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Why people left Britain


Enforced migration

Many people have had to travel from or to Great Britain to escape poverty, or to flee religious, racial or political repression. Some had no choice, for social or economic reasons. Others have wanted to start a new life. Perhaps they were setting up home with a new husband in the USA. Many wanted to breathe the freer atmosphere they expected to find in Australia or New Zealand.

Until recently, these many millions of people had no choice but to travel by sea. This section explains why they set out for a new life by sea. It also describes some of the hardships they encountered in their determination to begin again overseas.

Transportation, clearances and famine

People have had many different reasons for leaving Britain to settle permanently abroad. Many emigrants had no choice. These included the `convicts`, convicted criminals guilty of minor offences such as poaching or prostitution. They were mostly transported to Australia, and particularly to Van Diemen`s Land, as the island of Tasmania was then known. Transportation was the forced sending of criminals to another country, or rather colony; after America gained its independence in 1776, Australia was chosen, and convicts sent there from 1788 to 1858. Transportation was seen as a humane alternative to death by hanging, and death sentences were often `commuted` to transportation. For the convicts, conditions on board were no better than on slave ships. Indeed, they were treated as slaves, and sold to work for plantation owners when they arrived.

Escaping poverty - slums in King Street, Southampton

Magnifying glassEscaping poverty - slums in King Street, Southampton

The many Scots thrown off their land during the Highland clearances of the 18th century and the Irish escaping the potato famines of the 19th century were, at least, more free than the convicts. They felt that emigrating to another country would give them a better chance in life than at home. However, their limited resources meant that conditions on board their emigrant ships were little better than those for convicts. The poor emigrants and their few belongings were packed into the holds of sailing ships for the voyage, often to the USA or Canada. The same ships would often bring a timber cargo back across the Atlantic. As can be imagined, facilities for passengers were very primitive. 

Persecution and oppression

Emigration was not just for economic reasons. Religious persecution, or fear of it, was why some emigrants left. For instance, those most peaceable of people, the Quakers, wanted somewhere they could pursue their beliefs undisturbed. So many, led by William Penn, emigrated to North America in 1682 and founded Pennsylvania. 

Fear of cultural domination by the English drove some Welsh emigrants firstly to the USA. However, they still felt oppressed by Englishness even there. So, in the 1860s, some moved to a remote and arid region of Argentina, along the Chubut river in Patagonia. Their descendants still live in an area with an odd mixture of Spanish and Welsh place names, such as Puerto Madryn.

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