After a summer of research at home and abroad, Andrew Hillier brings us news from the colonial Hillier clan – this time exploring the relationship between colonial families and their transnational homes. Where, after all, was “home” for colonial families? And in what ways was the answer to that question configured around families, buildings and identities of belonging?

Houses can provide a rich source for examining the relationship between family and empire, embodying both the connections and dislocations wrought by colonial life and also the notional ‘home’ to which a colonial family might aspire and then find wanting on its return from a life overseas. To explore what part these factors played in the late lives of my great grand-parents, Harry and Maggie Hillier (see my earlier post Family and Empire in Colonial China), I recently went in search of two of their homes, one in England and one in Shanghai.

The Hillier family at Burnt Oak

The Hillier family at Burnt Oak

Harry Hillier retired in 1910 after forty years in the Chinese Maritime Customs, for the last twenty of which he had served as Commissioner in various Treaty Ports. Brought up in England, he had come to China in his early twenties and, following the death of his first wife, married Maggie Drummond, the daughter of a successful Shanghai barrister, William Venn Drummond. Life in the Customs Service was extremely peripatetic, frequently leaving its staff deracinated, and Harry and Maggie both yearned for a home in England when he retired. This they eventually found in the rolling countryside of the Sussex Weald. Set just outside the village of Waldron, Burnt Oak was a relatively modest Victorian house but one which gave them the extensive garden they had always longed for.

Burnt Oak

Burnt Oak

In August 1914, on the eve of the First World War, Harold (my grand-father) and his younger brother, Geoffrey, came to stay with their parents for the Bank Holiday week-end. As Harold later related, walking back from church on Sunday, their mother turned to them and asked if they would both join up. ‘Of course’, they replied, ‘and nothing more was said on that subject’. Harry survived four years at the Front but Geoff was killed in Germany’s Spring offensive in March 1918. The telegram – ‘Missing: no details known’ – was delivered to his parents at Burnt Oak.

GEOFF4When I visited the house in May, I found it still much as it appeared in the photographs taken 100 years ago. I took the same route to and from the church and, with the Vicar saying a prayer, placed a lighted candle beside Geoff’s name on the Roll of Honour. For his parents, his death was, in Harold’s words, ‘almost unbearable’. Already in ill-health, Harry died six years later. Although Harold and his sister were both living and bringing up families in England, Maggie, remembering the comforts of Shanghai, could not adjust to the life of post-war England. Following Harry’s death, at the age of sixty, she went back to China to live with her mother, Christian Drummond, whom she had not seen for some fourteen years. My next task step was to find their home in Shanghai.

By the early 1880s, William Drummond had already established a substantial practice in Shanghai and was living in style. Sometime in the 1890s, he built himself a sumptuous mansion- Dennarrt – set in extensive grounds on the outskirts of the British Settlement. Although this was some ten years after Maggie had left home, she stayed there frequently and Harry and his brother, Guy Hillier, lived there for lengthy periods during assignments in the Treaty Port in the early 1900s. It was also the house where Drummond entertained his clients, both British and Chinese and it featured prominently in the vanity publication, Arnold Wright’s Twentieth Century Impressions of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and other Treaty Ports of China: Their History People, Commerce, Industries and Resources (1908).

Dennartt - tea on the lawn

Dennartt – tea on the lawn

But despite this apparently glittering life, the family was beset by misfortune: two of the children died, their surviving son, Herbert, left to live in England and Drummond’s wealth began to decline as a result of failed investments. By the time of Maggie’s return in 1924, her father was dead, the main house had been sold and her mother was living alone in one of the smaller houses on the estate.

Although Dennartt appears in a number of books dealing with the Settlement’s Western architecture, they were vague as to whether it still existed, let alone as to its whereabouts. This was partly because, in modern-day Shanghai, the road on which it was built, the Siccawei Road, was nowhere near the area where Westerners had had such mansions. By chance, I discovered from an old map, that in the early 1900s, ‘Siccawei Road’, was in a completely different part of the Settlement, close to the fashionable Bubbling Well Road where wealthy Westerners and Chinese certainly had lived. With the help of Tessa Johnston, a celebrated writer on Shanghai’s early twentieth century architecture, I was able to work out that the house was, or at least had been, at the end of what was now an alley of small dwellings (hutong). On my first two visits, unfriendly security guards shooed me away before I could even see whether it was still standing. But fortunately, on my third visit, the guard was briefly away from his post. I slipped through the gate and there was the house, set back to my left, looking much as it did in the photographs, if less grand. In the front, part of the lawn remained, together with a Cedar of Lebanon. I snapped my photos and drank deeply.

Dennartt 2

This had been the Drummond family home for some fifteen to twenty years. On the one hand, its elaborate architecture represented the arrogance of Britain’s presence in China; on the other, Drummond had acted for a substantial Chinese clientele drawn from the merchants and compradores who formed an important part of the Treaty Port’s commercial world, and who regularly visited the house. Still standing were the hutong which had first been built in 1912 and then gradually spread across the estate as land was sold off. Here, Maggie and her mother, Christian, lived for the next four years, Maggie dying in 1928 and her mother the following year at the age of 84. Although they were away from their children and in straitened circumstances, for these Shanghailanders, this was their true ‘home’ and this is where they wanted to end their days.

– Andrew Hillier (University of Bristol)

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Family, Manliness and the First World War

Further to yesterday’s post, Andrew Hillier here continues his exploration of the three Hillier brothers (Walter, Harry and Guy) and their families. Here, Andrew takes us to the First World War, the centenary of which is of course fast approaching, and the ways in which war and masculinity impacted family relations and codes of masculinity. We join the Hilliers in the first flush of the Edwardian era, and leave them in the dying days of the First World War. While we may be tempted to see these years as an era of profound change, this post reminds us of the continuities between pre- and post-war life: here in terms of family, masculinity and empire.

Family Tree

Separation had come early to Guy Hillier’s family. Partly as a result of the blindness which struck him in his early forties but did not prevent him from working – he was the Peking Agent of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank – in 1905, he settled his wife and four children back in England (the eldest, Winifred, was ten and the youngest, Tristram, was one) and returned to China. He did not see them again for six years. Whilst there were close bonds between the siblings, the separation from their father together with their mother’s ill-health prevented any proper family intimacy.[1]

Guy and Ada Hillier's children Winifred, Maurice, Madeleine and Tristram

Guy and Ada Hillier’s children Winifred, Maurice, Madeleine and Tristram

Moreover, Maurice was a profound disappointment to his father. He had been sent to the preparatory school at Stonyhurst College in Lancashire, far away from his immediate family in Sussex. When Guy came to England in 1911, he was most concerned at ‘the general slovenliness of Maurice’s habits [which] gives evidence of a want of training and discipline’ as he informed the Headmaster of Downside School, when asking if Maurice could sit its entrance exam.[2] In the event, although his papers evidenced ‘much carelessness’, the school was persuaded to admit him and he was abruptly removed from Stonyhurst. But, there was little improvement which led Guy to conclude that he suffered from ‘a constitutional laziness’. These strictures were reinforced by his uncle, Walter Hillier who wrote to Maurice, demanding that ‘he show some sympathy for [his] father’s great infirmity’ and ‘give up being a slacker and play the game’. Fortunately, Maurice responded with ‘a frank and manly reply’ in which he admitted that he had been slacking and ‘promised to make amends for past idleness.’

Maurice Hillier 2Unfortunately, he failed to fulfill the promise and the complaints continued. But in an effort to demonstrate his manly qualities, he it was who took the all-important decision to leave school when he was just seventeen and enter the Staff College at Sandhurst and obtain a commission. By early 1917, the eighteen year-old second-lieutenant was in Flanders and was telling his father in Peking how he was relishing the chance ‘to have a really good fight with brother Bosch’.[3] Within months, he was dead, killed on 9th April by a sniper bullet, whilst leading an attack at Vimy Ridge. It was, as one of his colleagues wrote to his mother, ‘a grand death. Our success was complete and no soldier could die at a better moment’.[4] For Ada, such grandeur was of little solace and, already in very poor health, she died later that year.

But whilst Guy was obviously shocked when he received Walter’s letter giving him the news, a diary entry written by his amanuensis, Eleanor Richard, just two weeks later records:

Mr ever so cheerful and it is wonderful what fun we have. I seem to have laughed more in this last month than in a couple of years in Shanghai…..

This seems to be more than simply putting on a brave face. It is difficult not to conclude that, for Guy, tragic though his death was, Maurice had finally redeemed himself. And Walter’s reaction is not dissimilar. Bearing in mind that his own son could play no part in the war, his letter informing the Downside headmaster of Maurice’s death, is instructive:

He was a fine manly lad and I watched the development of his character from the time he   entered Sandhurst with growing interest and appreciation. I feel his loss as much as if he were my own son ….He was, doubtless no genius, but he was full of manliness and high ideals.

For both Walter and Guy, Maurice had fulfilled ‘the ideal of sacrifice and military manliness’.[5]

Maurice Hillier's grave  001


In researching this piece, I was extremely fortunate that descendants of Guy’s amanuensis allowed me to use her diary (150 pages) (which they by chance mentioned to Professor Bickers when asking him about some photographs) and that Downside had kept and gave me access to all Guy’s correspondence (well over 100 pages). But my conclusions about the response of Guy and Walter to Maurice’s death may well not appeal to some of the family and I am conscious that I must tread carefully.

Andrew Hillier

18 May 2014

[1]Tristram Hillier, Leda and the Goose, An Autobiography (London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1954), pp.27-29.

[2]Downside Archive. For reasons of space, specific references are omitted.

[3]Maurice Hillier to E.G.Hillier, 22 June 1916 (Hillier Collection)

[4] Stonyhurst Magazine, letter to Ada Hillier (author unidentified), 21 April 1917, The Stonyhurst Magazine (no.21), July 1917, p.1977-1978.

[5]SonjaLevsen, ‘Constructing Elite Identities: University Students, Military Masculinity and the Consequence of the Great War in Britain and Germany’ in Past and Present, 198 (2008) pp. 147-83 at p.159.


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Family and Empire in Colonial China

Today on the FCRN we are lucky to welcome a guest post from Andrew Hillier, PhD student at the University of Bristol under Robert Bickers. Andrew is working on the history of some his own relations: Walter Medhurst (China missionary, 1819-1856), Charles Batten Hillier (Chief Magistrate of Hong Kong, 1846-1855), and the latter’s three sons: Walter, Harry and Guy.

Family Tree

Interest in the relationship between family and empire is consistently increasing: for recent examples, see Emma Rothschild’s The Inner Life of Empires: An Eighteenth Century History (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011) and Catherine Hall’s Macaulay and son, architects of imperialism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012). Both these works fuse the public and the private and I am seeking to build on that approach in my Ph.D. thesis, ‘Three Brothers in China: A Study of Family and Empire’: University of Bristol: supervisor, Professor Robert Bickers, author of The Scramble for China: Foreign Devils in the Qing Empire, 1832-1914 (London: Allen Lane, 2011) et al.

I am exploring how empire was shaped by family and how, in turn, family shaped the imperial discourse. Using my forbears in nineteenth and early twentieth century China as the lens, I am examining how much they were influenced by their imperial antecedents, the impact of the colonial setting on their experience of the intimate incidents of family life – birth, marriage, separation and death -and how the resulting family communion informed both their private and public lives.

Harry, Walter and Guy Hillier, c. 1880

Harry, Walter and Guy Hillier, c. 1880

Whilst I deal with earlier generations – Walter Medhurst (1796-1857), celebrated missionary and Sinologue, and his son-in-law, Charles Batten Hillier, Chief Magistrate of Hong Kong, (1846-1855) and HM Consul to Siam (1856)- the main focus is on Charles’ three sons: Sir Walter Caine Hillier, Chinese consular service (1868-1896) and thereafter various roles, culminating in his appointment as Political Adviser to the Chinese Government (1908-1910); Harry Mason Hillier (my great grand-father), Commissioner of Chinese Maritime Customs (1872-1910) and Guy Hillier, Peking Agent of the Hongkong and Shanghai Bank (1895-1924), who had responsibility for negotiating most of the major loans to China during this period, despite having gone blind early on in his career.

All three brothers spoke Chinese fluently and were keen Sino-philes. Through their reputations and influence, they built up a network of connections with Chinese officialdom, which lasted for lengthy periods and gave them significant advantages in the way they operated in Britain’s informal empire.

At present, my approach is underpinned by two particular themes. First, the way that the increasing emphasis on the notion of masculinity, with which the imperial enterprise was associated, informed their private lives and their attitude to their families (both wives and children). Secondly, the way that through their sensibility to China, they were each able to establish long-term collaborative relationships with Chinese officials which embedded Britain’s presence in China but also gave rise to criticism from Westerners at the time and still remains the subject of stringent criticism by Chinese scholars today.

Ada Hillier, 1910

Ada Hillier, 1910

The study concludes by examining the legacy of this process, in terms of how the brothers continued to promote ‘Britain in China’ in their later lives and what they handed on to the next generation. Whilst at least five Hillier women married and lived in China well into the 1920s, the men were a different story. Their early careers were cut short by their enthusiasm to join up and fight in this most imperial of wars. Three of the four cousins of the next generation were killed on active service. Harry’s son (my grandfather), Harold Hillier, was the only one to survive.

The scholarship in this area is of course voluminous but I found Elizabeth Buettner’s Empire Families: Britons and Late Imperial India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) invaluable as a starting-off point. In terms of the Hilliers, whilst there are references to the three brothers scattered through published work, I am mainly relying upon primary material, some of which is in the family archive. Harold Hillier was a keen genealogist and assembled a large stock of papers, including letters, diaries and photographs, which are providing a rich source. In addition, through Bristol University’s China-based projects – Historical Photographs of China: and Chinese Maritime Customs:, a number of fascinating private archives have come to light, including diaries and letters relating to the Hilliers.

Harry, Guy & Walter Hillier, at Pali-chuang Temple, Peking, c.1908

Harry, Guy & Walter Hillier, at Pali-chuang Temple, Peking, c.1908

The public archives are extremely fertile even though there are difficulties accessing the Chinese archives relating to the CMC. The principal ones – the National Archives, the archives at SOAS and those at HSBC -provide ample material relating to the three ‘imperial’ institutions in which the public careers of the three brothers were played out.

Coming to the subject relatively late in life (I was a practising barrister for 40 years), I was amazed and excited to find how active the scholarship in this area is. The barrister’s training in terms of the ability to discipline material and distil specific issues has been important but information overload remains a constant problem. A key task is to remain detached, which means ensuring not only that all relevant material is scrupulously analysed but also that the personal aspects of their lives, however interesting, are put to one side, unless they add to the central argument of the thesis. In this respect, the process at Bristol where, each term, PhD. students researching in this area meet together and discuss their work along with Professor Bickers is extremely helpful. My colleagues are kind but strict critics!

I would be extremely interested to hear from anyone researching in these areas.

Andrew Hillier

May 2014

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Colonial Emigration Conclusions: ‘We and They’

Every day last week, then, the Colonial Families Research Guide has explored the complex history of British emigration to the colonies of settlement within the British Empire. These posts have been added to the UK Emigration Guide, and can now be found here: But before we move on to intellectual pastures new, what conclusions can we come to about colonial emigration and its relationship with British imperialism?

The idea of empire was extremely important for Britons, colonies and emigrants alike. As James Anthony Froude wrote portentously in 1886: ‘Greater Britain is not a mere empire, though we often call it so. Its union is of the more vital kind. It is united by blood and religion, and though circumstances may be imagined in which these ties might snap, yet they are strong ties, and will only give way before some violent dissolving force.’ The idea of a united ‘imperial identity’ was also taken very seriously. In the words of the journalist H. A. Gwynne: ‘the Empire is founded on race and… would cease to be if the large majority of its population in Great Britain and the Dominions ceased to be British. Cosmopolitanism in the British Isles and the Dominions would inevitably lead to the destruction of the Empire.’ These opinions speak to the deep veins of superiority and difference that ran through intellectual constructions of empire. But they also highlight the deep-seated anxieties that counterpointed those ideals – that empire was never far from collapse, and that a constant stream of the “right sort” of imperial Briton was required to keep the empire strong and virile.

Of course, notions of imperial identity and imperial unity relied upon the creation of both “self” and “other”. In the immortal words of empire’s most famous wordsmith:

Father, Mother, and Me

Sister and Auntie say

All the people like us are We,

And every one else is They.

‘We and They’, by Rudyard Kipling (1919-23).

Empire relied upon the creation of difference, and injected corrosive ideas of “inferiority” and “superiority” to pre-colonial histories of encounter and exchange. The history of European imperialism has shaped the modern world in which we live today. Some of this legacy is about the demographic movement of millions of people from Britain to the colonies of settlement. (For a broader look at empire’s legacy you can listen to the BBC’s In Our Time podcast on the subject.) These people were colonisers, and sometimes took part in the conscious and violent eradication of indigenous peoples. In doing so they relied upon the ideas of their culture and context – that non-white peoples were inferior, “backward” or “primitive”; and that their empire was strong, virile and morally superior. The results were catastrophic for indigenous peoples with no mindscape for understanding colonial influx and its consequences. Aboriginal communities throughout the world still struggle with these issues – the eradication of their cultures, their violent dispossession from land and natural resources, and the conscious political, economic and social sidelining that accompanied their refusal to be eradicated.

Yet settler-colonialism was a complex process, and colonial emigrants themselves were much more likely to be those who were dispossessed or sidelined in contemporary Britain – convicts, domestics and “Cousin Jacks” – rather than the ruling elite, or those who shaped the imperial cultures that allowed for such practices of exploitation and demeanment. Modern settler studies is increasingly asking us to look at colonial settlement in two complementary frames: the macro level of settler colonialism as a process – violent, arrogant and imperial; and the micro level of settlement – men, women and families seeking a new life, whose experiences of individual encounter are often more complex, and indeed contradictory, than we might think. A true understanding of British imperialism, and of the emergence of what some scholars call the ‘British World’, can investigate and interrogate both these levels of settler colonialism, and can explore the relationship between them.

Meanwhile, Britain itself was transformed by its experience of imperialism – its identity was strongly shaped by its imperial engagements. British popular culture, national identity, and geopolitical engagement were all heavily influenced by empire in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries – with complex legacies for Britain’s place and view of itself in the modern world. Emigrants sent back to Britain letters, money, and sometimes the means for their families to join them – a process known as chain migration. As such, even small villages and towns in the heart of rural Britain could have a direct link with the empire that sustained them. The Cornish “Cousin Jacks” are only the most famous example of those who propped up their local communities through the fruits of their toil in the empire. Britain’s imperial engagement was both strident and ambivalent, and a less selective quoting from the Kipling poem with which I started this post, makes this eminently clear:

Father, Mother, and Me
Sister and Auntie say
All the people like us are We,
And every one else is They.
And They live over the sea,
While We live over the way,
But – would you believe it? – They look upon We
As only a sort of They !

We eat pork and beef
With cow-horn-handled knives.
They who gobble Their rice off a leaf,
Are horrified out of Their lives;
And They who live up a tree,
And feast on grubs and clay,
(Isn’t it scandalous?) look upon We
As a simply disgusting They!

We shoot birds with a gun.
They stick lions with spears.
Their full-dress is un-.
We dress up to Our ears.
They like Their friends for tea.
We like Our friends to stay;
And, after all that, They look upon We
As an utterly ignorant They!

We eat kitcheny food.
We have doors that latch.
They drink milk or blood,
Under an open thatch.
We have Doctors to fee.
They have Wizards to pay.
And (impudent heathen!) They look upon We
As a quite impossible They!

All good people agree,
And all good people say,
All nice people, like Us, are We
And every one else is They:
But if you cross over the sea,
Instead of over the way,
You may end by (think of it!) looking on We
As only a sort of They !

Migration has of course had an even more profound effect upon Britain, particularly after the Second World War, in the shape of colonial immigration. Yet this was only part of the broader history of peoples moving between imperial places and spaces in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and needs to be situated within that framework if we are to truly understand its significance. Our next series for the Colonial Families Research Guide will be taking an in-depth look at colonial immigration – how to trace your colonial ancestors from the empire, and what impact immigration has had on Britain today.

– Emily Manktelow

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Migration to the Colonies (Part V): South Africa

Today we conclude our series on colonial emigration with a look at South Africa: Dreams of sun and space in South Africa. In the years 1853-1920, 670,000 Britons emigrated to South Africa. If your ancestor was one of them, what was their life like in South Africa? What drove them to leave their native land and venture overseas? And what opportunities laid in wait for them in South Africa?


1820 Settlers

Emigration to South Africa was all about escaping poverty, grasping opportunity, and consolidating the British imperial presence in a colony of settlement. In South Africa this was complicated by the presence of two non-British groups within the colony: the minority Dutch (later Afrikaner) population, and of course the overwhelming majority of indigenous Africans.

In 1820 the British government decided to support an emigration scheme designed to ‘make the homes of British settlers into the ramparts of an empire’ (I E Edwards, The 1820 Settlers in South Africa, 1934). Noting that in 1819 only 4,800 of the 42,000 white residents of the Cape Colony spoke English, £50,000 was mobilised to transport English settlers to the Great Fish River, on the frontier with the local Xhosa peoples. These Africans, it was hoped, ‘may be compelled to pacific behaviour by making them sensible of the power the English have to annihilate them, if they choose to exert it’ (William Burchell, Hints on Emigration to the Cape of Good Hope, 1819). But ‘mutual good-will being once established, these tribes may supply the new settlement with useful labourers; and furnish it, by barter, with cattle at a very cheap rate.’ Violence and commerce were the twin pillars of 19th century imperialism.

"The British Settlers of 1820 Landing in Algoa Bay", by Thomas Baines, 1853

“The British Settlers of 1820 Landing in Algoa Bay”, by Thomas Baines, 1853

Farmers in particular were required (ultimately making up 42% of the emigrants), and they were assured that there was ‘no uncertainty in the success of an emigrant of this class, if he use but common diligence and prudence’ (William Burchell, Hints on Emigration). Each adult male was assigned 100 acres of land, and thus was to be afforded ‘immediate relief to such distressed persons of this country, as may desire to emigrate to the Cape’. There were 90,000 applicants to the scheme; 4-5,000 were chosen.

‘as persons destitute of the means of support, require permanent, not temporary, relief, there does not at present appear any plan more likely to afford it, than that of transplanting a limited number to our colonies, where they will still continue to constitute their proportion of the strength of the empire’

William Burchell, Hints on Emigration to the Cape of Good Hope, (1819).

The reality was harsher than such optimism warranted. The land grants were too small to comfortably live on, and changes in climate and lifestyle were more extreme than settlers had been led to believe. Too many (one third) of the settlers were from trading backgrounds (not farming), and the following few years were characterised by unprecedentedly bad farming conditions. In 1823 only 438 of the original settlers remained on the land allotted to them. Nonetheless, by 1904 around 7% of the total South African population was classified as British, and only 1% as ‘South African Dutch’. The British had triumphed in the white demography wars – but clearly, the overwhelming majority remained African.


The discovery of diamonds (1868) and gold (1885) in South Africa, as well as state-sponsored emigration after the South African War (1899-1901) resulted in a brief rise in the popularity of South Africa as an emigrant destination in the years 1895-1915, when the colony’s representation in British emigration statistics jumped from around 5% to approximately 10% (an increase of about 10,000 people per decade). While the state was continuing to worry about the cultural imbalance between Africans, Afrikaners and the British, it was the economic boom occasioned by mining that had the most powerful effect on these figures. Around 5,000-10,000 Cornish miners made their way to the Rand mine fields, pushed by the decline of Cornish tin mining, and pulled by wages of up to £9 per week (compared with £3 per month in Cornwall). ‘Johannesburg is but a suburb of Cornwall’ wrote C Lewis Hind in 1907. Twenty years later social historian A K Hamilton wrote that ‘Wherever in the world there’s a hole in the ground, at the bottom of it you’ll find a Cornishman searching for metal’ (The Cornish Miner, 1927).

‘Each week an average of about thirty men migrate from West Cornwall to South Africa; the post-office sacks of each inland mail are crammed with letters containing postal orders for the women left at home, and the heart of each exiled Cornish miner is set on that day when he will return, build a little granite house in the environs of Camborne or Redruth… and be his own master…’

C. Lewis Hind, Days in Cornwall (London, 1907).

Cousin Jack Postcard alteredThese so-called ‘Cousin Jacks’ made an indelible mark on South African culture, importing the Cornish pasty, leaving behind 1,400 graves of men lost to the mines, and sending back to Cornwall around £1,000 a week in early 1900s Redruth alone! If Jo’burg was a suburb of Cornwall, so South Africa as a whole was ‘a sort of outlying farm for the mining division, and when things are brisk every mail brings twenty or thirty thousand pounds sterling for wives and families and the old folks at home’ (J Henry Harris, Cornish Saints and Sinners, 1906). If the story of South Africa is the story of gold, so is the story of Cornwall!

The South African diaspora

The interesting postscript is the irony that white South Africans, themselves descended from migrants, are now well known for emigrating all over the world. In 1996, Nelson Mandela, then President, spoke to the UK Parliament on the issue of this ‘brain drain’: ‘To this day we continue to lose some of the best among ourselves because the lights in the developed world shine brighter.’ The 2011 UK Census counted 191,000 South Africans in Britain (0.3% of the population). Censuses around the old settler empire in 2006 recorded 104,128 South Africans in Australia (0.5% of the population), 38,305 in Canada (0.1%), and 41,676 in New Zealand (1%). According to South Africa’s International Organisation for Migration, remittances to South Africa from abroad were worth $1,115m in 2012. Just like the Cornish women and children who waited for mail from South Africa, thousands in South Africa now await money from their emigrants around the world. Such is the symmetry of history.

South Africa Resources

  • Ancestry24 is the best website for genealogical searches in South Africa: It includes some of the usual BMD records, as well as 50,000+ passenger records from person travelling to and from England. While South African history is not the best resourced online, this is the place to start.
  • The South African Settlers website is a free and searchable database of settlers to South Africa in the nineteenth century, with a particular focus on the 1820 settlers:
  • South African History Online is an interesting and informative source of contextual information about South African history more generally:

– Emily Manktelow

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Migration to the Colonies (Part IV): New Zealand

Our tour of British emigration to the settler empire today heads to New Zealand: Land of the long white cloud. From 1840-1966 the population of New Zealand increased from c.72,000 to 2.6 million. On average 50% of this increase came from British migrants. If your ancestor was a colonial migrant to New Zealand, why did they go? Who were they, and how did they get there?


Maori and Pakeha

Toitu he whenua, whatungarongaro he tangata

The land is permanent, man disappears

[Maori proverb. See:]

Treaty of Waitangi (1840)

Treaty of Waitangi (1840)

Immigration to New Zealand started very early, around 1,000 years ago when Maori settlers arrived from the South Pacific. In terms of the British emigration we have been exploring in this series however, New Zealand’s story starts rather later than its colonial counterparts’. At the time of the 1840 Treaty of Waitangi, there were 70,000 Maoris in New Zealand, and only 2,000 Europeans. The Treaty, signed in February 1840 by local Maori chiefs and the British Crown, was supposed to represent the establishment of Crown sovereignty by the British. Problems with the translation, however, as well as the inherent differences between British and Maori concepts of land and land ownership, meant that the Maori believed they retained essential ownership, and the right to management, of their land. This tension remains. In 1975 the Waitangi Tribunal was established to investigate breaches of the Treaty, and how redress could (and can) be made to dispossessed Maori in the modern context. Waitangi Day has been a national holiday since 1974, and is still seen as the (controversial) foundation of New Zealand as a nation.

By 1858 Europeans (largely from Britain and Ireland) outnumbered Maoris for the first time with 59,413 of the former and 56,409 of the latter. In 1896 the Maori population had reached its lowest point of 42,113 compared with 701,094 Europeans. In 1966 the Maori population had bounced back to 201,159, but the European-born or -descended population made up around 2.4m. Of these, in the 1860s immigration accounted for about 70% of the European population; 50% in the 1880s and 30% in 1911. Thus, as Marjory Harper and Stephen Constantine slyly note in their book Migration and Empire (from which these stats are taken), ‘the European population increased by a massive 50,000 per cent in the half century after 1831’, though this is largely ‘a statistical trick, since the base line was so low’.

Nonetheless, emigration from the UK to New Zealand was clearly hugely significant, and relied upon the dispossession of the indigenous peoples (through violence and disease).

Why? Who? Where?

Emigration, a remedy (with caption)Why? The reasons for migration consisted of pushes and pulls: poor conditions in Britain, and (apparently) better opportunities in the colonies. Emigration was seen as a particularly effective remedy to urban poverty (in this case, in Ireland during the famine). In New Zealand, migrants were promised a land much like England, but with ‘a much better climate, free from pauperism, more free from prejudices of class, and, therefore, opening to the industry and ability of those who have not the adventitious aid of family connections to help them, a better road to advancement’, not to mention ‘some of the most magnificent scenery in the world’ (Julius Vogel, The Official Handbook of New Zealand 1875).

Who? The vast majority of immigrants to New Zealand were British (including Irish) in the 19th and 20th centuries. This was no accident. Like most of the settler colonies in the British Empire, New Zealand too introduced increasingly strict legislation to limit the non-white immigration to its country. Thus laws were passed in 1881, 1908, 1919 and 1920 designed explicitly to exclude particularly Chinese immigrants. In terms of occupation, New Zealand usually sought farm labourers, agriculturalists, craftsmen and, as usual, domestic servants. The opportunities seemed to be endless, with Charles Hursthouse talking in 1852 of ‘a boundless field of lucrative enterprise and occupation’. ‘[I]n a word, our want is, people’ (Emigration: Where to Go and Who Should Go London, 1852).

The small tradesman, the mechanic, or labourer, in short, any one who is fitted to make New Zealand his home, and who is not incapacitated by ill health, may, with ordinary frugality and industry, and without denying himself a fair share of worldly enjoyment, save money, and become, if his ambition point in that direction, a proprietor of acres.

Julius Vogel (ed), The Official Handbook of New Zealand (1875), p. 14.

Embarking for home, by E. Noyce,1852. Alexander Turnbull Library. E-079-005

Embarking for home, by E. Noyce,1852. Alexander Turnbull Library. E-079-005

Where? Assisted migration took various forms in the history of New Zealand, from commercial enterprises such as the New Zealand Company, to charitable and even religious settlements, such as the famous Anglican experiment in (aptly-named) Canterbury. Meanwhile, local provincial governments also attracted migrants with free passages, or offers of land upon their arrival. But by the mid-19th century Auckland, a non-state-planned settlement was home to approximately 12,000 people. In the same era, the New Zealand Company’s various settlements housed around 20,000. Clearly, New Zealand was attractive enough for non-assisted migration, as well as its state-aided counterpart. After all, as ‘A Female Emigrant’ wrote to her sisters back in Scotland in 1874, there ‘Father could get land cheap, and it costs nothing to keep the cattle… Wood is cheap, and father could build very nice wooden houses… I am surprised at the easy way the men work. The food they get is also something very superior to what they have… been accustomed to at home’ (Chambers’ Journal, 18 July 1874).

‘I appear before you… in the plain capacity of a colonist… to [draw] the attention of intending emigrants to… the very finest emigration-field now open to their choice – and one in which, of all others, the emigrant may plant out a family, and create a happy home, the youngest, but now one of the most flourishing of our colonies – the magnificent islands of New Zealand.’

Charles Hursthouse, Emigration: Where to Go and Who Should Go (London, 1852), p. 2.

Post-War Migration

In 1922 the British government passed the Empire Settlement Act, designed to help Britons to emigrate to the colonies of settlement, and thereby to increase the post-war ties between colony and metropole. During WWI New Zealand sent 112,000 men to fight in Europe, of whom 17,000 died (from a population of 1.1m). Meanwhile, after the war, between 1919 and 1922, 13,349 ex-servicemen and their families were assisted in their migration to NZ; 44,745 immigrants benefited from the Empire Settlement Act between 1922 and 1935. As we saw in the case of Canada, child migrations were also popular in this period, with some charities directly targeting war orphans or those whose fathers had been killed in action. Between 1951 and 1961 meanwhile, 40,000 Britons were assisted to NZ (plus about 150,000 independent migrants), and in 1965-70, 15,000 were state-aided. Assisted migration did not cease in New Zealand until 1975, when the attractions of the country’s domestic, social and economic life, plus the technological advances in terms of travel, made NZ a desirable enough location for totally independent migrations.

Further Resources



  • There are a wealth of contemporary books about migration to New Zealand freely available online. The Internet Archive ( is the place to start, with searches such as “The New Zealand Company” to access their many and various publications. PDFs can be downloaded for free, and read on your computer or e-reader.
  • Marjory Harper and Stephen Constantine, Migration and Empire (Oxford University Press, 2010).

 – Emily Manktelow

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Migration to the Colonies (Part III): Canada

Part Three of our series on imperial emigration turns to Canada. You can view the original article in PDF form here: Hard work and long days in Canada or read its online version below.


Poster promoting emigration to CanadaIf you leave the gloom of London and you seek a glowing land,

Where all except the flag is strange and new,

There’s a bronzed and stalwart fellow who will grip you by the hand,

And greet you with a welcome warm and true;

For he’s your younger brother, the one you sent away,

Because there wasn’t room for him at home;

And now he’s quite contented, and he’s glad he didn’t stay,

And he’s building Britain’s greatness o’er the foam.

‘The Younger Son’ by Robert William Service (1907).

In the years 1815-1914 c22.6m people left Britain as emigrants. Of those who travelled to the British Empire (c.40%) the vast majority went to Canada – a British colony most like Britain in terms of climate, closest in terms of travel, and most similar to the most popular destination for emigrants: the United States.

Assisted Migration

‘The dryness of the air, the character of the soil, which retains no stagnant pools to send forth poisonous exhalations, and the almost total absence of a fog or mist, the brilliancy of its sunlight, the pleasing succession of its seasons, all conspire to make this a climate of unrivalled salubrity and the home of a joyous, healthy, prosperous people, strong in physical, intellectual and moral capabilities’

The Question of the Hour! Where to Emigrate by Thomas Spence (1888)

Among the colonies, Canada was the favoured destination for government schemes designed to assist people to emigrate. For Britain, empire migration seemed to offer an opportunity to tackle urban overcrowding and poverty – and in later years the problem of orphaned children, waifs and strays. It also had a vested interest in the colonies doing well – after all, what was good for the empire was seen to be good for Britain. For Canada, the need was for strong, fit and healthy people to help populate their corner of the vast continent of North America.

Men neededAssisted migration to Canada (and elsewhere) then, was essentially about colonisation. Sending white British people (men, women and families) to the colonies helped consolidate the racial demographics, replicate British institutions, and strengthen inter-imperial cultural and economic ties.

‘The settler’s farm is his private domain, and his house is really his castle; he becomes his own master for life, and leaves this precious legacy to his children’

 (Question of the Hour! Where to Emigrate! By Thomas Spence, 1883, p. 17)

Of course the reality of ‘settlement’ is the dispossession, and indeed eradication, of thousands of indigenous peoples – the ramifications of which can still be seen and felt in the world today. If there is a colonial element to your family tree, you could certainly have indigenous ancestors. The early history of colonial Canada is characterised by whaling, fur-trapping and logging. Men alone on the colonial frontier often had indigenous sexual partners: sometimes through force and coercion, but also through both pragmatic and loving relationships. As colonisation progressed, indigenous communities were increasingly removed from their land, coerced into work, and forcibly disconnected from their culture and their families (particularly through the practice of compulsory residential schooling). The story of indigenous peoples in the empire is a difficult one to confront, but one we should all be aware of, whether we have family connections to that history or not.

Canadian Genealogical Resources Online

  • Subscribers to can access Canadian census records from 1851 to 1911, read the guide at:
  • have a Canadian Travel and Immigration collection that includes passenger lists, citizenship records and immigration and emigration books. These provide valuable information about the migration experience of your ancestors,
  • Find Canadian births, deaths and marriages, military records and voting registers at You will need the worldwide membership or pay-as-you-go.

An Englishman, An Irishman and a Scotsman

Many migrants to Canada were from Scotland and Ireland, particularly those emigrating around the time of the Highland clearances and the Irish potato famine. In Scotland so-called ‘landlord-assisted’ migration became quite common, as landlords sought to clear their land of the native tenants by shipping them overseas. Aided by the 1851 Emigration Act, landlords could secure their nominee a passage for £1. According to Education Scotland (, between 1846 and 1857, 16,533 were thus ‘assisted’ to emigrate.

'The Last of the Clan' by Thomas Faed (1865)

‘The Last of the Clan’ by Thomas Faed (1865)

While the Scottish Highlands lost around 9% of its population between 1851 and 1891, Ireland lost an enormous 28% through emigration in the same years. This was largely due to the Irish potato famine – actually a series of famines between 1845 and 1852. In those years 2.5m Britons migrated overseas; around 2m of them were Irish. In Canada, most of the Irish immigrants were Protestant: around 500,000 Protestant Irish had already migrated to Canada (then called British North America) between 1815 and 1845 – they were followed by c.300,000 more after the famine. The Imperial Census of 1901 records that 21% of the British-born in Canada were Scottish, and the same percentage Irish, despite the fact that in the British Isles themselves, the English made up 75% of the population.

Meanwhile in England, state-assisted migration was losing its popularity. Charities and philanthropic organisations began to step into the breech, seeking to assist English ‘paupers’ to new lives, and to consolidate the ties of empire. William Booth’s Salvation Army had assisted c200,000 working-class migrants by 1930 through the provision of low-cost loans and the chartering of special ships to make the crossing.

Colonial Life

So what was life like for these migrants? Tempted away from urban poverty and overcrowding, British emigrants were promised ‘excellence of soil and water, agricultural and commercial advantages, and educational facilities; and in addition… cheap lands, and free homesteads of 160 acres… splendid opportunit[ies]… productive country… [and] no landlord, no yearly rent to pay.’ Imagine the impact of such descriptions on a Victorian slum-dweller: ‘fair fields… flowering meadows… the luxuriant growth of fertile soils and tropical suns… perfumed breezes… bountiful harvests of golden grain, rich and mellow fruits, and all the wealth the earth can yield’ (Question of the Hour!).

Free Farms for the MillionOf course the reality was somewhat different, and sometimes felt far less developed than had been promised, but the opportunities were generally very real for those ‘able and willing to work’ (Question of the Hour!). In the words of Simeon Titmouse, emigrant to Upper Canada in 1832, ‘The country is discouraging at first, but the longer one is in it, the better one begins to like it. Any stout, hard labouring man, with a family, may do better in this country for them, than he can do at home. But remember, he will have to work pretty hard and long days.’ For women, too, there were good opportunities in domestic service, with good wages, but most women emigrated as wives. After all, ‘from the great disparity of male over female population in the Canadas, I would advise every young farmer… to take an active young wife with him’ (Emigration Practically Considered, by A C Buchanan, 1828).

Child Migration

Migrating as an adult was one thing, but an estimated 150,000 children, mostly aged 8-14, were emigrated from Britain to the colonies in the years 1618-1967. Around 90,000 of these were shipped to Canada between 1869 and the 1920s. Maria Rye, who made her name with the Female Middle Class Emigration Society (mentioned last issue in relation to Australia), settled around 5,000 children in Canada when her attention turned away from female emigrants in the 1860s. The most famous child migrants were the Barnardo’s children however. Barnardo’s alone sent over 28,000 children to Canada between 1882 and 1928. Supposed to be orphans, it has subsequently been proved that many were not, and that parents were often misled into signing away their parental rights, or indeed that children were shipped overseas without their knowledge or agreement – the children being told that their parents had died.

Children shipped abroad were supposed to find better lives overseas, with better job prospects, a healthier lifestyle, and a severing of the cord with British families deemed ‘immoral’ or ‘delinquent’. For some this may have been the case, but other children endured lives of hard work and disaffection with unhappy placements in domestic or agricultural labour, and living in poor conditions. By the 1920s the tide was turning against child migration, both in Britain (where there were concerns about the children’s welfare) and in Canada, which was increasingly concerned about receiving the ‘dregs’ of British society.

Child Migration Online Resources


The empire needs menBritish migration to places like Canada in the nineteenth century was about empire at the macro level, and individual opportunity at the micro. There was a rhetorical resonance to the idea of a Greater Britain abroad, filled with ‘a great homogeneous people, one in blood, language, religion and laws, but dispersed over a boundless space’ (John Seeley, The Expansion of England (1888), p. 184). The sense of the ‘empire family’ would come to the fore in a bloody fashion during WWI when 2.5m colonial soldiers from around the empire fought for Britain. In WWII just under half of the c.8m men who served were from the British empire (including India, Canada, Australia, East Africa, West Africa, and New Zealand, in order of number of soldiers). The sense of empire as a family (however inaccurate!) was captured well in the war propaganda used, but was also in existence long before. In the words of the poem which began this article:

You’ve a brother in the army, you’ve another in the Church;

One of you is a diplomatic swell;

You’ve had the pick of everything and left him in the lurch,

And yet I think he’s doing very well.

I’m sure his life is happy, and he doesn’t envy yours;

I know he loves the land his pluck has won;

And I fancy in the years unborn, while England’s fame endures,

She will come to bless with pride — The Younger Son.

– Emily Manktelow


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Migration to the Colonies (Part II) – Aboriginal Australia

In the second post of this series on UK emigration, we take a pause to reflect upon Aboriginal family history – and the impact of European colonisation of the Australian continent.

“All people with the same skin grouping as my mother are my mothers… They have the right, the same as my mother, to watch over me, to control what I’m doing, to make sure that I do the right thing. It’s an extended family thing… It’s a wonderful secure system.”

Wadjularbinna Doomadgee, Gungalidda leader, Gulf of Carpentaria, 1996.

(See for more information)

'Aboriginal family group on the Onkaparinga River near Hahndorf, South Australia, 1870' by William Thomas (

‘Aboriginal family group on the Onkaparinga River near Hahndorf, South Australia, 1870’ by William Thomas (

Family is a crucial part of Australian Aboriginal culture, which is strongly connected to the kinship network, which extends far beyond nuclear family structures. But when it comes to looking at Aborigine families, the colonial context can make for disturbing reading.

‘In this Colony, local circumstances have occasioned the total destruction of the Blacks within its limits… The un-matrimonial state of the thousands of male prisoners scattered throughoutthe country amidst females, though of another colour, leads them by force, fraud, or bribery to withdraw the Aboriginal women from their own proper mates, and disease, and death are the usual consequences of such proceedings. The Official return from one district gives only two women to twenty eight men, two boys and no girls!’

So wrote Lancelot Threlkeld, a Congregational minister and missionary in Australia in the years 1824 until his death in 1859. A strong proponent of Aboriginal rights, he placed the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of European emigration:

‘[The] cause of decrease amongst the tribes may be traced to the swelling tide of Emigration which has universally swallowed up the petty strains of Barbarism and the Aborigines have generally been either driven back to the forests, destroyed by force of arms or have become amalgamated with the overpowering people who thus: “Multiply, Replenish and Subdue the Earth.”

If your family has a nineteenth-century Australian connection, there is certainly a possibility that some of your ancestors may well be Aboriginal. Early settlers to Australia had frequent sexual relationships with the local women – often under conditions of force and coercion.

‘I have heard at night, the shrieks of girls, about 8 or 9 years of age, taken by force by the vile men of Newcastle. One man came to me with his head broken by the butt end of a musket because he would not give up his wife. There are now two government men that are every night annoying the Blacks by taking their little girls…’.

This can of course be difficult to confront as a family historian, but should not put you off finding out more about your ancestors.

Many Australian libraries and archives are now making efforts to make Aboriginal history more accessible to the general public – and the ‘good’ news is that the colonial state kept significant records about aborigines in the course of their projects to move, remove and ‘assimilate’ them. These make for uncomfortable reading – particularly when dealing with things like the Stolen Generation of children forcibly removed from their families and housed in residential schools where they often suffered physical and emotional abuse. Nonetheless, their history is an important part of the colonial and postcolonial history of Australia.

Taphoglyph (Aboriginal carved trees). As noted on the State Library of New South Wales' website, carved trees traditionally marked the burial sites of important men.

Taphoglyph (Aboriginal carved trees). As noted on the State Library of New South Wales’ website, carved trees traditionally marked the burial sites of important men.

For a more immersive experience, try these fiction and non-fiction representations of Australia’s early colonial history.

Rabbit-Proof Fence

  • Watch! Rabbit-Proof Fence (2002) which is an excellent cinematic depiction of colonial Aboriginal culture, and the history of the Stolen Generations in Australia.
  • Read! English Passengers, a 2000 novel by Matthew Kneale, dealing with the early colonial history of Australia. The novel won the Whitbread Award in 2000.
  • Read! For a more historical account, see Henry Reynolds, This Whispering in Our Hearts (Allen and Unwin, 1998).

– Emily Manktelow

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Migration to the Colonies (Part I) – Australia

As part of the Colonial Families Research Guide, this week we will be publishing the series of articles I wrote for Family Tree Magazine on UK emigration to imperial destinations. Designed to help you in your family tree search, they include contextual information, and details of relevant online genealogical resources. We start with UK emigration to Australia: Women of the wild frontier (follow the link for a PDF of the original article). Many thanks to Family Tree for all of their original editorial work, and for allowing me to republish them here. 


In the 19th century emigration was a viable option for many people’s ancestors. The emerging empire of British settlement offered opportunities that often weren’t available in Britain – better employment and social prospects, and perhaps the chance to buy (or even be given) land for farming. From 1815 to 1914 around 22.6m people emigrated from the British Isles, but don’t dismiss these ancestors as dead-ends in your family history. Rather, their lives should prove a rich source of interest to genealogists and historians alike – there are numerous resources available in Britain, abroad and online to help you keep track of your emigrant ancestors.

Australia needs women

Australia Invites the British Domestic GirlIn 1922 the Development and Migration Commission published a 24-page pamphlet designed to attract British domestic workers to post-war Australia. Australia Invites the British Domestic Girl promised free passage to domestics approved by the Director of Migration and Settlement in Australia House in London and spoke encouragingly of ‘a bright, genial and exceptionally healthy climate’, ‘numerous large and prosperous cities, set in pleasant surroundings’, and ‘social conditions unexcelled in any part of the world.’ Australia was apparently a land of abundant work, good people and tempting marriage prospects. But if this represented an accurate picture of emigration to Australia, why was the advertisement necessary? And if your ancestor migrated to Australia, what was life like?

‘Upon disembarking at any one of the principal ports of Australia, the newcomer is immediately impressed with the general evidence of the well-being and prosperity of the people. From the steamship the visitor is whisked away in a train, electric tram, or motor car, and within a few minutes is in a metropolis possessing all the conveniences and facilities of an English city.’

Free and unfree migration

Colour lithograph of the First Fleet entering Port Jackson on January 26 1788, drawn in 1888. Creator: E. Le Bihan

Colour lithograph of the First Fleet entering Port Jackson on January 26 1788, drawn in 1888. Creator: E. Le Bihan

Australia’s early colonial history is predominantly that of convict transportation. From the first convict fleet in 1788 until the last transportation to eastern Australia in 1853, c160,000 convicts were transported there. Of these 25,000 were women, 60% were first-time offenders (mostly convicted of larceny) and around 11 out of every 1,000 people died. About one third were Irish, just over half were from major cities, and the majority were between the ages of fifteen and twenty-nine. More than half were sentenced to seven years, one quarter for life and the rest for fourteen years. Conditions were brutal – manual labour in blistering heat, minimal food and the ever-present danger of disease. For women, conditions were exceptionally dangerous. Overwhelmingly outnumbered by men starved of female company, many women turned to prostitution (if they had the choice), although prostitution was not a transportable offence.

The first free migrants arrived in 1793, but by 1830 90% of the white population were convicts or convict-born. However the tide was turning against transportation and both the colony and the authorities in London were beginning to see a new economic and social future for Australia as an imperial nation built upon a thriving pastoral economy and the promise of the Victoria gold rush (1851). By the end of the 19th century 1.6m free immigrants had made their home Down Under – and 750,000 had received some level of state assistance. The average cost of passage to Australia in the 1820s was £30 per head. This compared unfavourably with passage to America, which only cost £5 per head, largely explaining why migration to America and Canada was overwhelming the most popular route in the 19th century.

Nonetheless, the emerging nation of Australia sought to redefine its social roots by encouraging legitimate and respectable migrants. The colony was turning from a convict to a migrant nation. Respectability, piety and family were seen as crucial to this process. But if you want families you need women, and female convicts were both far fewer in number than men (c15%), and not exactly seen as the ideal mothers of a new imperial nation. Like all of the settler colonies from mid-century, Australia increasingly sought respectable women from ‘home’ to morally and socially ‘civilise’ their bachelor society. From 1884-1914 c20,000 women were dispatched from Britain by charitable emigration societies. Most went to Canada and South Africa, but this number was dwarfed by those who emigrated as part of families – women and men on the colonial frontier.

Convict Resources

Free settler Resources

  • The National Library of Australia has a great guide to starting out on your Australian family history journey In particular, check out their selected websites page for even more resources, often available online.
  • The Australian Family History Compendium is another great resource. Available free and online, it directs you to birth, death and marriage records, as well as materials relating to immigration, landholdings and war. Some of these have to be paid for, but others are freely available.
  • Guess who? also has a wealth of records relating to Australia, including the Australian censuses and electoral rolls.

Female migration to Australia

Australia wanted women, but why would British women choose to migrate there in the face of the long journey (251 days for the first fleet; five to six weeks by the 1920s), a rude and uncivilised society, and a nation apparently populated by convicts? As with all migration, the factors leading to that decision can be split into two categories: push and pull. Of course the vast majority of women migrated to Australia for the same reason as the men they travelled with – better social and economic opportunities. But women could also have particular reasons for wishing to migrate in the 19th century:

  • The ‘woman problem’: the 1851 Census recorded that 43% of women in Britain were either spinsters or widows. This sent a wave of panic through the country, consolidating fears about ‘surplus women’ that had circulated since the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1815). Emigration was seen as a quick fix to this problem, and conveniently addressed the vast demographic imbalance of emerging colonial societies at the same time.

‘Unlike Britain…, which has a surplus of women, the Commonwealth has a surplus of men… The point is that the domestic girl, in coming to Australia, has the certainty not only of a good living while she needs to earn one, but also of improving her chances of satisfactory marriage and ultimate establishment in a home of her own.’

  • Social mobility: the social structure in Britain could of course be extremely confining for both women and men. Migrants could seek a new social standing in the colonies, where there was more room for social advancement – former convicts (or those descended from convicts) had emerged from the transportation system willing and able to make a new life for themselves with the opportunities afforded by colonial settlement.

‘Throughout the social life of the Commonwealth, there is an absence of the stiff conventionality which is, perhaps, the inevitable development of older lands.’

  • Employment: women in particular had better employment prospects in the colonies than in Britain. As teachers, doctors and nurses, women could find the kind of professional value in the colonies that was broadly unavailable at home. While Britain pressed these ‘right sorts of women’ on the colonies through middle-class emigration schemes, most colonies of settlement really preferred women suited to domestic labour: humble, pious and respectable working-class women.

‘…the domestic girl of the right type coming to Australia is on sure ground. There are thousands of homes which need her, and this ensures her the best of wages and living conditions…’

The ‘Right Sort of Woman’

The Proclamation of South Australia 1836 by Charles Hill (c.1856-76). Note the very respectable ladies seated in the crowd.

The Proclamation of South Australia 1836 by Charles Hill (c.1856-76). Note the very respectable ladies seated in the crowd.

Something of what the emigrant experience was like for women can be inferred from the objectives of the British Ladies’ Female Emigrant Society (founded in 1849). This charitable organisation was designed to ‘protect female emigrants from the moral dangers incident to a long voyage’ through the ‘selection of judicious matrons’ for their superintendence, ‘to relieve the weariness of their life on board by furnishing them with useful employment, [and] to procure for them the protection and advice which they may be in need of on arrival at their destination’ (‘Women and Emigration’, Englishwoman’s Review, 1881).

Indeed, emigration was no pleasure cruise for women in the 19th century. On the voyage itself they had to negotiate sea-sickness, cramped (and foul) conditions, plus the lasciviousness of sailors starved of female company. On arrival they entered a world overwhelming populated by men – and frontiersmen at that. Drinking, gambling and whoring were common amusements and diversions from tough frontier life. Of course, the nature and make-up of colonial towns changed markedly over time, aspiring to Victorian standards of civility and respectability; women were seen as a crucial part of this process, shipped in to ‘civilise’ the colony through their supposedly greater moral worth.

What was required for the colonies were suitably educated, middle-class women from the motherland: the ‘right sort of woman’. Charitable institutions in Britain wished to use women to morally and socially develop these ‘backward’ colonial spaces – and numerous societies were founded to encourage women to emigrate. What the colonies most needed in the female line, however, were domestic workers: respectable, humble and well-trained working-class women. Here was both a mismatch between metropolitan and colonial expectations, but as importantly for family historians, a social breadth of emigration. Your female emigrant ancestor could be anything from the wife of the colonial governor, to a charwoman from the industrial north; once in Australia, her economic and social status could dramatically change in this new land of opportunity.

Female Migration Resources

  • The Women’s Library in London has records relating to the Female Middle Class Emigration Society, including letters from emigrants newly arrived at their destinations. The Women’s Library has recently relocated to the London School of Economics and information can be found here:
  • For something a bit different, why not get the flavour of female migration to Australia with some entertainment options? The incredible journey of Mary Bryant TV mini-series (2005) offers a good idea of life for an early female convict and is available on DVD; while Mrs Aeneas Gunn’s We of the Never-Never gives a fascinating account of being a cattle rancher’s wife in the turn-of-the-century Northern Territories. A great read!
  • A copy of Australia Invites the British Domestic Girl is freely available online: Enjoy!

Women in the colonies

Jeannie Gunn's autobiographical book 'We of the Never-Never' was published in 1908. It told the story of her early married life in rural Australia.

Jeannie Gunn’s autobiographical book ‘We of the Never-Never’ was published in 1908. It told the story of her early married life in rural Australia.

Class and location are key determinants in the female migrant experience: women in the towns bustling between the shops and social engagements in their heavy clothing and the sweltering heat; women in the bush carving out a homestead in a potentially barren landscape – making their own soap and candles, relying on infrequent supplies from the town, and making good use of the ‘tea billy’ (open-fire kettle) in the midst of wagon-life and frontier disarray; barmaids drawing ale for the local farmers or miners or sailors, batting away their advances and joining in their jocular cussing; teachers, doctors and nurses making a place for themselves in a man-made world. All of these women would have had diverse experiences of empire and migration, and have left behind them differing legacies of families, businesses, and institutions; towns, nations and empires.

And what of those women lured by Australia Invites the Domestic Girl? Needless to say the new land of opportunity was not always what they had envisaged. Working hours were longer than they expected and promises of good pay were not always fulfilled. The work was hard, sometimes even harder than for domestic workers in Britain. After all, these workers were mimicking western domestic respectability in the heat and dust of the bush (or even the city). Opportunities to meet their new husband also seemed few and far between, and even Miss Ball, superintendent of the Market Harborough Domestic Training Centre (for women bound for Australia) noted in 1929 that there were ‘few opportunities for the girls to meet men of their own kind, especially in the towns’.

So how much has changed? In August 2008 the mayor of Mount Isa, an isolated and demographically imbalanced mining town in north-west Queensland state, got himself in a whole heap of trouble when he commented to a local newspaper: ‘May I suggest if there are five blokes to every girl, we should find out where there are beauty-disadvantaged women and ask them to proceed to Mount Isa.’ (see Plus ça change!

– Emily Manktelow


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Call for Papers: Transgressing Racial Boundaries, 1857 to the Present Day

I’m sure many readers of the blog will be interested in this Call for Papers for a conference in Cape Town in November. You may wish to particularly note the suggested theme of ’emotional currencies’, and the deadline for paper submission: 1st July 2014.

Transgressing Racial Boundaries, 1857 to the Present Day
Institute for Humanities in Africa
University of Cape Town
28-29 November 2014

For a long time imperial historians writing on relationships that transgressed racial boundaries wrote almost exclusively of sex. More recently this work has started to open onto wider concerns, framed around the family, intimacy, emotions and affect. This symposium aims to think in new ways about relationships that cross racial bounds. These relationships were – variously – pragmatic and political, transactional, instrumental and, sometimes, deeply emotionally entwined. Most often, they combined elements of all of these. Almost always they contained conflict, not least because they were liable to stretch or subvert the same imperial or colonial ideologies from which they were produced. Sometimes these relationships were long lived; at others they were so fleeting they can scarcely be described as relationships at all.

We welcome contributions that adopt counter-intuitive approaches to the relational history of race and empire – from any part of the imperial and post-imperial British world. Our starting point is 1857, the year of the Indian rebellion when, according to a well-worn historical narrative, a new and deepening racial consciousness began to take hold amongst Britons both at home and abroad. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, so this story goes, racial borders were embryonic and deeply porous. Europeans ‘went native’ with frequency and élan. But from the mid-nineteenth century, racial attitudes became more entrenched. Boundaries hardened. Distance and difference separated citizen from subject, white from black. This symposium looks to complicate this linear narrative by considering the kinds of human contact that can exist within social landscapes forged from empire and its attendant racial codes. By working through the period of decolonisation, we hope to provide new opportunities for rethinking aspects of continuity and change across the colonial/postcolonial divide.

We are particularly interested in work that speaks to the following themes:

  • Emotional currencies: Besides fear and loathing, what was the emotional content of relations between European ‘colonisers’ and those they claimed to rule? What does it do to talk of love combined with hate or of kindness as an ancillary to colonial domination? How did racial theory convert to racial practice? And what kinds of visceral energy did race possess?
  • Disaggregating race: colonial encounters were configured differently according to historical context and social locale. What kinds of contacts developed during war-time, for example, as opposed to during peace? How did economic depression or flux shape the nature of cross-racial intimacies? And how can we adequately capture the porosity of racial borders that were themselves in constant motion?
  • Shifting boundaries: How did changing racial ideologies alter the ways in which boundary-transgression was perceived and acted upon? To what extent did the very idea of transgression dissolve during decolonisation? And how does a focus on race-as-practice advance existing understandings of imperial ideology during the long imperial decline?

To enter a proposal, please submit an abstract of no more than 300 words and a 1-page CV to Will Jackson: before 1 July 2014. Accepted papers will be notified by 15 July 2014.

The symposium forms part of a collaboration between the School of History at the University of Leeds, the Department of Historical Studies at the University of Cape Town and the Institute for Humanities in Africa (HUMA). It is enabled by support from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and HUMA

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