02 April 2016

Exiles and Emigrants to Australia

I visited the Immigration Museum in Melbourne and loved it. About migrating to Australia, Museum Victoria  wrote: “Hygiene was poor at the best of times and worse in bad weather. Batten-down the hatches meant passengers on the lowest deck were confined without ventilation or light in conditions that were ideal for the spread of disease. The use of candles or oil lanterns was restricted or forbidden. Cramped conditions with timber, straw mattresses, hemp and tar caulking, meant a fire could spread alarmingly.

I wondered why anyone would live like that. Convicts had no choice, of course. Once the American colonies* refused to be a dumping ground for British convicts in the 1780s, Australia had to take over. The first convicts ships to the Australian colonies landed in 1788, carrying men sentenced to 7 years for simple crimes like stealing food, and upwards. And the poor souls were almost always transported without their wives or children.

Clearly convicts were not given even the minimal comfort that free passengers in steerage class might have enjoyed. They were chained below deck without light or toilets. By the time the very last convict ship left Britain in late 1867, 166,000 convicts had made the journey to Australia on board 806 ships.

Ford Madox Brown
Last of England, 1855
Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

With the discovery of gold in 1851 and a booming economy, more people travelled to Australia by choice, and convicts were no longer the major source of new arrivals. So did Australia accept anyone who wanted to settle here? Until the nation federated in 1901, the colonies of New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia made their own decisions on which mig­rants to encourage and which hopefuls to reject. Tradesmen, profess­ionals & agricultural workers were very desirable, as long as they were of good moral character and free from all physical or mental defects. Due to the severe gender imbalance in the colonies, young single women of good character were warmly encouraged to travel to Australia, marry and be the mothers of the next generation.

As a result, all Australians were/are migrants from somewhere else, except for indigenous Australians.

Modern families interested in tracing their ancestors’ experiences often have little more than the name of the ship and its departure and arrival dates. Sometimes we are lucky enough to find a diary or letters written on the ship. But how typical was any particular diary? Was there a shared experience that linked all those sea journeys to Australia?

Roslyn Russell wrote High Seas & High Teas: Voyaging to Australia (NLA 2016), the book that used passengers’ diaries to describe their experiences en route from the UK to Australia. She used thirty-three diaries penned by C19th passengers and crew, selected from among the 100 sailing diaries in the Manuscripts Collection of the National Library of Australia. Were they literate and interesting diaries? Yes indeed, particularly when written by first class male passengers. The trouble was that second and third class passengers were under-rep­resented in the Manuscripts Collection, even though they were over-represented on the ships. The Jews, Chinese, Germans and every other group of migrants were also under-represented; only the English and Irish diaries were tapped.

In the C19th, the journey to Australia was always long, often dangerous and utterly tedious. In calm weather an ordinary sailing ship could have been at sea for four long months. Then clippers started to show advanced technology. With their streamlined hulls and huge sails, a well-run clipper ship with favourable winds could make the journey in just two months. And then by the 1850s, immigrants could make the journey by auxiliary steamer, using a combination of steam and sail.

The sailing routes from the UK to Australia varied. Early C19th routes went along the coast of South America via Rio de Janeiro, then across to Africa and south to the Cape of Good Hope, and on to Perth (first landing site) and then more easterly ports in Australia.

From the 1830s passengers preferred to travel across the Mediterranean by steamship to Cairo; then by land to Suez, and by steamship again to Bombay. There they connected with the sailing ships that were heading for Australia. By mid-century a third, more dangerous route opened up. Clipper ships travelled south of the Cape of Good Hope to pick up the strong winds that blew in the southern hemisphere – faster but more dangerous. Lots of passengers must have blessed the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 which made the journeys both faster and safer.

Even so, the book gives evidence of four emigrant ships which sunk en route to Australia. 300+ people drowned. And epidemics like scarlet fever killed even more travellers, especially those stuck in the rather fetid steerage spaces.

Tom Roberts
Coming South, 1886
National Gallery of Victoria

Because my husband and his family were immigrants on board ship coming to Australia in 1951, I was particularly interested in the boarding process, the accommodation and food provided during the ship journey and the migrants’ reception in Australian posts. Although the post-Holocaust ships were crowded and inelegant, at least the five members of Joe’s family were given a small cabin together. I imagine the single men in 1951, who were placed in dormitories on bunks, were not treated with a great deal more respect than their predecessors had been back in 1851. {Joe and his brother were too young to remember much; their older sister remembered it all].

Each section in the High Seas & High Teas book commences with a concise biography and then a transcript of one immigrant’s diary that illustrates the topic being discussed. The reader then finds a double-paged photo of that diary entry. Some immigrants reappear often; others are cited only once.

Not for the first time in history, it becomes clear that social class was the determinant of how passengers experienced the long voyage. Those with money could travel the ocean in style, dining on fresh meat at the captain’s table; the lower classes forced down mutton fat pudding while gagging on
the stench from the ship’s bilges.

John Dollman
The Immigrants’ Ship, 1884
Art Gallery of South Australia

The C19th saw one of the largest mass movements of people in history, as emigrants flooded out of Great Britain and Europe to seek a better life in the colonies. The Last of England: Emigration in Prints exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ballarat explores how that experience was recorded and reflected in popular prints and illustrated newspapers. Central to the exhibition is a contemporary steel engraving of one of Britain's most famous paintings, The Last of England by Pre-Raphaelite artist Ford Madox Brown, inspired by the departure of the artist's friend and fellow-artist Thomas Woolner, for the Australian goldfields in 1855.

Emigration was on everyone's minds, and reports of the sailing of emigrant ships, the experience on board, and the life that awaited emigrants in the colonies was well covered in the popular periodicals of the day. Many of the black and white images in the Ballarat exhibition appeared in The Illustrated London News, The Graphic, Punch and other illustrated papers.

Four more excellent sources:

1. Don Charlwood’s The Long Farewell was pub­lished by Burgewood Books in 2015. Using 120 diaries kept by immigrants on the long trips to Australia and letters the settlers wrote home, Charlwood analyses the reasons for emigration, the routes chosen, accommodation on board, health care, meals and pastimes.

2.  Resident Judge of Port Phillip blog.

3. Exiles and Emigrants: Epic Journeys to Australia in the Victorian Era was an extraordinary catalogue that accompanied the 2006 exhibition of the same name. Put on by the National Gallery of Victoria, the exhibits were displayed under the following headings: The Last of England; The Final Farewell; Women and Children Last; The Voyage; The Arrival; News from Abroad; and News from Home.

4. A world map* showing where the French, British, Spanish and Portuguese empires sent their convicts. It illustrates the number of convicts sent to each receiving country, but does not specify in which years the convicts were transported.


So In Love With Melbourne said...

I visited the Immigration Museum and I love it too! Lovely post and great information. Thanks for sharing!

Apart from the hardship of travelling over, what really gripped me is the kind of humiliation and shame that some immigrants were subject to when they first arrived at Australia. Some were being treated like pests, and ended up being sent home under the white supremacy policy. Surely something for us to think about!

Student of History said...

Next semester we will be examining gold rush history. A mans decision to migrate alone to seek gold would have been simple. A mans decision to get on a ship with his wife and children would have been more risky.

mem said...

I have some great migration stories in my background . One was that if my ggggtrandfathervwho immigrated to New Zealand with his wife and 8 children in 1870 . He was the 4 th son of a gentry family and had disgraced himself by marrying a serving girl . As a result his children had no future in Ireland . I often wonder if if was worth if find him . There was so much hardship and tragedy . I am glad he did if though!
My husbands family escaped the pogroms if Russian Poland . They certainly made the right choice . Recently we visited the little town they came from . Very beautiful with wonderful architecture real acknowledgement of the Jews who once lived there . It was an incredibly moving thing to do.
Now we have another crop of migrants ,often with incredibly interesting stories . We actually have a national treasure in their stories . Those stories will surely shape our national character as much as the Irish home rule prisoners , the Charist prisoners who were transported here as convicts , released and then became people of influence . It's a fascinating subject to contemplate.

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, America had a similar situation, with everyone except for the indigenous Indians being an immigrant of some sort. In addition to original social level, what mattered was how early the ship arrived, and where it landed. The ultimate was the Mayflower, which landed at Plymouth Rock in 1620--even now there are snobbish societies of Mayflower descendants.

Hels said...

So In Love

YES! "The kind of humiliation and shame that some immigrants were subject to when they first arrived at Australia" seems to be true now, and not just here. Turkey, Greece and most other countries would just like migrants to go back to where they came from, regardless of hardship in their countries of origin.

Yet almost the entire population of Australia migrated here from another country. If not us, then our parents or grandparents.

Hels said...


I would love to know what women _really_ felt about leaving their parents, siblings and communities in the UK, to travel half way across the globe. Just because a man wanted to join the gold rush, for example, there was no reason to think his wife and children wanted to leave their beloved homes. Look at their grief in Ford Madox Brown's Last of England painting, just as the gold rush was peaking (in 1855).

Hels said...


it IS truly a fascinating subject to contemplate, especially since almost all our Australian and New Zealand families, with the exception of convicts, had to choose whether to migrate or not. And from such diverse backgrounds, as you suggest.

My side of the family came from Russia, Ukraine and Lithuania. My in laws came from Czechoslovakia and Hungary. Our sons married girls whose parents came from Israel, Greece, Syria, Egypt and Poland. It seems that these scattered immigrants became people of influence not because they were cleverer than anyone else. But because they were more motivated to be successful and absorbed into their new homeland.

Hels said...


That is probably true for all New World countries, which I knew. What I had never thought of before was that each European empire had to park its convicts somewhere, preferably far away from home.

I was delighted to find the map at http://www.historytoday.com/sites/default/files/history-matters/penal.jpg , even though it only refers to convicts shipped off to distant settlements, not to voluntary migrants. Nonetheless it shows that all of us in North, Central and South America, South East Asia and Australasia can identify with the issues raised in the book High Seas & High Teas.

Hels said...

So in Love,

I found another exhibition you may love. "The Last of England: Emigration in Prints" exhibition is now at the Art Gallery of Ballarat. Many of the black and white images in the exhibition appeared in 19th century illustrated newspapers like The Illustrated London News, The Graphic, Punch and others.

It ends 5PM on Sunday August 14th 2016