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.
April 3, 2016 at 1:29 pm
Canada’s history comes from the displaced originating all over the globe, and certainly a great many from the Emerald Isle. It’s a long, proud and sometimes gruelling history of outcasts, fortune seekers, vagabonds and princes, some hopeful of new lives and riches and some without hope. Having lived in Ottawa for 15 years, I am familiar with the history of the Rideau Canal and the early days of Bytown, which cut a poignant swath through the city from the mighty Ottawa River to the farmland and locks of Manotick. It’s a wonderful cast of characters and landmarks, stories and tragedies. I look forward to the next installment of how they all got there, Gwen!
BTW, your opening sentence truly resonates: “I’ve often wondered what the experience must have been like, leaving a known country for one entirely unknown.” As you know, this is reminiscent of the theme of our April WCDR RoundTable Speaker, Ann Weisgarber, who writes about turn of the century pioneers (circa 1900) leaving the safety of their urban surroundings to find their way in a new world. Thanks for your help in bringing her here. I’m sure you two will have lots of notes to compare!
May 14, 2016 at 2:39 pm
So glad you mentioned this wealth of facts regarding the Ottawa Valley. I look forward to spending time there as my project proceeds and to experiencing it during the changing seasons. I too have enjoyed Ann Weisgarber’s writing for the reasons you’ve mentioned.
April 3, 2016 at 1:37 pm
My family has a story about travel to the new world. My great grandmother was instructed by her husband to leave England when he became ill, to look for work for her young sons to support the family. They booked passage on the Titanic and were within days of boarding when my great grandfather took a turn for the worse and died. They cancelled their passage to stay for his funeral. My mother still has the passport photo from 1912. If my grandfather, who was a young boy then, had boarded the Titanic with his mother and brothers- and they certainly would have been steerage- I would likely not be here today to tell this story.
May 14, 2016 at 2:41 pm
Sally, what an extraordinary piece of family history. Had things gone differently, we may not be having this exchange today. I hope you’ll use this nugget to weave some new fiction or creative nonfiction. It’s too good not to!
May 8, 2016 at 7:46 am
Gwen, well written reflections and recounting of the reality for migrants to the “new world”. This topic — of leaving one’s known place for reasons of necessity or otherwise to venture to an unknown place — fascinates me as well. Of course, people have been doing this from time immemorial but it doesn’t make it any less poignant. Perhaps this is because such an experience for us in the industrialized or developed world (or whatever term one might use) is not central to our daily lives or memories, although all of us in the U.S. and Canada at least, are likely here because of ancestors in the past couple of centuries for whom migration was a reality. Brett
May 14, 2016 at 2:18 pm
Lots for me to mull over here. The topic of pioneers captivated me during grade school. With age, the miracle of their travel experience and early days of survival continue to intrigue me. This book I’m referencing was published in the early 1920’s. I should imagine that much of the information was cultivated from primary sources which, to me, makes the information all the more interesting.