FIRST WAVE: Emigrant Identities

FIRST WAVE: Emigrant Ships to Port Phillip 1839-1845


Information on individual 'bounty emigrants' collected by the emigration authorities included "Religion", literacy ("Read or Write"), occupation ("Trade" or "Calling"), and details on age and family status (called "Social Condition" in the colonial census). The principal concern of colonist-employers was that emigrant-employees were able-bodied and immediately employable. 

This 'fit-for-work' concern focused the Port Phillip Immigration Board Members' attention on two issues. The first of these was age and sex, or ensuring that the incoming migrants were within the most productive age-group ranges. The second was that their nominated skills were within the preferred occupation-types.

1. Able-bodied

Bounty emigrants were recruited according to three broad classifications: "Families" (married couples with children), "Unmarried Males", and "Unmarried Females". In order to promote a sexual balance between males and females in the colony, numbers of single women on board each ship had to exceed the numbers of single men. Bounty payment was withheld on 'surplus' males where this was not the case. 

In addition, a rough parity between the number of families and the number of single women was generally observed by ships dedicated to the emigrant trade. This was a practical matter as the Colonial Land and Emigration Commissioners' revised regulations of 3 March 1840 required each unmarried female to be "under protection" of one married woman while at sea.

Graph 1: MARITAL STATUS. Bar graph indicating numbers of bounty emigrants disembarking at Port Phillip according to individual family status. MM = Married Male, MF = Married Female, m = male child, f = female child, SM = Single Male, and SF = Single Female.

Graph 1 illustrates the actual numbers of emigrants received under the three classifications. Over the period 1839 to 1845, a total of 2,286 families were shipped to Port Phillip between 1839 and 1845. These included 2,268 married men and 2,241 married women (some widowers as more women died during the voyage than men), and 3,116 children (1,707 boys and 1,409 girls). The unmarried adults totalled 2,634 young men and 2,833 young women.

There are two observations to be made here. The social goal of introducing more females to the colony was achieved by a surplus of 199 single females. And the myth of large families is exposed, with an average of 1.46 children per household. Some married couples had more than two children, but many had none.

The squatters' fear of too many "useless mouths" was exaggerated. Even when emigrant families had two or more children, their employers could always find ways to turn them into 'useful mouths'. 

For example, John and Vera Armstrong and their five children came out as bounty emigrants on the Palmyra in 1839. In 1841 John Armstrong took up employment as station manager for Miss Drysdale and Miss Newcomb on Boronggoop near Geelong. His wife Vera became the homestead cook, his eldest son became a shepherd on an out station, and in the following year his second oldest son became a stock keeper (in charge of cattle) at the home station.(1)

In another instance, John and Mary Mundy came out on the emigrant ship Abberton in 1844, bringing their two sons Henry, aged 13 years, and John, aged 9. The Mundys were immediately contracted as a family unit by 'Hopping' Sprott for his Caramut run. John Mundy senior acted as nightwatchman, moving the overnight hurdles for three flocks, his wife Mary became hutkeeper and cook for her family and two other shepherds, and the boys worked as apprentice shepherds with one flock between them. All this for 25 pounds per annum plus rations.(2)

However, individual ages in emigrant families meant this was not always a ready solution. Many were young couples and so were their children. This is apparent from Graph 2.

Graph 2: EMIGRANT AGES. Line graph showing the numbers of emigrants landed at Port Phillip from 1839 to 1845, according to their nominated ages from newborn to 65 years.

Age ranges for the three classifications of bounty emigrants were rigorously enforced by Port Phillip Immigration Board. Competent consignors like John Marshall of London soon learnt this, to their initial cost, and henceforth strictly reviewed their applicants to ensure their eligibility for bounty. The age limit for married couples was 18 to 40 years, for single females from 18 to 30 years, and for single females from 15 to 30 years.

General compliance with the regulations by shippers is reflected in the middle section of the graph. From relatively few at 14 years old (102), the line rises steeply to peak at 20 and 22 years of age (904 and 905). Then there is a more gradual fall to 31 years (130), followed by a plateau of numbers to 39 years (121), before a sudden plunge at 40 and 41 years (34 and 5). This slightly skewed 'bell-curve' shape indicates that the bounty scheme successfully captured the desired profile of ages.

At the juvenile end of the scale, it is noticeable that infant numbers were quite high with 616 newborns and others between 0 and 2 years, and a total of 1,589 children aged up to 5 years. This is most probably a factor of the ages of their parents. 

However, there is also the intriguing possibility that the thoughts of passage, the inevitable periods of waiting involved with applying for shipment, prompted more frequent occasions of sexual intimacy between these couples. This is an empathetic interpretation as much as it is prurient. Together, these young people were preparing to cross three oceans, leaving behind them what was familiar and fond. It was unlikely they would ever return 'home'.

At the senior end of the graph, numbers are scattered and low. This is clearly a product of the financial penalty borne by the shippers if their emigrants did not meet the age criteria. To some extent, the few exporters who did ignore the regulations were responding to over-riding cultural factors, and they probably did not bear alone the risk of withheld bounties.

These exceptions applied only to ships from Scottish ports and Scots were already known for their reluctance to emigrate without all members of their extended families. In the few Scottish ships to Australia, emigrants who wished to take their elders (those above 40 years of age), were prepared to run the risk of them being refused bounty. If the majority of family members were successful in gaining free passage, they could then pool their remaining resources to fund the passage of grandparents in the event of them being found ineligible at the receiving port.

2. Semi-skilled

The other important issue for colonial employers was the employment skills and experience that the emigrants brought with them. Those who had the right skills were in demand and immediately employable.

In Chapter 2 the matter of fraudulent misrepresentation of occupations was discussed. It was not alleged there that all claims were false, but that those frauds that were detected were committed by the same unscrupulous emigration agents based in the same corrupt ports. Fraud or no fraud, the aggregate figures for "Trade or Calling" over the 70 bounty ships suggest that the occasional fabrication of certified occupations may not have meant very much. The overwhelming majority of bounty emigrants were manifestly un-skilled.

The revised regulations of 1840 stipulated the varieties of workers that were then required  in the colony. These were stated briefly in the Government Gazette. "Emigrants of the following description, viz. -- Agricultural Labourers. Shepherds. Carpenters. Smiths. Wheelwrights. Bricklayers. Masons. Female Domestic and Farm Servants".(3)

In 1842  Port Phillip's employers were equally concise in their requirements. "The universal opinion is, that the description of labour chiefly required in this district comprises shepherds, good farm servants who can plough with reins (horse-drawn) or bullocks, reap, sow grains, and use the spade; a few good gardeners, a few mechanics (trades-men), and some male and female good domestic servants who really understand their business, and who are of good character".(4)

Graphs 5 (male) and 6 (female) present the professed occupations of the emigrants who actually disembarked at Port Phillip between 1839 and 1845. It is quickly seen that most male emigrants were "farm servants" and "labourers", and most females were "house maids" and "house servants". These task groups are so general as to require little beyond a willingness to do as they were told.

Graph 3: MALE OCCUPATIONS. Bar graph of the nominated occupations of 4,918 male bounty emigrants to Port Phillip in the period 1839-1845. Abbreviation 'Fm' = Farm.

Of the 4,918 adult males who nominated their "Trade or Calling", 3,663 opted for the generic status of "Labourers" or "Farm Servants". That is, 74% of the bounty emigrant men and youths seeking colonial work were unskilled, or low skilled. The preferred occupation of "Shepherd" attracted only 290 applicants over the six year period (or 6% of the total). 

The proportion of those who, by their choice of occupations, implied some familiarity with rural work, was also comparatively low. Shepherds, skilled farm workers (farmers, overseers, stock-keepers, ploughmen, horse grooms, etc.), and farm servants, made up 1,194 of the total male cohort, or 24%.

Graph 4: FEMALE OCCUPATIONS. Bar graph representing the nominated occupations of 5,048 adult female bounty emigrants to Port Phillip in the period 1839-1845. Abbreviations: 'Md' = Maid; 'Fm' = Farm; 'Servts' = Servants; 'Hse' = House.

Of the 5,048 female bounty emigrants who expressed their "Trade or Calling", 3,885 (or 77%), chose to call themselves "House Servants" or "Farm Servants", another indication of low skill levels. Some version or other of domestic service dominated the women's and teenage girls' selection of employment areas.

Those who possessed what is characterised here as "House Skills", such as housekeeper, cook, sempstress, laundress, or nursery, etc., and those who opted for the more general "House Servant" or "House Maid", together numbered 3,824, or 76% of the total cohort. The "Dairy Maids" and "Farm Servants" specifically requested by rural employers for work on their inland stations, mustered out at only 316 and 477 respectively.

Strangely enough, the disparity between the squatters' "labour requisites" and the emigrants' "trade or calling" did not draw forth prolonged protests of dissatisfaction from the colonists. Instead there appears to have been a subtle change in the employers' approach to the labour problem over time.

Hints of an increasing flexibility are to be found as early as the Immigration Board's annual report for 1839. The Colonial Agent for Immigration at Sydney, J. Denham Pinnock, was characteristically scathing about some of the emigrants being sent out -- "men who have been accustomed to no distinct occupation, but who have earned a precarious subsistence by casual and irregular labour" -- but he was more nuanced in his "description of people most in demand".

"The class of persons now in the greatest requisition are skilled shepherds and agricultural labourers; the more skilled mechanics [tradesmen] are in little demand...but that class of mechanics who can make themselves generally useful, and rough it up in the country, such as village blacksmiths, carpenters, and a few good sawyers and fencers, with others of a like description, would readily find employment, and at high wages".(5)
There is an openness here to disregarding the detail of inexperience if an emigrant is earnest and adaptable. This idea developed as 'unsuitable' emigrants continued to arrive. By late 1841, the squatters on the Immigration Committee had produced an article for publication and distribution in Britain titled "Sketch of a Shepherd's Duties in New South Wales". This was a promotional flyer that began with the words, "The duties of a shepherd in New South Wales are exceedingly simple". 

The purpose behind the Committee's extraordinary move into print was reported by The Sydney Herald as follows:
"The Committee have shown a praiseworthy anxiety to correct...erroneous notions, and especially to make it understood, that 'the points of attention in a shepherd's employment in this Colony are so few and simple, that they may be mastered by anyone possessing the disposition to observe and learn'. For this purpose they have inserted in the Appendix to their Report a paper 'exhibiting a brief view of the shepherd's duties, which, it will from this appear, are such as any man, or even boy approaching to manhood, with steady habits and ordinary activity, is qualified to undertake. It would be advantageous that copies of this paper should be circulated as generally as possible in the United Kingdom, not only in those districts where pastoral occupations prevail, but also in manufacturing districts'."(6)
The quite radical re-adjustment in the colonists' minds that this article represented is illustrated by reference to a brief extract from its contents.
"In fact, a weaver or button-maker, after a few months experience, will generally prove a better shepherd in New South Wales, than the man who having been brought up as a shepherd in England, may have acquired habits or prejudices exceedingly difficult to shake off, however unsuitable to the new position in which he is placed; in proof of this it may be noticed that some of the best superintendents of sheep in the colony are natives of London, Manchester, or Birmingham, and that few professed English or Scotch shepherds are entrusted with the care of a single flock."(7)
It is probably advisable to take this indication of newfound open-mindedness among colonial employers with caution. It is unlikely the life of a shepherd in New South Wales was entirely the pleasant picture of bucolic ease that the article painted. And, it should be noted, the squatters' inclusiveness did not extend to the Irish, for all of the localities named are resolutely English.

Nevertheless, this document suggests that employers' concerns, as represented by the squatter-dominated Immigration Committee, were slightly different to the scheme's administrators. The squatters were not so much concentrated on checking exact ages and occupations, as they were looking for the 'right' attitudes in their prospective workers. From Pinnock's words in 1839, these land owners and licence holders wanted emigrants who were prepared to "make themselves generally useful, and rough it up in the country".

By virtue of their active position in the labour market, squatters had a clearer view of the subsequent stages of emigration. They knew the when (how soon and how much), and the where (the position and locality), of emigrants' employment. The move towards a wider recruitment strategy may well have been prompted by their awareness that 'port arrivals' were not necessarily translated into 'rural settlers'. The emigrants were getting off the boat all right, but in many cases that was as far as they got.

 3. Literacy

Another area of emigrant identity that Emigration Commission and Immigration Board recorders took seriously was education. The measure of education used was literacy. Under the heading of "Read or Write" the emigrants were assessed according to three levels of competency: "Both", "Read Only", and "Neither". The relative numbers that fell into each category are presented in Graph 5 below. This graph also includes a 'rounding' section called "Underage", to capture those children for whom no category was recorded.

Graph 5: EMIGRANT LITERACY. Bar graph comparing the numbers of bounty emigrants who nominated each category of literacy. Includes a column representing those for whom no category was recorded - "Underage".

A total of 6,608 of the 13,092 emigrants who landed at Port Phillip, or 50.5%, advised that they could both read and write. Another 1,966 claimed they could read but not write. A further 2,091 admitted they could do neither. 

The second category of "Read Only" is a problematic indicator of competency. It is unclear what level of skill these partially literate people really possessed. For example, George Mundy on the Abberton claimed he could read, but according to his son Henry's "Diary", he could only "recognise" some short verses from his Wesleyan hymn book, (and even then, with some difficulty).(8) A safer interpretation of these figures might be to assume that approximately half of the emigrants (6,608, or 50.5%) were effectively literate, and the other half, effectively, were not.

Whether they were educated to proficiency in the written word or not, the matter of their education drew next to no interest from their prospective employers. Education, or the lack of it, was being debated in the colony at this time. However, its instigators were mainly religious leaders like the sectarian Presbyterian, John Dunmore Lang, and their appeal was directed to schooling the children of existing settlers in their parents' faith. 

When squatters mentioned the issue of literate employees in their journals or correspondence, the subject was approached obliquely. If a judgment could be made of the collective view from these scattered records, it would be that the landed elite were generally sceptical of the the benefits of an educated workforce. For example, Katherine Kirkland on Trawalla station seemed unimpressed by her dray-man's reported ability to "read so beautifully". Her perspective on this skill and its utility differed from that of her maid, Mary.
"Our bullock driver was very careless; his only work seemed to be finding his bullocks one day, and losing them the next; he was a melancholy-looking little man, and went by the name of 'Dismal Jamie'. Mary told me he was sure he had been a great man at home, he read so beautifully, and knew so much; but certainly he knew little about bullock-driving".(9)
Squatters were more interested in what their workers were reading, rather than how well they read it. As employers, they were better pleased when their literate employees devoted themselves to reading Scripture. After inspecting the Glenormiston 'run' with his overseer one Sunday morning in early 1840 ("Sheep looking better and lambs thriving splendidly"), Neil Black observed, "On our return found all the men and their wives with each a Bible in hand -- what a happy contrast to what I have usually seen at other stations".(10)

A similar note of pride in his well-behaved Scots is evident in a letter from David Wilsone on Upper Wirrobbie. He writes to his brother in Glasgow that, while there was no time to "read the Service & a Sermon to our men at the Station...I have noticed our Scotch Shepards take their Bibles out with them" to mind their flocks during the day.(11)

Their workers' attention to their Bibles was approved of as a sign of their steady, sober and reliable character. It pointed to industrious and diligent work habits, as opposed to the possible inconvenience of an intelligent or independent-thinking employee. Squatters did not consider the economic benefits of an educated worker, theoretically more efficient and more productive, to out-weigh the critical issues of labour-discipline. In remote and isolated settings, and as a management-minority, the values of compliance and obedience were more important to them.

It is in this context that something of the fear of Irish Catholics might be better understood. That this fear was irrational and unfounded does not remove the fact of its historical existence.

4. Religion

Graph 6: EMIGRANT RELIGION. Bar graph representing the relative numbers of Protestant and Catholic bounty emigrants arriving each year at Port Phillip in the period 1839-1844. Note that religious affiliation was not reported for 816 children and they are not included above.

Graph 6 demonstrates the relative proportions of Protestant and Catholic bounty emigrants who landed at Port Phillip in the years 1839 to 1844. Fears of a Catholic majority were clearly exaggerated. The overall totals of 7,089 Protestants and 5,187 Catholics give a ratio of 58% Protestant and 42% Catholic.

One further point needs to be made. The question of religious allegiance may not originally have been presented to applicants as an 'either-or' proposition, but that is how they answered it. Only 20 Presbyterians and 7 Methodists thought it appropriate to respond denomination-ally. The balance of emigrants quickly discerned the true purpose of the question. It was about identifying the 'foreign' bogeyman, the "Church of Rome", and everyone else was Protestant. No other distinctions were necessary to answer correctly.

In conclusion then, this chapter has confirmed the carefully 'selected' nature of bounty emigrants to Port Phillip. Emigration agents in Britain and Immigration agents in the Colony compiled, and then checked, the details of the various ship's lists to ensure that those taking passage were eligible. But no matter how thorough (or flawed) these administrative processes were in guaranteeing the emigrants' able-body-ness and immediate employability, colonial employers and existing settlers remained fixated on things that could not be counted so easily.

The next chapter is therefore the first of five that incorporate a significant re-calibrating of the data provided in the Lists of Immigrants. The purpose of this rearranging is to analyse that information from the perspective of emigrant origins, or "Native Place". An aggregate picture gained from summing the columns in the ships' lists has been important in establishing an overall impression, of all emigrants. However, it is the places these people came from that really determined what the colonists thought of them (and quite probably determined the sort of economic opportunities that they offered to them).

Was there, in fact, a valid reason for relegating the Irish to the status of least desirable nationality for settlement in the Port Phillip District? In idiomatic language, were the Irish 'superstitious', immoral, dirty, stupid, useless, and violent, to any greater degree than the English and Scottish emigrants they shared the dark wet holds to Australia with? Each of these criticisms will be addressed in the following chapters.


(1) Bev Roberts (ed.), 2009, Miss D & Miss N: An extraordinary partnership: The Diary of Ann Drysdale, Nth Melbourne VIC, Australian Scholarly Publishing, pp. 80, 88, 92, 121
(2) A.D. Reid (ed.), 1999, The Land of Their Adoption: Henry Mundy's Diary From England to Australia, 1838-1857, Kialla VIC, pp. 54, 69, 79, 87
(3) 'Immigration', New South Wales Government Gazette, Wednesday 4 March 1840, p. 200
(4) 'Copy of a Letter...22 July 1842', 1843, British Parliamentary Papers, 1780-1849, Volume XXXIV, Appendix N, p. 77
(5) 'Copy of a Despatch from the Governor of New South Wales...Immigration, 1839', 1840, British Parliamentary Papers, Volume XXXI, Appendix NN, p. 32
(6) 'The Report on Immigration', The Sydney Herald, Wednesday 25 August 1842, p. 2
(7) 'Correspondence Relative to Emigration: New South Wales', 1842, Accounts and Papers: Twenty Volumes - (6) - Emigration, Volume XXXI, Appendix D, p. 49
(8) Bev Roberts 1999, pp. 15, 37
(9) Katherine Kirkland, 1844, Life in the Bush, By a Lady, Edinburgh, Chambers Miscellany
(10) Neil Black's Diary, State Library of Victoria, MS 8996, Box 99/1, 24 February 1840
(11) Dr Wilsone's Letters, State Library of Victoria, MS 9285, Box 267/2b, 20 July 1840



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