FIRST WAVE: The Reputable Poor

FIRST WAVE: Emigrant Ships to Port Phillip 1839-1845

Chapter 2: The Reputable Poor

In the European summer of 1839, John Marshal of London published a "circular" to be distributed throughout the United Kingdom. Written in Marshall's capacity as an "Australian Emigration Agent", it was essentially a detailed recruiting pamphlet, advising that he had five ships to sail from Gravesend and Plymouth in the coming months.(1)

Marshall was an experienced consignor of assisted migrants to the Colony of New South Wales. He knew the standards of shipping required by the regulations of the Colonial Land and Emigration Commission. He was also aware, from his previous employment with the Commission's predecessor, of the moral dimension of Colonial Office policy. For example, in 1835 he had formally declined one expression of interest from a parish workhouse on no other grounds. His letter on that occasion stated, "The great object which the [Emigration] Committee are appointed to superintend is to appropriate the liberality of Government in favour of those females exclusively whose conduct has been virtuous, and whose habits promise future usefulness in the colonies, and thereby conducing to the elevation of morals there".(2)

Even within the stylized language of contemporary officialdom, Marshall's meaning was still clear. Only girls with a history of unblemished behaviour would be considered for a subsidised fare, as only this type of young woman could be expected to contribute to the uplifting of moral standards in the penal colonies of Australia. (Females who were so unfortunate as to find themselves in the poor house, it was assumed, lacked the necessary qualities to perform this role).

Moral Improvement of the Colony

Marshall's 1839 circular certainly advertised the seaworthiness of his ships, the quantity and quality of his shipboard provisions, and his program of diligent cleanliness and hygiene while at sea. But he placed most emphasis on the selection criteria for emigrants, particularly the absolute necessity of the applicant's 'good character' being attested to by reputable referees before free passage was contemplated. 

The pamphlet might have been prominently headed to attract the reader's interest -- "AUSTRALIAN PACKET SHIPS - EMIGRATION TO NEW SOUTH WALES - FREE PASSAGE" it literally shouted -- but its text soon turned to the key issue of eligibility. This applied to every category of emigrant.
Married mechanics...Agricultural Labourers...A limited number of such persons, provided they are of competent skill in their respective pursuits, of industrious and moral habits and not exceeding 35, or at the utmost 40 years of age, may, when approved, obtain a FREE PASSAGE by these conveyances...
Single males, from 18 to 30 years of age, well acquainted with agricultural work (especially shepherds) of good bodily health and power, and of really good character, will be allowed a passage on being approved... 
Single females, particularly those acquainted with dairy and farmhouse occupations, also good house all such a free passage will be granted, providing they are not under 15 nor above 30 years of age -- shall be proved, by unquestionable testimonials, to be of unexceptionable [sic] character, and that they go out under the protection of a family on board.
It will be indispensable, before parties desirous of proceeding in these ships can obtain a free passage...that certificates be transmitted to the undersigned, certifying in clear and distinct terms, to the moral character, industrious habits, healthy frame, and practical knowledge of his or her pursuit...(3)
The impression produced by Marshall's pamphlet is that the bounty emigration scheme was intended to attract Britain's 'reputable' or 'deserving' poor, rather than the destitute. The targeted demographic seems to have been the semi-skilled working class -- those who could not by themselves afford the 18 pound fare to Australia, but who had not yet become desperate enough to resort to criminal behaviour in order to survive. 

Those of Britain's poor who had so resorted, the 'disreputable' poor, made up an undesirable under-class. More than 120,000 had already been 'transported' to New South Wales and Van Diemen's Land. It was their allegedly 'malignant' moral influence that the importation of more desirable emigrants was designed to correct.

The institution of "certificates" was therefore an important selection filter in assessing applicants. These documents formed a condensed personal reference. They testified to an individual's identity, with details from parish records on place of birth and birth date, sex and marital status, and religious denomination. They also included level of education (literacy), relevant work skills, and any court appearances. Their legitimacy was derived from the number of signatures attached, with a minimum of two from "reputable householders" such as clergy, local magistrates, borough officials, previous employers, and a registered medical practitioner.

These certificates, duly completed and signed, were then submitted to the shipping agent before departure, to the Supervising Surgeon on board the ship, and then to the colonial Immigration Board officers before disembarking at their destination. At each of these three stages the responsible authority was to check the details of identity supplied in the certificates with their own observations at interview. The certificates were, in effect, the emigrant's 'licence' to travel. They were, as Marshall said, "indispensable".

There were frauds. In a letter dated July 1842, Port Phillip's Superintendent La Trobe complained to Governor Sir George Gipps that, "instances of fraud are not wanting...Once furnished with the requisite certificates, and passed by the officers appointed to the duty in England, it is impossible for the local Board to reject an individual presenting himself or herself here".(4)

Most irritating to the colonial authorities was the misrepresentation of employment experience and the obvious connivance in that deception by the emigration sub-agents in the home ports. In his testimony to an Immigration Committee inquiry in 1842, Sydney Board Agent Frances Merewether claimed, "A considerable proportion of the English, called 'agricultural labourers', and many of the Irish who have lately arrived, appear to have been discontented idlers, or men employed in or around sea port towns where the emigrants embarked. These men were doubtless shipped because they came ready to hand, and were obtained without expense".(5)

Merewether felt powerless to prevent the offences or punish the offenders. "For instance," he testified, "some of the grossest frauds lately bought under our notice have been practiced in the office of the [Liverpool] selecting agent of one of the most respectable mercantile houses in Sydney. His employers have, in the most honourable manner repudiated his acts, but the evil has not been the less for their abhorrence of it".(6)

Merewether's point in Sydney is the same made by La Trobe in Melbourne. In other words, once the emigrants landed in the Colony of New South Wales, it was too far and too costly to send them back.

However, these faults in the system should not be given undue weight. In Britain the regulations on bounty emigration were seen quite differently. It was felt by a number of commentators there that the qualification requirements for the scheme were too restrictive. The certificates of character and identity may have seemed an imperfect barrier to the colonists, but 'at home' the standards set seemed insurmountably high. The chief complaint from the British perspective was that bounty emigration did very little to solve the domestic social problems of land evictions, unemployment and poverty.

In the late 1830s, the "Agent for Emigration to New South Wales in Scotland" Dr. Boyter, came into conflict with the "Destitution of Highlanders Relief Committee" in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. John Bowie of the Edinburgh committee advised that, "many who are willing to go to Australia cannot comply with the regulations because they are too old, or wish to take aged relatives". Another view was that the bounty scheme would strip the Scottish Highlands of "the superior class of emigrants" like "intelligent shepherds". Campbell of Jura, a landowner on the Glasgow committee, was one of these. He argued that the scheme would "deplete" a population that already had limited employment skills.(7)

In 1839 a letter was published in the Scottish press from C.J. Munro, "an opulent banker and extensive sheep-farmer in Ross-shire". Munro declared, "If Boyter were ridding the country of its scum, we should be obliged to him, but he is depriving us of the very flower of the land. I don't know one bad man he has taken from this country".(8) A similar sentiment was expressed in Northern Ireland in the 1840s, where one clergyman wrote, "the young, the enterprising and the industrious leave us, while the old, the idle and indolent portions, the dregs, stay with us".(9)

These are bigoted opinion-pieces, but they are relevant because they balance the colonial views on the effectiveness of the certificates of character and identity. They represent an alternative 'reality' that was not acknowledged in Australia. The poor reputation of the reliability of the certificates at Port Phillip (and Port Jackson) should be tempered by these equally contemporary sources. 

In the British Isles, the Emigration Commissioners' requirements presented a real obstacle to the dispossessed and destitute. They created a conduit to the colonies for those not completely crushed by their economic circumstances. Under the system of certificates of character, it is reasonable to say, bounty emigrants were generally selected for social characteristics that were deemed beneficial at the time.

That they were English, Irish, or Scottish, did not alter the outcome by much. By the local Immigration Board member's own evidence in 1842, a better indicator of fraudulent misrepresentation was the actual port of departure. In the words of Magistrate Hutchinson Browne, "The best ships have come from London; the worst have principally come from Liverpool and Greenock [Glasgow], where no care seems to have been taken in the selection, the object being merely to fill up the ships".(10)

Economic Improvement of the Colony

Probably of most interest to the colonists was the question of labour. There were two principal issues at stake: the quality of labour (the problem of "bolters"), and the quantity of labour (the problem of "high wages"). It was hoped that the introduction of bounty emigrants from 1839 onward would address both these issues. And, in large part, it did. The squatters of Port Phillip admitted as much in their responses to Lonsdale and Patterson's 1842 inquiry into immigration. 
"The late large importations of labour into the district has had the most beneficial effects; it has brought labour, or rather wages, down from their former oppressive price to a more equitable rate; it has made servants of every class more obedient to their employers, and more careful and diligent in their respective callings; and it has placed the proprietors of the soil in a position to cultivate and improve the land purchased from the Crown, and has thereby directed their attention more to agricultural pursuits".(11)
It is doubtful that the squatters were genuinely interested in the last part of this paragraph. They were pastoralists, large scale graziers of sheep, and their sole business was the production of wool. For this they needed vast areas of grassland and a cheap and obedient workforce of shepherds and shearers. It is in the furtherance of that goal that they, quite genuinely, pronounced themselves much satisfied.

Neither the Colonial Office in London nor the self-interested pastoralists in the Port Phillip District were keen to conduct a truly radical social experiment in the colony. They had no intention of upsetting the existing order of colonial society by importing self-employed small-farmers for example. Rather, they were interested in fostering the emigration of a working class population, in increasing the supply of semi-skilled employees. Judging from the colonial census result from the decade 1836 to 1846, they were successful in this too.

In 1836 Lieutenant Lonsdale received specific instructions from the then Governor of New South Wales, Sir Richard Bourke. The governor directed that, "Immediately after landing in Port Phillip you are to take an accurate census of every person then residing in the District, specially noting those who have occupied any portion of land by erecting a hut or grazing cattle or sheep..."(12) Lonsdale's census revealed a grand total of 224 European residents (186 male and 38 female), including 44 "occupiers of land" who were grazing 41,332 sheep, 155 cattle and 75 horses (but cultivating only 97 acres of ground). These figures did not include the "Government Establishment" of clerks, soldiers or convicts, but Lonsdale had made an impressive start on calculating social distinction nonetheless.

By the 1841 Census, Lonsdale's original 44 "occupiers of land" had grown to an employer elite of 742 "Landed Proprietors, Merchants, Bankers, Professional Persons, Shopkeepers and other Retail Dealers". The corresponding figures for "Mechanics and Artificers, Shepherds...Stockmen, Domestic Servants, and All other Persons not included in the Foregoing Classes" had soared to 10,636. In 1841 then, and at the median point of the bounty emigrant scheme, the numbers of employers represented just 6.5% of the population, the 'masses' the other 93.5%.(13)

This phenomenon, of a relatively small class of Masters supervising an increasingly large class of Servants, showed signs of even further concentration in the subsequent Census which took place after the bounty scheme had ceased. The 1846 figures indicated 1,623 Masters compared to 31,256 Servants and their dependents, a ratio of 1 to 19 (or 4.9% to 95.1%).(14) There was clearly no challenge to the social status quo over the decade that included the program of subsidised emigration. Instead, the advantage enjoyed by the 'management class' had only intensified. Despite rapid population growth, real economic power resided in proportionally fewer hands, not more.

More workers chasing a finite number of jobs undoubtedly increased social 'discipline' from the squatters point of view, a state which they felt had not prevailed before. Note the language, the contrast between a 'reasonable' present and a 'disordered' past, in Patterson and Lonsdale's 1842 inquiry.
"The actual demand for labour at present seems not to be very urgent, but the universal opinion decidedly is, that should labour not continue to be regularly, and at short intervals supplied, to a certain amount, the price will most certainly, and that very soon, attain its former ruinous advance, with its usual attendants, insolence, disobedience, and reckless carelessness on the part of the employed towards the employers".(15)
When reading the letters, journals, and memoirs, of the squatters from the early settlement period, it is common to come across adverse comments about their pre-emigration workforce. Up until about 1840, such anecdotes were often expressed wryly, in tones of wearied resignation. The ex-convicts are portrayed as villains, the squatters as slightly irritated but ultimately powerless observers.

In letters home to their family in London in December 1839, Charles and Henry Burchett of The Gums attempt to make a dark joke of it all. Henry writes, "We are off tomorrow, as Charles says we, if the bullock driver is sober enough..." Charles adds to the letter, "My establishment consists of a Shepherd, a Hut-keeper, a Bullock driver (a precious villain, as almost all in that category are -- many of these 'old lags' may be described as a friend of mine says, not merely as 'cutthroat looking villains', but as men 'who look as though they couldn't possibly keep a knife out of your throat')..."(16)

Katherine Kirkland on Trawalla believed that the squatters were intimidated by their employees. She writes of arriving new to the colony and how, travelling up country from Geelong in February 1839, she came to this realisation: "I now began to be a little disgusted and astonished at the dirty and uncomfortable way in which the settlers lived. They seemed quite at the mercy of their hutkeepers, eating what was placed before them out of dirty tin plates, and using a knife and fork if one could be found...but the truth was, they were afraid to speak, in case the hutkeeper would be offended and run away...or, as they call it, bolt...the country was so ill provided with servants; they were the masters..."(17)

In a letter to a friend dated 2 March 1840, Charles Labilliere on Yallock Park relates, "The greatest annoyance we experienced is from our servants these fellows get 35-40 pounds per annum and rations consisting of as much meat,tea, sugar, bread &c., as they can consume, three times a day. The other day we had an entire good sized leg of mutton cooked for 5 of them...when they saw their supper they sent us word we were starving them. This impertinence did not arise from any deficiency in their meal but from rage that we had put any restriction on them...Another man we had could never be persuaded to get comfortable clothing, remarking that his wages of 40 pounds per annum, was quite little enough for the publicans".(18)

However, in the private accounts written after the 1841-1842 peak of bounty emigration, there seems to have been a change of attitude -- the emergence of an altogether more confident and assertive squatter class. A.C. Cameron was the Clyde Company's manager on Terinallum (57,600 acres). He reported by regular bullock dray delivered letters to the Company's senior manager, George Russell on Golf Hill  (72,200 acres). On 19 October 1846, Cameron wrote to Russell, "I am doubtful [sic] I will have to dismiss Marsleim, who is at Little Spring with the lambs: he is a careless, lazy old rogue. I am determined to stand no nonsense from any of them, especially as I have got more than I require at present".(19)

Only five days later, on 24 October, Cameron writes, "The old rascal Marsleim, or Masslan as he calls himself, bolted on Thursday morning and left his Flock in the Fold: he came in on Wednesday Evening and asked me if I would let him have a Pair of Boots, as he could not follow his sheep. Thinking that he might do better I let him have a Pair, with which he decamped next morning; he was 14 days here, during which time he had the weaners, so I think he has not got the better of me by much. I should like he would be made an example of; But on the other hand he is a good riddance". (The editor of Clyde Company Papers notes, "The ledger shows, in Cameron's hand, William Masslan as hired on 10 Oct. at 26 pounds a year, credited with 18s. 7d. for thirteen day's wages, and debited 16s. for the boots".) (20)

Another employer with an eye on the penalties available under the Masters and Servants Act was Charles Macknight on Dunmore Station. His entries are terse and business-like.
1845 Oct. 23: Peter bolted. W.C. [partner] went to Port...
                 25: ...W.C. returned having sent a Constable with a warrant for Peter's     apprehension...
1847 Aug. 7 : ...Dray started for P.F....gave Charlie and order for 2 pounds...
                 12: ...Gave Charles 1 pound in Port Fairy.
                 20: ...Charles Edwards bolted. C.H.M. [principal] started for Port to get a warrant.
                 21: Started the Black Police in search of Charles...
                 31: ...O'Brien came bringing a note from [Captain] Dana and started for Lloyd's after Charles.
1850 Nov. 24: Sunday. Stancliffe and Parkinson drunk.
                 25: C.H.M. to Port for Constable.
                 26: Sent down Parkinson in handcuffs.
                 28: Went to Port Fairy...
                 29: Had Parkinson tried and sentenced for two months.
        Dec. 31: ...Paid off Stancliffe. (21)

This sort of summary justice, and the determination to track down and punish any 'wrongdoer', seems to have moved a long way on from the resigned 'indulgence' of misbehaviour that was common in former years. The 1830s Henty Brothers' Journal is no less abrupt than Macknight's Dunmore Journal in the 1840s, but attitudes to similar infringements read quite differently in the earlier Portland Bay version.
1836 Dec. 25: ...Men all drunk & disorderly, particularly McLeod.
                 26: ...Beresford, Dent, Prichard & McLeod, all drunk & not able to work...
                 27: ...McLeod drunk & was absent in the afternoon...
                 28: ...Edward [brother and partner] would not allow McLeod into the hut in consequence of his misbehaviour.(22)
Sleeping under the stars for one night in summer, after 3 days drunkenness, does not equate with 2 months imprisonment for one day on the grog a decade later.

The other major economic issue for the Port Phillip District elite was the cost of wages. They hoped that by increasing the supply of labour, the resulting competition for employment would bid down its price. The effect of bounty emigration on wages was indeed downwards and swift. The strong belief of the squatters was that pre-emigration wage rates were "ruinous". But the parallel frustration examined above, that of worker "insolence", is never far away from their thoughts, as the following contemporary accounts demonstrate.

(This chapter's use of verbatim extracts from colonists' letters and diaries, rather than brief, paraphrasing summaries of their contents, is to avoid the 'loss' or dilution of this aspect of employer sentiment. These authentic voices from the past resonate with resentment at any displays of working class independence. The squatters do not just want a cheaper workforce. They want a respectful one. They want the threat of dismissal to mean real unemployment and hardship -- the restoration of a Master's 'instant' authority over his Servants.)

On 16 December 1839, at the peak of high wages, Dr. David Wilsone on Wirrobbie wrote to his brother in Glasgow. "Let me assure you my dear George what betwixt Natives and Dingoes & our Shepards we have a most anxious and active life. I am sorry to write that at the very commencement of our 2nd year with John and Donald, they have both agreed to leave as asking 45 pounds wages and rations equal to as much more. I do not yet know what Allan will do, but suspect it will be likewise [margin: 'yes, he leaves us also'], most ungrateful for all we have done for them (but that word has no meaning here)".

However, in a later letter dated 20 July 1841, Wilsone tells of a remarkable change in economic conditions: "yesterday we had nearly about 600 Emigrant arrive here in 2 London ships, which has most opportunely brought down the price of labour, & we can now catch one or two for 25 pounds per annum".(23)

In a similar account, Mrs Kirkland relates her move from Trawalla Station to live in Melbourne in 1841, and her observations of the same dramatically altering circumstances.
"I had great difficulty in getting a servant when we came to town; indeed I was without one for several weeks...[and then] an Irishwoman came to the the door...she had landed from an emigrant ship three days before...She turned out an honest well-behaved girl, but very slow and very dirty; her wages were twenty pounds a-year. Several ships arrived soon after this with emigrants, and servants began to find great difficulty in getting situations; they were to be seen going about the streets inquiring of every one if they wanted servants. Of course the wages came quickly down: men were now to be hired for twenty and twenty-five pounds a-year, and women from twelve to fifteen...The servants seemed astonished at the sudden change of things, for which they were not at all prepared...They had little money, and lodgings were very high in price. These girls had come out with the most magnificent notions, and were sadly disappointed when they found that situations were so difficult to be procured".(24)
To conclude this chapter on the squatters' expectations of the bounty emigrant scheme, it is apparent that, in very large part, the employer elite got what they asked for. The system of 'Certificates' of identity and character was sometimes abused, but it still operated as an effective filter, excluding the criminalised poor from assisted to the colonies. It is also evident from contemporary anecdotal sources that the power-relationship between employers and employees was radically altered in the former's favour, and that wages were significantly reduced, by the introduction of large numbers of bounty emigrants.

Nevertheless, the colonial beneficiaries of the first wave of working class immigration to the Port Phillip District continued to voice their dissatisfaction with the ethnic composition of the shipments. The next chapter will establish the facts behind their discontent, using the data from the Lists of Immigrants for each vessel to map the emigrants' origins according to their 'native place'.


(1) John Marshall, 1839, 'Australian Packet Ships - Emigration to New South Wales - Free Passage', in Twenty Years' Experience in Australia, London, Elder Smith & Co., pp. 60-62
(2) 'Report From The Select Committee on Transportation', 1836, British Parliamentary Papers, 1838, Appendix 1, No. 55, p.305
(3) John Marshall, 1839, as above
(4) British Parliamentary Papers, 1780-1849, 1843, Volume 34, Appendix M, p.75
(5) As above, p. 89
(6) As above, p. 88
(7) D.S. Macmillan, 1967, Scotland and Australia 1788-1850, Oxford, Clarendon Press
(8) As above
(9) K.A. Millar, 1985, Emigrants and Exiles: Ireland and the Irish Exodus to North America, Oxford University Press, p. 201
(10) British Parliamentary Papers, 1843, pp. 92,98
(11) As above, Appendix N, p. 77
(12) Michael Cannon & Ian Macfarlane (eds.), 1984, Historical Records of Victoria, Volume 3, Melbourne University Press, p. 419
(13) Australian Data Archive, < 4>
(14) As above, <.../NSW-1846-census-Page47>
(15) British Parliamentary Papers, 1843, Appendix M, p. 76
(16) Burchett Brothers Letters, State Library of Victoria, MS 13417, MSB 92/5, pp. 36,38
(17) Katherine Kirkland, 1844, Life in the Bush. By a Lady, Edinburgh, Chambers Miscellany, pp. 6,8
(18) Labilliere Letter, State Library of Victoria, MS 5586, MSB 42/1
(19) P.L. Brown (ed.), 1959, Clyde Company Papers, Volume IV, 1846-50, Oxford University Press, pp. 118
(20) As above, p. 128
(21) The Dunmore Journal, State Library of Victoria, MS 8999, MSB F1839/5
(22) Lynette Peel (ed.), 1996, The Henty Journals, Melbourne University Press, p. 185
(23) Dr. Wilsone Letters, State Library of Victoria, MS 9285, MSB 267/2 (a) & (c)
(24) Katherine Kirkland, 1844, pp. 31-32


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