In 1830, my earliest Irish ancestors arrived Bytown, Upper Canada, now known as Ottawa, Ontario. I’ve often wondered what the experience must have been like, leaving a known country for one entirely unknown. I recently read accounts of the 1800s emigrant experience from The Backwoods Woman: A Chronicle of Pioneer Home Life in Upper and Lower Canada by Isabel Skelton (copyright 1924). It shed some light on what their journey might have been like.
The Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) created demand for various nature of goods which resulted in high levels of employment. When the war ended, many men found themselves unemployed. A survey of Kent County, England, in the 1820’s showed a population of 21 719. Of these, 8263 were paupers, working sporadically and dependent on the poor rate*. Another 682 were unable to find work throughout the year.
New inventions in the spinning and weaving trades had a devastating impact on the working class. New power looms, for instance, could be operated by 1/6 the number of workers required for manually operated looms.
These changes devastated Ireland. The population had expanded beyond the proportion of what the small country could support, to the point of congestion. No poor rate (a tax levied in the parishes of England and Wales to aid the poor) existed for the destitute. Without homes, food or money, people died in ditches from starvation and exposure.
How could people so poor afford passage on a ship? Sometimes landlords shipped redundant tenants to work on their estates in North America. Charitable organizations and parishes raised funds to assist emigrants as well. Once established, the newly arrived would save money to pay for relatives to join them.
Emigrants could not buy passage directly from a captain or any ship personnel. Instead, they dealt with brokers who bought steerage accommodations with the goal of selling tickets for great profit. Because the brokers worried about not making their money back, they purposefully oversold the tickets. By law, ships could carry one adult for every two tons of weight or, in some cases three people to every four tons. Some captains abided the rules while others did not. Thus many emigrants were turned away from ships although they’d paid to board while others endured grossly overcrowded conditions. Also, if a person wished to travel to New York, a dishonest broker might sell them passage on a ship bound for Quebec, claiming that it stopped at New York on the way.
When I think of a ship’s departure from the dock, I imagine the cinematic romance of waving goodbye to loved ones. But this was not the case in real life. People boarding the ships traveled long distances from inland, on foot or by donkey cart at a rate of 4-5 miles per hour. Families arrived at port, exhausted, hungry with armloads of wailing children. Some arrived hung over from the previous night’s celebrations. Merchants swarmed the docks, hawking their wares to the anxious travelers. Departure times were unpredictable, and often days late. Early arriving passengers endured the elements and raw food (depleting the stores they’d brought for the journey) waiting to board. Fires were not allowed when ships were at dock.
Stories in Backwoods Woman tell of the uproar and confusion along the docks. Late arrivals could be seen tossing their bag over the side of a ship and scrabbling after it as the vessel pulled away from its moorings. A messenger-at-arms arrived with a warrant for a the arrest of a man skipping out on his debts. The representative pulled aside a man accused of causing damage to his master’s weaving. The crowd took pity when they learned the man had laboured through an illness. They pooled funds to pay the debt and he was released.
As I continue to read about these early experiences, I find myself ceaselessly amazed at the enormous odds overcome and sacrifices made. In the next installment of Delving Deeper, we’ll follow the early settlers onto the ships and take a look at the perils at sea.