FIRST WAVE: Emigrant Settlers



One aspect of settlement that interested existing colonists was the extent to which new arrivals spread throughout the District. Adoption of different locations to their port of disembarkation reflected their willingness to seek and accept rural employment.

The bounty scheme was funded by the sale of colonial land to capitalist-investors (mostly the squatters), and rural employers were the most vocal advocates of assisted immigration. The squatters had a direct interest in ensuring that the benefits of an increased labour supply were also felt in the inland regions where they held their sheep stations.

Some indications of the emigrants' settlement patterns are to be found in the details of the 1846 colonial Census. The Abstract of this Census collates information, like "Country Where Born" and "Religion", according to the administrative regions which colonists inhabited.

Another aspect of settlement to be explored in this chapter is the impact of the arrival of high numbers of bounty emigrants on colonial wages for the period. This inquiry has two parts. First is the physical or actual rate of wages, an economic question that is problematic because these sorts of statistics were not collected at the time. Second is how the emigrants themselves responded to this state of affairs, a social question related to expectations met, or disappointed. Some summary information on wages was reported by officers of the colonial administration, but contemporary press accounts will have to be called into service to complement the picture.

Settlement Patterns

According to the official Abstracts of the 1846 Census, there were a total of 32,879 Europeans residing in the Port Phillip District at 2 March. This population consisted of 20,184 males and 12,695 females. They fell into two almost equally divided residential categories, Rural and Urban. 17,827, or 54.2%, resided in the rural areas of the surveyed Counties of Bourke, Grant and Normanby, and the outlying Commissioners' Districts of "Gipps Land", Murray, Portland Bay, and "Western Port". The other 15,052 settlers, or 45.8%, occupied the urban areas of Melbourne (including Brighton, Brunswick, Richmond, and Williamstown), Geelong (including Ashby, Irishtown and Newtown), and the smaller southwestern settlements of Portland and Belfast (since renamed Port Fairy).(1)

 As might be expected, the majority of rural dwellers were male and the greatest proportion of females resided in urban centres. 12,217 males, or 60.5%, lived in rural areas whereas only 5,610 females, or 44.2%, lived outside of urban settlements. Explanations of comparative living conditions or negative perceptions of isolation and danger may have applied to produce this contrast. However, couples with young families do not seem to have been deterred from country living to the same degree. Of the 5,612 children under fourteen years that were counted in the census, 2,474 resided in towns, but 3,138, or 55.9%, lived beyond the coastal fringe.(2)

Urban settlements displayed a clear ranking of importance in terms of population numbers. Melbourne and its surrounding "Villages", (now inner suburbs of the city) was the most significant, with 12,352 inhabitants, or 37.6% of all European settlers in Port Phillip. Next was Geelong and its "Villages", with 1,921 residents, or 5.8% of all settlers. Last came the small but strategically located "Country Towns" of Portland (510 residents) and Port Fairy (269) in the far west.

Rural Port Phillip displayed slightly altered but no less pronounced ranking. The central pastoral district of Western Port, including the non-urbanised parts of the County of Bourke, had the highest numbers with 8,504 European inhabitants, or 25.9% of all settlers. Not far behind was the western pastoral district of Portland Bay, including the non-urbanised parts of County Grant and County Normanby, which hosted 6,913, or 21% of all Port Phillip settlers. Languishing in the rear was the northern Murray district, with 1,558, and the eastern district of Gipps Land, with only 852. (The relative unpopularity of the north and east is probably due to their geography. The squatters' preference was for open land with reliable rainfall, and ease of transport for wool and supplies from the major port.)

It can be seen from the 1846 Census that by the middle of the decade, and after the intensive program of assisted immigration under the bounty scheme, nearly half of all European settlers were located in the urban areas of Melbourne and Geelong. This did not accord with the squatters' imagined ideal of reproducing the southern English shires in the Port Phillip District. They had envisaged an agrarian social model (even feudal), with a small elite commanding the automatic loyalties of their large rural workforce. The notion of urban labour in general, and discontented slum-dwelling Irish emigrants fermenting rebellion in particular, was at odds with their pastoral vision.

The emphasis of the rest of this section is therefore on establishing whether Irish emigrants were, in fact, over-represented in urban settlements (or did they disperse into the rural hinterland in similar proportions to English and Scottish emigrants?) The 1846 Census counted the "Country Where Born" of European colonial residents. These results were grouped into seven columns: "In the Colony" (7,583, which does not include Aborigines), "In England" (10,100), "In Wales" (121), "In Ireland" (9,126), "In Scotland" (4,225), "In other British Dominions" (1,403, which includes India, West Indies etc), and "In Foreign Countries" (321). From this basic data it is possible to plot Irish emigrant-settler behaviour with reasonable confidence.

The census entry of Born "In Ireland" is synonymous with the nomination of an Irish "Native Place" in the Bounty Emigration Passenger Lists. The Census, taken in March 1846, identifies 9,126 residents born in Ireland, whereas the Lists reveal the introduction between 1839 and 1845 of 7,713 emigrants with an Irish "Native Place" In other words, Irish bounty emigrants comprised 84.5% of Port Phillip's total number of inhabitants who were Irish-born. They were, to a very large extent, the same population.

Having made this correlation, it can be argued that the proportion of settlers born in Ireland who inhabited different residential zones in the Port Phillip District according to the Census, were also an approximate reflection of the choices in location made by Irish bounty emigrants. When interpreted in this manner, the census data indicates that the 'incoming' Irish behaved pretty much as the rest of the settler population in choosing where they worked and lived.

Of the 9,126 settlers born in Ireland, 4,839 lived in the rural zones of Port Phillip, compared to 4,287 who remained in urban locations. That is, 53% of the Irish-born went on to the 'Bush' to work in pastoral situations. The same statistic for the entire settler population was 54%, a strikingly similar result.

This similarity with other 'national' groups is maintained when the locations of male and female are examined. Of 5,037 males from Ireland, 3,109 or 61.7% were counted in rural zones, slightly more than the 60.5% recorded for all male settlers. Likewise, of 4,089 Irish-born females, 2,359 or 57.7% resided in urban settlements, slightly more than the 55.8% recorded for all female settlers.

Map 9 below illustrates the extent of dispersion of  Irish-born settlers throughout the administrative regions of the District that are used in the Census. Note that the component, or proportion, of all European settlers who were born in Ireland was 27.7% of the total (9,126 of 32,879). This percentage, plus or minus 2.5%, gives a useful benchmark from which to compare the regional populations. The map shows that for every region apart from Gipps Land and the small southwestern settlements of Portland and Belfast, the Irish proportion was within the same rage of 25-30% of the broader population.
Map 9: IRISH-BORN SETTLERS. A map of the administrative regions of the Port Phillip District, in each of which the relative densities of Irish-born residents are portrayed as percentages of the general population. The arid and underpopulated Wimmera District in the northwest is unshaded as its residents were counted in neighbouring regions. Source: 1846 Census of the Colony of New South Wales.

For example, the results for the Commissioner's District of Western Port (28.2%), the rural areas of the surveyed County of Bourke (25.9%) and the main urban settlement of Melbourne (28.5%), show relatively little difference. There is no marked divergence from the overall Irish benchmark of 27.7%. Similar densities of Irish settlement existed in 'the city', on 'the fringe', and out on 'the remote'.

These regional figures do not suggest that emigrants from Ireland stopped at the wharf and were reluctant to proceed further inland. Quite the contrary. However, even hardened proponents of "Anti-Irish feeling" were ultimately forced to recognise that Irish emigrants were not one, single, indistinguishable, mass of 'aliens'. When pressed, the squatters' fall-back position became that it was Irish Catholics that were the problem, rather than Irish Protestants.

In an earlier chapter it was established that 31.5%, or nearly a third, of all bounty emigrants from Ireland to Port Phillip were Protestant. This is a significant minority. It begs the question whether the other 68.5% of Irish emigrants who were Catholic behaved differently as settlers, and whether this difference was in some sense disguised by an over-representation of Protestant Irish in rural areas? Did Irish Protestants behave differently to Irish Catholics in selecting location?

Map 10 below is an attempt to identify signs of Catholic conservatism or cultural 'clinginess' in the District. It seeks evidence supporting the suspicion that Irish Catholics stayed together in tight-knit communities at shoreline centres, instead of dispersing throughout the colony. 

Map 10: CATHOLIC SETTLERS. A map of the administrative regions of the Port Phillip District, in each of which the relative densities of Catholic residents are portrayed as percentages of the general population. The arid under-populated Wimmera District in the northwest was counted as parts of neighbouring regions. Source: 1846 Census of the Colony of New South Wales.

Map 10 is a more speculative venture than Map 9. It is based on a less convincing link between the 1846 Census and the bounty emigrant Passenger Lists. Any 'correlation' between 9,075 Catholics in the Census and 4,259 Irish-Catholics in the Lists is a statistical leap too far, for obvious reasons. Neither group can plausibly represent the other.

Nevertheless, if some regional 'hotspots' for Catholic settlers were to emerge from the map, it might be reasonable to suggest some distinctive 'group' behaviour was also occurring among Catholic-Irish emigrants. In Map 10, therefore, the key search is for high densities, not relative absences as was the case in Map 9.

The interpretive idea being 'tested' here is that if the 1846 Census results for the subject "Religion" were plotted regionally, then evidence of Catholic 'clustering' might be found, pointing to a sort of cultural 'tribalism' that was spatially focused around priest or church.

 The 1846 Census counted 9,075 Catholics out of a total Port Phillip District population of 32,879. This gives an average benchmark for the map of 27.6%. The map shows that Catholics were under-represented in the Portland Bay and Gipps Land regions. However, the proportion of Catholics residing in the Districts of Murray and Western Port, in the Counties of Bourke and Grant, and in the settlements of Melbourne and Geelong, were all within the range of 25-30%. Melbourne and Bourke were slightly above the benchmark at 29.5% and 28.5%. Geelong and Grant were slightly below the benchmark at 26.6% and 25.5%.

It seems fair to conclude that, at this regional level of analysis, there is no obvious evidence of Catholic 'clustering' in the Port Phillip District. A slight tendency toward Melbourne and Bourke is apparent from comparison with the benchmark, but this does not seem sufficient to upset the general conclusion. It is certainly not significant enough to be assuming that most Irish-born Catholic emigrants were congregating in town-based communities.

The lack of higher than average densities of Catholics in urban centres is also a reminder of the arguments visited in earlier chapters. Catholic bounty emigrants from Ireland were a pre-Famine population. The universal imposition of doctrinal discipline by the Catholic hierarchy, what Emmet Larkin calls "the devotional revolution" in the Irish Church, was a post-Famine phenomenon. That is, bounty emigrants in the 1830s and 1840s came from a less uniform religious background than subsequent impressions (from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century) would suggest. In this context, Map 10 really confirms what an informed reader might expect to find.

In practice, colonial Catholics from pre-Famine Ireland were probably no more tied to the authority of the priest and the holy calendar than Presbyterians were to their minister and his sermons on the Sabbath. Religious constraints, real or imagined, played little role in determining whether an Irish-Catholic emigrant-settler took employment in urban or rural areas. The Census figures do not indicate that Irish Catholics responded to work and location choices any differently to others in the Port Phillip District. Approximately half stayed in Melbourne and Geelong but the other half moved into the pastoral hinterland.

Colonial Wages

The first wave of bounty emigration had another, more profound, impact on the Port Phillip District. The influx of immigrants, especially at its highpoint in 1841, led to an immediate and dramatic drop in wages paid to colonial workers. Those intent on 'talking up' the prospects of emigration sought to mask this effect, claiming it was the result of a temporary economic recession.

In July 1841, when arrivals of emigrant ships were approaching their peak, the Port Phillip Herald was one such voice.
"WAGES. -- Several of the recently arrived emigrants have been engaged at 25 Pounds per Annum, for single farming men -- Their wages used to be from 35 to 45 Pounds. This is to be attributed solely to the pressure of the times, and not to the labour market being overstocked".(3)
The "gentlemen" of Melbourne "and surrounding districts" knew better. They were in no doubt that emigrant numbers were responsible and were very pleased.
"The late large importation 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".(4)
The introduction of large numbers of emigrants increased competition for existing jobs and drove an effective transfer of bargaining power from employee to employer. The close alignment between the arrival of vessels with emigrants and the corresponding plunge in wage rates belies the argument that it was not a function of multiplying the supply of labour.

Graph 14 below is a composite graph demonstrating the strong inverse relationship between migration and rates of pay. It compares the wages paid to shepherds from 1837 to 1844 (an industry-sensitive category of high demand), with the numbers of bounty emigrants admitted to Port Phillip between 1839 and 1844.

Graph 14: PRICE OF LABOUR. A composite graph superimposing 'shepherding wages paid' over 'number of emigrant arrivals' for each year from 1837 to 1844. The key to number of emigrants arriving is on the LHS, the rate of annual wages paid in Pounds Sterling is on the RHS. Source: Passenger Lists, Parliamentary Papers, Port Phillip Gazette, Herald, Patriot.

Note that while emigrant numbers were collected in the Passenger Lists (or Lists of Immigrants), no similar statistical record was kept for contracts of employment by non-government ships in the bounty trade. The source of these wage rates above are therefore anecdotal to some extent -- 'semi-official' or 'informed opinion'. The figures graphed here are 'summary-estimates' of 'pay-ranges' made by District Commissioners of Crown Lands, officers of the Port Phillip Immigration Board, and other administrators at the time. A conservative mid-range figure has been used in these cases. Where this information was not provided for any year, it has been supplied by the least sensational annual reviews reported in the three local papers.

The 'reverse fit' of wages and emigrant arrivals in Graph 14 is very neat. The year 1841 presents a very clear cause-and-effect relationship between the two. Even after a gap in 1843, with no ships, the partial resumption of the bounty scheme in 1844 was sufficient to force wages lower again. Reports of 14 to 17 Pounds per annum for shepherds were common for 1844 (as were pay rates from 9 to 16 Pounds per annum for housemaids).

In the interests of balance, it is important to recognise that rations and (rudimentary) shelter were also supplied to annually contracted shepherds (as was food and lodging for house servants). These workers were not dependent on their wages alone and so a halving of their cash-pay was closer to losing a third of their 'conditions of employment' overall. None the less, many emigrants had a legitimate grievance when they compared what was actually on offer in the colonies with the expectation of 'high wages' that had been encouraged by emigration agents at 'Home'. 

For example, in February 1839 the Sydney importer William Walker & Co advised their agents in Britain of the extraordinary demand for labour in the Port Phillip District.
"The settlers in that quarter are quite at a standstill for want of labourers, and mechanics of the ordinary description...any common labourer can here command 6s.6d. to 7s. per day; shepherds cannot be had for less than 40 Pounds a-year; bullock-drivers can earn a guinea a-week, with board and lodging...Women servants cannot be obtained here -- 15 to 20 Pounds per annum wages would be readily given by families for female servants".(5)
These were heady words for a Irishman earning 8 or 9 pence per day, or even an Englishman earning 2 or 3 shillings a day. Consequently, there were some dashed hopes when Port Phillip employers clambered aboard emigrant ships to make their selections. Voices were doubtless raised, but bounty emigrants were eventually forced to compromise or lose the hope of regular employment. This was their experience as early as October 1840, as those on the Himalaya discovered.
"WAGES. -- The immigrants by the Himalaya, being rather conceited of their superior qualifications, or presuming on the state of the labour market, have considered 50 Pounds per annum for a single man, or 80 Pounds for a married pair, as a reasonable demand for their services! They will no doubt find a safety valve for this high pressure demand engine, or ere long the machinery must explode".(6)
Disillusioning emigrants of 'unrealistic' expectations was one thing. Dealing with emigrant unemployment was another. In January 1842 the Port Phillip Gazette reported that the high level of shipments over the previous 12 months had left "a number of unemployed hands a burden on the government...Indeed the poverty and discomfort of the numerous families now congregated in town from the lately arrived vessels [and] waiting for engagement" had become so "prominent and pressing" as to require immediate "sympathy and assistance".(7)

The collateral effect of the influx of bounty emigrant ships was unemployment. At 1 January 1842, "42 men with families and 65 single women...were without employment" in Melbourne.(8) By the end of July 1842, 243 married men were "in Government employ" and 74 single women and destitute children were "in Government charge".(9) And in August 1843 "a number of men with families...offered their services to the Town Council at two shillings per diem", such was their desperation to find work.(10)

One glimmer of protest from the emigrants at this unexpected state of affairs has already been mentioned in the first chapter. On 10 May 1842, a group of Irish emigrants on government relief marched in Melbourne to protest their anger at having their 'wages' cut from 20 to 18 shillings per week. The pay cut was in response to complaints from the squatters, who wanted to make government assistance so unattractive that it would force the unemployed to accept rural work at reduced rates. The protesters were dispersed by police and their ringleaders taken into custody.(11)

Three other instances of 'strike' action took place in Melbourne around this time, with similarly disappointing results. Carpenters, bricklayers and builders labourers struck for better wages in November 1839, journeyman bakers did the same in March 1840, and house carpenters 'went out' in August 1840. These industrial disputes were all unsuccessful from the workers point of view.

In the latter instance, the Master Builders negotiated for an extension to their construction contracts ("which was granted as a matter of course"). Once free of their own obligations they then imposed a 'lock-out' on the strikers ("by which the combination gentlemen were given the opportunity of walking about for a few weeks for the good of their families").(12) Employers in the Port Phillip District had zero political tolerance for any industrial action, and in an economic climate of falling wages and rising unemployment they possessed all the 'bargaining' power they needed to defeat the workers.

These events probably occurred too early in the bounty emigration program to assume that many emigrants were directly involved in them. Newly arrived, their priorities were more likely to be getting a job in the first place, rather than risking dismissal for protesting at how much the boss paid. Similar reasoning would possibly exclude emigrant participation in the two main rural outbursts of discontent that got press coverage at the time, even though these took place later in the emigration cycle.

In September 1841, shearers in the Geelong district tried to 'organise' other shearing teams in an effort to raise the going rate of 15 shillings per hundred sheep shorn to 20 shillings. They were accused by the squatters of using violence and intimidation to achieve their goal of  unity amongst all shearers. Some shearers, under pressure from a couple of the bigger sheep owners, insisted on completing their existing 'sheds' at the lower rate. Four 'ringleaders' were arrested and charged with "conspiracy to raise wages". Their case did not go to trial as the prosecution witnesses (other shearers) absconded rather than give evidence against them.(13)

Bounty emigrants were probably not involved in this dispute either. Shearing work gangs of the period were predominantly ex-convict and fiercely exclusive. These seasonal workers, originally from Van Diemen's Land and still talking to each other in 'prison-patter', were as suspicious of competition from 'free' labour as they were of authority. They chose who they traveled from station to station with, who they worked beside when they got work, and who they drank and fought with at the grog shanty afterwards. This social exclusiveness of 'old lags' from VDL is also relevant to the second incident of industrial unrest in the Bush.

In the far west region of Portland Bay the rural work-force (not just the itinerants) were still mainly the 'old hands' who had come over Bass Strait with the original squatters in the 1830s. By 1844 their resentment at having to take lower wages than they had received in earlier years was intense. On 1 March of that year the Port Phillip Herald reported that "the greatest irregularities and the most lawless depredations prevail" around the Port Fairy settlement. The "settlers in that quarter" (read squatters) were apparently "in their persons and property quite at the mercy of a band of lawless vagabonds, principally the 'old hands' who will not put up with the present reduced rate of wages".(14)

Threats of arson and murder were directed at the squatters by "parties of men...associating together". These threats were sporadic and personal in nature, very often coming to nothing beyond frightening the individual concerned. Letters threatening to burn crops or injure the boss were tied to isolated and specific grievances revolving around 'looking after their own'. There was no general groundswell of industrial action and no suggestion of emigrant involvement.

In November 1844, the Port Phillip Gazette noted that "shearing was now in progress" and "many wool drays have come into town this week". Interestingly, it went on to state, "Shearers are in demand, and several shepherds have bolted from the service of their employers, in order to get the increased wages". For the Gazette, "This is a practice which ought in every instance be severely punished".(15)

It is unlikely that the squatters affected by this 'bolting' needed any prompting to pursue 'remedies' available to them under the Masters and Servants Act. By the mid-1840s, the pendulum of market power had well and truly swung in their favour and they were determined it would not swing back. But the newspaper's commentary does indicate one possible avenue of economic protest for recently arrived emigrants. Individuals could display the same self-interest that motivated their frugal employers, simply by disappearing 'down the track' to a higher paying seasonal job. 

In summary though, bounty emigrants do not seem to have been involved in collective industrial action in the Southern District of the Colony of New South Wales (of which there was very little anyway). Nor did they take part in the vengeful 'private' actions of the ex-convict 'old hands' in the Geelong and Portland Bay areas.

Emigrant settlers, including Irish or Irish-Catholic bounty emigrants, appear to have merged into colonial society in a remarkably peaceful and productive manner. The Irish contributed their labour to urban and rural localities in roughly the same proportions as the rest of the population. And despite the provocations of greatly reduced wages (and for some, periods of unemployment on government 'relief'), they do not seem to have resorted to social unrest or industrial action.

The Irish profile in the Port Phillip District (before the Gold Rush and prior to the mass emigrations from the Potato Famine), was lawful and compliant. Irish bounty emigrants contributed to the growth and development of this part of the mainland colony in the same positive manner that characterised those with English and Scottish origins. There was really nothing in their subsequent behaviour that vindicated the negative slurs of the squatters and newspaper proprietors who so consistently derided them.


(1) HCCDA Document, NSW-1846-census, p. 46, 'Country Where Born'
(2) HCCDA Document, NSW-1846-census, p. 41, 'Number of Each Age'
(3) Port Phillip Herald, in The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Tuesday 13 July 1841, p. 3
(4) Lonsdale and Patterson to La Trobe, 22 July 1842, in British Parliamentary Papers, 1843, Vol. XXXIV, Appendix N, p. 77
(5) Twenty Years Experience in Australia, 1839, London, Smith Elder & Co, p. 58
(6) Port Phillip Gazette, in The Sydney Herald, Saturday 24 October 1840, p. 2
(7) Port Phillip Gazette, in Australasian Chronicle, Tuesday 18 January 1842
(8) 'Report on Immigration', The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Tuesday 7 June 1842, p. 4
(9) 'Papers Relating to Emigration', British Parliamentary Papers, 1843, Vol. XXXIV, Appendix L, No. 64, p. 69
(10) 'The Working Classes', Port Phillip Gazette, in The Australian, Monday 4 September 1843, p. 4
(11) Port Phillip Patriot, in The Sydney Herald, Friday 13 May 1842, p. 2
(12) Port Phillip Gazette, in The Colonist, Saturday 2 November 1839, p. 2; P. Mullaly, 2008, Crime in the Port Phillip District 1835-1851, Melbourne, Hybrid Publishing, p. 716; Port Phillip Herald, in Colonial Times, Tuesday 18 August 1840, p. 6
(13) P. Mullaly 2008, p. 717
(14) Port Phillip Herald, in The Australian, Monday 11 March 1844, p. 3
(15) Port Phillip Gazette, in The Australian, Wednesday 27 November 1844, p. 4



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