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Obstacles and opportunities: labour emigration to the ‘British World’ in the nineteenth century

  • Marjory Harper (a1)


Labour emigrants in the nineteenth century had ever-increasing access to a global employment market. Many of those who left Great Britain looked beyond Europe, to the British Empire and the United States. They took advantage of improvements in transportation, and followed a wide variety of occupations. Decisions to emigrate were often shaped by their involvement in trade unions and were based on concerns about living standards and working conditions. This study considers a selection of globetrotting British settlers and sojourners who went to Canada, the United States and Australia between 1815 and the 1880s. The article analyses the historiography of labour migration; carries out an empirical study constructed around four pieces of analytical scaffolding; and closes by identifying recurring threads in the multi-hued tapestry of labour emigration, highlighting how concerns and traditions about recruitment, wages and working conditions, which had emerged in the nineteenth century, created legacies that persisted into the period after the First World War.

Au XIXe siècle, les travailleurs migrants eurent de plus en plus accès à un marché mondial de l'emploi. Nombre de ceux qui quittaient la Grande-Bretagne regardaient au-delà de l'Europe, vers l'Empire britannique et les États-Unis. Ils profitèrent de l'amélioration des transports et exercèrent une grande variété de métiers. Leur engagement dans le syndicalisme fut souvent à l'origine de leur décision de migrer, car ils se montraient soucieux de leur niveau de vie et conditions de travail. La présente étude porte sur un échantillon de colons et grands voyageurs britanniques qui se sont rendus au Canada, aux États-Unis et en Australie entre 1815 et les années 1880. L'auteur analyse tout d'abord l'historiographie de la migration du travail, construit une étude empirique articulée autour de quatre volets analytiques et s'attache pour finir à identifier les fils récurrents et bigarrés qui tissent toute vie d’émigrant en quête d'emploi. Il est souligné à quel point les préoccupations et les traditions concernant recrutement, salaires et conditions de travail, soucis apparus au XIXe siècle, ont laissé un héritage qui s'est maintenu après la Première Guerre mondiale.

Auswandernde Arbeiter hatten im 19. Jahrhundert ständig wachsende Zugangschancen zum globalen Arbeitsmarkt. Viele von denen, die Großbritannien verließen, richteten ihren Blickblick über Europa hinweg zum britischen Empire und in die Vereinigten Staaten. Sie nutzten den Vorteil der besseren Transportverhältnisse und gingen einer breiten Palette von Beschäftigungen nach. Der Entschluss zur Auswanderung war oft von ihrem gewerkschaftlichen Engagement und der Sorge um Lebensstandard und Arbeitsbedingungen geprägt. Diese Fallstudie untersucht eine Auswahl weltreisender britischer Siedler und Besucher, die von 1815 bis in die 1880er Jahre nach Kanada, in die Vereinigten Staaten und nach Australien gingen. Der Beitrag analysiert zunächst die bisherige historische Forschung zur Arbeitsmigration, unternimmt dann eine empirische Untersuchung, die von einem Gerüst aus vier analytischen Pfeilern zusammengehalten wird, und schließt mit einer Erörterung der im komplexen Geflecht der Arbeitsmigration erkennbaren Hauptstränge. Dabei wird deutlich, wie die Bedenken und Traditionen im Hinblick auf Anwerbung, Löhne und Arbeitsbedingungen, die sich im 19. Jahrhundert herausgebildet hatten, ein Vermächtnis schufen, das bis in die Zeit nach dem Ersten Weltkrieg fortbestand.


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1 Baines, Dudley, Migration in a mature economy: emigration and internal migration in England and Wales, 1861–1900 (Cambridge, 1985), 1; Ferenczi, I. and Willcox, W. F., International migrations (New York, 1929–31), Table 6, 245–88.

2 Baines, Migration in a mature economy, 9; Carrier, N. H. and Jeffery, J. R., External migration: a study of the available statistics 1815–1950 (London, 1953), 93, 95–6. The number of emigrants from Britain and Ireland recorded by Carrier and Jeffery from 1815 to 1914 inclusive is 16,857,367. If we add in foreign-born emigrants who sailed from British ports (distinguishable from 1853), the figure comes to approximately 22 million.

3 Sidney and Webb, Beatrice, The history of trade unionism (London and New York, 1894).

4 Ibid., 183, 184.

5 Charlotte Erickson, ‘The encouragement of emigration by British trade unions, 1850–1900’, Population Studies 3, 3 (1949), 248–63; R. V. Clements, ‘Trade unions and emigration, 1840–80’, Population Studies 9, 2 (1955-6), 167–80.

6 Wilbur Shepperson, ‘Industrial emigration in early Victorian Britain’, Journal of Economic History 13, 2 (1953), 179–92. The quotation is taken from p. 190.

7 James M. Cameron, ‘A study of the factors that assisted and directed Scottish emigration to Upper Canada, 1815–1855’ (unpublished PhD, University of Glasgow, 1971), ch. 4.

8 Pamela Horn, ‘Agricultural trade unionism and emigration, 1872–1881’, Historical Journal 15, 1 (1972), 87–102; Rollo Arnold, ‘English rural unionism and Taranaki immigration, 1871–1876’, New Zealand Journal of History 6, 1 (1972), 20–41.

9 Joseph Arch, From ploughtail to parliament: an autobiography, introduction by Alun Howkins (London, 1986 edn), 96.

10 Ibid., 204, 219.

11 Ibid., 254–5.

12 Rollo Arnold, The farthest promised land: English villagers, New Zealand immigrants of the 1870s (Wellington, 1981), 50, 52, 129, 146, 168, 172–3.

13 Philip Payton, The Cornish overseas: a history of Cornwall's ‘Great Emigration’ (Fowey, 2005), 312; W. J. Rowe, Cornish Methodists and emigrants (Redruth, 1967), 24.

14 Howard Malchow, ‘Trade unions and emigration in late Victorian England: a national lobby for state aid’, Journal of British Studies 15, 2 (1967), 92–116. See also Howard Malchow, Population pressures: emigration and government in late nineteenth-century Britain (Palo Alto, CA, 1979).

15 Michael E. Vance, Imperial immigrants: Scottish settlers in the Upper Ottawa Valley, 1815–1840 (Ottawa, 2012); Malcolm Chase, ‘“Brothers under oppression”: Chartists and the Canadian rebellions of 1837’, in Malcolm Chase, The Chartists: perspectives and legacies (London, 2015), 28–46.

16 Jonathan Hyslop, The notorious syndicalist: J. T. Bain: a Scottish rebel in colonial South Africa (Johannesburg, 2004); Billy Kenefick, Red Scotland! The rise and fall of the Radical Left, c. 1872 to 1932 (Edinburgh, 2007), 209–11.

17 See, for instance, resentment among South Australian copper miners in ‘Anti-Immigration Meeting’, Yorke's Peninsula Advertiser, 9 September 1879, 3, cols. 5–6, [accessed 29 December 2017].

18 For details, see David MacMillan, ‘Sir Charles Trevelyan and the Highland and Island Emigration Society, 1849–1859’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 44 (1963), 161–88; Malcolm Prentis, ‘The emigrants of the Highland and Island Emigration Society, 1852–1857’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society 69 (1983), 39–47; T. M. Devine, The Great Highland Famine: hunger, emigration and the Scottish Highlands in the nineteenth century (Edinburgh, 1988); and R. A. C. Balfour, ‘The Highland and Island Emigration Society, 1852–58’, Transactions of the Gaelic Society of Inverness LVII (1990–2), 429–566.

19 Although the main focus was on Canada, in 1820 the government also provided £50,000 funding for 4,000 emigrants to colonise the district of Albany in the Eastern Cape under the 1820 Settlers’ Scheme. See John M. MacKenzie with Nigel R. Dalziel, The Scots in South Africa: ethnicity, identity, gender and race, 1772–1914 (Manchester, 2007), 48–57.

20 See, inter alia, W. A. Carrothers, Emigration from the British Isles, with special reference to the development of the overseas dominions (London, 1965), 32–88; Eric Richards, Britannia's children: emigration from England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland since 1600 (London, 2004), 117–49.

21 Scots Magazine vol. 78, July 1816, 549.

22 Caledonian Mercury, taken from Glasgow Chronicle, 21 June 1819. See also Helen Cowan, British emigration to British North America: the first hundred years (Toronto, 1961), 60–3.

23 The National Records of Scotland (hereafter NRS) TD 80/100/4/1748/10–11, James Muir, Clerk of the Lesmahagow Emigration Society, to Robert Brown, 24 January 1820, quoted in Michael E. Vance, ‘The politics of emigration’, in T. M. Devine ed., Scottish emigration and Scottish society (Edinburgh, 1992), 50.

24 The National Archives (hereafter TNA) CO 384/7, fo. 425, Robert Beath to Lord Bathurst, 30 January 1821; Vance, ‘The politics of emigration’, 48.

25 Robert Lamond, A narrative of the rise and progress of emigration from the counties of Lanark and Renfrew, to the new settlements in Upper Canada (Glasgow, 1821), 12, 13–14.

26 House of Commons Parliamentary Papers (hereafter HCPP), 1826–1827 (237), V, First, second and third reports from the select committee on emigration from the United Kingdom with minutes of evidence, appendix and index, abstracts of Scotch petitions and memorials, 24 May 1827.

27 Ibid., 28 May 1827.

28 Ibid., 3 May 1827.

29 Ibid., 29 May 1827.

30 Quoted in Vance, Imperial immigrants, 123.

31 Cameron, ‘A study of the factors’, 107.

32 HCPP, 1843–1844 HC 557, Report from Her Majesty's commissioners for inquiring into the administration and practical operation of the poor laws in Scotland, minutes of evidence, 592, Q. 10,762, evidence of Mr Henderson, 1 May 1843.

33 W. H. Marwick, A short history of labour in Scotland (Edinburgh, 1967), 23.

34 Dictionary of Canadian Biography online, [accessed 19 December 2017]. Mackenzie's appropriation by the Chartists is discussed by Malcolm Chase, ‘“Brothers under oppression”, 28–46.

35 Michael E. Vance, ‘Scottish Chartism in Canada West? An examination of the “clear grit” reformers’, Scottish Tradition 22 (1997), 56–104. For details of the Canadian Rebellion, see Colin Read and Ronald J. Stagg eds., The rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada (Ottawa, 1988).

36 Vance, ‘Scottish Chartism’, 60–2. For the Radical War, see T. M. Devine, The Scottish nation 1700–2000 (London, 1999), 226–30.

37 Penny Magazine of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge vol. 12, 22 July 1843, 276.

38 Vance, ‘Scottish Chartism’, 76–8.

39 Alexander McDonald, Miners’ grievances: a series of letters addressed to various newspapers (Glasgow, 1857), 3.

40 Gordon M. Wilson, Alexander McDonald, leaders of the miners (Aberdeen, 1982). See also Marjory Harper, Adventurers and exiles: the great Scottish exodus (London, 2003), 106.

41 Erickson, ‘The encouragement of emigration’, 261.

42 The Hamilton Advertiser, 29 April 1865.

43 Quoted in Jim Hewitson, Tam Blake and Co.: the story of the Scots in America (Edinburgh, 1993), 88.

44 Alan Conway ed., The Welsh in America: letters from the immigrants (Cardiff, 1961), 9. See also William D. Jones, Wales in America: Scranton and the Welsh 1860–1920 (Cardiff and Scranton, 1997).

45 Conway ed., The Welsh in America, 166.

46 David Davies to his mother, 17 February 1834, published in Y Gwyliedydd, July 1834, quoted in Conway ed., The Welsh in America, 167.

47 Ibid., 166.

48 David Watkins, Youngstown, Mahoney County, Ohio, to a friend, 10 March 1865, published in Y Gwladgarwr, 15 April 1865, quoted in Conway ed., The Welsh in America, 172.

49 John R. Williams, Algoma, McDowell County, West Virginia, to William Thomas, Brynawel, Aberdare, 10 November 1895, quoted in Conway ed., The Welsh in America, 205.

50 Malchow, ‘Trade unions and emigration’, 102.

51 Marion McDonald, ‘The Granite Years: Barre, Vermont, 1880–1900: a socio-economic history using quantitative methods’ (MA thesis, University of Vermont, 1974), 10. See also Marjory Harper, ‘Transient tradesmen: Aberdeen emigrants and the development of the American granite industry’, Northern Scotland 9, 1 (May 1989), 53–75.

52 American Granite Cutters’ Journal XI, 23 (August 1888), 3.

53 Aberdeen University, Special Libraries and Archives, MSS 2655/2/1/1-9; Operative Masons’ and Granite Cutters’ Journal VI (1906); VII (1907); Marjory Harper, Emigration from North-East Scotland, Vol. II: beyond the broad Atlantic (Aberdeen, 1988), 163–5.

54 American Granite Cutters Journal X (May 1886), 3.

55 Aberdeen Evening Gazette, 17 May 1886.

56 Galveston Daily News, 13 May 1886, quoted in American Granite Cutters’ Journal X (June 1886), 3.

57 Marjory Harper, ‘Emigrant strike-breakers: Scottish granite cutters and the Texas Capitol boycott’, Southwestern Historical Quarterly 95, 4 (April 1992), 465–86. The reference to the fine is on p. 483.

58 Jonathan Hyslop, ‘The British and Australian leaders of the South African Labour Movement, 1902–1914: a group biography’, in Kate Darian-Smith, Patricia Grimshaw and Stuart Macintyre eds., Britishness abroad: transnational movements and imperial cultures (Melbourne, 2007), 91, 95. See also Hyslop, The notorious syndicalist.

59 Forward, 28 February 1913, 7d.

60 Clifford Sifton, ‘The immigrants Canada wants’, Maclean's Magazine, 1 April 1922, 16.

61 David Frank, ‘McLachlan, James Bryson’, in Dictionary of Canadian Biography XVI (1931–1940), [accessed 28 December 2017].

62 Shepperson, ‘Industrial emigration in early Victorian Britain’, 190.

63 Croucher, R., We refuse to starve in silence: a history of the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, 1920–46 (London, 1987), 66.

64 Payton, Philip, ‘Cornish’, in Jupp, James ed., The Australian people: an encyclopedia of the nation, its people and their origins (Cambridge, 2001), 232–4.

65 Oxford Centre for Methodism and Church History, Oxford Brookes University, Minutes of the Methodist Conference, 1909, 1910, 1925, appendix IV, 400; Wesleyan Methodist Conference Agenda, April 1929, 356.

66 Anon., Organised empire migration and settlement: a retrospect of Salvation Army work for the Empire and its citizens by a privileged observer (London, 1930); Marjory Harper, ‘Emigration and the Salvation Army’, Bulletin of the Scottish Institute of Missionary Studies n.s., 3–4 (1985–1987), 22–9.

67 Baines, Dudley, Emigration from Europe, 1815–1930 (Cambridge, 1991), 39. According to T. M. Devine, ‘By 1900 it is estimated that around one-third of those Scots who left came back sooner or later.’ (Devine, T. M., To the ends of the earth: Scotland's global diaspora, 1750–2010 (London, 2011), 93.)

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