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The History of UK Emigration

Updated on January 17, 2017

Union Jack flag


Why people emigrate?

Historically there have been many reasons for emigration from the UK. Escape from religious persecution, poverty, war and the search for a better life are all commonly identified factors. Early colonists were merchants, pioneers and those seeking wealth. It also became home for rebels, prisoners and bonded laborers. From 1607 British colonies were established in North America. Many senior civil servants were posted for service overseas, the Missionary Society sent Christians and Clergy to establish Churches, and land was granted to companies and proprietors to organize settlements. In early colonial America the ownership of land was considered to reside with the King, who in turn granted land to companies and individuals as a reward for service. During the nineteenth century, army pensioners were encouraged to settle in British colonies and laws such as the 1834 Poor Law Act provided poor emigrants with assistance for passage. In the twentieth century the largest group of emigrants were Second World War brides. It is estimated that more than 80,000 British women became war brides, numbers emigrating to Canada and America are not recorded centrally.

Roger Kershaw states in his book Emigrants and Expats that

'since 1607 Great Britain and Ireland have sent well over 10 million emigrants to the USA, along with 4 million to Canada and 1.5 million to Australasia. Between 1845 and 1851 over 1.25 million Irish emigrated to the USA as a result of the potato famine.'

Children from steerage playing on deck

Steerage children at play on FRIEDRICH DER GROSSE
Steerage children at play on FRIEDRICH DER GROSSE | Source

Modes of Transport


The nineteenth and early 20th centuries have been called the great age of passenger travel at sea. Travelers and tourists initially travelled as a sideline for shipping companies. These would have been mail and merchandise ships and although fares were cheap, conditions were overcrowded. It was soon realized that good passenger facilities would bring higher ticket prices and greater custom. Customized ships were increasingly built to transport passengers. Typically the wealthy travelled on the upper desks which was commonly called first class and the poorer passengers on the lower decks called steerage. Steerage generally had shared living and communal cooking arrangements. It would take around 4 weeks to travel to North America and 10 to 14 weeks to Australia.

In the 1860’s sailing ships began to be replaced by steam ships. This cut the traveling time significantly. North America could be reached in eight days and Australia four to six weeks.

Patrick Henderson and Co. -Emigration to New Zealand from Glasgow.


Sailing Ports

From the middle of the seventeenth century the major port for emigration to North America was Liverpool. This port attracted passengers from all over the British Isles. In the nineteenth century with the development of North Sea Steamers and the growing railway links, passengers from mainland Europe would travel to Liverpool to board ships bound for America. For example emigrants from North Western Europe such as Scandinavians, Russians and Poles crossed the North Sea to Hull and travel by rail to Liverpool.

Roger Kershaw states in his book Emigrants and Expats that

“By 1851, Liverpool was the prime migrant port of Europe sending approximately 160,000 passengers to America in that year alone and during the period 1830 to 1930 it is estimated that over 9 million emigrants left Liverpool in search of a new life.”

By the end of the nineteenth century other ports began to challenge Liverpool’s popularity, including Southampton and German ports such as Bremen and Hamburg.

Other ports used included Glasgow, Hull, London, Bristol, Plymouth and Newcastle.

Travelling Conditions

The Immigration Commission's report on steerage conditions, which was presented to Congress December 13 1909

“The universal human needs of space, air, food, sleep, and privacy are recognized to the degree now made compulsory by law. Beyond that, the persons carried are looked upon as so much freight, with mere transportation as their only due.”

The report found that sleeping quarters were large compartments for as many as 300 people, usually separated into women without escorts, men travelling alone and families. Bed were in 2 tiers consisting of a mattress, pillow and a blanket. On some lines this was renewed on every trip. There was no space for storage of hand luggage or clothing.

The report stated

“ sweeping is the only form of cleaning done. Sometimes the process is repeated several times a day. This is particularly true when the litter is the leavings of food sold to the passengers by the steward for his own profit. No sick cans are furnished, and not even large receptacles for waste. The vomit of the seasick are often permitted to remain a long 'tame before being removed. The floors, when iron, are continually damp and when of wood, they reek with foul odor because they are not washed.”

There was limited open deck space available for the passengers in steerage and often no separate dining rooms so passengers ate, slept and lived in their sleeping area.

The report goes on to say that added to this problem was lack of adequate ventilation, that the conditions were harmful to both health and morals. Even though by law washrooms and lavatories, separate for men and for women should be provided they were often not. Added to this the report found that the cheapest possible materials and construction of the washbasins meant they were too few in number and difficult to keep clean.

The findings stated that

“The only provision for counteracting all the dirt of this kind of travel is cold salt water, with sometimes a single faucet of warm water to an entire washroom. And in some cases this faucet of warm water is at the same time the only provision for washing dishes. Soap and towels are not furnished. Floors of both wash rooms and water-closets are damp and often filthy until the last day of the voyage, when they are cleaned in preparation for the inspection at the port of entry.”

The report also found the provision of dining inadequate

“There are two systems of serving the food. In one instance the passengers, each carrying the crude eating utensils given him to use throughout the journey, pass in single file before the three or four stewards who are serving and each receives his rations.

Then he finds a place wherever he can to eat them, and later washes his dishes and finds a hiding place for them where they may be safe until the next meal. Naturally there is a rush to secure a place in line and afterwards a scramble for the single warm-water faucet, which has to serve the needs of hundreds. Between the two, tables and seats are forgotten or they are deliberately deserted for the fresh air of the open deck.”

Coffee is invariably bad and tea does not count as food with most immigrants. Vegetables, fruits, and pickles form an insignificant part of the diet and are generally of a very inferior quality. The preparation, the manner of serving the food,, and disregard of the proportions of the several food elements required by the human body, make the food unsatisfying and therefore insufficient. This defect and the monotony are relieved by purchases at the canteen by those whose capital will permit. Milk is supplied for small children. After what has already been said, it is scarcely necessary to consider separately the observance of the provision for the maintenance of order and cleanliness in the steerage quarters and among the steerage passengers. Of what practical use could rules and rations by the captain or master be, when their enforcement would be either impossible or without appreciable result with the existing accommodations?"

Three Graces which were the last buildings on Liverpool docks, that emigrants saw as their ships moved out into the Atlantic.


Typical Illnesses Aboard Ship.

As well as the expected seasickness that plagued many passengers the conditions aboard ship, lack of privacy, little light and fresh air meant illness spread easily. Typhus, Cholera and Dysentery were common and many passengers went straight from the boat to the hospital upon reaching New York.

Who Emigrated?

The reasons for emigrating give a clear idea of the types of people who chose to emigrate, mostly people wanting to start a new life. There were however sections of the community who did not have a say in their relocation.

There were several British child emigration schemes in place between 1618 and 1967. Roger Kershaw states in his book Emigrants and Expats that ‘it was estimated that some 150,000 children were sent to the British Colonies and Dominions”. These children were often in the care of voluntary organizations who sent them with the idea of increasing population, labor and productivity, very few taking into account the feelings of the child. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1850 allowed boards of Guardians to send children under sixteen overseas. One of the earliest examples of this was in 1617 when the Virginia Company in America asked for children to be sent to their colony. Christ’s Hospital School in London sent 100 poor and orphaned children.

Transportation of Prisoners from the UK was a system that sent convicts to a British colony for a set period of years where they would be put to work. In theory they would benefit for learning a skill, work ethic and benefit the development of the colony. It has been estimated that 50,000 men, women, and children were transported to America and the West Indies between 1614 and 1775. Sentences were usually for around 10 years and could be accepted as an alternative to the death sentence.

UK Laws that Impacted Emigration

From 1610 all people over the age of 18 travelling abroad were required to take an oath of allegiance. From 1637 no passenger could go to the American colonies without a license from the Commissioners for Plantations.

Merchant Shipping Act of 1894 required the listing of passengers onboard British Merchant Vessels.

The Land and Emigration Commission was established in 1833 to promote emigration by providing free passage and land grants.

1834 Poor Law Amendment Act provided assistance for poor emigrants for the passage by their parish.

The Poor Law Amendment Act 1850 allowed Boards of Guardians to send children under 16 overseas for the first time.

Passports were compulsory in 1915

© 2014 Ruthbro


Submit a Comment
  • profile image

    Colin Neville 

    4 years ago

    Very interesting, particularly the sections on travelling conditions. The journey to Australia must have seemed endless, with uncertainty waiting for them at the other end. Very brave people.


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