants was understandable from the colonists' point of view. It might have been reasonably supposed that the influence of economic forces on the working classes at 'home' would have yielded a better result. In the southern rural districts, consolidation of farm land and mechanisation of farming practices displaced many traditional residents at the most vulnerable end of society. 

For example, the squatter George Russell of Golf Hill reported his experience in 1836, when he formed his first out-station on the Moorabool River near Geelong.
"The two men I had with me...'Big Jack' and 'Little Jack'...[were] sent out to Tasmania as convicts about the year 1831 for machine-breaking...A number of agricultural labourers from the southern counties of England were transported to the penal colonies for the same offence, many of whom were good farming men".(10)
Squatters like Russell did not want bounty emigrants who were convicted of "hay-rick burning" and "machine-breaking", but they had rational grounds for thinking they might benefit from the rural unemployment that those offences pointed to.

In a parallel vein of thought, a greater number of emigrants might have been expected from the Black Country of Lancashire and Yorkshire, which was the heartland of the textile industry. The economic recession that hit the Port Phillip District in the early 1840s had its origin in the Great Panic of 1836. The directors of the Bank of England had become concerned at the extent of lending of pounds sterling to the United States. They decided to raise interest rates from 3% to 5% to reduce the outward flow of money from Britain. The resulting financial crisis in America had dire consequences for the cotton industry. Mill owners in England responded by shutting down looms and shedding labour.(11)

The price of raw cotton fell from 17.5 cents to 13.5 cents per pound. The price of the substitution fibre wool followed suit, dropping from 2s. 6d. per pound in 1836 to 1s. 6d. in 1837.(12) (Hence the squatters' urgent demand for bounty emigrants in sufficient numbers to reduce colonial wages). 

Unemployment in the midland textile towns, it was calculated, should slow the flow of internal English migration of displaced country-dwellers from neighbouring shires. By the same logic, those thwarted internal migrants should now be more amenable to the prospect of external migration to the Australian colonies. There was, therefore, some legitimate frustration in the Colony of New South Wales when this simply did not happen. The squatters' expectations, generated in part by liberal economic theory and the 'laws' of supply and demand, were not fulfilled.

In reality, workers in England believed they still had choices. There remained, in their minds at least, marginally more attractive options than undertaking a dangerous journey to the other side of the earth. (The Irish, on the other hand, presumably had no such illusions).

Scottish Origins

The smallest contributor to the first wave of bounty emigrants to Port Phillip was Scotland. Although 18 of the 70 ships to Melbourne were from Leith (Edinburgh) and Greenock (Glasgow), only 10 of those carried more than 50 emigrants. Rather than commit to a complete refit of their holds, many Scottish shipowners chose to 'top-up' their cargoes with bounty passengers. Nevertheless, this does not account for for the relatively low representation of 1,895 Scots in the overall 'export' of 13,092 emigrants from Britain.

Map 4: SCOTTISH ORIGINS. "Native Place" of Scottish bounty emigrants to Port Phillip according to their nominated 'traditional' shires of birth, Note that the shires for 232 of these 1,895 emigrants, or 12%, could not be identified from the ships' "List of Immigrants" and are not included above.

Map 4 indicates that the highest numbers of Scottish bounty emigrants to Port Phillip came from the central shires of Lanark (283) and Midlothian (307). These shires contained the major cities of Glasgow (223) and Edinburgh (282) respectively. In the next rank are Argyll (129) and Ayrshire (105) in the west, and Fife (111) and Perthshire (148) in the east.

What was unexpected about these figures was the low numbers drawn from areas directly effected by the Highland Clearances. Of the four large Highland and Island shires in the northwest of Scotland, Argyll supplied 129 emigrants (as above), Inverness 40, Ross & Cromarty only 3, and Sutherland none at all.

The Highland Clearances were a series of agrarian evictions carried out by Clan Chiefs, who could make more money by leasing out 'their' land to tenant sheep farmers. The traditional emigration route for expelled clans-people was to North America. For example, between 1765 and 1815, 32,161 Scots emigrated there (14,987 to British North America, or Canada), and these included 24,308 Highlanders.(13)

Australia was a more recent and consequently less well known destination, although it is estimated that approximately 5,200 Scots came to the Colony of New South Wales under the bounty scheme from 1837 to 1840.(14) (This figure includes those that disembarked in Sydney as well as Melbourne.) The often expressed assumption that most of these were distressed Highlanders must be questioned if the Port Phillip experience is a reliable guide.

The only vessel to arrive at Melbourne that can be classified as a 'Highland ship' was the Glen Huntly in April 1840. After loading emigrants from Inverness and Argyll at Oban, she underwent repairs to her keel at Greenock and then endured months of sickness at sea, before limping into Port Phillip Bay flying the yellow 'fever flag'. Out of the 169 emigrants who embarked from Scotland, at least five died in port at Greenock, ten died during the voyage, and a further three died in quarantine after arrival. 

The local Immigration Board concluded, "It is evident that the ship left Greenock with disease ['Smallpox', 'Typhoid', 'Scarlatina'] on board".(15) The implication was that the Highlanders loaded at Oban were already debilitated, carrying aboard the diseases of poverty. Perhaps this example of Highland health deterred other shipowners from contracting any more emigrants from the north. In any event, the results for Port Phillip between 1839 and 1845 indicate that most of the bounty emigrants fro Scotland during this period were Lowlanders.

In summary, this chapter has shown that the shipments of bounty emigrants to Port Phillip were certainly British subjects; people from the three kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland. Disappointing for the colonial employers, however, was that they did not necessarily come from regions of the United Kingdom in the equal proportions they expected. Nearly two thirds were Irish and the majority of these were from the impoverished south and west of Ireland. Despite the efforts of emigration agents in the southern rural shires of England, relatively few applications for free passage eventuated. And in Scotland those few who chose to emigrate were hardly the romanticised image of 'hardy Highlanders' the squatters had envisaged.

Before going on to consider the large, and unpopular, Irish contingent in detail, it is probably useful to establish a more comprehensive picture of the total of emigrants who did land in Port Phillip. In the next chapter, we will therefore look at the attributes and capabilities of all 13,092 emigrants, to build a basis of comparison with the Irish. 

The List of Immigrants for each of the 70 ships record a number of qualifications and requirements that the new arrivals were required to certify. This information provides a range of interpretable data which, when collated cumulatively, can give a sort of statistical portrait of this significant part of the early settlement population -- an 'accurate' if limited glimpse of the 'character' of those who otherwise left little (e.g. letters, diaries etc.) about themselves.


(1) 'Legislative Council of New South Wales - Immigration Report', The Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 9 September 1842, p. 2
(2) 'Report from the Committee on Immigration', The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Tuesday 24 August 1841, p. 4
(3) 'Legislative Council - Immigration', The Sydney Morning Herald, Saturday 3 September 1842, p. 2
(4) As above, Friday 9 September 1842, p. 2
(5) 'Reproduced from the Melbourne newspapers', The Sydney Monitor and Commercial Advertiser, Monday 27 September 1841
(6) T. Freeman, 1957, Pre-Famine Ireland, Manchester University Press, pp. 38, 53.
(7) C. Woodham-Smith, 1991, The Great Hunger: Ireland 1845-1849, Penguin, p. 38
(8) P.E. Maume, 2010, 'An Irish Apocalypse...Sources of Agrarian Violence in Pre-Famine Ireland', H-Net Reviews in the Humanities and Social Sciences, p. 3
(9) Reproduced from the Melbourne newspapers, The Hobart Town Courier, Friday 13  August 1841
(10) P.L. Brown (ed.), 1935, The Narrative of George Russell of Golf Hill, London, Oxford University Press, p. 118
(11) Atkinson & Aveling (eds.), 1987, Australians 1838, Sydney, Fairfax Syme & Wheldon
(12) The Sydney Herald, Thursday 17 November 1836, p. 3, and The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Thursday 11 July 1837, p. 2.
(13) J.M. Bumstead, 1982, The People's Clearance: Highland Emigration to British North America 1770-1815, Edinburgh University Press, pp. 228-229.
(14) Horsburgh, Edwards & Harper, 2007, 'Emigration', The Oxford Companion to Scottish History, Oxford University Press, part 3
(15) NSW State Records, NRS 5316, Item 4/4813, 'Glen Huntly', and Public Records Office Victoria, VPRS 19/P1, 1840/0479, 'Glen Huntly'.


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