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Bromptonians in the New World (part 2)

Part 2 - Why did they go?

Recap: Link to Part 1 In 1827 (not 1828, as I originally thought when writing part 1), a ship, the “Caroline”, set sail from Hull docks bound for the other side of the world - specifically Van Diemen’s Land (modern Tasmania). On board were a crew, at least 56 passengers from the North East of England and a cargo that included live sheep and other livestock.

Remarkably eight of the passengers were from Brompton-on-Swale and included George Barras (Blacksmith), Joseph Hind (Farm Servant), his wife Barbara and their two children, William Prest and brothers George and Henry Stevenson (all listed as Farm Servants).

So ... why did they go?

Such a journey would have been risky and long. Just surviving the journey would not have been guaranteed. So why were these people making such a journey, some taking their wives and young children as well?

There are perhaps two obvious reasons; the poverty of the rural poor in Great Britain in the 1820s and the prospect of a better life.

Low standards of living in the 1820s

Life for the rural poor in England in the 1820s was very tough and was getting worse, even for those who had some skills and were not simply “agricultural labourers”.

The Napoleonic Wars had ended in 1815 and while peace was welcomed, this had many negative economic effects as well;

  • The national debt of Great Britain was vastly increased - it costs a lot of money to keep armies and navies supplied, fed and maintained. The government was now looking at ways to raise taxes to pay off this debt

  • The government no longer needed industry to provide suppliers for the war efforts and agriculture to provide grain and food for men and horses. Contracts were cancelled.

  • The seaways were safer and relatively peaceful, so grain and supplies could be imported. As a result, the “Corn Laws” were introduced in 1815, ostensibly to protect British grain prices from cheaper foreign imports. However prices never regained the levels of the war years and landowners squeezed profits as much as they could. Workers wages remained low.

  • Over 300,000 soldiers and sailors were also out of a job - they were demobilized - all at once, looking for work.

So finding work was hard because of the slump in demand. The introduction of machinery and the use of child and female labour caused even more wage reductions. There was also an influx of cheap Irish labour around the same time - there were about 100,000 Irish in the Liverpool area by 1835, for example.

Marginal land that had been profitable during the war years became unprofitable. During the Napoleonic Wars, much land had been enclosed (fenced and walled off) at great cost and the number of enclosures had increased dramatically, reflecting the profits that were to be made from farming this land - which the owners wanted to protect. As a result, after the wars, the benefits that open, unenclosed land provided to the poor, such as common grazing and wood gathering rights were much less freely available.

On top of all these pressures, there followed a series of harsh European winters. Bad harvests between 1816 and 1819 affected agriculture and industry, prices, wages and markets. Cold winters and wet summers occurred in the early 1820s. Rural farmers could get by with one poor year, and might have enough in a good year to store for the next, but several bad years in a row or close together, left them in a parlous state.

Meanwhile the population was increasing rapidly - outstripping the economy and its ability to feed everyone - there was a 50% increase in Great Britain between 1801 (~10M) and 1831 (~16M).

The government recognized the serious situation and increasing cost of looking after the poor. The cost was largely paid for by taxes on the upper and middle classes in their respective towns and parishes. The idea arose in those tax-payers of the “deserving poor” (those made poor by unfortunate circumstances) and the “undeserving poor” (those made poor by their own laziness and lack of effort). A Royal Commission to reform the Poor Laws was set up in 1832 - but not so much with the aim of helping the poor - but more about reducing the cost of providing for them! Under the 1834 Poor Laws, workhouses were established and except in exceptional circumstances poor relief was only available if the person left their home and went into the workhouse. Conditions in these workhouses were specifically designed to be incredibly harsh, so that people would only go to them if they were absolutely desperate. The work was hard, the diet monotonous and meagre and children could be hired out to work in fields or factories or even mines.

So - life was tough. Very tough.

Finally, there is of course the simple thirst for adventure and its quite possible that this was the main draw for some, perhaps the younger single ones who were going without wives and children.

What if they had stayed?

Ironically, those leaving Great Britain on the Caroline in 1827 did not know it, but the future was actually much brighter in the land they were about to leave behind. 

The poor harvests and deep depression of the 1820s and 1830s was followed by recovery as rising home markets took agriculture into a 'Golden Age' from the late 1840s to the early 1870s. The achievements of British farming in this period were staggeringly impressive - and needed to feed the rocketing population.  There was widespread adoption of  improvements and new techniques for dealing with difficult clay soil, poor light soil and the marshlands which spread to all types of farming. There was more intensive farming using machinery and chemicals as well as natural fertilisers which produced substantially higher yields.

On September 27, 1825, the first railway engine ran from Darlington to Stockton - literally just a few miles from Brompton-on-Swale. Railways soon took off in the 1830s onwards and while they took some time to connect rural locations they vastly increased the transportability of labour and brought jobs and trade to cities and towns.

The promise of a better life

The Van Diemen’s Land Company, (VDL Co) was set up on 10th November 1825, and had been established by investors to develop a large grant of agricultural land obtained in the north west of Van Diemen's Land. The aim was to turn it into a financially successful wool producing enterprise. Although these sorts of projects were invariably risky, the profits could be significant.

Convict Labour 

The English Government had a policy of transporting convicts overseas which had been established by the Transportation Act 1717. Initially convicts were sent to America until the outbreak of the American War of Independence. Australia was used from 1787, 17 years after the discovery of Australia by Captain Cook. Between 1803 and 1853, 75,000 convicts were transported to Van Diemen’s Land.  

So, in 1825 when the VDL Co. was established, there were convicts available who could supply free or very cheap labour. However, convicts were often difficult to manage, could be unruly and those from towns and cities had little sheep farming knowledge or suitable skills apart from basic labouring.

Therefore the search soon began to find suitable tradesmen and labourers needed and a system of “indentured servants” was the most reliable means of maintaining the workforce. The VDL Co. began to indenture men for their newly formed company. These men, some of them with their wives and families, were shipped to Van Diemen’s Land with very few possessions, leaving behind their wider family and friends and, of course, their homeland - almost certainly knowing they may never return.

As we have seen the rural areas of Northern England were fertile recruiting grounds, so they were targeted for recruitment. Among them were builders, shepherds, labourers and blacksmiths, all hand picked for their skill, expertise and qualifications of good moral character and conduct.

With bold promises of wealth and a new beginning (and no laws against false advertising), it was not difficult to convince people. Often the indentured servants were not literate and simply had an agreement read to them, signing with an “X”, although we know, from marriage records, that one of the Brompton eight at least, George Barras, was from a literate family, The indenture contract typically included passage and food, but meant they had to serve the company for a minimum term - 3 years seems to have been common - and that term would only start upon arrival - assuming you got there! Upon arrival they were promised work and housing.

Although the example adverts below are not for indentured servants, they could well be typical of the types of promises made; “the most delightful and salubrious climate in the world”, and that if people “possessed of a small amount of money, have an opportunity of bettering their fortunes”.

Some of those travelling may even have known more about the VDL Co. and some of what they were letting themselves in for. The two Stevenson brothers, George and Henry, who were travelling from Brompton-on-Swale, already seem to have had two other brothers in Van Diemen's Land for example. How they got there and how long they had been there isn't clear however and it would have taken months for news to come back to England - so just how much George and Henry would have known isn't obvious.

During her research, Sharon Burnell, who contacted originally about this whole story, has actually discovered some details about George Barras’s contract with the VDL Co. George was a blacksmith from Brompton-on-Swale, so he had a real trade and was a skilled person (he wasn’t just a labourer). Sharon uncovered a letter dated 8th February, 1828 from Edward Curr (manager for VDL Co) to a Mr Fossey (Fossey and Hellyer, surveyors, built the Great Western Road for the VDL Co) informing him "George Barras, a blacksmith now attached to the Western Road party" "had received an advance of wages of £15 in England" and that his wages be £40 per annum.

Its difficult to be exact about what George might earn as a Blacksmith in Brompton-on-Swale. He was only 19 in 1827, so even if he had completed his apprenticeship (possibly unlikely) - he may have been classed as a "journeyman" working under a Master Blacksmith. According to Mulhall in 1850, an English labourer might earn £20 a year, a shepherd £25 and a bailiff £40. So allowing for inflation we might reasonably assume that a young journeyman blacksmith, 23 years before that date, might be earning a good deal less than £40 a year - and to be advanced £15 could well have been the equivalent to half a year's income at home.

NEXT TIME: In the next article we will look in more detail about the actual journey to Van Diemen’s Land and arrival of the Caroline at its destination. Were all those promises true?

Please feel free to add your comments and questions to the blog - scroll down to the comments section at the bottom of the page.

[Source: Original research by Sharon Burnell and Peter Hodgson] [Source: G.E. Mingay The Agricultural Revolution 1750-1880, Batsford, 1966]

[Source: National Library of Australia]


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