A few weeks ago, I had a conversation with Elizabeth Lhuede on Twitter about my recently released debut novel The Tides Between (I never tire of writing those words). One of her forbears, Elizabeth told me, had come to Australia in 1841. Her name was Anne Bowles.

Now if you have read The Tides Between (tsk,  tsk, if you haven’t), you will know it is set in 1841, on board an emigrant vessel and that one of the characters is called Annie Bowles. Elizabeth was interested in my research on the government assisted immigration system (hurray, all those hours have not gone completely unnoticed). She wondered whether I’d write a blog on the topic.

Would I considered writing a blog?!

Err… if you are a woman and Australian and have anything to do with publishing, you will know that Elizabeth Lhuede is the founder of the Australian Women Writers Challenge. Who just happened to be reading my recently released debut novel (sorry, couldn’t resist writing it again), and wanted to know more about my research. Like, would I consider writing a blog, for someone who has done so much for Australian women writers?  I’d in fact consider it a Royal Command Performance. Or at the very least, a thank you note, from one grateful Aussie Woman Writer.

Let’s start with a brief summary of assisted immigration in the 1840s:

A colony desperately in need of labourers

When Major Mitchell described rich pastoral lands in Western Victoria as ‘Australia Felix’, men began flocking to the district. These wealthy young adventurers, paid a £10 license fee to ‘squat’ on their allocated runs and invested their capital in sheep. Ex-convicts from Van Diemen’s Land and other parts of New South Wales also travelled to Port Phillip in search of opportunities. Alarmed by this flood of illegal settlers, Governor Bourke officially recognised the Port Phillip District. In 1841, the year in which The Tides Between is set, Port Phillip was still officially part of the Colony of New South Wales – which then included present-day Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria.

Transportation to New South Wales had ceased in 1840 (it’s not all about the convicts). Squatters were crying out for agricultural labourers. In the newly surveyed town of Melbourne, the ratio of European men to women was two to one. In the Geelong region, the ratio was four to one. Whereas in the Western District, Western Port, and Portland Bay the ration was eight, nine, and ten to one. As a consequence, there was also a desperate need for single female immigrants.

The migrants

During the early years of the nineteenth century, England and Wales experienced poverty and social unrest. The population doubled between 1800 and 1850. Agricultural labourers were some of the lowest paid in Britain. Employed seasonally, they earned between seven and ten shillings a week. Out of this they had to pay board and lodgings.

Many agricultural labourers moved to the burgeoning new industrial towns. They worked long hours toiling over dangerous machinery and lived in crowded tenements. In 1833, the government passed a factory act to improve the conditions of children working in mines and factories. Henceforth, no child under the age of nine age was to be employed. Those under the age of thirteen were only allowed to work nine hours a day.

The Merthyr Riots (as depicted in The Tides Between) occurred in 1831. The Tolpuddle Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers was formed in 1833. In 1834, the New Poor Law brought in a harsh new regime of poverty relief. The Rebecca Riots commenced in 1839, the same year that the Chartists rose in Newport. Amidst these scenes of agitation and distress, circulars and newspapers advertised the benefits of emigration.

The immigration schemes

Although the Port Phillip squatters cried out for agricultural labourers, and the British newspapers waxed lyrical about the benefits of emigration to New South Wales, problems of distance and cost needed to be overcome. A passage to Australia cost five times as much as a the more popular passage to North America and the journey to Port Phillip was four times as long.

A government assisted immigration scheme commenced in 1831 and was expanded throughout the decade. From 1837, a separate bounty scheme was also run by shipping agents who were paid to select and transport labourers on behalf of the colonists. The government scheme was criticised for being too expensive and not selective enough. While the government accused shipping agents of not caring for the welfare of migrants.

In 1841, the British Government introduced reforms. These maintained the bounty concept but placed it under the control of the newly formed Colonial Land and Emigration Commission. Over ninety-five percent of all assisted immigrants to Port Phillip prior to 1851 came under this more regulated scheme. Male labourers under thirty years – such as shepherds, bricklayers, wheelwrights, carpenters and masons – were sought as migrants. Single women under thirty were sought as domestic and agricultural servants. Married adults were to be under the age of forty years. Married or single, all migrants were expected to be sober, industrious and able to provide birth certificates and character references.

Migrants were housed in emigrant depots prior to departure. At the depot, they were given a thorough medical examination, divided into messes, and taught the routines of shipboard life. Every government assisted migrant vessel followed a standard victualling schedule and carried a surgeon-superintendent who followed a strict regime of hygiene. He and the ship’s officers were paid a gratuity for every migrant landed safely in the colony. Between 1839 and 1842 over 12, 000 assisted migrants arrived in Port Phillip. The influx slowed between 1843 and 1847 due to a colonial recession. After which, prior to 1851, a further 16,500 immigrants arrived prior.

The voyage

Despite being heavily regulated, the voyage to Port Phillip, was long and arduous. The mortality rate was around 3.7% with children being the most at risk. Some vessels escaped death and diseases. On others, the mortality rate exceeded 10%. The average duration of the voyage to Port Phillip was a hundred and eleven days.

There was little difference between a migrant vessel and a convict ship. The same ship might carry convicts to Western Australia, a wool cargo on the return run, and take migrants back to Port Phillip in the following year.  As a consequence, the fittings between decks were rough and purpose built for each individual ‘cargo.’

The ships’ hulls were rounded and their bows blunt which meant they were slow, leaky, and required a great deal of pumping. Prior to 1850, these ships followed the well-established Admiralty route which called at the Cape of Good Hope and used the brisk trade winds at around 39° S to carry them east towards Australia. By this route, they typically experienced seasickness in the Channel, storms in the Bay of Biscay, rising temperatures off the coast of Africa, and a windless inertia around the equator.

On-the-ground research

I read copiously in prior to writing The Tides Between (see below). I also did heaps of on-the-ground research. I visited Flagstaff Hill Maritime Museum, Queenscliff Maritime Museum, The Immigration Museum, and the Museum of London Docklands in order to get a tactile sense of the journey. I also did a Thames River Cruise, walked the route from the emigrant depot to the Deptford watergate, spent a night on the sailing ship Enterprize (where I learned how to create a hatchway Rhys could open in a storm), spent time on both sides of the entrance to Port Phillip Bay, crossed from Queenscliff to Sorento on the ferry, and visited Williamstown. I also spent hours poring over old maps in the State Library of Victoria.

This is only the research I did for the maritime aspects of the novel. The fairy tales, Welsh language and London theatre history, are in a catalogue of their own.

Here is brief bibliography of the maritime related books I found most helpful:

  • PESCOD, Keith, Good food bright fires and civility (a great book on British emigrant depots)
  • PESCOD, Keith, A place to lay my head (a follow up book on Australian immigrant depots)
  • BROOME, Richard, The Victorians: arriving (a great summary of the era, reasons for emigrating, and the voyage)
  • CHARLWOOD, Don, The long farewell (my Bible on this topic, it includes two published emigrant journals)
  • HAINES, Robin, Doctors at Sea: emigrant voyages to Australia
  • HAINES, Robin, Life and death in the age of sail: the passage to Australia
  • CANON, Michael, Perilous voyages to the new land
  • HOPE, Penelope, The voyage of the Africaine (an emigrant journal)
  • HOWITT, Richard, Australia: historical, descriptive and statistic, with an account on four years residence in that colony
  • DANA, Richard, Two years before the mast
  • COLONIAL LAND AND EMIGRATION COMMISSION, Instructions to surgeons superintendents of Government ships going to New South Wales, 1838 (later versions of this document are available)
  • COLONIAL LAND AND EMIGRATION COMMISSION, Colonization circular
  • KEMP, Peter, Oxford companion to ships and the sea
  • MCCRAE, Hugh, Georgiana’s journal

I’m not sure if that is what Elizabeth Lhuede had in mind. I am open to further questions. I am in fact happy to talk at length on the topic. So, please, ask away?

PS. An emigrant is an outgoing migrant, an immigrant an inbound one. Therefore, in my case, you could say I emigrated to Australia from the UK at the age of five. However, once here, I became an immigrant in the eyes of the Australian Government.