Colonial Emigration from the UK

Between 1815 and 1914 c22.6m people emigrated from Britain. About 60% of these went to the United States, but of the reminder a good majority migrated to the Empire. The most common destination was Canada, but the old settler empire as a whole received millions of white Britons throughout the nineteenth century.

Table 1.1Emigration to the empire was about the push and pull of poverty and opportunity at the individual level, and the promotion of imperial economic, social and demographic aims at the empire level. It involved the movement of millions of people around the globe, and the violent displacement of thousands of indigenous peoples stripped of their land, cultural heritage and personal agency.

Emigration, a remedy (with caption)

This series of posts will flesh out some of the colonial history of emigration from the UK. Looking initially at Australia, Canada, South Africa and New Zealand, it will provide some contextual information to UK emigration to those areas, will highlight digital resources available on the web, and will hint at further materials to supplement your studies (including things to read, watch and hear!)

Having complex colonial connections within your family tree can sometimes feel like a daunting task for the amateur genealogist. But exploring the lives and legacies of colonial ancestors can be a rewarding, exciting and fascinating experience – and there are more resources than ever available to aid you in your research.


  • The National Archives has a helpful research guide for finding emigrant ancestors here:
  • The BBC’s migration gateway also has a section on emigration (among other interesting and helpful resource guides relating to migration more generally):
  • In general, it is easiest to search for records in the destination country of your colonial emigrant ancestors. Don’t worry – many of these are also available online. Scroll through to the relevant destination country in this research guide. If you don’t know where you ancestor emigrated to, try the National Archives passenger lists above to get started.


  • Jeremy Paxman’s BBC ‘Empire’ series (2012) has a good clip about imperial migration, which can be found on the BBC website here:
  • The British Empire in Colour was produced by ITN/Carlton in 2002. It is available on DVD.
  • Some cinematic depictions of imperial migration:
    • The Sundowners (1960)
    • The incredible journey of Mary Bryant TV mini-series (2005) offers a good idea of life for an early female convict in Australia, and is available on DVD.
    • New World (2005)
    • Wah Wah (2005)


  • Why not try some contemporary novels to really get the flavour of emigration (and how it was perceived) in the nineteenth century?
    • Catherine Parr Traill, The Young Emigrants (1826)
    • Charles Rowcroft, Tale of the Colonies; or, The Adventures of an Emigrant (1843)
    • Karen Blixen, Out of Africa (1937)
  • Victorian poetry, meanwhile, is a decidedly mixed bag(!), but why not try these few poems about imperial emigration (and imperial identity) in the nineteenth century:
    • The Emigrant’s Vision ( 1883) by Charles Harpur
    • The Younger Son (1907) by Robert William Service
    • We and They (1919-23) by Rudyard Kipling
  • For a more modern take, try:
    • Matthew Kneale, English Passangers (2000)
  • For (two drops in the ocean of) the academic perspective:
    • The Cambridge Illustrated History of the British Empire edited by P. J. Marshall has a very good chapter on empire migration with lots of good images and information panels. Hopefully your library will have a copy, or be able to order one for you.
    • A more recent volume is in the Oxford History of the British Empire Companion Series: Migration and Empire edited by Marjory Harper and Stephen Constantine. It is more academic in tone, but contains a wealth of information.


Now that you have some general information, check out our regional guides for more detailed info on tracing your colonial ancestors

Women of the Wild Frontier – Colonial Australia

Emigration and its impact on Aboriginal Australia

Hard Work and Long Days in Canada

Land of the Long White Cloud – New Zealand

Dreams of Sun and Space in South Africa

Conclusions: “We & They”

And if you have found your ancestors using these resources, please do leave a comment and let us know – we’d love to hear from you!

4 Responses to Colonial Emigration from the UK

  1. Pingback: Colonial Emigration Conclusions: ‘We and They’ | Family & Colonialism Research Network

  2. Kacie says:

    Im seeking information about moving to a british colony i would like to no what permits i have to have.. Im a British citizen and have been all my life so surely i can live and work abroad as a British citizen in a british colony can anyone guide me in the correct direction thank you Kevin C Jackson

  3. Pingback: A Brief History of Fortress Europe – Hiberno-Moor

  4. Pingback: Rosa Luxemburg Warns Against “The Invisible ‘Handjob’ of the Markets”: The Road to Hitlerism I – I'm Beginning to Think ***

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