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Agricultural Labourers & Emigration in the Early 1800's
New Zealand Spectator and Cook's Strait
Guardian, 15 Nov 1848: Emigration to Australia. — Few persons are
aware of the extensive emigration which is going on from the port of
London to the Cape and the Australian colonies. Ships freighted with men,
women, and children, sail daily from Gravesend to all parts of South'
Australia or the Cape of Good Hope, and numerous others are being taken up
to supply the constant demand for accommodation for conveyance to those
colonial possessions. -
During the spring and summer of 1851, 258 Wiltshire people - men, women and children emigrated to the colonies of South Australia and Victoria. The men were all workers on the land of one kind and another except for a few bricklayers and brickworkers, a wheelwright and a miller. The women were their wives, sisters or daughters apart from one or two independent so-called "farm servants". They went to Australia in sailing ships chartered by the colonial office board with free passages. Thousands of immigrants went overseas from the British Isles at that time, so why should a small group of them be of Wiltshire's particular interest.
The Wiltshire immigration of 1851 was unusually well documented - we know the immigrant's names and ages, the names and ages of their children and the villages and towns that they came from. These particulars are given in a register, a minute book and a handful of correspondence which was deposited some years ago by the Marquis of Ellersly at the County Office at Troubridge. They are all that remain of the Wiltshire Emigration Association which arranged the departure of these people to Australia. It was in the 1830's and 40's that the immigration movement gathered momentum and in the late 40's and 50's, it reached a climax. It may seem surprising that so many people wanted to get away from the country that was fast becoming a workshop of the world and the ruler of its greatest empire ant that this Wiltshire emigration took place at exactly the same time as the Great Exhibition of 1851.
The fact remains that many immigrants were driven overseas by dire need. The need was greatest in Ireland during and after the prolonged potato famine of 1845 to 1847 but it was more acutely felt in the rural areas in the south of England. The strongest motivating force was hunger - Jacob Baker of Hodson near Wilton said in February 1850, "And you, gentlemen, must know that our case is very bad and that we have not near victuals enough. How would you like to sit down with your wife and young children four days in a week to not half bread and potatoes enough and the other three days upon not half enough boiled swedes and but with little fire to cook them with?"
Baker who had taught himself to read and write had intended to make the speech from which this passage is taken at a meeting in Swindon by the North Wiltshire Agricultural Protection Society, a body which was formed in 1844 to fight against the repeal of the Corn Laws. The farmers relied on the Corn Laws to protect them from the imports of cheap foreign corn. It was a highly combative speech - in some ways very modern in tone for it criticised among other things, the size of the Queen's income. The organiser's of the meeting were very careful not to let a working man like Baker say anything at all; and in this they did him a service because he would have spoken with a broad Wiltshire accent and some of the bigwigs on the platform, e.g. Earl Stanhope, would not have understood what he said. Baker took the speech home and showed it to Thomas Dyke, a farmer who often employed him. Dyke sent it to the editor of the Devizes gazette who, to his lasting credit, published it in full in the Tory journal. Jacob Baker, his wife and nine children, were among the immigrants in 1851 and during this voyage he wrote a poem which contains this significant couplet -
and see them they did. Exactly two years after the protection meeting in Swindon in February 1852, Jacob Baker wrote from the Lindocks Valley north of Adelaide to Thomas Dyke and his other friends in Hodson - "Poor people in Hodson do not know what a good living is. We have got a fresh joint of meat on our table every day and little Bill says, `I want to give Tom Weston some.' Little Bill was 6 years old and his remark makes one aware how keenly the lack of protein could be felt by the agricultural family in the 1840's and 50's.
It was the same in other parts of Wiltshire. Doctor Greenock of Calne reporting to an assistant Poor Law Commissioner in 1842 referred to "the insufficiency of food is the great evil in the lives of the poor" and the mother of six in Calne never had butcher's meat and for milk, they were dependant on the vicar giving them a little and to quote her own words "We never know what it is like to get enough to eat; at the end of the meal the children are always asking for more - I then say, you don't want your father to go to prison do you?"
James Caird reviewing the state of the English agriculture for the Times in 1850, quoted that the labourers diet on south Salisbury Plains consisted of bread with a little butter or lard, and cheese and bacon only occasionally if you could afford them. "We found," said Caird. "a prevalent desire for immigration among the labourers themselves." Nor, apparently, did their food improve much with the greater prosperity of the 50's and 60's. In 1850, the annual dinner given in January for the aged and infirm people of Collingbourne, Kingston, about 60 of them, was regarded as an event - it was the one really good meal of the year these people got.
Other places were running soup kitchens for the poor. A writer on agriculture in the prosperous 60's said of Wiltshire - "The peasantry do not seem as well fed or clothed as the northern or midland counties." The motives for immigration was low wages and unemployment. The labour figures for wages mean little by themselves without knowing what can be bought with the money and what fringe benefits, if any, there were. They are worth quoting because they make it possible to believe that Wiltshire was one of the counties where the agricultural labourers was lowest.
A farmer at the Devizes market in 1835 talked of reducing it to 5/-; that if it happened would have been an all time low. 6/- was usual in a few areas but not uncommon in bad times, but as a rule in the 40's and 50's, 7/- seems to have been the normal weekly wage in south Wiltshire and 8/- in north Wiltshire and Dorset. An interesting point to what labourers consider to be a reasonable wage was in the spring of 1853 when an unheard of event took place in the Wylye and its neighbourhood. The labourers struck for higher wages. The strike was possibly encouraged by immigration; so many of the workers had left the farms that the strikers could be reasonably sure their jobs would not be taken by others. They demanded their 7/- a week should be raised to 9/- and when the rector of Barford St. Martin, the Reverend Samuel Waldergrave was called upon to arbitrate between the men and the farmers to propose a compromise solution of 8/- a week, the labourers firmly rejected it. Seven years later Samuel Waldergrave was appointed Bishop of Carlisle and appears to have been more successful in managing a diocese than he had been in trying to settle a strike.
Meanwhile, the idea of striking had spread to one or two other parts of Wiltshire. In Winton, Monckton and other villages around Avebure, the farmers came to terms with the men before the threatened strike could take place; and although this agreement was known, it was probably the start of improved wages in Wiltshire and by 1880 had risen to between 12 and 14/-. But even with these wages, the vicar of Fitzhaldene noticed that there was not much meat in the cottages. In Australia the wage scale was noticeably more generous and more important since prices were higher, the fringe benefits were considerable.
Jacob Baker was full of it - "When a farmer came out of the bush and hired us," as he put it, "Jacob himself got 10/- a week, his eldest son 9/-, his second son 7/- with rations for them all which meant 40lb of flour, 40 lb of beef or mutton, 1 lb of tea, 4 lb of sugar per week and free furl and no rent." The imagination of his friends in Hodson boggled at these statistics. It was just the kind of thing that stimulated immigration, for as Sydney Herbert writing from Wilton House to a correspondent in Australia early in 1851 shrewdly observed, "It is very difficult with the labouring class to remove an idea which has taken possession of their mind and no written report is of any weight with them against the evidence of some person that they themselves know personally."
Anyone of the 1851 immigrants who was definitely known to have relatives settled in Australia and enough people from Wiltshire villages had already gone there to provide a steady trickle of information of the personal kind. What exactly could a man with his family live on for 7/- or 8/- a week? John Guthries, the vicar of Calne had tried to work it out - "But in all cases that I have tried, without exception, their expenditure seems to exceed their earnings. This problem many of us have tried to solve but without success." In Dorset with its 8/- wage, another parson did work it out. He found that extra work done at harvest time and fringe benefits, if we can call them that, made a noticeable contribution to a labourer's real wage; by fringe benefits, I mean an allotment, the gleanings of his family, the tiny bit of money earned by his children and above all, by paying no rent. Even so, it is a remarkable table that Sydney Austen compiled of earnings and expenditure for 49 weeks of the year in 1843 of a farm labourer, his wife and four children. What with contributions to the clothing club, the benefit club and schooling as well as payment for food, fuel and shoe leather, they had just enough to keep their heads above water financially and had no money left for luxuries apart from a few currants.
The table appears at the end of a pamphlet called a "a View of low, moral and physical condition of the Agricultural labourer" published in Blandford in 1844. The title speaks for itself and the author, the Reverend Sydney Godolphin became better known for his work in championing the cause of the agricultural labourer in the south of England and his knowledge of the conditions in which they had to live. Particularly he emphasised the bad effect of bad housing and overcrowding on morals. Unemployment was an even greater curse than no wages for the farmers as well as the labourers themselves. The farmers kept the wages low in order to employ as many men as they could for the unemployed drifted eventually into the workhouse and the workhouse was supported out of rates to which the farmers were the major contributors. The families of the married men in the workhouse came on the rates too.
In the north of England better work was done by fewer men for higher wages and the son of the marquis of Ailsbury, one of the largest landowners in Wiltshire and Yorkshire too, pointed out at the annual dinner of the Marlborough District Association at the Marlborough Town Hall in October, 1849, that in the north, there were fewer farm labourers to crunch him in the winter when there was less to do on the land. An enterprising man like Jacob Baker could, as he put it, "job about and get work when and where I can"; he cut wood, hedged and ditched and drew teeth at 6d. a piece. Even so, he just managed to keep out of the workhouse which was the only place to go if you came to the end of your resources for there was no unemployment benefit, no sickness benefit, no supplementary allowances of any kind and no representation in Parliament for the working man.
Sometimes desperate efforts were made to find work for men whose work was not needed in winter. For instance, in Laycock, in 1844, the parish vestry tried to make all farmers agree to employ a fixed number of men throughout the winter, the wealthiest landowner of the neighbourhood, T H S Sotheram Estcourt, the MP for north Wiltshire to his credit, undertook to pay the parish 100 Pound in order to provide employment for the rest. The experiment appears to have broken down because a few farmers would not co-operate. In 1851, some immigrants from Lacoc were recommended by the Chippenham Union, i.e.. by the workhouse authorities, which suggests that unemployment continued in that area. Unemployment in the rural areas in the southern counties was attributed in part and probably for good reason, to the rapid growth of population. Albury Bruce had no doubt that too many men were coming to his house in the Savernack Forrest during the previous winters to ask for work which he could not give them; far too many "young men between 20 and 25 years of age who now looked to his untrusting character somewhere between good and bad but would settle down well if they could find employment and good masters" but there wasn't enough work to go around and Bruce thought of these young men "as on the loose with the appearance perhaps in the workhouse."
Sydney Austen realised that many of them lived at home in overcrowded houses, living in perhaps the same room as their sisters and not wanted in the one "keeping room" downstairs in the evenings while the children were being attended to, bored if they did stay there and as a result they tended to congregate at the beer shop where they spent what little money they had with all the bad characters of the neighbourhood or else they took to poaching. Even if they had worked, these young men could not marry because they could find nowhere to live. Bruce referred to cottage building "the greatest of all burdens to the landlord" and his attitude was typical; because only model landowners like the Duke of Wellington built plenty of well built cottages. But in the country, only landlords built cottages to live in at all, and most of them, like Bruce, thought that the more that they built, the more they would encourage early marriages and use up the money they would much rather spend on building churches and schools. For in the country, it is the landlords or sometimes the rich parson, who provided and maintained the village school. It was one of the things expected of him and it had the advantage that his wife could take an interest and as it were, show the flag in the villages. Several of the great ladies of Wiltshire concerned themselves with village education; Lady Bruce even took the lessons herself at times.
The result of the lack of accommodation combined with the lack of birth control, was a plentiful supply of illegitimate children; and what it was like to be one of them, can be glimpsed from the entry in Collingbourne Kingston Vestry book dated November 1843 "and also it is agreed that all the surplus children shall be sent to the workhouse instead of being employed at stonepicking." It was not much fun being ordered about by the parish overseers, packed off to the workhouse at Pewsey for the winter. Yet perhaps they were better off at Collingbourne than they would have been at Wroughton when A. Wyndom noticed in 1845 that "the whole place swarmed with children that are being brought up to anything but obtaining a honest livehood." They were certainly better off than the 1400 pauper children housed and fed for 4/6d a week each at Mr. Peter Drouets' establishment at Tooting where the "drains were not all that they might have been and an open sewer ran through the grounds" with the result that the children began to die off like flies with cholera in the autumn of 1848.
Further evidence of the number of young men living at home comes from the west of Wiltshire in the list of cottages belonging to Lord Bath at Horningsham. It might be argued that many bachelor sons between the age of 20 and 30 years live with their parents in the countryside today; but what is not common today is to find a man, his wife with a son of 22 and six other children all sleeping in one room. A few places can fairly be called rural slums. Such, according to Lord Lansdown's agents, was the village of Studley, where he found 29 people all living under the same roof. Warminster Common was notorious although much improved when its water supply was properly channelled in 1849 so that the sewerage did not run into it and the village avoided the cholera epidemic of that year.
Burbage too, may have been on the way to becoming a rural slum - Kelly's directory described it as being "a picturesque but not particularly clean village" and it had more inhabitants in 1851 than it did in 1951. During the summer many people lived in tents and barns and one can only assume that they went to the workhouse in the winter unless they were Irish reapers or railway navvies or other very temporary residents. Altogether, it is not surprising to find a fair number of unmarried men among the Wiltshire immigrants of 1851. In Australia, it might to be difficult to find a wife but at least they would be wanted if Bruce and the other landowners knew the colonists were continually asking for agricultural labourers. But, how could they get there on 7/- or 8/- a week? No man could pay for his passage, little-own for the passages for his wife and children if he had them. He needed assistance and this took the form of an Australian Association scheme where the ships were chartered, vetted the selection of immigrants, collected the deposits of the immigrants that had to pay and looked after them at the port of embarkation. After they embarked, they travelled free.
There remained the problem of putting the prospective immigrants in touch with the commissioners on Park Street so that he could get his free passage and this was normally done in one of two ways. Either through agents employed by the colonial governments or by parish authorities, the vestries, working under the supervision of the Poor Law commissioners and somebody had to find the money for the immigrant who was earning say 7/- a week to buy the clothing that the immigration commissioners required him to have, to travel to the port of embarkation probably Deptford or Plymouth and to pay the deposit without which he was not allowed a berth for his free passage. So it was that it was decided in Wiltshire that immigration was the answer to the unemployment problem, to the overfilling of the workhouses in winter, the overcrowding of the houses and the malnutrition. This was the way to give people a new life for themselves and many landowners were encouraging it. Englishmen seem to be devined by providence to colonise a large part of the world; why should Wiltshire men not be among them? In Australia, the Wiltshire immigrants went on six different ships - four to Adelaide and two to Port Philip ie. Geelong or Melbourne between March and June of 1851. The commissioners like to place immigrants from different parts of the British Isles together on the same ship. For the unmarried men, immigration was an adventure and if you decided at the last minute not to go, as a few did, his family was not seriously inconvenienced.
It was different for a married man or the wife and children. For them it meant a great upheaval, first - the sale of all their furniture and most of their belongings which might only just pay their outstanding debts, their arrears of rent and the journey to Chippingham? and the voyage to the other ends of the world and no guarantee of a warm reception when they got there. By the women - "When the cottage was sold or given up, it was too late to think again". "Why is Dad selling everything and we are all going to have new clothes," Sydney Austen heard the children say.
Most of the immigrants came from five areas of Wiltshire - the villages around Salisbury, from Calne, from Lacock, from Ramsbury and particularly from the southern estates south and south-east of Marlborough. How much interest the parson took in the individual immigrants it is difficult to say, but several subscribed to the Association. Some recommended immigrants and others made recommendations on behalf of landowners. Concern was always shown for the religious welfare of immigrants and before they embarked at Plymouth, everyone of the Wiltshire party was given a bible and a prayer book by the immigrant's employment society but again with a much more personal touch. The journey itself lasted anything up to 14 weeks to Australia.
A paper on immigration from Wiltshire to South Australia states that the prospective immigrants were usually put in touch with the Immigration Commissioners of the Colonial Office either through agents employed by the colonial governments or by the parish authorities, the vestries working under the supervision of the Poor Law Commissioner. Several Wiltshire vestries were familiar with the procedures for obtaining free passages and for vestries they found a very convenient way of off-loading able bodied paupers that they would have otherwise have had to maintain in the workhouses on the rates, at least during the winter and they could also help employed men and women who wanted to immigrate. Authority to pay the immigration expenses out of the rates was written into the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.
Sometimes a landowner helped by paying part of the immigrant's expenses but the vital link connecting the agricultural labourer with the immigration commissioners in London was usually the parson, for he was always a member of the vestry and as a rule, presided over it. Parsons played a significant part in the immigration of 1851 but financially everything depended on the landowners, the farmers, for they paid the rates. If this was true for the Wiltshire Immigration Association which was set up by Lord Bruce in 1850, it is also probable that parsons paid an equally important roll for the Canterbury Association in colonising Canterbury, New Zealand.
Researcher unknown - Paper held in Canterbury Museum Archives at Christchurch
Further reading: Emigration